maanantai 28. helmikuuta 2011

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed (2007)

Genre(s): Action
Released: 2007
Available on: PS3, X360
Developer(s): Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher(s): Ubisoft
Players: 1

It's one of the biggest open-world, third-person action franchises of the decade, centering on stealth and murder... and I've only gotten familiar with it recently. Of course, I'm speaking of Assassin's Creed. I don't know what it is that kept me away from the series for the longest time. I was about to purchase the second major game in the series when it came out, but then I heard that all the games share same delicate plot threads, so I decided to wait for the PS3 version of the first game to become cheap enough to compensate for the lack of Trophies and the mixed reviews written about it. Before I knew it, there was a third game coming, and I kind of gave up on ever getting too interested in the series. The first Assassin's Creed title doesn't really suffice to promote my interest any further, but it's a decent trip to be had once.

Breaking all Three Tenets of a fully functional game

Philip Shahbaz : Altair ibn La-Ahad
Kristen Bell : Lucy Stillman
Nolan North : Desmond Miles / Abbas
Phil Proctor : Warren Vidic
Peter Renaday : Al Mualim
Haaz Sleiman : Malik A-Sayf
Jean-Philippe Dandenaud : Robert de Sable
Ammar Daraiseh : Tamir
Jake Eberle : Talal
Hubert Fielden : Garnier de Naplouse

Desmond Miles is a former assassin, but he's given up his old ways and is now trying to live his life as a simple bartender. However, generations of valuable genetic memories flow through his veins. Desmond is kidnapped by the Abstergo Corporation, who have built Animus - a highly advanced device that can read the memories of the user's ancestors. Desmond comes from a long line of assassins; the information Abstergo seeks is connected to an ancestor of Desmond's named Altair, an arrogant but efficient assassin who gained infamy during the Third Crusade in Israel. Desmond must step into the shoes of Altair in a virtual recreation of the past and search for the one lost memory Abstergo needs to go ahead with whatever it is they're planning.

First of all, I love the plot of the whole series. It's phenomenal, and definitely original. There's a strong Metal Gear Solid vibe when it comes to both graphical and thematic detail, but for the most part, there's never been a storyline quite like in Assassin's Creed, or one that would seamlessly continue over the course of many games like this. That's right: if some games scream for a sequel, Assassin's Creed's ending holds the gap wide open to welcome a second game. It's more or less a cliffhanger. I believe that's the reason a lot of players came around to welcome the second game and enjoy the hell out of it, 'cause this game really isn't that good. Think of all the great third-person action games and sandbox games that have come out since Grand Theft Auto III in 2001. I won't even list them. If none of those games existed, Assassin's Creed would rule. But, they do exist, and Assassin's Creed ends up being a mediocre title on the genre's scale... a mediocre game with the best possible storyline and a magnificent setting. You're a freakin' assassin in a white hooded robe, you look like an angel of death. You have incredible senses, the tendency and skill to scale any wall with the slightest edge or gap, and an open world to explore, so what goes wrong?

Before going into those things, let's spend a little time analyzing the audiovisuals. The graphics are sufficient. Definitely not the best of the current generation, though; a lagging frame rate and largely plain close quarter surroundings take care of that. The style of the game is a winning formula, though; they managed to combine the Matrix-like special effects and the very simple present-day gameplay, and the otherwise historical look of the game without making it all look tacky - you sometimes even forget the game's true story while running through a very authentic Jerusalem, circa 1191.

The music is good, although quite rare. The score was composed single-handedly by Jesper Kyd, who is quite known for his work on stealth action franchises such as Hitman and Splinter Cell. No wonder I haven't heard much of him before this, though: I'm not a big fan of either series. It's funny that I have owned both Hitman 2: Silent Assassin and Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow on the PS2 - critically acclaimed games - and I sold them both back in the day 'cause I found them to be overrated crap. Off-topic, huh? Well, the voice cast is absolutely awesome. Subtitles would've helped to understand it better, though! And, the conversations repeat themselves more than a wee bit. But. A large sum of the lesser Israeli characters are actually voiced by Israelians. Kristen Bell - who still hasn't answered my marriage proposal - lent both her voice and likeness to Abstergo scientist Lucy Stillman. That face model does one of the most beautiful women in the world no justice, but just listening to her voice makes me smile. Nolan North, a.k.a. Nathan Drake, nails another one of his trademark characters in Desmond Miles. Not quite as spontaneous and surprising in his oral performance as Drake, but a great character nonetheless. Philip Shahbaz, who voices Altair, sounds like an asshole. Which brings us to the next issue.

These leaps of faith are cool, but as it is with
every other feature in this game: you've seen
one, you've seen them all.
Altair is really not likeable. I mean really. In the beginning, he's an arrogant asshole and can't even back his big words up with action like Kratos in God of War, so you can forget about a bond between yourself and the main character from the get-go. You not liking the character bears no effect on the gameplay, but his overconfidence is a very important plot element. There's a plot twist near the beginning of the game in which he is humbled by his superiors. You start the game off with full abilities, but after this twist, you start from scratch. The thing is that in the introductory mission of the game Altair breaks the Three Tenets of the Assassin's Creed, three directives the brotherhood lives by, and his mentor thinks it's best if he's taught a bit of a lesson in humility. These directives affect the gameplay a little, although before long, you will find yourself breaking about every rule with no punishment: 1. Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent. 2. Always be discreet. 3. Never compromise the Brotherhood.

OK, so here are the Three Tenets of the Stealth Action Game's Creed for good measure: 1. Have decent control. 2. Have stealth mean something. 3. Do not repeat yourself more than necessary. Assassin's Creed breaks them all.

Before telling you the specifics of how the rules of a great game of its kind are broken, I should probably tell you how Assassin's Creed basically plays out. You start off as Desmond, and you can exit the Animus any time you like to interact with the modern day environment as him. For the most part, you can't do anything but talk to the two scientists poking your brain - listening to Kristen talk is like music to my ears, so I do it more often than I need to. But I digress. In Altair's time, there's Kingdom, which is a large plain that connects the inhabited areas of Masyaf, Acre, Damascus, Arsuf and Jerusalem. In other words, your playground - new areas, bladed weapons and helpful abilities are unlocked as you make progress in the storyline. It's a semi-open world in which your main objective is to assassinate a bunch of important people, but you can also do a little sidestepping by collecting different flags from all the different areas, and completing other bonus objectives which have an effect on your maximum health and overall potential to succeed. You also need to do a few of these objectives in each area to be able to locate the Assassination Memory from the program and move on to the main course. To find these objectives within a certain radius all at once, you need to scale a certain type of building called a view point and use your "eagle vision" to pick up hot spots down below.

Too bad there ain't that much different bonus objectives, actually so few that you'll be bored of them in no time: informant challenges, pickpocketing and interrogating henchmen and eavesdropping on them, and helping out innocents. Especially since there are no Trophies to be had for payment for your whoring services. Or any other rewards, except for good, old-fashioned spirit and some vigilante back-up you never need. Seriously. You need to do 15 of these "additional memories" of any sort to gain just one single, permanent perk to your maximum health. Boring? I thought so.

My personal rule number 1 is the most important of them all. The unnervingly complex controls are quite awkward and clumsy on top. The game gloats on having simple, dynamic one-button gameplay. Well, that's not exactly the case especially when it comes to "dynamic". You need other buttons to accommodate its "one-button" functions to use more advanced fighting techniques which are rarely actually needed, and all of the left stick, R1 and X to simply start climbing a wall. Just try to climb a wall in a hurry (which you usually are in), and you'll most likely just kick the wall, and in the worst case, kick yourself back straight into a bottomless pit. Finding the correct spot to trigger your transition to the next ledge while climbing a wall can sometimes be ridiculously precise, and if you've got bastards on your trail, you're easy arrow fodder all the while you're trying to put your hand into that next gap you oh, so clearly see, but just can't make contact. Fighting large groups of people head on, which you need to do from time to time, is very tiring. It's nearly all about mashing that one button, and hoping that the alert phase will come to an end during this century. Escaping's always an option, but not when you've travelled hundreds of miles in search for a view point, which you have finally found after letting the crappy compass lead you to a number of dead ends for the last hour, but can't climb it due to alerting enemies to your presence. Fighting's pretty much your only option if you don't want to stray too far from your target and be forced to spend even more valuable time in tracking your way back to it.

On to breaking rule number two. The importance of stealth varies throughout the game. The Animus icon tells you the sort of situation you are in. If you're close to an enemy, it has this little dot that blinks red and makes a beeping noise. This is when you should switch to low profile and walk slowly past the enemy. This way, he won't take note of your presence and lets you pass, HOWEVER he might still yell out something like "Kill him!!!", and I don't know about you, but that sounds pretty intimidating to me, so I immediately switch to high profile and start running for my life, only to find that it was some sort of a glitch. Well, too late to figure that out, now every bastard stationed here is after me. Making progress within the Kingdom area, in particular, is awkwardly slow. It's the one place in which I'd like to go out and explore, but it's filled to the brim with enemies, so I need to walk slowly virtually all the time, both on foot and on horseback, to avoid a whole series of tedious confrontations. In the cities, it really doesn't matter what you do. It's easy to escape any enemies within the city limits since there are so many buildings and hiding places, and even if it proves to be hard, you can just say "fuck it", turn around and mashkill every one of your pursuers before taking your sweet time to find a spot to hide in (if the cautionary phase is still on). No problem, no punishment. What would you do in a game that turns from a passable stealth action game into a repetitive borefest quicker than you can spell the word "assassin" - do everything by the book and avoid from even bumping into anyone by walking at the speed of a snail, or just run through the whole thing and kill a bunch of guys, since it really doesn't fuckin' matter? You'll get the job done either way, sooner or later. If you go for the first option, it's probably later. Much later. There's not even a stat screen to sum up your failures, so why bother spending 15 minutes on what you can do in five? It's the result that counts, not the execution. Not very becoming of stealth action.

Relax. It's just a knife in the throat.
I kind of explained broken rule number three already. The game unceremoniously repeats itself, all the time. The main objectives themselves are copies of each other. The bonuses are exactly the same throughout. There might be 12 citizens in need of your blade's assistance in one city, and helping them out always plays out exactly the same. There are no variations, they even keep thanking you for your aid with the very same stretches of monologue. Helping out citizens gives you the chance to sneak past guard posts disguising yourself as a scholar, or the chance to use a bunch of vigilantes as kind of a smoke screen when you escape from guards and templars. Everything else is done to gather information about your main target, and just this once more: you only need to do a couple of these objectives to be ready to get your hands on 'em. Towards the end of the game, I doubt you'll do much more than necessary, the game is so repetitive. Looking for those flags in every area is just about the most tedious and unrewarding task the game has in store. You don't need truckloads of health to beat the game, and good spirit doesn't quite cut it for me. A million other games have taught me to be greedy; where are the unlockables, Trophies (and not just PSN Trophies, but some sort of an in-game trophy system?), or even some sort of a stat screen? This is one incomplete game you just run through, and probably just because you won't be able to enjoy the plot of the second game to the fullest without it!

It's easy, too, since it never gets any more difficult. All the cities are pretty much the same, the Kingdom area's rather small, and the game doesn't set any challenges truly worthy of conquering. None of the main assassination missions pose a lot of challenge, nor do they differ from each other, nor are they as interesting as they are on paper to begin with. And once again, no Trophies to be had in the PS3 version, since the game was deemed too old and too unremarkable to be patched with support when the Trophies launched.

I went over a lot of the game's cons here, never really touching the pros. There are some, but the bottom line is that we've seen a lot of better action games of both types that are combined in Assassin's Creed, before and after its release. It's not a bad game, it's just what we Finnish people call something along the lines of "one pissed while running". Assassin's Creed has a great concept; there have been many games in which you've been cast as an assassin, but not many which have a storyline this magnificent. The story and Kristen Bell - hey, baby, what's your number nowadays? - are pretty much the only things that really kept me pushing on here. And, of course the fact that Assassin's Creed II, a way better and more rewarding title (or so I've heard), continues right where this one leaves off. So, it's pretty much a game you must limp through before touching another game in the franchise. Smart move by Ubisoft, commercially speaking.

Graphics : 8.0
Sound : 8.5
Playability : 6.6
Challenge : 7.0
Overall : 6.7


GameRankings: 78.82% (PS3), 82.51% (X360)

The game was re-released exclusively for the PC in April 2008, as Assassin's Creed - Director's Cut.

Altair's attire is an unlockable costume in Konami's Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots.

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