Given the immense marketing effort Ubisoft made in promoting its new series Assassin's Creed last year--coupled with the mere trickle of truly relevant gameplay information the company released over the last few months of development--it's not terribly surprising Assassin's became an instant hit upon release in November. It's even less surprising, given the game's success, that Ubisoft and developer GameLoft have fast-tracked a Nintendo DS version of the game, subtitled Altair's Chronicles, which is set for release next week.
Those hoping for the expansive landscapes and freedom to roam found in the console versions of Assassin's Creed will be disappointed because the DS game is far more limited in scope. It's essentially a side-scrolling action game, though the stages do give you a little bit of depth, so you can move into and out of the scene just a bit. The story and levels are presented linearly, rather than the free-form progression of the narrative in the console game. Most of the action we've played so far has focused on having us track down one assassination target after another. Obstacles in our way have included snakes, collapsing platforms, and spike traps--typical platforming pitfalls, in other words.
Fans of Assassin's Creed will note Altair is capable of pulling off some of his signature moves here, though we didn't find the controls as elegant as they were in the original game on consoles (or the general movement controls, for that matter). You can hold the right shoulder button to walk quietly and sneak behind an enemy, then hit A to assassinate him with the hidden blade. There's also an interesting torture minigame used for persuasion and interrogation, which is pulled directly from Nintendo's Elite Beat Agents. You'll see a simple diagram of your subject's body, and in order to apply intense pressure, you'll have to tap various numbered points that appear on the body as circles close in on those points. There's also a moving point you have to trace to contort the subject's arm into an unnatural position, which will make him finally cough up the information you want. There's another touch screen minigame for pickpocketing where you have to slowly drag the desired object out of your target's purse, without bumping into the other objects or the sides of the bag to arouse suspicion.
Combat is pretty straightforward in the game: You've got light and heavy sword attacks which you can chain into basic combos, and you can unlock more combos as you progress through the game. You can also find collectible blue balls of light, which you can cash in at will. Once you've acquired enough balls, you can purchase a health upgrade or increased sword power. (The prices increase for each subsequent upgrade, though.) Finally, you can block an enemy's attacks and counter them in a way that is similar to the console game, though the timing is a bit harder to pull off given the character model's less flamboyant combat animations. Lastly, we fought one boss, a circus strongman who swung a huge axe at us. When he embedded his axe in the ground, we had to approach and use our strong attack to hurt him before he could free his weapon. However, the requirements for the button timing and Altair's orientation to pull off this particular attack were a little bit fussy here for our taste.
So far, we've seen no sign of the present-day setting or main character Desmond, both of whom featured prominently in the console version of Assassin's Creed. All the action in the DS game that we've played (which, admittedly, is only the first couple of hours) is set during the Crusades. Then again, the game's menus, health display, and other interface effects are all done in the same futuristic style you saw on the consoles, so we won't be surprised at all if Desmond pops up as we play further into the game. So far, Altair's quest has been focused on finding a particular chalice, which his mentor Al-Mualim seems bent on acquiring (though for what reason, we haven't learned).
Assassin's Creed on the DS has got the art style (if not the graphical fidelity) of the original game down pat, with pretty expansive environments and that distinctive Middle Eastern aesthetic. Our limited demo version of the game doesn't include any sort of peripheral modes or features outside of the core storyline game, so we'll have to wait for the final version to see what else is in here. Altair's Chronicles comes out next week, so we won't have to wait long.