Saturday, 16 March 2013

Revisiting Assassin’s creed: I thought I’d have a stab

Platform - Xbox360
Cost New- £10

I steer Altair up to the entrance of Damascus’ poorest district. Here, there’s no shelter - the sun stares down on dirty walls of baked brick. Along the edges, sellers are pandering goods in splintered, ramshackle stalls.

None of this bothers me: I’m busy eyeing the sole entrance into the city itself. The gate is open but four guards are standing sentry, huddled into the narrow high space that separates my hero from my goal.

My fingers slacken on the controller as my mind flicks through the options.  Dispatching them the old-fashioned bloody way is the first alternative, and I find it rather attractive. I’d be saving this bunch of human-shaped pixels from the perpetual damnation of standing here for all of virtual eternity. Yes - the only humane thing to do, really, is to imminently carve up four sizable slices of man-turkey. 

I’ll take my Nobel Peace Prize to go, please.

Then, my honed perception (and by honed perception, I mean a huge icon) informs me there’s a group of scholars beginning to meander up to to the gates, totally unwatched. My perception (icon) points out that my white robes would blend in quite nicely with the surly academics and I could pass through violence-free. 

There we go, then. Plan.

As I start to move, though, the camera swivels up a little and I see a stall slightly closer to the gate than the rest, probably close enough to leap over the guard’s heads without their noticing. Out of the three alternatives, this strikes me - and by extension, Altair - as the most best option. Virtual gymnastics that defy the developer’s expectations. Delicious. 

I make Altair change tack and let him mount the rickety roof of the stall. A run and a jump later and he’s soaring across the dust, then over the heads of the guards still staring blandly in front, and then landing on the other side. Home free. There’s no way they saw that, I know; the city sprawls ahead. 

Of a sudden, my HUD flares red, and the apparently all-seeing guards turn quickly, uniformly, like some bizarre form of Crusade Macarena.  They brandish their swords and unapologetically charge. The same guards, in case I’m not stressing this enough, who didn’t see my novel method of entrance. Not even a little bit.

Welcome to Assassin’s Creed: a game that really doesn’t care about your stupid whiny feelings.

The Hangover Part 1191

The first thing people seem to have forgotten about the original Assassin’s Creed is that, when it was released back in 2007, no-one really had a clue what was going on plot-wise. Sure, there were a few with the time and notepads able to piece together fragmentary excerpts of dialogue into a somewhat cohesive whole, but for the most part the game starts off confusing and spirals out from there, deliberately murky. 

Here are the things that you’re allowed to have a firm grasp on - you play as Altair, Master Assassin (PhD), living in the middle of the third crusade, commissioned with the task of bumping off nine ‘templars’ from either side of the fighting. It’s worth noting most targets are genuinely interesting historical figures (see here for a list). You find yourself being more sympathetic towards some, pitying others, and wanting to plough others down with a medieval tractor. Still, it’s difficult to understand what their end goal is, and just when you think you’ve got things sorted out, the final fifteen minutes narrative-slaps you so hard you’re left utterly disorientated and more dazed than ever.

This confusion consumes almost every aspect of the plot, too - while in later installments the player is allowed to take refuge from the meta-narrative within the more intimate story of the protagonist, Altair has graduated first-class from the College of the One Dimensional Personality.

This assessment is perhaps too generous for the game’s other protagonist, Desmond Myles, a present-day Assassin captured and forced to relive his memories via the ‘Animus’, essentially a Matrix machine into the past. The Desmond parts of gameplay are less marginal than anyone would like, serving to break up the action in the same way the Pacific separates Hawaii from the mainland. Desmond (here and the sequels) acts clearly a device that allow the writers to flick between time periods, and isn’t really worth dwelling on further than these few remarks. His sections are decidedly, deliberately grey and uninspiring.

   Desmond: A strange mix of bland and eminently punchable                                                    

Back to Altair, then.

There’s no getting away from the disorientation the game steamrollers the player with - in fact, it’s actually integrated into some of the game elements too. Huge expanses of land are accessible but are pretty much void, and the game’s collectable ‘flags’ have no discernible purpose, without so much as a pat on the back as a reward. Unless you do it yourself, but we have to save our energy for those trips to the fridge.

Here’s the crux of my argument, though: this constant, consistent disorientation isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 


Because it helps build one of the most palpable atmospheres in gaming. The boring wastelands of dialogue are frustrating because there’s something deeper going on if you could just tease it out. The huge, expansive cities of Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre are (though bettered by the sequels) huge, distinctive sprawling masses yet, in the same way as the plot, you never feel as though you ‘control’ them in the way you do in later installments. There’s a detachment here - gloomy filters are woven so there often isn’t any kind of sunny escapism. Little sprinklings of music exist where others may have placed a bombastic score. There are no huge set-pieces that make things feel especially ‘gamey’. Altair is slower in his climbing and free-running, giving exploration a less intense, more careful pacing.

The narrative works precisely because it feeds into the brilliant mysterious atmosphere that the game is, as a whole, drenched with. It makes the player always feel like the smaller part of a bigger whole, that there’s a conspiracy two steps ahead of your puny mind. The game doesn’t care if you keep up with it because things aren’t ultimately about you, and you’re made to know it.

This realisation, though, belies the paradox at the heart of Assassin’s Creed - this mysterious atmosphere is entirely undercut by the most repetitive gaming structure since Tetris.

Each ‘level’, if you can call it that, amalgamates (what a fantastic word) to the same thing:

(1) Converse with Assassin master.
  1. Travel to city
  2. Converse with Assassin Headquarter’s master
  3. Climb some highpoints to find minigame-style missions
  4. Complete minigame-style missions
  5. Converse with Assassin Headquarter’s master
  6. Travel to target
  7. Watch Target converse
  8. Stab target
  9. Converse with Target
  10. Run back to Assassin Headquarter’s master
  11. Converse with Assassin Headquarter’s master
  12. Converse with Assassin master

And so on, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. The whole thing begins to feel more like a business transaction than a game, and that’s only after the second or third cycle. There are nine assassinations to do, totaling easily two dozen hours of gameplay (though as you can see gameplay/watching ratio is as annoyingly off balance as playing see-saw with the fat kid) it can easily become a chore.

Nice level. Let's use it again. And again. And again.

It’s so frustrating because each element of gameplay taken individually is at least adequate, and more often than not excellent. The combat, similar though vastly inferior to 2009’s Arkham Asylum, is entertaining, the free-running through cities is sublime, the various high-points scattered around the cities is fantastic. Shoehorning these things into annoying mini-games makes the entire experience feel as though a week before shipping Ubisoft suddenly realised they had to put an actual game in with the experience itself. The overall effect, as said, is a paradox and is utterly, hopelessly detrimental.

Even by 2013‘s standards, the game still looks decent, although character faces have weird mackerel eyes and bizarre melted wax faces, and sometimes the framerate can dip to slower speeds than your grandparent’s holiday slideshow.

So, overall, do I recommend you play Assassin’s Creed? Yes - as a piece of art and a lesson in game development, not as a game. It all depends on your patience supply.  think people who say ‘Stick with ACII’ are being a little harsh - certainly the prequel has a lot to recommend it. 

Give the game a try, though don’t throw the series out if it’s not your thing. 

And for goodness' sake don't climb onto that stall. You'll get yourself some serious splinters.

For another game-related blog, go here.
If you hate videogames, and prefer Renaissance drama, go here.

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