Thursday, February 18, 2010

[Game Review] Assassin’s Creed

Blood and death in the holy land

Assassin’s Creed is the first of a handful of games that I bought for a song during the holidays. If nothing else, it was totally worth the $10 I paid for this two-year-old title. Would I have been as happy if I’d paid the full $40 or so for it when it was released? That’s not quite as clear.

As the name implies, Assassin’s Creed puts you in the role of a contract killer. It takes place in the holy land during the Third Crusade. Your character travels to ancient cities such as Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem where you undertake various missions in support of a main questline. Each city acts as its own “level” in the game, complete with an endboss assassination mission.

There’s an awful lot to like about this game. The graphics were beautifully-rendered, to the point where my wife (who hasn’t the least bit of interest in mainstream computer games) actually watched me play for a whole and commented on how beautiful the graphics were. And, related to that, the developers did an outstanding job in capturing the look and feel of medieval cities in the eastern Mediterranean. I’m no expert on that era, but I kind of feel like I’ve been there now.

The interface was also quite good – informative but unobtrusive. There’s a compass with markers for quests, an indicator of your current health, a weapon selector, and an alarm to indicate when the local guards are hunting you.

The story was entertaining and well-written, and the sound-effects and voice acting was very well-done. In fact, the way that the audio and video immersed you in the game's world was definitely the high point of the game. It was extraordinarily realistic.

The combat system reminded me a bit of Batman: Arkham Asylum, with some of the same complaints for me. I could feel the consolitis in it (and I don’t even know for a fact that this was developed as a console game, too, but it felt like it was). Consolitis sneaks in whenever a PC gamer needs to use their keyboard to mimic the controls on an X-Box or Playstation system. They have those funky little handheld controllers with all the buttons, so hitting three or four at once is no big deal. On a keyboard, having to juggle between shift, control, spacebar and the movement direction keys – all while clicking one or both of the mouse buttons – drives me a little batty. And it was definitely present here (though the system wasn’t as complex as in Batman so it frustrated me somewhat less). I never really did get good at the combat, even though I think I understood what I needed to do and was attempting to do it (unlike in Batman, where I ultimately just ended up mashing the keyboard with my fists until fortune smiled on me and combat finally ended). There were, for instance, times when I’d try to execute moves that I’d successfully completed in the practice ring, and they just wouldn’t work at all on real enemies. Then there were times when I’d do something like hit the spacebar (which I didn’t remember ever seeing on the list of combat move controls) and my character would seem to execute combat moves more effectively than when I didn’t. The whole thing was a little random and left me kind of frustrated at times. Luckily, the combat is also fairly forgiving for the most part, so I usually managed to win even though it wasn’t as smooth as I’d have liked it.

One other disappointing thing I found was that the guards seemed to learn new moves when you did. You’d go back to a city you’d been at before, and the guards would now use the same new counters or attacks you’d just learned. This was distracting, but I presume the rationale was to avoid making combat impossible in the early levels and too easy later on.

I was also really disappointed with the endgame. You spend the whole game learning to sneak around and master your four different weapons – throwing knives, a short sword, a longsword, and a hidden wrist-blade. Yet when you get to the final two bosses, it becomes a straight-up slugfest against hordes of enemies and you’re actually confined to these tiny little spaces where you can’t run or hide or sneak. The only viable weapon for the last two major levels is your longsword, and the only way to win is to replay these mass melees until you somehow manage to beat the 8-10 guys being sent against you at once.

Worse, the game’s relatively good historical accuracy is blown away when Richard the Lionhearted decrees that you must prove your accusations against one of his men through trial by combat. “Surely,” he says, “God will favor the one who is just.” Yeah, sure, except that you don’t just fight the one guy you’ve got a beef with – you fight like 10 of his soldiers. That’s not trial by combat, it’s a damn execution. And, again, you’re boxed into a little area with no room to maneuver or use your different weapons, it’s just bashing away with your sword again and again (and again and again) until the game has mercy on you and lets you win. It must have taken me 15-20 tries to beat those guys, and the whole scenario was a real disappointment because it was just so different than most of the rest of the game.

Assassin’s Creed owes much to the original sneak-fest, Thief: The Dark Project. The difference being that Thief was focused on the use of light and darkness to hide your character, where Assassin’s Creed deals more with line of sight issues. But it felt very similar and reminded me a lot of that wonderful old game.

Overall, I think $10-15 was probably the right price for Assassin’s Creed. I don’t know if I’d have been as forgiving of some of its flaws, especially the very mediocre ending, if I’d paid full-price for it. But its production values were very high and there’s no question that I enjoyed the two or three weeks that I’ve spent playing it. The open gameplay suits people like me who prefer to wander around and do things when and how I please, rather than being herded along from place-to-place by the designers. I see that Assassin’s Creed 2 is out, and I definitely plan to look into that title once the price drops by at least half. I rate Assassin’s Creed a B+.

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