Assassin's Creed by Charles Olsen
Nothing is true, everything is permitted
I probably shouldn't be surprised, but at times I'm still impressed at the progress that's being made in computer games. One recent example is Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. More than once during Oblivion, I've stopped just to admire the view. My favorite is to look out over Imperial City while on the mountain road between Chorrol and Bruma. It is quite an impressive view.
Assassin's Creed (which will be released for PC this month) is another game with amazing visuals. The game is set in the Holy Land in 1191 A.D., and the cities of Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre are rendered in beautiful and impressive detail. And the game programmers are well aware of this -- as you approach a city, the game will freeze for a moment and switch to a panoramic view of the city, then will let you continue playing.
It's a beautiful game, but you don't buy these games as art to be looked at -- you buy them to play the game. So the real question is, what is the gameplay like?
Turns out, that's not a simple question. There's a lot of really good stuff in Assassin's Creed (AC). In this game you control Altair, a young man in the 12th century who is highly trained and skilled as -- an assassin.
If this offends your sense of morality, it may help to know that these assassins are trying to make the world a better place. The Third Crusade is tearing the Holy Land apart. There are nine men in positions of authority who are using their positions for their own gain, at the cost of the people they're supposed to be serving. The leader of the assassins has decided that these men need killing. In this way you can help to stop the hostilities by suppressing the powers on both the Crusader and Saracen sides.
If it still bothers you -- well, it's just a game. Deal with it.
There is a twist in the game. I'm not going to reveal it here, even though it is revealed within the first 60 seconds of gameplay. For now I'll just say that all is not as it seems.
The world of AC is immense. You start in your home city of Masyaf to work through some tutorials and learn how to handle the controls. Then you're given a list of names of the people who need to be eliminated, and sent out into the world.
The game is not linear -- you can handle the assassinations in any order you wish. First you have to go from Masyaf into Kingdom, a hub region that connects Masyaf to Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem. You can choose which city you'll start in.
To find out where things are, you need to scale tall buildings and look around. You'll do a lot of climbing in AC -- for surveillance, to escape angry guards, and sometimes just to get from one place to another.
One of the great things about AC is that Altair is really good at climbing, so you don't have to be. When Altair is climbing, or jumping from rooftop to rooftop, you're using the controls to guide him rather than to control every move. The game doesn't depend on you having pinpoint accuracy and split-second timing -- just tell Altair what you want, and if it's possible he'll do it.
Altair's also good with his weapons, though here your commands are more critical. In addition to his sword and short blade, Altair also has a hidden blade strapped to the inside of his left forearm. The blade slides out where his left ring finger used to be (assassins have this finger removed to make way for the blade) and is used for stealth assassinations.
Altair can also get throwing blades, which are good for eliminating targets at a distance. And he can always use his fist to slap someone around.
Once you arrive in the city, you have to do some investigations in order to figure out what needs to be done. There are a total of six investigations, but you can proceed after completing two of them. Here's a tip, though: do all of the investigations, especially when you're new to the game. The more you know, the easier it is to carry out the mission.
There are other things you can do that have nothing to do with your mission. There are always some citizens who are being hassled by guards. You can save the citizens by killing the guards. You have to move quickly, as other guards may come strolling by and will join the fight. Once you've eliminated the guards, the citizens will tell you that they have no money to reward you. However, they'll tell their family about this, and the family can help you when you're trying to get away from other crimes.
The NPC (non-player character) AI of Assassin's Creed is another interesting aspect of the game. There are guards patrolling the cities, and there are also merchants, beggars and other people. These NPCs will react to anything you do in their presence.
This can be good and bad. You can stealthily kill someone and drop the body on the ground. People will start to notice the body and will call attention to it, diverting attention away from you. Of course if someone sees you actually doing the kill, they'll yell for the guards.
When you complete the investigations, you must visit the Assassin's Bureau in the city. The Bureau Leader will ask what you've learned, then will give you permission to proceed with the assassination.
Unfortunately, the missions are very repetitive. Climb a viewpoint, look around, jump off into the pile of hay that conveniently lies nearby, do some investigations, then do the assassination.
And the investigations are also repetitious: Interrogation, Pickpocket, Eavesdrop, or Informant. Rinse and repeat. And when Altair conducts an interrogation, you lose control for that time period. After the person has obligingly told Altair everything he needs to know, Altair will perform a stealth kill using his hidden blade. I usually don't see a need to eliminate this person, but the game doesn't give me a choice.
Assassin's Creed has some irritating flaws, at least when compared to a game like Oblivion. For one, you cannot save the game. The game will save automatically after certain objectives are achieved. And if you're clever and paying attention, it can save quite frequently. But you don't get to choose. Sometimes you'll die during a mission, and find that the last save point was a half hour ago.
And while the setting is impressive and some of the cutscenes are quite beautiful, they are marred by the fact that you cannot skip the cutscenes. When I was first playing the game, I was having a lot of trouble getting into Jerusalem -- I died several times. Each time I was restored to a spot some distance away from Jerusalem, and I had to run back to the city to try again.
Each time as I approached, the game stopped for the cutscene giving a panoramic view of Jerusalem. While this was beautiful the first time I approached, it had become very irritating by the fourth time I had to sit through it.
And there are a lot of cutscenes in AC. Some of them are quite lengthy, and they are all unskippable. I think this, plus the highly repetitious nature of the game, make the replay value of Assassin's Creed pretty close to zero. By the time you're halfway through, you already feel like you've replayed the same game several times.
The PC version -- entitled “Assassin’s Creed, Director’s cut edition” -- will feature four new exclusive types of investigations, providing more content than those of us who've been playing on Xbox 360 or PS3 have had.
There's a lot of good stuff in Assassin's Creed. I appreciate the fact that it's something different, and not near-future space Marines fighting on an alien world. And it is a fun game, if you can live with doing the same quests over and over and over.
If you tend to play a game once and them move on to something else, Assassin's Creed may be ideal for you. But if you like to play the same game over and over and really get your money's worth, AC is not the one for you.
Charles Olsen is a writer, trainer and MIS professional. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2008 by Charles M. Olsen
Charles Olsen is a writer, trainer and MIS professional. He presents classes on Palm computing and time management on the Palm, and writes a monthly column about handheld computing for the HAL-PC magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.