I hope the Americans among you had a wonderful day yesterday celebrating the mass genocide of the indigenous people or whatever it is one does on Thanksgiving. With Bioware’s new opus Mass Effect intent on drawing all my time, I had been hoping that Assassin’s Creed from Ubisoft Montreal would turn out to be terrible so I would not have to buy it. It looked like a collection of excellent ideas that could not possibly brought together to form a coherent whole. Unfortunately this was not to be. While Halo may grab the mainstream press for its sheer financial clout, this is one of those few experiences that instills gamers with a desire to talk to everyone about it, whether they are into games or not.
The player takes on the role of Altair, an assassin in the Holy Land during the crusades, uncovering a conspiracy while taking out those profiting from the corruption surrounding the war. It is telling of the modern climate that the opening credits state that the developers come from a variety of backgrounds and faiths, given the obvious allusions to a Muslim-Christian war throughout. Altair is essentially a non-religious lone wolf, stalking through cities with an animalistic gait. The mood of the piece is best encapsulated in this trailer featuring UNKLE’s Lonely Soul.
The medieval world is brought to life in stunning detail with huge cities (Acre, Dasmascus and Jerusalem are all recreated) bustling with people going about their lives. Its best feature is the free running and climbing ability which lets Altair scale virtually any building, ascending high towers to survey the city below. The swordplay is simple but nuanced, adding new layers over time and feels surprisingly authentic for the time. Generally think Hitman meets Prince of Persia.
Reviewers are somewhat split with the complaint that too much of the experience is repetitious with bland identical gameplay in every city for the lightweight “investigation” before each major assassination. Gabe at Penny Arcade highlights that this is partly a symptom of the reviewers’ mentality, playing the game as a job so hurtling through to finish. Assassin’s Creed is very much the sort of game that requires a slower approach to soak in the atmosphere. While gazing at the ornate architectural detail of a Jerusalem temple I felt like a foreign businessman wishing I had more time for tourism. And then I remembered this was a game and I could do what I liked. While collecting randomly located flags seems a little tired, some of the best fun to be had is while climbing up and exploring the cities from the rooftops.
The chief criticism remains valid, however, that the developers have essentially created an incredible sandbox but forgotten to give the player quite enough toys with which to play. I am sure the space opera of Mass Effect will draw me away from Assassin’s Creed as soon as it arrives, but this is a game I will be happy to return to with such a beautiful historic world and a compelling conspiracy unfolding.