Sunday, May 4, 2008

Assassin's Creed (Xbox 360)

There was a fair share of controversy around Assassin's Creed when it was released last Fall. There seemed to be a split between people who thought it was flawless and others who got caught up on something and ended up bashing it. And now that I've played the game I totally understand why it played out that way. Assassin's Creed is a game that is so close to greatness that it's few flaws stick out in sharp contrast. Whether you love it or are disappointed by it depends on whether those flaws are enough to pull you out of the experience. I personally was able to largely ignore the blemishes and really enjoy myself, but I was left with a feeling that this game could have been so much more.

Let's get one thing out of the way first - Assassin's Creed looks great. The presentation of games these days is often judged on sheer graphic photorealism. And Creed has that, but what it really excels at is motion. Altair runs, stalks, climbs, and fights in a completely fluid manner. You leap across rooftops, drop down into the streets, and disappear amongst the bustling merchants… and it all looks totally natural and effortless. The way that Altair climbs walls, shuffling around and reaching for handholds, is truly impressive.

The cities in the game are amazingly lifelike. There's detail everywhere, and when you climb up to a vantage point to get a full panorama it all looks extraordinary. At the street level there are people everywhere going through their daily tasks, looking quite natural. But it's here that the fa├žade first started to crack for me. I hadn't even finished my first assassination before I'd heard many of the voice clips repeat two or three times. It's hard to feel that it's a living city with realistically behaving citizens when they all say the exact same thing. This is standard fare in video games, of course. But Assassin's Creed hides its videogame-ness so well in so many other places that little things like this stand out.

For a game about assassination it's really critical for the world to behave believably. The game really succeeds when you're stalking your target waiting for the right moment, or frantically trying to elude the guards after you've raised the alarm. But it falls apart when you realize that the guards chase just as doggedly when you accidentally bump into one of them as after you've murdered their king. Or when you sometimes can take down a guard in plain sight and no one seems to care. Or when you decimate an entire section of guards because they always let you fight them one at a time. All of these things work to change the atmosphere from being a sandbox game to becoming an arcade game.

You follow an interesting structure leading up to each assassination. You scout out the area from the rooftops, perform some investigations so you know when to strike, and then you get approval from the local assassin's bureau to go after your mark. The problem is that there doesn't seem to be much point to carefully planning out your attack. The investigations you do simply unlock the final assassination - they don't actually have any specific bearing on how it carries out. It would be great if additional planning gave you the locations of the guards, or arranged a distraction that provided a better opening. But instead you simple waltz up to the target, see a cut scene, and do the deed. There are some satisfying assassinations, but in general there's a ton of untapped potential here.

One of the things that really bothered me was the inconsistency in Altair's moral code. He's supposed to be an honorable assassin, who claims poison is a cowards tool and refuses to slay the innocent. But somehow the town guards are not considered amongst the innocent. Never mind that these guards are just working people with families at home. Altair always sides with the accused in disputes with the guards, assuming them all to be corrupt. I know it's a lot to ask from a video game, but I feel that the game's story and characters would hold more weight if you actually had to do out your job in the least disruptive way. When I first played the game I naturally tried to bypass guards and perform the sneakiest assassinations possible (this coming from a guy who hates stealth games). But over time I realized it was far easier to just murder every single guard who got in my way. Subltety be damned.

All of these things I complain about are what prevents Assassin's Creed from being a true masterpiece. But I wouldn't even be talking about them if it weren't so close. When it works, it works really well. The premise behind the entire story is really clever. It provides an excellent framework and leads really well to more games in the same franchise. Which I hope to see. The developer has really taken some of the ideas from their work on Prince of Persia to the next level, and with some focus they could have something truly amazing on their hands. As is Assassin's Creed is still a must play, just forgive me for wanting it to be more than it is.

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