If real-life assassinations were like Assassin’s Creed, the world would be a different place. Lee Harvey Oswald would have leapt onto JFK’s car from the top of the Book Repository and stabbed him through the throat (acting alone, naturally); Lennon was taken out by a throwing knife as the killer bounced away over the skyscrapers. Clearly people were a lot more trusting in the 1100s, where assassins could loiter around town in their hoodies without anyone batting an eyelid. Nowadays they couldn’t even get into a shopping centre without being set upon by guards.
Since it’s 2011 and Assassin’s Creed has been out for years now, I can happily reveal the plot ‘twist’ that rather than being set during the Crusades, the game actually takes place in the near future. Protagonist Desmond has been captured by the descendants of the Templar Knights, who are forcing him to relive the memories of his assassin ancestors using the Animus device in order to locate an ancient relic with magical powers. It’s daft science fiction at its finest- conspiracy theories, biblical allegory and implausible situations- but it is well written and convincingly voice acted nevertheless.
Jumping between past and present regularly, Desmond’s adventures in the past don’t change him from being a miserable sod. You’ll be glad he is imprisoned so he can’t inflict his withering high school sarcasm on the general public. Lending weight to the theory that personality is largely genetically determined, Desmond’s ancestor Altaïr is a miserable sod too. His main traits are doing what he’s told without question and avoiding personal opinions at all costs. It’s a pity that he is such a dullard since, being an assassin, he tends to get up to some fairly cool activities.
Assassin’s Creed isn’t really about assassins, religious feuding in Jerusalem or a futuristic war between two mysterious factions. It’s the story of a game engine on an epic quest to find a game worthy of its raw horsepower. One of its main achievements is to translate the fluidity of parkour into a game. This is what the evolution of the platform game should be: instead of jumping from one crude box to the next, you’re discovering natural indentations in buildings and scaling tall towers with little effort. It’s a big step forward from Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, where you followed a linear (if very well designed!) path to your destination. Creed is as much about plotting your path as walking it, the latter made easy by the lenient controls. Altaïr essentially runs on autopilot and requires a gentle coaxing in the right direction. Despite the loss of absolute control, it feels very fluid and there is depth to the system for those willing to put in the practice. The animation is superlative: Altaïr leaps from one building to the next with amazing dexterity, his arms gently push aside civilians in the street, you see him scramble for every handhold in the decaying architecture.
The main problem with Assassin’s Creed is that once you’ve got over the free running fun and dynamic crowds, there is a fairly bland game waiting under the surface. Your mentor Al Mualim has tasked you with assassinating nine important Templars: to do this you’ll need to scale a building to get the lay of the land, rough up informants and eavesdrop on conversations to gather information about the target before confronting them in a sneaky way and stabbing their jugular with your retractable hidden blade. I know what you’re thinking- “That sounds really fun!”- and you would be right… for the first few assassinations. The issue is that every mission plays exactly the same, and there’s no variation in the objectives. Obviously the faces of the men you murder change every time, but that’s about it.
The illusion of choice emerging from the free-roaming environments fails when you realise that the target will either engage you directly in a sword fight, or flee the scene necessitating a frustrating chase sequence that you will almost certainly fail on the first attempt. Any attempt to engage in a stealthy assassination is thwarted by a cheeky cut-scene that normally alerts the mark to your presence. As the great philosopher Payne once said, “So much for being subtle”.
Once you’ve taken out your target the game is at its best, and silliest, as you escape the pursuit of the guards. Altaïr can hide in a roof garden, bury himself in a haystack or sit on a bench to disguise himself. This is where your evasive skills come in handy, as the fuzz will follow you across the rooftops unless you can break their line of sight and then get into cover. I love that Assassin’s Creed is a game that knows it’s a game and doesn’t need to provide justification for why five minutes on a park bench is sufficient hiding to escape an arrest warrant for murder. What I don’t love that every situation can be solved by sitting on said bench, then plodding slowly back to the Assassin’s Guild to avoid rousing the guards’ suspicion.
You’ll be tempted to avoid them since whenever you get into a fight, it will be dull and predictable. Enemies encircle Altaïr, but only ever attack one at a time, giving you ample opportunity to launch a counterattack. Sometimes they’re so stupid that they will stand stock still, begging to have their eyes skewered. There’s little variation except to introduce tougher enemies that take longer to grind down as the game progresses. Grinding is definitely the right verb to use: it’s about draining their health bars before they wear out your resolve.
Basically, it’s an amazing three-hour game stretched out to ten. The last hour is an embarrassment: an gauntlet of tedious battles against more moronic guards followed by a boss showdown that has no place in any modern game, never mind a stealth one. An abrupt and unsatisfying ending leaves unpleasant memories that are difficult to forget. It is fitting that Assassin’s Creed ends on an awful cliffhanger, because it deserves a sequel more than any title of this console generation. It’s full of promise and a great foundation for later titles in the series, but it feels half-baked: a brave experiment that finally found a practical application with the excellent Assassin’s Creed 2. It’s worth playing for the story and as a very long, repetitive tutorial for its sequel, but as the proverbial soldier remarked after a surprise assassination, it’s not the hit I was expecting.