Desmond Miles is a regular guy, kidnapped by a fairly regular crazy scientist and by extension the run-of-the-mill super corporation he works for. Also there’s Kristen Bell, one of the games more obvious redeeming points. Yeah, I’m biased, but I loved Veronica Mars.
It turns out that Desmond Miles isn’t such a regular guy after all. In fact he’s an assassin, trained by assassins in a secret order of assassins collectively and very originally known as… the Assassin Order.
In a dastardly twist of fate it turns out that Abstergo (said, evil corporation of doom) is in fact a front for the Knights Templar, another organisation so famously secret that almost everyone seems to know about it, or has heard about it or referenced it at one point or time, and also the Assassin’s mortal enemies.
The basic premise is that Desmond has been kidnapped so that Abstergo can plug him into their newly created mechanical abomination, the animus, a device that will unlock his ‘genetic memories’ and help them to discover the location of an ancient artefact lost to time.
Excusing the purely fictitious and pseudoscientific idea that memories are actually passed on through the genes, this premise allows for multiple excursions into the lives of numerous assassins that Desmond is descended from. I had to admit, as a device for creating a franchise, it’s pretty nifty.
Assassin’s Creed follows Altaïr, a seasoned assassin that for some reason (perhaps arrogance, but we never really learn why) is a complete tool. He starts the game by immediately breaking the three fundamental tenets of the Assassin’s Order, in fact you could say he breaks the titular Assassin’s Creed. The rest of his story is an attempt for Altaïr to work his way back up to his former position and in the process learn what being an assassin is really about. Killing people quietly, apparently.
All of Altaïr’s targets are conveniently situated in neighbouring cities, and it appears that some of these individuals are actually fairly decent human beings. You are treated to a number of death speeches throughout the course of the game, which, while shattering the realism of a fast-paced assassination, give some insight into who these people were. Some of these targets can actually make you feel guilty, but then assassination is the name of the game.
I won’t give away too much of the plot, because really there’s not a lot more to it. In-between murders you will regain control of Desmond who will occasionally have conversations with Lucy (Kristen Bell) and the crazy scientist guy that is keeping you there against your will. During these phases you’ll hear snippets of story, and though these transitions seem to serve no real purpose at all other than breaking up the action, they do give you an opportunity to stretch your virtual legs.
Neither Desmond nor Altaïr are completely unlikable characters, but they seem to lack character throughout. Desmond is understandably pretty angry about being kidnapped, but goes through with the tests all the same. Altaïr on the other hand is pretty much your typical cool killer type. He comes across like a warrior-monk, which makes the introductory segment where he acts like a complete douchebag bewildering. It could have made for good character progression, but the lack of reasoning for him acting that way in the first place, and the sudden and convenient one-eighty later only add to the confusion.
Overall though, Assassin’s Creed’s story is not bad, and I have to say the unique setting really helps to draw you in. The voice acting is top-notch, which does help to overlook some of the inconsistencies, but ultimately the story suffers more from its delivery than its writing.
When it comes to gameplay, first impressions count. If someone is put off from the start it’s very hard to reel them in again unless they’re dedicated enough to trudge through the stuff they don’t enjoy in the often vain hope that the good stuff is just a level away. I would say that personally I endured, rather than enjoyed, the long and unskippable tutorial level, and the clunky transition into actual gameplay didn’t fill me with confidence either.
By the time I was off on my own, I was however feeling a bit better about the game. Though the default controls were pretty confusing at first, as is common with ported games, I was eventually able to master them and found hours of enjoyment could be had simply jumping from rooftop to rooftop, or sprinting through busy streets. Evading guards is actually pretty fun too, though it largely consists of out running them before finding somewhere to hide.
The real problem I found was that realistically, this is all the game offers you. When you’re not assassinating people you’re running away from guards. Sometimes you might be forced to fight said guards, or you may wish to partake of the bonus missions to kill off cunningly hidden (or not) Templars within the cities… but then that’s it. Leap in, stab, run. Rinse and repeat.
Now, this isn’t incredibly bad in itself, as I said, evading guards can be fun, and you get a real adrenaline rush trying to get out of harm’s way as quickly as possible. The problem arises from the fact that all of your assassinations go down the same way and none of them are very memorable. You just do the same thing, but in different locations.
On occasion you will have no choice but to fight back against guards who have backed you into a corner. This for me at least was a death sentence more than once. The combat system is pretty dire, as you are stuck with only basic abilities, and your only real chance of breaking free is either running past or mashing your keyboard into oblivion. Neither of which are particularly good options.
Still, for wall-climbing, roof-jumping, assassination action there really is nothing quite like it. I’m told that the game-play has been vastly improved in subsequent instalments, and I hope that is the case, but my lukewarm experience with Assassin’s Creed has made me wary and it may yet be a while before I can confirm this personally.
What I can say positively about Assassin’s Creed is that it takes a very outlandish concept such a genetic memory, and it uses it in a creative and interesting way. The setting and ideas shown in the game are interesting and feel fresh, but the painful gameplay can really bring down the enjoyment factor at critical points. If you can handle punishment, give it a go. If you can’t… then you might be better off starting with the sequel. Story wise, you’re not really missing out on much anyway.
If I was a rating man, and it appears that on this occasion I just so happen to be… I would give it: 3/5.
So why did I swear I’d never play it?
In a word: Ubisoft. I fell out of love with Ubisoft around the time of the Chaos Theory copy protection controversy. For those of you not in the know, Chaos Theory, the third game in the Splinter Cell series, was rendered unplayable on certain operating systems, particularly those with the then widely used Windows XP. This was eventually fixed, and Ubisoft announced that it would no longer use StarForce (the offending program).
However, Ubisoft and DRM have gone hand in hand ever since, albeit in a different form. I’m not a huge fan of DRM, actually tell a lie, I despise DRM. I loathe it. It is vile and awful and a lot of other unpleasant adjectives. DRM is intrusive technology, and serves to protect publishers often at the cost of the customer.
Don’t get me wrong though, I do like Splinter Cell. I haven’t played past the third game at this point, but it’s a great series. It’s Ubisoft’s cynical approach that has left me disenchanted with their products, and will likely be the reason for my cautiousness towards them for years to come.
And really, that is all there is to it… I wonder if anyone thought I was going to say “It’s because I worried that Assassin’s Creed glorified assassinating people.”
Because it d–hrkk…