Monday, May 12, 2008

Assassin's Creed

How can you know whether a game is good without playing it? You can't, really. It wouldn't be fun if you could, right? Fortunately, there are people out there who play games and then tell you about their experience. Some of them do it professionally, some of them just because they think the world really needs to know about those games. Assassin's Creed is one of those games that are good enough to make me want to join the latter group. However, unlike most such games, it also has defects that appeal to my inner ranter. Perfect blogging material.

Just to make it clear, this is not a traditional review, rich in detail and sprinkled with screenshots. My goal is not to give you a detailed description of what you experience as you play Assassin's Creed. If that's what you're looking for, then I recommend the Gamespot reviews, for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. What I'm focusing on here are the strengths and weaknesses of the game. The idea is to help people who never played it before and people interested in game design.

Still with me? Okay, let's delve into Assassin's Creed.

Stunning Visuals

You know how games always look a lot better in reviews and trailers than when you actually play them? I expected the same to happen with Assassin's Creed. To say that I was surprised is a huge understatement. This game is simply beautiful.

My PC has a dated CPU -- the installer warned me that I don't fulfill the requirements -- but my nVidia 7900 GTX more than compensates for it. Even so, I can't configure the graphics to maximum quality and detail. Or rather, I could if I didn't mind playing a slideshow instead of a game. As it is, the graphics are still stunning.

Everything is richly textured and beautifully illuminated. Each city has its own personality. The devastating aftermath of war in Acre makes itself evident not only in its burned houses and damaged city walls, but it also permeates the very atmosphere of the city, thanks to the greyish lighting that stands in contrast to golden colors of Damascus and Jerusalem.

The animations flow smoothly and every now and then you'll get a very dramatic angle that showcases your prowess at swordplay during a fight with guards. Of course, sometimes the game will get it wrong and you'll get a spectacular shot of a tree or a merchant stand between you and the camera.

Another excellent detail is the blurring effect the game applies when you lock on a target. It's supposed to make you feel like an assassin focusing intently on his victim and it does a great job.


When I first saw the word "parkour" my reaction went along the lines of "huh?" It turns out that most of us know of it as "free running". It also turns out that it's not the same thing at all. I won't pretend I'm an expert and, for that same reason, I won't explain the difference. You have Wikipedia for that and you can blame them for any eventual error in it. Suffice it to say that the gameplay of Assassin's Creed incorporates parkour in a most enjoyable way.

I remember that one of my friends once proposed to make a game about free running. We shot down that idea for various reasons -- where the hell were we going to get money for an AAA game anyway? -- and one of them was the fact that we thought it wouldn't be interesting on its own, that it needed something more. I still believe that, especially after playing Assassin's Creed. There's something immensely satisfying about ending your crazy race over rooftops with a spectacular pounce and stab that brings your hapless victim down with a startled, strangled cry.

By the way, if you're into game development, I highly recommend reading this Gamasutra article on parkour in Assassin's Creed and Crackdown.

Music and Sound Effects

When I heard that Jesper Kyd composed the soundtrack for the game I had high hopes and I wasn't disappointed. I personally think that he didn't outdo his work in Silent Assassin, but the score is still great: subtle enough not to intrude on your experience, yet dramatic enough to establish the appropriate mood.

I also liked the way NPCs contribute to the game's atmosphere: preachers, beggars, merchants and passers-by all have something to say and they do it in a way that successfully recreates the bustle of a living city. Of course, they have their limitations. If you start paying a lot of attention to them, you'll find them repetitive; but if you focus on your mission, like an assassin is supposed to, they'll provide a rich auditive tapestry to serve as a background.

Good Plot

I firmly believe that games are essentially stories created, in part, by players. Whenever you find yourself gushing with enthusiasm while you describe a match of Unreal Tournament to your friends, you're telling them a story. That said, games don't necessarily need a plot. But if you're going to play an assassin, it's good to have something to motivate you to kill your victims, right?

I'm usually quite critical about plots. It comes from being a fan of books in an age where most people read only newspapers or technical books, if that. I am glad to say that Assassin's Creed has a rather good plot. It's interesting and it's not shallow. Not one among the characters is what he or she seems to be at the first glance. There are layers to be peeled and they reveal that the world around you is not black and white, even though it would be a lot easier on your conscience that way.

Altaïr himself, the character which you control, is a decidedly unpleasant person at the beginning, not likeable at all. You might think it's dangerous gamble to do that to the character with whom you're supposed to identify, but it works out surprisingly well.

Major Cliffhanger

Few are the works that can get away with a cliffhanger. Endymion pulled it off and lived to tell (the rest of) the tale. Assassin's Creed tried to pull it off and excelled at pissing me off. And everyone else, judging by the reactions.

Yes, it's true that almost all of the mysteries that plagued you during the game are resolved at the end. But that's not enough for a satisfying ending. I don't know about people at Ubisoft, but I like closure at the end of the game. It doesn't hurt the sequel at all, just look at the Sands of Time. Here's an idea, Ubisoft: go read Jim Butcher's article about story climaxes. Just in case it doesn't help immediately, the ingredient you're missing is what he calls "resolution".

Cheesy Dialogue

Like I said, I'm a fan of books. That makes me spoiled when it comes to things like plot, dialogue and character development. I'm aware of that and I try to keep it under control when I'm criticizing a game. After all, games are a different medium and one of the worst kinds of game designer is the failed writer.

That said, I have to draw the line somewhere. In case of Assassin's Creed, I drew it here:
Rafiq: He must be stopped!
Altaïr: That's why I'm here.
I don't mind a certain amount of cliché in games. I don't require voice actors to be perfect. But some of Altaïr's lines are way too cheesy to tolerate. It doesn't help that Philip Shahbaz, the voice of Altaïr, seems to have exactly one tone of voice. I guess it's supposed to sound arrogant and menacing, which suits Altaïr's personality admirably, but even so, you cannot apply it to everything you say. Sooner or later, your players start perceiving you as sulky instead of menacing.

To be fair, I should state that not all of the dialogue is cheesy. Al Mualim has some excellent lines and his voice, Peter Renaday, did a very good job.

In-yer-face Interface

Just as I started with the most gushing praise of the best features, so I kept the worst for the last. Many reviews complain about the repetitive nature of the gameplay, but I don't find that to be such a big problem. Solving it would have been quite costly and the developers did their best to mitigate it by offering the player a variety of investigation missions and giving him the liberty to choose which to play and which to skip.

The worst problem, however, comes from some monumentally bad decisions that were perfectly avoidable. All of them have to do with the interface, but the crown jewel among them is the decision to give the player the freedom to move during the cut scenes.

Picture the following situation: After doing lots of investigative work that helped you decided where, when and how you'll assassinate your victim, you finally have him in sight. He's talking to someone else and nobody is paying any attention to you at all. You're free to move, so you start creeping towards his back. You're in position, the moment is perfect and you press the button. And nothing happens. You press the button repeatedly, muttering "stab him, dammit!" It's useless. You're in a cut scene and nothing you do will have any effect. The developers gave you a completely useless freedom and the only thing they achieved is to confuse you.

And they took away a number of very useful freedoms from you, such as the freedom to skip a cut scene or a tutorial. It's an old lesson, but people at Ubisoft haven't learned it. They didn't let you skip the cutscenes in Prince of Persia and they don't let you do it in Assassin's Creed either. Come on, people, it's a Twinkie Denial Condition!

They also took away your freedom to load and save as you wish, which is another Twinkie Denial Condition. While I appreciate that the game saves automatically whenever I finish a task or get to a checkpoint, I still hate it that I have to let the guards kill me if my assassination attempt didn't go the way I wanted, so that the game will reload the last save.

Then there's also the matter of quitting the game or switching the profile. To exit the game, I first have to exit to the Animus, then exit from the Animus, then "quit" the game, then select a profile (which one? doesn't matter, I want to quit) and then finally exit the game. Oh, and I have to confirm that I wish to exit, just in case I went through all that work by accident. Yes, I know this is probably only a PC issue and that the PC version suffers a lot more from not being properly adapted to keyboard and mouse, but it's still incredibly annoying. The keyboard and mouse problem can at least be solved, by plugging in a gamepad.


Don't get me wrong. I loved Assassin's Creed and I can't wait for the sequel, even though Philip Shahbaz will again be Altaïr's voice. I mean, let's give the guy a second chance, right? Seriously, though, I loved the game. Despite the obvious and perfectly avoidable problems, I recommend it warmly.

And if Ubisoft learns from their mistakes, the sequel should be even better.

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