What starts off as an intriguing concept and beautiful world, quickly becomes an exercise in repetition and frustration.
Assassin's Creed blends together two different ideas when telling its story, one of those being an alternate history version of real world events, and the other a futuristic sci-fi world in which you, as Desmond Miles are a prisoner inside of a research facility. Desmond is forced against his will to use a virtual reality machine, called the Animus, which has you playing most of the game as an assassin killing important political leaders during The Crusades in order to uncover some information from the past.
The game alternates between these two stories on a level by level basis, switching to the real world in between assassination missions to fill in holes about the future around you. In the Animus you learn about the story of Altair, an arrogant assassin who has been stripped of his title for disobeying orders and must prove himself in order to regain his lost respect. The story itself manages to be fairly interesting on both ends, but never quite pays off in the end. The biggest climax in the future world is when you learn how the two timelines tie together, but unfortunately this is only about 2/3 of the way through the game and it drops drastically downhill afterward, and finally finishes with a lousy ending.
The story in Altair's world on the other hand, climaxes with an extremely cliched and overused ending which should be obvious to a lot of people from the earlier levels in the game. However, despite the 'true villain' twist being extremely predictable, the reasons behind it still manage to be somewhat interesting overall and this plot point ties into the future world as well.
The biggest flaw with the storyline is the ending, which just abruptly cuts off with no closure of any sort. This isn't done in a 'cliffhanger' style either, it just ends... The story goes right back to where it started, in a prison room. Very little changes at the end, and the credits just abruptly appear, blatantly leaving it up to the sequel to continue the storyline, meaning the player needs to spend more money to find out.
When you start up Assassin's Creed, the very first thing you will notice is that this game is very pretty and detailed. The world around you feels almost alive and breathing, giving off an amazing first impression, which is what will catch the majority of people's attention.
The first city you enter is very large, filled with shopkeepers talking to nearby patrons, preachers shouting messages of faith and politics to crowds, guards harassing civilians and various other little details. The initial impression is quite an astounding one to say the least. The problem is this only accounts for the very first time. The further into the game you get the more you realize that every single city is heavily recycled from the last, not to mention these few cities get reused multiple times over. After the 395th time you hear a guard accusing a civilian of stealing with the same exact line, you may feel more tempted to kill them rather than help, just so they'll shut up. These small details which were once intriguing bore so deep into your skull that it becomes quite obnoxious by the end of the game.
The landscape in between these cities suffers the same problem, it's pretty and exciting to explore the first time, but after the initial discovery period, it's just more repetitive recycling. Thankfully though, in the case of the traveling after reaching each city for the first time, you can simply teleport there, which saves a lot of time.
The presentation of the game's storyline also suffers from this issue as well. It starts off with Desmond in the future world having free reign to wander around his cell and the office as he pleases, even during conversations, which is neat to look at for the first time, but it's a very small, non-interactive area and never changes during the game. Much of the storyline itself is also told through monologuing by the other characters as you wander around in circles waiting for them to finish talking. This form of 'interactive' cutscene really doesn't add anything to the game and at best you may simply move your character around because you're bored, not because it serves any real purpose.
The virtual reality world in the past is a bit better handled by comparison. It still involves a lot of monologuing, but it has a couple different forms. The first being the same as Desmond Miles in which you can walk around a small area while someone rambles at you, and the other being a more traditional cutscene. However, there's a neat little twist to these cutscenes, during them you can press any button on the controller when you see a technical glitch from the Animus and it will either zoom in and highlight an important event, clue, or sometimes even change to a different picture altogether of the person talking. All of these cutscenes still follow the monologuing approach, whether it's your boss, the contact you're supposed to meet to learn about your target, or the assassination target themselves. The longest ones in particular are usually told by your target while choking on their own blood, and this is primarily where the storyline gets much of its development from. It's a very formulaic approach which gets rather tired and repetitive after a while, but thankfully the story aspect itself is still interesting enough that you probably won't tune them out despite possibly wanting to.
The gameplay takes place entirely within the Animus as Altair, and consists of a small handful of different sequences. Each level you are told to seek out a target and kill them, but before you do so, you must travel to the city in question, climb a couple of towers to survey the landscape which marks objectives on your map, visit the local assassins' bureau to be monologued at by your informant, then finally participate in a couple of 'mini-games' to find out enough information on the subject before actually completing the assassination itself. These mini-games consist of very simplistic and repetitive tasks which are repeated over and over again throughout the entire game and become tedious and sometimes even frustrating very quickly.
During each of these sequences you are required to look around the map and complete a minimum number of these mini-games of your choosing before being allowed to take on your main assassination objective. Some examples of these are 'flag races', which involves you jumping across rooftops while following a trail of flags within a certain time limit. This takes advantage of the free running mechanic and is one of the more fun sequences. Although, I'm not sure how it has anything to do with being an assassin.
Another involves eavesdropping, which is sitting on a bench nearby two people talking and transitions into a monologue cutscene, requiring no participation from the player afterward. Others also include being asked to kill several guards scattered throughout a small area without being caught, pickpocketing a specific target, or punching someone in an alleyway until they give up and decide to monologue at you (known as interrogation missions.) The eavesdropping and pickpocketing ones in particular seem to have been added in as an option simply so that you don't have to deal with the other mission types as they require very little interaction from the player whatsoever.
The killing missions are probably the most entertaining at first, as they require the most participation from the player and actually relate to the role of being an assassin. Problem is that these become extremely frustrating during later levels as guards become hyper-aware of your movements and can mysteriously 'detect' you for the stupidest of reasons. Part of this is related to 'obstacles' being added into your path. One of these being a beggar following you around, repeatedly standing in front of your path, and asking for money, but the most ridiculous of these are the drunkards. Drunkards simply seek you out like a target if you're anywhere within 30 feet of them while making grunting noises and repeatedly shoving you, which somehow in later levels magically alerts the guards that you are an assassin! How exactly a drunk guy shoving someone turns into "Oh my god! An assassin! Kill him!" I'll never know. It's both absurd and frustrating because any detection cancels the mission and forces you to escape from the guards chasing you before you can try again.
The worst of these mission is probably the interrogation ones, primarily because the melee system is poorly designed. The bulk of the game's combat is designed around counter attacks. The interrogation missions on the other hand only allow you to use your fists, which have no abilities of any sort, so your only option is to mash on the attack button until they surrender, which is both mindless and awkward. The rest of these mandatory minigames aside from those two work fine overall, but they're pretty simplistic from the start and never change during the game which causes them to grow tiresome very quickly.
After completing a required number of these objectives you can finally assassinate your target. Hurray! I imagine when you hear 'assassinate' you're thinking of stealth, right? :D Wrong. Very few missions actually allow you to use stealth to kill your target, with only a couple minor exceptions. The vast majority involve reaching the objective on your map, triggering a monologue cutscene from the target, then finally a wave of guards attacking you when they finish talking. This is where the main combat system comes into play, which revolves around holding the trigger to block and pressing a counter-attack button when an enemy attacks. The resulting counter attack is quite brutal and impressive looking. These are pretty cool at first, but once you've killed a few dozen guards, the overall lack of depth becomes more and more blatantly obvious.
One minor aspect which helps to alleviate the overall repetition, is the ability to grab and throw enemies, which works on tall buildings and water. However, this is both good and bad... Both Altair and the enemies apparently cannot swim at all and drown instantly upon touching water, which is fun for you if you manage to toss an enemy in, but should an enemy do the same to you, it can set your progress back pretty far. Thankfully, the same counter system comes into play here as well, and you can reverse a grab should it happen. This only accounts for areas in which you're fighting on rooftops or near water, which usually only happens if a player starts a random fight themselves, as the story missions don't give you very many chances. The enemy AI itself is also quite stupid as well and they all line up around in you in a big circle, graciously waiting their turn to be killed one at a time. Which is silly of course, but given the simplistic nature of the mechanics, it couldn't have been done any other way without redesigning the combat.
This basic approach to combat remains true for the majority of the game, up until the last few hours. By this point the guards become immune to instant-kills and will instead be knocked down by a punch in the ribs. However, for some baffling reason Altair completely lacks the ability to manually stab someone outside of a counter-kill animation with his sword while they're laying on the ground, giving you only two options. The first one involves beating them over the head with a sword until they die, which usually takes a few hits or more, so they will have to be knocked down multiple times for this to work. The second involves switching to your hidden blade and attempting to stab them before they get up. Unfortunately, this method magically triggers the guards to abandon their code of chivalry and simply dog pile on top of you, which is both risky and awkward. Sometimes this even backfires and attempting to stab them on the ground will cause their 'standing up' animation to glitch and skip completely resulting in them instantly appearing on their feet again. Most of the time it's best to simply deal with it and take the safer approach as the other option is clearly not an intended mechanic, which means fights become increasingly tedious over time. The final two hours or so of the game in particular consists entirely of fighting hundreds of guards one after another until your eyes bleed.
One of the most interesting story mission types are when you get to chase a fleeing target through the city and attempt to kill them. What makes this so entertaining is because it brings into play the platforming system which allows you to climb on just about anything in the environment in a quick and seamless running/jumping sequence, followed by a spectacular climax of pouncing on your target and knifing them in the back. When I say anything, I mean anything, even small cobblestones on the sides of walls are climbable, and any other things you can find including poles sticking out of the side of a building for swinging off of, etc, the list is huge and it's shocking to say the least that the developers put that much detail into the sheer amount of interaction the environment has. The animations for this are quite impressive as well and very intuitive, although, at times it almost feels too easy to do, like the game is on automatic pilot, as much of the movement is handled automatically while you aim Altair in the right direction. The cool part about this is the target AI is just as good at navigating the environment as you are, which results in some fairly exciting chase sequences as you scramble to keep up, leaping across buildings and dodging guards or civilians alike. However, given there are less than a dozen assassination targets in total, this takes up a fairly small percentage of the game.
One of the other assassination types plays more along the lines of a stealth mission, so you'll have to sneak across rooftops and even climb up a castle wall during one of them. If you manage to do this without getting caught, the ending result is quite satisfying, however, should the guards trigger, it unfortunately turns into another one-button combat sequence against dozens of guards with the target themselves usually joining in as well, making them just as mindless as the rest, but with a bigger health bar. While these can be pretty fun if you're successful, there's so few in the entire game, you hardly ever get the chance.
Which brings me to the final mission type. As I mentioned before, in some of these missions a cutscene will trigger and the target will send dozens of guards after you. In the final type, the target themself will join the guards and fight you in the same manner. These are the most tedious and uninteresting as it suffers from the same problem as the rest of the combat sequences with the usual one button counter moves. Rinse and repeat.
Outside of the main missions, there are also two optional objectives. One of these involves finding random civilians scattered about the city and killing the guards harassing them. Once again this suffers from the usual problem of copy-pasting. Every single rescue mission is exactly the same as the last, including the dialogue they speak. The benefit to these missions is that it will spawn some vigilante civilians to help you, which consist of a stationary group of people who will block guards from chasing you. These are a bit limited in their usefulness during missions, as most of the game you'll spend your time on rooftops unless your target runs through the streets, which only happens on occasion. The other is finding random flags scattered about through the city which serve no other purpose than giving you achievement points. That said, they can be useful on occasion if you wish to save the game as picking one up instantly triggers auto-saving which cannot be done manually by the player.
After you kill your assassination target, your last goal is to escape from the guards. This is where the vigilante civilians are most useful, as they can give you a few seconds to hide while the guards are being delayed, and you can use various objects specifically designed for hiding. Some of these are more believable such as leaping into piles of hay, while others are downright comical, such as sitting on a bench. Apparently the guards forgot their glasses. Another mechanic which is even more absurd is the blend button. Holding this button down has Altair hold his hands in prayer, which causes him to become completely invisible to the world around him, to the point that you can kill someone, switch to blend mode and the guards will never give it a second thought that you could be the murderer even if you're standing over the body.
One thing which is somewhat interesting is the fact that you can actually choose which order you want to complete your missions in. However, you won't know what any of them are until you start them, and the missions themselves aren't particularly varied, so it doesn't make much of a difference overall. Other than that, you basically have a big sandbox world filled with loads of guards you can kill, but given the combat repetition and general lack of options, it certainly won't replace GTA in terms of screwing around. As for overall length, the game clocks in at around 10 hours, and a bit more if you do some of the mindless side content.
Assassin's Creed is the kind of game you play in short bursts for the technical merits and exploration. The world itself is large, beautiful, seemingly alive and the platforming mechanics are pretty cool to watch as you climb around all over the city. However, once you try to delve a bit deeper into things and actually play through the game for an extended period of time, it quickly becomes apparent that there's very little to actually do in it. It has occasional moments of excitement, but these are few and far between all the mindless repetition. The storyline is interesting enough to be worth watching, but it would be far easier to find a video playthrough than sift through the bland gameplay to see it. It's an interesting game to visit at a friend's house or play random tid bits on occasion, but for anyone hoping for a long term single player game will more than likely get bored very quickly. It seems that Ubisoft spent so much time and effort on designing the world that the gameplay was thrown together at the last minute.