Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Assassin's Creed: Game Review

Two elements of this game stood out: the engine and the ending.

First, the engine is amazing. It's easy to waste a couple hours just running around the game world, finding handholds to scale cathedral spires, free-stepping across rooftops, stabbing unsuspecting guards in the neck, and picking the pockets of thugs. Crowds and guards react to events around them...so the screams and panicked questions only increase the satisfaction of grabbing a guard and throwing him from a tower.

Second, the ending, which actually sucks in the game, is amazing when you pause and decipher the scrawl that only flashes across the screen. (Of course, I didn't do this, but I read about someone who did.) The Mayan long form calendar, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the Tunguska Incident, the Philadelphia Experiment, the Golden Apples of ancient Greece, the underwater Japanese ruins of Yonaguni, and the Chinese Emperor Jiajing are woven into drawings, patterns, and written messages (in three different languages.) All of this is part of an amibitious plot which is only hinted at in this, the first game of a scheduled trilogy.

I didn't do any fact checking on the historical details of the game, but it passes muster if you're barely knowledgable like myself. The designers made a bold choice to portray the hero as an Arab who assassinates Templars, and there's plenty of video-game philosophy exploring the familiar balance of freedom vs. security. King Richard makes an appearance, there are numerous mentions of Saladin, and much of the action takes place in actual cities like Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre. All of this adds depth and believability to a very realistic environment.

Sadly, the game itself is barely (if any) more fun than just aimlessly wandering through this rich world. The cutscenes are well-produced, but long and unavoidable, even on replays. The difficulty is either exactly zero or frustratingly difficult (timed missions, meh.) Once you learn how to fight large crowds, you can ignore any pretense of stealth and wade through oceans of armed guards with a dazzling array of counter moves. And even if you have no idea how to fight, like I did for 95% of the game, you can simply run to a rooftop and kill guards one at a time as they climb up the ladder to reach you. The mechanics of saving citizens are tiresome and repetitive, but in many cases necessary.

There is no loot, no opportunity to customize your character, and no skills to improve, all of which decimate the replay value. There is endless potential in this game, but unfortunately not enough of it was exercised. Still, I'm glad I played it, and I'll likely play the sequel.

In the meantime, I'll be breathlessly waiting for Gears of War 2. If anyone finds a better trailer than that one, let me know.


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