8.5

Embrace it, manipulate it or defy it; in this world, Death answers only to the point of your blade...

'Assassin's Creed' takes several pages from real history involving the mysterious Hashshashin society of the twelfth century. The story develops within a free-roaming world into a complex, two-part plot revolving around a man and his ancestor who share the same assassination trade. The uniqueness in gameplay marries two worlds, one made of ancient memories played as a shadowy killer, the other world set in a sequestered future. As the adventure plays out, the gimmicks reveal themselves, then slowly repeat themselves to an unfortunate grind. Is there enough original content to justify the repetition? That depends on how much you enjoy filling the role of assassin.

* Gameplay: As Altair, you are a veteran assassin, easily passing as an ordinary scholar among the masses, but able to stalk and attack a target with the grace of a leopard. The weapons you are given are minimal but very effective, from throwing knives that almost always instantly kill, to a sword that keeps alerted guards from overpowering you. A hidden blade lets you deal death silently (and quite cinematically), as long as no one else is around to witness. After a brief introductory session, the game world opens up for exploration. Eventually you wend your way through the Kingdom to visit one of three cities to assassinate prominent players in a united conspiracy. You are given a target, then proceed to collect information in various forms in order to be given the okay to assassinate the target. You can pickpocket, eavesdrop and interrogate subjects to gain this information, or you can roam about the world doing side missions for fellow assassins, hunt for flags, locate high points to uncover the map, save citizens from bullying guards, or hunt down templar knights. I mention all this as if it was an afterthought because that's how most of it feels. Collecting information becomes a side effect of merely roaming about each city without ever directly pursuing them. Once a few high points open up the map, these info-gathering steps simply fall in front of you. They became so unimportant to the story that I quickly forgot what the point of doing so was. The saving grace of even bothering with all this is the skill at which Altair can attack his targets. Sneaking up on a guard and plunging your blade through his back is quiet satisfying, as is the many other methods of execution, including my personal favorite, walking up to a guard harassing a citizen and leaping down his throat with the hidden blade. It makes the reaction of the other guards and peasants thrilling once they realize what just happened. While stealth-killing a guard feels right, taking on a squadron of sword-wielding enemies isn't nearly as satisfying. The standoff itself can be intense, wondering which guard will strike next, but there is no real swordsmanship here. You simply hit a couple of well-timed buttons and watch as Altair goes ballistic. This mechanic works well enough, but you can't help feeling you wish you had more control over the character. When you are sick of fighting, especially for trivial things like bumping someone carrying a vase, you can try to evade the guards by running away and hiding out of sight. The display icon that alerts your status to the guards makes it helpful to determine if now is a good time to jump into a pile of hay, leap into a rooftop hideout or blend in with peasants on a bench or in a crowd of scholars. It can be very exciting to get chased through a city, especially after a successful assassination. It's all great fun for about half the game, then the realization begins to sink in that you are pretty much doing the same thing, and the gameplay never changes. An attempt is made to vary things up by doling out your new combat moves and counters over time, but it feels like a design cheat. If your greatest thrill is to strictly play an assassin, killing and evading the guards, welcome to your new home.(8.5)

* Narrative: The switch in the plot is that you aren't actually an assassin in the twelfth century, you are a twenty-first century bartender who has only dabbled in the killer-for-hire trade and didn't even know you had a knife-flinging ancestor in the family tree. Enter the lab coats who explain all this and insult you into going along with their nefarious plans to rebuild moments in history by hooking you up to the Animus, a machine that unlocks memories stored genetically in your brain. Right. The crux of the story is spent traveling from city to city as commanded by the Assassin's Guild to gather information in order to eliminate key targets. While the methods of gaining information through pickpocketing, interrogation and eavesdropping serve to advance the story in a nonlinear fashion, the wordiness of dialogue that accompanies them are hard to piece together to form the full story. Once the target has been nullified, you are subjected to more lengthy, cryptic narrative in the netherworld of the Animus machine, and somehow expected to keep up with the common thread behind all these men that ends up meaning nothing since it was all filtered through lies. What it actually means is that we are expected to "stay tuned" for the next installment to find out the "real" story. I've written in a previous game review that I find the idea of delivering games in unfinished chapters to be a designer's conceit, as well as a punch in the wallet to someone expecting a complete gameplay experience. To be fair, the Altair storyline does wrap itself up, even if it leaves an opening for further adventures. (8.0)

* Level Design: The cities are incredible to walk through and leap about. The streets roll naturally and in such unending pathways that remind me of the layouts of the oldest sections of many European cities. All four cities and the outlying Kingdom have completely different styles of building to climb. The beauty of design reveals itself when you are being chased, leaping and swinging across beams, roofs and merchant shops to distance yourself. It's incredibly natural. There is a unique "load time" feature that lets you tool around with Altair for a few seconds while the "memory" is being accessed. You are only able to access a third of each city at a time, forcing you to visit each of them once before progressing. After completing an assassination mission, you are forced to return to the Guild located in Masyaf, which thankfully offers the opportunity to do so immediately rather than travel through the kingdom. From a narrative standpoint I had no problem with this, but they could have made it just as easy to journey to the next mission rather than running pell-mell down the hill and across the valley on horse just to access the gate jump to any city. The most annoying level access problem occurs after the story is over. If you haven't cleaned out all the side missions and hidden items by then, you must go through a convoluted memory-restore process to put you back in the game, listen to the same speech again, then ride out through the countryside again just to get to the city you wish to continue hunting in. (9.0)

* Graphics: What makes the world of "Assassin's Creed" so amazing is the level of detail in the smallest of objects. Vases, patterns in rugs, wrinkles in clothing, cracks in the adobe walls, all of which recreate the time period exquisitely. People move about realistically, stopping at shops, talking to each other, begging for change and preaching to crowds. The guards act and react to everything you do, and the combat animations move fluidly. The horses are fantastic to ride, reacting to the terrain and refusing to do anything stupid that would get you both killed. Altair starts out humble enough, dressed in the robes of a scholar for easy blending when the need arises. Later on it becomes a bit silly to "blend" while wearing armor and equipped with visible weaponry. Altair's movements are humble and reserved when he needs to be, yet nimble and spry when scaling windows and leaping across rooftops. The animation is remarkably seamless. Moving from street to wall to beam to rooftop is like watching water flow. Although each city has a unique design and overall color to it, the palettes for the entire game world are desaturated to the point of lifelessness. Acre wallows in pale blues while Jerusalem's melancholy golds evoke peacefulness. Of course, the muted colors serve to intensify the blood as it spurts out of each opponent. Since this is all a memory anyway, the soft lighting and fuzzy textures make perfect sense. So do the memory glitches, a neat effect that pops chemical formulas into view to remind you that none of this is really happening. You would think that the real world laboratory scenes might be a little more vivid to provide a contrast, but the lighting and colors are pretty much the same. (9.5)

* Sound: The soundtrack is composed of Persian music, and I definitely hear the strings of tars, the ney flute and the drums of a tombak. The best example of the music accompanying the gameplay is the first time you ride into Damascus. The score builds to a crescendo just as you round the corner and eye the entire city from the distant hillside. It really sets the mood. I wish they would have included some street musicians in the cities, but at least you can hear the music playing from somewhere. During a swordfight or street chase, the music flawlessly morphs into an energetic piece. Every time you stab someone, you hear an orchestral crash, punctuating the moment. There is a lot of voice work, enough to contribute to the overall feel of the city, but not enough for cities of this size which leads to some repetition in dialogue. Enough has been said about the voice of Altair, which is way out of place. (9.5)

* Value: Sandbox elements ensure that there is plenty to do during or after the story concludes. It's a single-player experience, and I can't see how a multiplayer option would have fit in. The story isn't very long and the cities aren't so big that finding all the various hidden flags and templars would seem daunting. Again, if you are only in it for the assassinations, rent it. (9.0)

* Tilt: Aside from a ridiculous throwaway gameplay element in "Tomb Raider: Angel of Darkness", I've never played a game that involved stealth tactics like this. Stealth isn't the main purpose, but I do see the appeal of games that don't always require you to leap in and blast everything that moves. I've got a copy of Splinter Cell somewhere around here, and I may finally try it out. (7.5)

RealScore: 8.7

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