Assassin’s Creed

We’ve been seeing previews for Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed for about a year now, and the finished product lives up to nearly every expectation that’s been set .

The first thing that surprises you about this game is its setting. Contrary to what the trailers would have you believe, the actual setting for this game is in the near-future. All of the Crusade-era stuff is actually a virtual-reality representation of Desmond Miles’ genetic memory. So while Mr. Miles is a simple bartender, his ancestor was Atair Ibn La-Ahad – a member of the ancient order of assassins. He’s been captured by a secretive organization, Abstergo Industries, that’s probing his ancestral past for a hidden memory. The catch is this crucial memory can’t be accessed unless he relives the memories that preceded it.

The controls take a while to get used to, but they quickly become second nature as you play through the game. Many maneuvers require a combination of buttons to perform, such as running up walls and accurately throwing knives. Other actions, like attacking, are deceptively simplistic, requiring only one button to execute.

Graphically, the game is amazing. You’ll be impressed the first time you see Altair running around the initial city, Masyaf. Your jaw will be on the floor the first time you get to Damascus. As you look around the city, take note of the buildings around you and the ones on the horizon. Realize that all of these locations can be reached, explored and exploited without waiting for the game to load any additional content. By content I mean NPCs, soldiers and buildings. It’s all just there waiting for you to explore and take advantage of however you feel best.

The graphics really shine when you can get a close-up of the textures and the shadows. All of the surfaces look “real.” The only detractions from this are the occasional clipping issues where a part of Altair’s outfit will pass through solid objects.

Couple these beautiful visuals with fluid animations, movements and interactions and you get one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game: running around. It doesn’t sound that fun when I say it like that, but once you get the hang of the controls it’s easy to lose yourself simply jumping around from building to building parkour style or free-climbing the walls of the structures in the towns. The freedom of movement in this game is unparalleled by any other game I’ve ever played.

There are five main areas for you to explore (not counting the lab back in the present). The first is Masyaf, the home of the assassins, where the game begins, and you can practice your techniques before you venture into the wider world. Beyond the cities is the Kingdom – a vast area defined mostly by narrow trails and high mountains – in which the only reasonable means of transportation is a horse. You must ride through the Kingdom to reach the cities of Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem, where the bulk of the game play takes place.

Missions in the game consist of two parts. The first part is entirely information gathering. This can involve pick-pocketing, eavesdropping, interrogation or gathering information from informants. Once enough information has been gathered, i.e., how best to sneak up to the mark, where to find them and when, it’s time to eliminate your target.

Assassinations can come in many flavors, but the best and most dramatic involve Altair’s hidden blade. Simply get close enough to your mark without being seen and press the X button. If you are seen, however, one of two things will happen: either you’ll have to chase your target through the streets or you’ll face them in open combat along with all of their cronies.

This not-being-seen concept is very important in the game. As an assassin you don’t want to draw a lot of attention to yourself, so behaving in socially acceptable ways is heavily emphasized and rewarded. Running through the streets knocking people over or climbing around on buildings or fountains will cause people to look at you. If the city guards are already looking for a fight (possibly because of a recent assassination), they’ll be sure to accost you the second you stop acting normal.

Once the local soldiers have decided you’re a threat, you have the option to either fight your way through them or make a break for it and lay low until the heat dies down. Hiding involves leaving your pursuers’ line of sight and taking cover for about ten seconds. Hiding spots can be anything from a pile of hay to a public bench. The idea is simply to disappear or to blend in.

Melee combat is fairly simple in design but can be both tricky and rewarding in execution. Every melee action revolves around the X button, which swings your weapon. Time your presses right and you’ll be rewarded with a pleasing cinematic kill. Press the right combination of buttons at the right time and you’ll get an even cooler kill. It all comes down to timing and will probably take a bit of practice before you’re comfortable taking on more than two opponents at once.

The biggest drawback to Assassin’s Creed is a major glitch that can occur near the end of the game. I had the bad luck of watching my horse and rider fall through the ground into a white void where they eventually died. Upon my respawn, there were two of me and one horse. The second me, being the asshole that he is, stole my horse and rode off – leaving me to hoof it to King Richard. When you do get to him, the story line won’t progress and you’re stuck with a bunch of confused-looking Englishmen who should be trying to kill you. The Fix? I unplugged all peripherals, switched to a wired controller and unplugged my Ethernet cable. Huh? But it worked and who cares why?

According to Ubisoft technical support, a patch is being worked on and is coming soon so in the near future this won’t even be an issue. All that will be left is one gorgeous game you’ll be eager to get lost in. Pick this up for someone this Christmas; I guarantee they’ll love it.

System: 360, PS3
1 Player
Ubisoft Montreal
Released November 2007