Assassin's Creed Review

AC Review TitleAssassin's Creed (AC) is in many ways a successor to the Prince of Persia (PoP) series. It brings a sci-fi twist to the story, and perhaps a hint of modern politics, but I wouldn't say that it's more adult than PoP because of this, as in many ways, despite the fairytale setting, PoP was quite an adult product. I mean by this that it never felt as if the developers of PoP were talking down to their audience, and reassuringly, the same is true of AC.

The basic experience of playing AC is one that tends to initial interest and excitement as the game introduces itself, followed by a period where repeating various tasks in the game begins to become tedious. However, persistence rewards the player with the skill to trivially execute the more repetitive tasks quite quickly, and they cease to represent a chore. It is only in the latter stage that the game begins to show its true form, and remains satisfyingly engaging until the end.

I played this on the PS3, though I believe it's very similar on the 360, though of course the PS3 lacks the Xbox Live achievements.

While AC clearly has its roots in PoP, it is not a small evolutionary step away but more of a revolutionary leap for that series, adding elements of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and 'ninja' games, like the old Tenchu series, that offer extensive rooftop navigation.

The game-play of AC is firmly rooted in the medieval period, with a certain amount of historical accuracy: the names and roles of many important figures are accurate, and the developers seem to have a very specific date in mind for the game's setting. On the other hand, the role and character of the Templars is largely fictitious, and while the Templars did excavate in the ruins of Solomon's Temple, the structure and character of their order is believed to have been quite different to the organization portrayed in AC. Nevertheless, AC brings more real history to the table than most games, and this adds a level of detail and complexity to the setting that would likely have been missing from a completely synthetic setting.

From the player's point of view, AC offers a very large, highly detailed environment to play in, and a vast range of possible interactions; the player perceives the game as offering a lot of content. From the developer's perspective, the game is a complex fusion of different game-play systems and it's only when examined in detail that the amount of game-design (as opposed to volume of content) that it represents is fully apparent. While the AC game-design has weak spots, the achievement of balancing so many elements of play into a reasonably coherent whole is impressive and well worth of examination. I believe this was only achieved because lessons were learned during the PoP series, and have been successfully applied to the design of AC. Certainly, some explanation needs to be devised, as the AC design is too large and diverse to have appeared fully fledged without some previous learning experience.

Graphics

Overall the game graphics are well made. There are certainly limitations in the textures and the vertex count available for each character. The large number of people visible in crowd scenes, in combination with the free camera movement and complex settings imposes limits on the detail. Both lighting and animation are clearly inferior to the visual benchmark for the PS3 platform at this point (Heavenly Sword), but they are still very good, and more importantly are strongly themed to create a style for the game that never wavers: everything feels part of a whole. There is never the feeling that any particular asset, building, character design, etc, stands out as more detailed, or worse executed than others.

The environment art suffers most from texture limitations, not looking low resolution, but lacking variety that might otherwise have been present. The character art suffers most from stiff, mechanical animations, but this is to be said only in comparison to the very best out there - compared to many other titles, AC is well ahead of most. The strength of AC's artwork is most apparent when comparing to a title such as FarCry2, a title flawed by artwork that lurches unevenly from super-high-resolution geometry and textures to stuff that looks like it's been lifted out of Quake 2, all mixed together in the same environment. In contrast the texturing of AC is uniform and never distracts with intrusive excessive detail or blurriness. The same applies to geometry detail, which is a substantial achievement when the number of background characters is taken into account. While the background characters are by necessity lower detail than the protagonist, they manage to blend in very well, and there are few titles that deliver anything like this level of consistency and polish.

The mini-RPG game in the 'future' that surrounds the main events that are supposedly 'remembered' by the protagonist shows the worst art asset problems. The static nature of the scenes and the time you have to stare at one character or object obviously make this area much more sensitive to graphical quality than the main game. The future setting also shows up more problems with the lighting and texturing support, but what is needed here is not so much better graphics but more distractions, so the player isn't bored and staring at a desk, or a computer console, or the scientist woman's stiff-looking face.

Environment

The player is presented with three substantial city settings, a town and castle setting that forms your base of operations, and a central countryside area that acts as a hub for accessing the urban environments. The countryside area is far from devoid of buildings, and there's plenty going on there, but it's the urban settings in AC that stand out as an achievement. I don't recall a game that handled crowds of 'extras' as well as this since JetSet Radio Future (JSRF).

The urban settings are well detailed, and filled with people. The work and thought that's gone into laying out the streets and rooftops so that the difficulty of navigation scales well across the different districts of the city really stands out and yields solid benefits to game-play. Each city is divided into districts, and these are unlocked (GTA style) gradually as you advance through the game. The difficulty of working in and moving through each new district is increased over the last. The starting areas offer easy access to rooftops and lots of joined up buildings at a regular height, of handy platforms that allow you to jump gaps. The later areas have more checkpoints, more choke points, tricky jumps, fewer hiding places and harder access to rooftops. Larger numbers of more vigilant guards patrol the streets, and increasingly the rooftops themselves as you progress through the game. Yet never at any time is there a horrible leap or crunch in difficulty, and the learning/difficulty curve remains smooth throughout.

The scale and flexibility of interaction with the urban environments is outstanding. The settings are quite detailed, with ordinary houses, building sites, elaborate palaces, mosques, churches and temples, with hidden courtyards, back alleys and all the trappings of a genuine city. Part of the game-play involves a requirement to climb tall buildings and gain aerial views of the city. Some of these climbs are truly vertigo inducing, and below the tiny figures of the crowd are still visible - a testament to solid technology and effective use of level-of-detail. The only missing feature is the ability to enter more than one or two selected buildings: sadly the cities are just shells, and the interior of the buildings remains closed to you. This is something that GTA players will be used to, but RPG addicts will find slightly limiting. Other games in this genre have offered fully detailed building interiors, but none offer the scale and detail of exterior that AC offers, so it's easy to forgive the game this limitation.

However, there are some other negative issues. On the visual side, the limitation of texture variety is fairly apparent, and the different areas of each town tend to look a little too much alike. It should be easier to tell where you are by the style and detail of the buildings, but that is often impossible. Though they have tried to make the different towns look distinct, particularly in their architectural mix, there are limits to the developer's success with this too. It would seem that both technical limits and a shortage of time to customize and detail each area's look are apparent in the visuals, but nevertheless they are still very good. There are also some minor game-play issues. Firstly, the designers failed to properly delineate alley and backstreet areas that have less people (or even nobody) in them. Every street seems evenly busy, which is both unrealistic and something of a spoiler for a game with stealth content. I instantly missed the dark alleyways of Vampire Bloodlines (VBL), that were intentionally provided for executing secret murders. Also, it would have been helpful for the game to constantly show a text indication of what sub-area you were in within a district, as this would have helped in learning the city layouts, and generally with navigation. I think that given the limits in visual differentiation of the areas this is more than justified, and is a trivial feature that would have cost them nothing to add that is sadly missing.

Controls and Movement

While the control system has been hyped up a bit as innovative, it isn't really anything unusual at all. However, it is fairly easy to learn, and it's polish in how you move the character about that sets AC apart from so many other games. Navigating rooftops, climbing and other gymnastics are all performed in a fairly straightforward way: you hold down a button and it either happens or it doesn't. When it works well - which is often - it's fantastic, when it doesn't work it's incredibly frustrating. There are times and places where it doesn't work, or doesn't work very well. Unfortunately, one of the places it breaks down the most is the place that causes the most annoyance: the docks. In the dock area, falling in the water is instantly fatal for some odd reason. If you miss a jump from one boat or jetty stump to another, your instantly dead. There isn't anywhere else in the game that's so unforgiving. Sadly, the game has real trouble working out that jetty stumps are valid jump targets, and will often make you jump in crazy directions to instant death, rather than at the stump right in front of you.

Apart from the problems in the docks, the control mechanism generally behaves itself and keeps out of the way, with the target surface informing the character it should move. The game gets the default the right way round (Lara Croft take notice), and the default action is _not_ to hurl yourself off a precipice, or to refuse to jump when running off a gap between platforms, or to let to of a ledge and drop to your death because you weren't holding down three buttons at once. Instead, AC performs sensible default actions based on your movement mode: the default is to be careful and too avoid attracting attention, holding down a button swaps things over to 'cool assassin dude mode', walk turns to run, slide past turns to climb up, etc. An additional button provides a further level of action modification, allowing you to jump off walls when climbing, or to sprint when running.

Weapon selection is handled on the D-Pad (on the PS3 at least). This seems to be unresponsive by design in combat, which penalizes you for starting a fight by assassinating with the concealed dagger before turning to other enemies nearby. This is a slight annoyance as it tends to discourage use of the assassination technique as an opener, making it safer to just wade in with a sword from the start.

Combat

Combat is a major part of AC, and the success of the game as a whole requires that combat be a satisfactory experience. This was a problem with the first PoP game, where combat played an increasing part as you progressed, but was boring, somewhat arbitrary, and prone to stupid exploits. Though there is a section at the start of AC where you get to try out the 'full-version' of combat, the game quickly removes most of the options and then proceeds to return them to you, one by one, as you progress through the game. While this keeps the learning curve for combat under control, it also allows the game to make significant alterations to enemy combat behaviour as the game progresses. When all you can do is attack and block, the enemies are also substantially crippled. As countering, running tackles, block breaking moves, and such become available, the enemies also learn new abilities, and their behaviour changes. While there is a certain component of the 'running to stand still' in the combat advancement rewards, the satisfaction in completing increasingly difficult fights that demand more skill and flexibility or technique makes up for this.

The gradual evolution of the combat process throughout the game keeps it sufficiently fresh, and avoids the problem where the player quickly becomes bored of repeating exactly the same actions over and over. Nevertheless, the basic structure of the fights does remain similar throughout, and there is room for improvement in that regard: more variety in the type of combat would have been a bonus.

The enemies consistently exhibit a very particular kind of behaviour, which allows you to fight a large crowd of them without being overwhelmed. This _is_ a good thing, as it avoids frustration caused by a crowd of enemies surrounding you and beating you to death unblockably from behind. This is a problem that is normally resolved by giving the player area attacks, which they must repeatedly perform, from time to time, to prevent attacks from behind. (Heavenly Sword takes this latter route, as do many other games, including Acme Arsenal). In contrast, AC contrives for the enemies to surround you at a suitable distance, then engage you one at a time. Despite the large number of enemies on screen (in some cases) you are basically fighting a series of one-on-one duels. There is some ability for the player to switch targets, and decide who to engage, and some complexity added when there are archers standing outside the immediate fight zone, firing in at you, but essentially the one-on-one duel model is how the game structures the fights. This is both an advantage and a limitation. I was waiting for the moment when the 'gloves would come off' and the game would hurl multiple enemies at me simultaneously in a serious assault, but it never really happens. They've struck a good balance between action and controllability, and to some extent the fights against large numbers of opponents are still different, interesting and challenging in a way single opponents aren't, but I can see that some hardcore players might feel that AC is going a bit soft on them most of the time.

The assassination component of the game is easy enough to use, though when facing a single opponent, it's just as easy and effective to kill them from the front as to assassinate them. Sometimes it's a little unclear under exactly what conditions assassination is possible. It quickly clear that using your 'hidden' dagger to attack an aware opponent from the front is useless, but when chasing a running opponent there is a degree of ambiguity that tends to discourage use of the assassination technique in chase-downs. However, when attacking a running opponent from behind it _is_ sometimes possible to use the instant kill, and this is most useful against 'boss' targets. However, the lack of any explicit stealth capabilities in a game with a stealth based instant kill is puzzling indeed.

Some of the later boss fights are a little disappointing, as you are essentially _forced_ to fight a large gang on grunts, then _forced_ to fight the boss, head on, on his own terms. These bosses have a tedious tendency to be immune to hits when they are prone, which is very strange. When facing a prone-hit-immune opponent, you have to stand back, waiting patiently while they get up and dust themselves off, which seems bizarre when the usual thing to do to a prone opponent is to stab them to death as fast as possible.

Assassination Missions

While it's environment setup would have allowed it, AC doesn't really offer the free form, choice of mission style play that typifies GTA. While there is some choice as to the order you perform certain missions, all missions are vanilla assassinations. You can choose to muck about and just explore and play in the sandbox that the game offers to you, but there isn't really enough focus there to keep that interesting for long. All missions have the same generic format, and they all proceed in much the same way. There are six special locations in each district where the assassination target resides, where you can perform a sub-mission. Each sub-mission will be of one of four types: pickpocket, eavesdrop, interrogation or informant. By performing a number of these sub-missions you unlock the actual assassination event. You can usually get away with just two or three, but completing more is supposed to help somehow. I completed all of them for every assassination, because I was enjoying playing the game, but others may see them differently. Sadly, despite each one of these sub-missions giving access to a little hint, or tip on how to perform the final kill, these pieces of advice are practically useless: gratuitously ambiguous, badly integrated with the map screen, or just plain wrong. The quickest path through the game is definitely to complete as few of them as possible.

The eavesdropping sub-missions are trivially easy, and are the best choice for a quick result, the pick-pocket and interrogation missions are usually fairly easy, but if you mess up a pickpocket it can be a long time before you can attempt again because the corpses (usually of guards) you generate tend to spook the targets and the event won't play out properly even though it has reset - and if you just run away you typically end up miles away from the pickpocket spot before you can get into a hiding place and lose the guards. The informant missions vary in type, being either to assassinate some guards or Templar knights without being detected, or to collect a number of flags, within a time limit. Informant sub-missions are typically the most long-winded, and anyone in a hurry to finish the game would soon learn to avoid them.

This brings up the general utility of 'hiding places' in the game. These are an interesting mechanic, but due to other mechanics they are rendered largely irrelevant. Firstly, you can rarely spot them when making a hasty get-away: though they are shown on the mini-map, you have no idea what type each one is, and you have no idea what height it's at. If you're on the ground and the hiding place is on a roof, it might as well not be there unless there's a way up to the rooftop right in front of you. Once you have the 'tackle' ability so you can barge through people in your way, until you have an easy way up onto a well-positioned roof is the first step of any evasion. The ground level hiding places are usually no good because it's too easy for guards to see you going into them. The rooftop spots are not so valuable, because once you're on a roof, you may as well just kill all the guards chasing you anyway, it will clear your status and there won't be corpses left all over the streets.

The limits of the entire hiding place mechanic seems like it would work better technically and thematically in a 'three musketeers' type game than in AC, and indeed, many of the AC mechanics (particularly the combat) would lend itself extremely well to that sort of game. It's a pity that (afaik) there is no such game (and no likelihood of one): a genre that's ripe for the picking. The lack of any kind of 'hide in shadows' ability from AC seems odd, and just to prove how odd it is, try imagining Splinter Cell (SC) without the ability to improvise hiding places. There's basically no stealth mechanic whatsoever in AC, and it seems an odd design decision to make when it includes the assassination ability that only works on people who haven't detected you. While this avoids some of the tedious elements that badly designed stealth games introduce, it does feel like a piece is missing from the whole.

The scripting for some of the final assassinations is fragile indeed, and there are various ways that the game can get confused if you happen to be somewhere it didn't expect. To avoid this, it likes to teleport you about, or otherwise take control away from you when running these events, which can be frustrating.

The Larger World

Joining the various cities together is a smoothly streamed, nicely realized countryside area, filled with all kinds of detail. Specifically, this contains some towers to climb, Templars to kill, and some flags to collect. You can do these things in the city districts too, but the world zone really seems much more about these optional activities because there is no other reason to go there. Once you've been to a city once, you can teleport to and from it, and travel in the world zone becomes entirely optional. I get the feeling that they planned to put some optional mission content in the world zone, but that plan was cut due to schedule restrictions. It really does seem like a lot of effort went into the world zone considering its ultimate relevance in the game, and I can't explain such a waste of developer time and effort any other way. Perhaps we'll see it put to proper use in a sequel.

The Templar killing and flag collecting games do seem to be in the realm of utterly tedious. Due to the lack of clues for finding these hidden items within the game itself, _anyone_ who was even half serious about completing these tasks would have to get maps of their locations from the Internet. It seems that by making this too hard from the beginning that its value to the game is diminished substantially. If the items had been easier to locate, people might have bothered with them more, and would be able to get some enjoyment out of it without just performing the rote task of following a map to tick off some 'achievement'. On the PS3 the 'achievements' don't actually exist as such, though I believe that on the 360, your proficiency at map following/mindless task completion is visible to others on Live. Comparing the flag collecting game with the digging game in Zelda 64, shows quite clearly how the developers missed an opportunity here, and it really seems like the collectibles were added in a tacked on, cheap, and barely considered way, that adds little real value to the game.

Cut Scenes

AC takes a stance quite similar to Half Life 2 (HL2) with cut scenes. They are often presented in a way that allows you to continue moving about the world doing whatever you like while the NPC reels off the background information. At other times your controls are locked for the duration of the cut scene, but you are still allowed to move the camera between some preset views from time to time. There is a semi-novel concept with the cut scenes that encapsulate the main game, where you get to play a sort of mini-RPG, which is all about reading emails and listening to the actress who played Veronica Mars rabbiting on and on. It's not clear whether this game outside a game concept will be developed into two very different play modes in future titles, or whether (more likely I think) the options for interaction available in the two modes will be merged together, adding more combat to the 'future' sections, and more RPG investigation to the 'past'.

Visually, the cut scenes are rendered with the main game engine, and they look very satisfactory. The same could be said for the rest of the game in fact.

The story is fairly decent, but if you are familiar with the topics involved there is a distinct lack of surprises, genuine reversals or mysteries.

It could be said that the final fight and the end of the game are more one giant cut-scene than an actual fight. Ultimately, the game lacks a proper ending and just sets things up for a sequel. This wouldn't be so bad if the wait for the sequel wasn't so likely to be a long one.

Summary

In conclusion, AC is a rose with some thorns. As a complete game it sets a very high standard, but there are elements of the design that don't work perfectly, and many areas where more could be offered to make it even better. Combat is adequate, but some players may want something a little more dynamic. Stealth kills are possible, but the lack of a stealth system makes them a bit hit and miss. The hiding places are supposed to replace a stealth system for evading enemies, but ultimately the player can bumble along without really needing either very often. The sub-missions initially seem tedious, but when you get better at them they are easily completed. Being largely optional you can treat them as personal challenges for fun or just skip most of them. The collection achievements are largely idiotic, with too many items too well hidden in too large an area, with no clues to location that would make them a viable part of the game without destroying all the fun by following an Internet map. The boss assassinations are the main event, and they are varied and challenging enough, but are over all too quickly.

Visuals are generally of a very high standard, with well unified designs, even texturing, sensible use of geometry detail, and effective use of full-screen effects. At the point of review, I know of no other games that produce such a _consistent_ standard of visuals, though there are games that are _at times_ better. The scale and scope of the visuals is excellent, allowing you to see convincing landscape views, vertigo inducing aerial vistas, and yet still looks decent close up.

The game is generally good, well polished and plays entertainingly, but once past the initial rush of interest it demands a little effort to develop easy facility with the basic game tasks so you can move through the rest of the game with your attention on the fun parts.