Platforms: PS3, Xbox 360 and PC
It was 2007 and in the early days of the PS3, all shiny and new, a new generation of games were in the process of being produced in order to do the technological marvel of Playstation’s newest genus. Ubisoft, a decidedly well-to-do yet quasi-plebian game studio decided to throw their own contribution into the pool- “Assassin’s Creed”.
Desmond Miles (voiced by everybody’s favourite voice whore Nolan North), a young and incredulous bartender, is kidnapped by Abstergo Industries, and is subjected to the clutches of Doctor Warren Vidic (Philip Proctor) and his assistance Lucy Stillman (Kristen Bell). There, Desmond is forced to interface with the Animus, a device that is able to replay the genetic memories of the subject’s ancestors. In Desmond’s case, they seek very sensitive information about his ancestor Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad- that’s pronounced “Ahl-tie-air”, not “Al-tear” (Philip Shahbaz), an Assassin who roamed the Holy Land during the Third Crusade with a huge case of over-confidence. Within the Animus, Altaïr’s memories reveal that he was attempting to prevent Robert de Sablé of the Knights Templar from swindling an artefact known as a Piece of Eden from Solomon’s Temple, an artefact so important that it could mean the end of the world or a new beginning for it. In doing so however, he broke all of the Assassin Brotherhood’s three tenets in the process:
1) Stay the blade from innocents
2) Hide in plain sight and be one with the crowd
3) Never compromise the Brotherhood
The Brotherhood leader Al Mualim, demotes Altaïr to the rank of Novice, and assigns him the task of assassinating nine people, all of whom are Templars, to regain his former status. But the question remains- what does all of this mean to Abstergo?
“Assassin’s Creed” was a massive success and it’s no wonder- while historical action-adventure had been done before, “Creed” formulated it’s very own mythos and as a result created a well-loved franchise. When I first played the game, I was not entirely sure of what to make of it, primarily because I had never experienced anything like it. A small portion of that might come from the fact our protagonist is running around in a tricked-out white bathrobe and still makes it look intimidating. Admittedly it did take me a minute amount of time before I truly got into the groove. The Holy Land has never looked holier before this game. Expansive, vibrant turbulent and exotic, the cities of Acre, Damascus, Jerusalem and the far pavilions in between are where Altaïr must focus upon his massive manhunt, re-learning invaluable techniques to use at his disposal such as eavesdropping, interrogation techniques, parkour, combat and assassination skills, not just to complete his mission, but to essentially make over his soul after such a fall from grace. Seeing Altaïr ghost through these communities of arrogant Christians and ranting Saracens is a fascinating experience so long as you remember that you are taking part in historical fiction, not history. To witness Altaïr dominate the rooftops at twilight, watching him engage multiple enemies with but a sword and a hidden wrist-blade are sights you will see a lot of in this game and you will feel as if you are this newly tyro Assassin- you’d almost think your console is the Animus. The story itself is amply engaging too because as Altaïr progresses through his engagement, he is educated not only about the Templars, but about himself as well, and he redeems himself as a whole being. He starts to see the world through a different lens, one made up of many greys and observes how the people around him live. He takes note of the nature of oppression, opportunity, mercy and calculated ruthlessness that is exercised upon humanity no matter what their station in life and he comes to realise that in order to understand, you must question. In addition to the visual and intellectually-driven delights the game has to offer, the soundtrack is fantastic. It makes perfect use of it’s distinctly Arabic tone with flutes, human chants, as well as the sting of contemporary bass, piano and even a little synthesizer- my personal favourite pieces by far are the tracks “Acre Underworld” and the chase theme that kicks up whenever Altaïr is fleeing from the filth… uh, the guards I mean. The “Assassin’s Creed” franchise has always been known to produce quality and expectation-bending music, and this is where it all started.
But here’s the rub.
Although the patient and engaged player will no doubt master full use of the abilities they rack up as the game progresses, the gameplay mechanics themselves really aren’t that crash hot. The fundamental stuff is fine, however, allow me to illustrate with an example. Early in the game after having just been stripped of all of his abilities, Altaïr can only fight with his bare fists, so when it comes to scuffs in the streets, he is able to land blows. You’d think that he would be granted the basic function of blocking, but you’d be wrong. I remember getting into an extended fist-fight with several guards in Damascus and let me tell you, got more black eyes than my enemies did simply because I was not able to effectively block their blows. The frustrating thing about the gameplay is also one of the best things about the story- Altaïr is learning to become an Assassin again, and that involves being defenceless for a set amount of time before you earn back a useful skill. The same can also be said for fighting with an edged weapon like a sword- parrying is an acquired ability that is not earned until much later in the story and without it, running from a confrontation is a sensible thing to do and you know what, that IS pretty annoying since you are playing as a glorified medieval hit-man. Also, despite the fact Altaïr can free run like a champion, he isn’t entirely as swift as he should be, especially when fleeing from persistent guards. It takes some fancy footwork for the Assassin to make his pursuers lose sight of him, and additional creativity to find a hiding place that is surrounded by even MORE guards. The art of escape in this game becomes decidedly crucial at times and the player really needs to get confident with the moveset whilst traversing throughout this saga, especially when assassination missions become more challenging. Another glaring issue the game has is that barring the actual story itself, all of the missions are quite repetitive. Altaïr secretly listens in on clandestine conversations. He tails an interrogation target, roughs them up and forces the information out of them. Altaïr visits one of the Assassin Bureaus scattered around every city to restock his supplies and gets the go ahead from the bureaumaster. Altaïr finds the target. Altaïr kills the target. Altaïr runs like the wind and returns to Al Mualim to report the mission success. Rinse and repeat. For the majority of the time, it is assignment after assignment with no variance and does not offer much of anything challenge-wise. Battles are straight-forward with very little creativity or high-stakes which is unfortunate because to have Altaïr’s skills to be tested by a particularly persistent enemy would truly drive home that the young Assassin must prove his worth in order to earn redemption. Naturally however, Ubisoft remedied and improved many of these elements in future releases. “Assassin’s Creed” was the first step in a long, fascinating journey.
In saying that, “Assassin’s Creed” still remains an important game and a benchmark of console culture. While admittedly it does squander higher potential in favour of being pedestrian in terms of mechanics, it still remains a worthy debut for a best-selling franchise and the subsequently massive fan base. I personally regularly re-visit this game because for all of it’s faults, to be in Altaïr’s crisp white robes, to tread the soil of a distant time is marvelous means of escape while simultaneously making history fun… with a few exaggeration and a whole lot of Saracen ranting.
Fun Factor: 7 – Let’s face it, to be Altaïr is an experience that is almost life-affirming because he is one of the best ‘badass’ video game characters in recent years. I can’t think of anybody else who could make a white bathrobe look intimidating or stylish. He is basically the one who brings the player back for more.
Graphics: 8 – The Holy Land looks fantastic, if a little sparse in places. Understandable though since this was set during the early years of the Crusades and populations were scattered throughout. The cities look incredible at all parts of the day, be it day, night or the magic hour.
Sound: 7 – Pretty decent with the as previously mentioned great OST. The voice acting is not as effective as it should be in places, but nothing vexes the ear. Plus let’s face it, hearing a fanatic Saracen holler his praises to Saladin will be sure to make you smile and to hear a Christian knight curse you in a Cockney accent will delight.
Control: 7 – Once our Assassin earns back half of his skills, movement, combat and assassination techniques are quite easy. Just be prepared to prefer running away from a fight in the first part of his quest when the time calls for it.
Lasting Appeal: 7.5