Monday, August 12, 2019

First Play Review - Assassin's Creed [2007]

My first experience with Assassin's Creed was in fact on a console. I had the opportunity to see it in action on a Playstation 3 at Christmas in 2007. What struck me initially was the scope - Ubisoft recreated, from historical maps and records, what Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem existed as near the end 12th century. They were vibrant, populous cities, teaming with life, both benign and hostile and the game blended stealth, investigation, assassination and parkour to play in them. While I was aware that the game's inception was from ideas for a new Prince of Persia, I was intrigued by the fact that one of the chief designers modelled the protagonist's look and skills on the early representation of G.I.Joe's Storm Shadow. I knew when the opportunity arose to play it properly on a real machine a dozen years later I had to take it.

It was a good move, Ubisoft enhanced the version to be released for the PC some months after it debuted on consoles providing more content and combined with today's hardware it ran flawlessly. History reflects that when released first, levels took about up to 5 minutes to load and there was significant framerate drop in crowded scenes. Fast forward twelve years and Assassin's Creed can be properly enjoyed as it never drops below 60FPS, even with over a hundred people on screen and it takes mere seconds to load each city now.

 You play a character called Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, a member of the Assassin's Brotherhood based in Syria in 1191 but you're really playing Desmond Miles, Altaïr's descendent and a near-future New York bartender who is reliving Altaïr's genetic memory through a device called The Animus. OK that last part is a descent into bollox but while it's the story, it had precious little to do with the gameplay. It can be likened to a confusing version of The Matrix, but what little we see of "The Future" or the "real world" is nothing more than a framing story that apparently links the franchise together - as the meat of the franchise takes place in many different time periods - and for Assassin's Creed the real game is centred primarily in the Holy Land in the 12th Century.

As Altaïr you are tasked with nine assassinations, which doesn't sound like a lot of people to kill for a video game and indeed it can take only mere seconds or a minute or two to actually eliminate them - but finding them and preparing for the assassination can take hours. One must investigate the areas, represented by the icon filled maps that Ubisoft has really grown to love, and only by securing your exfiltration route by pre-preparing the areas means getting to your target and just as importantly, getting away intact, is 90% of the game. If this sounds like pacifying outposts in Far Cry games then yes, this is pretty much the same idea. Ubisoft are nothing if not consistent and much like outposts, the investigations themselves get a bit repetitive the third or fourth time.

The learning curve is short and the game has a very unique control system. It's possibly more suited to a controller - if you can use one of those bloody things - but if you have a gaming mouse with a few extra buttons it will stand to you. You control Altaïr pretty much like puppeteers marionette as you need keys or buttons bound to eyes, feet and hands. It feels very strange at first but the tutorials are good enough to get you free running over rooftops and eliminating sentries before long. Altaïr can blend in a crowd and take in the the sights and sounds of the cities but he must also climb to the highest towers and rooftops to reveal new points of interest for his investigations.

Melee combat is what you eventually won't avoid for long and it can be quite finicky to get it to work but Altaïr can be a great swordsman once you get your training and practice in. You have a sword, a shortsword, my favourite: the Hidden Blade and even some lethal throwing knives which represent the only ranged combat you'll engage in here. Your best defence however is to just run because the longer you are fighting, the more attention you'll draw and you could eventually be overwhelmed. Altaïr is swift and nimble but needs you controlling his jumps so you can get him to a hiding spot before his enemies catch him.

Some of the games highlights, other than the varied final assassinations are scaling vantage points in the cities to reveal new map areas and looking below to see dozens if not hundreds of people going about their business. You will occasionally come across a Templar knight, they are quite unhappy to encounter you as evidenced by the fact that they will draw their blade and attack you on the spot and until you learn how to fight them, they can be dangerous foes (Pro Tip: Approach from above or behind). They're all mostly french, so are fair game and they shout french obscenities at you which remind me more of John Cleese in Monty Python and The Holy Grail than anything. But I think the most exciting part of the game is when you eventually have to cut and run; you've been discovered, the bells are being rung in alarm, citizens are screaming and running in panic, the music has ramped up in tempo and every guard in the city is after you, yelling  in their native tongue. Eventually, you're so skilled you probably could fight them all, but it would take hours, running is the better and more exciting option - until you fall - so don't fall!

Overall Assassin's Creed is a pretty unique game and a welcome change from a deluge of RPG or FPS games, the parkour mechanics deliver a fresh and unique movement system though controls are a little finicky but you'll get used to them. Some of it's elements are pretty repetitive and suffer from common Ubisoft tropes that you well may be used to/sick of by now and sadly the very end of game degenerates into pure combat rather than assassination as it had been up to that point but obviously set it up for it's many, many sequels. The game is graphically "grand" for a 12 year old title and runs as good as it could ever today. It's an awesome historically-contextualised representation of the 12th Century Holy Land which makes a nice change from a high fantasy world of strange magics and creatures or a sci-fi planet with a dozen moons and belligerent aliens.

Assassin's Creed can be found for as little as €3.39 during sales for UPlay, GOG and Steam.

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