Monday, November 19, 2012

Assassin's Creed

My ambiguous relationship with mainstream gaming is not a hidden fact. It's been an increasing opinion of mine for some time that as it becomes mainstream-oriented, geek culture as a whole is becoming more dominated by hype and sentiment at the expense of quality. It's for that reason primarily that I have heretofore largely avoided Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed franchise. There was something about the regular sequels and equally regular mass marketing campaigns that screamed "excessive hype". I could see it being one of those things people probably got more excited about than was reasonable because they didn't know any better. That's not entirely fair, because the games have never met with the kind of over-the-top review scores and ridiculous praise some franchises receive, but they have certainly been a consistent output which reeks of greedy market saturation. However I saw the recently released Assassin's Creed III in action recently and thought to myself that maybe I ought to give the series a proper go, having already attempted but lost interest in Assassin's Creed II. I felt I needed to start from the beginning, so I braved hell and high water quite literally to make it to the shops to get Assassin's Creed, the original game from 2007.
At the end of the day I can say this with confidence: Assassin's Creed is okay. My expectations were fairly low and they were probably exceeded by a tiny margin. The first game's strength lies in its control scheme and environments. Its main weak points are, in my opinion, its learning curve and approach to difficulty. Many reviews I've seen beforehand bemoan the first game's alleged repetition, but as such I was expecting it and never really felt frustrated by it; that's just the benefit of hindsight.
In Assassin's Creed you play primarily as Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, a member of the secretive order of Assassins, in the medieval Holy Land at the time of the Third Crusade in 1191. The framing device for this historical folderol is that Altaïr's distant descendant, Desmond Miles, is being forced by a sinister corporation to relive the memories of his assassinating ancestor through a device called the Animus in 2012, which was at the time of the game's release the near future. This establishes that throughout history two secretive organisations, the Assassins and the Templars, have been vying for the fate of the world. Over the course of the game Altaïr is directed against numerous Crusade-era targets, both Christian and Muslim, to discover that the Templars are seeking mysterious ancient artifacts to achieve world peace through mass mind control. The Templars' modern-day equivalents are now using Desmond's ancestral memories to recover the location of said artifacts.
Now you'd be excused for thinking that this plot could easily be found in the pages of a best selling trash paperback by someone like Clive Cussler or Dan Brown, and admittedly it's not the most compellingly original narrative ever devised. It's all too tempting, I feel, for us to wish to attribute some romantic connectedness to the repeated atrocities of history in an effort to contrive any sense of meaning to the horror or to romanticise or glamorise them in order to dull their edge. I feel that this in some ways potentially detracts from some of the themes of the game, which does struggle rather heavy-handedly but nonetheless deliberately to make an argument about the balance of free will and order, but it would be hard to make a game of it otherwise. Altaïr is a startlingly dextrous killer with an extremely stylised outfit and the general air of cruising around the Holy Land knifing nasties does seem to detract somewhat from the serious airs the game tries to put on.
Nonetheless it is in Altaïr's cruising that the game succeeds. Travelling through the game's three major cities of Damascus, Acre and Jerusalem is a free-flowing and smooth experience which never really feels like a chore. Altaïr can walk, stroll, run or sprint depending on the circumstances, and in sprint mode can smoothly ascend buildings, jump gaps and generally clamber about like a white-robed monkey with a big knife. The free-running is easily the best part of the game, where making smooth traverses across the rooftops of a detailed city feels natural and rewarding. Each city is divided into three major districts, each district unlocked when its resident assassination target is assigned. The cities feel fairly believably large and realistically designed and ascending high vantage points atop towers and major public buildings to better "synchronize" Desmond's experiences with those of Altaïr give a satisfying sense of scale and grandeur which is echoed on arrival to the cities themselves, especially Jerusalem. This is held back somewhat by the amusingly small "Kingdom" overworld linking the major cities which is about a kilometre square when the real cities are all over one hundred kilometres apart. The Kingdom serves very little purpose and doesn't even need to be traversed once you've visited the city you intend to travel to at least once so I'm not sure why they bothered with it; it certainly reduces the sense of scale. Given that you spend most of your time in the cities themselves and that they do feel realistically sized for the time period (even though I imagine they're probably not) I really think it's an element which could have been left out.
One major issue with the cities is the sound. Ambient noises are used to signpost sidequests and liven up the locations, but there are very few voice clips and the same speeches and dialogues are repeated endlessly. It's not helped by the fact that Damascus and Jerusalem, being both Saracen-controlled, use the same voices; at least the Crusader-controlled Acre mixes things up a bit. After a while I found hearing some Saracen chap crying "Praise be Saladin!" every five minutes to be rather wearisome. Similarly once you've heard a nasty guard accusing someone of being a "Dirty thief" the first time, that's all you're going to hear for the rest of the game. It's a little mind boggling that a game which had so much effort put into the physical details of its setting had relatively little done in terms of audio. The single voice of the numerous Acre beggar women is particularly excruciating.
With that in mind we should move onto the stealth mechanics. For a game about being an assassin, the stealth isn't great. The awareness of guards is indicated by a flashing light in the corner of the screen, which changes colour from white to yellow to red depending on how alert the guards are to your presence. If guards become fully alerted to you, either because you committed a violent act near them, lingered in a restricted area or otherwise drew attention to yourself in an unfavourable way, the light goes red until you move out of their line of sight. Then you must hide yourself pronto to completely shake them off. This is fine early in the game, but as it progresses there are more guards, especially on rooftops, and they're more wary of a white-robed killer in their midst as their bosses tip them off that someone might be coming. At times the red light will start blinking and you can't tell who's onto you. At other times you have to pace along incredibly slowly to avoid drawing attention to yourself even in the regular city environs, which makes street travelling tedious and frustrating, especially during timed missions in which you must assassinate a series of targets in plain sight before a handful of minutes run out. At other times a drunk will push you into somebody or you'll simply cause a passer-by to drop their luggage, at which points it's drawn swords all around and Altaïr fleeing for the nearest roof garden or bale of hay. The guards are weirdly relentless too; Altaïr's meant to be a trained killer with the balance and poise of a gymnast, but for some reason all the guards are just as good as him at scaling huge edifices, swinging from narrow beams, performing precision jumps and, most bizarrely of all, surviving two and three storey drops to pursue you from the rooftops back to the streets. I would expect them to be competent swordsmen but their inexplicable acrobatic talent detracts from Altaïr's own presence and often makes losing pursuers stupidly difficult. As such it becomes more and more important to simply not attract attention.
This is why I have an issue with the game's learning curve. In order to increase the game's challenge as it progresses, you're not so much confronted with more difficult stealth opportunities or more precise kills; you're simply restricted in what you're allowed to do. While you do regain equipment and abilities as Altaïr recovers his rankings in the Assassin organisation, it feels as if the game simply takes away your freedoms and reduces what you can do rather than genuinely increasing the level to which anything is tested beyond your patience. There is no greater skill or finesse at avoiding detection in later parts of the game, just more situations where you're forced to hold down the button that makes Altaïr walk more slowly. Again, it doesn't test your skill, just your patience, boredom threshold and attention span.
My other major frustration in this regard is to how the game teaches you its combat. The combat system is, essentially, fine. You have several different weapons with different speeds and levels of damage and surviving and succeeding in combat is a matter of successful blocking and well-timed counters and grab breaks, as you might expect such swordplay to be. However beyond some arbitrary and overly simple training exercises you run through each time you're given a new combat skill, the game doesn't force the player sufficiently to hone these skills in real battles. In virtually all circumstances for the majority of the game, combat can be largely avoided. You drop in, stab your target with the hidden retracting blade on your wrist, scarper from the guards and hide until the heat's off. Your only other major opportunities for combat are if you deliberately antagonise guards or in the random acts of philanthropy you can perform around the city where you rescue citizens from bullying soldiers. These rescue missions are almost always entirely optional, however, and give little reward beyond assistance with escaping or hiding should you be chased in future, and are generally relatively straightforward, so there's really very little apparent necessity for you to practice your swordplay.
This gets turned on its head frustratingly late in the game when you begin being forced to take on large groups of heavily armed opponents single-handed; you can't run or stealth kill a specific target, only grind your way through masses of knights, and if you haven't mastered the counter attacks, which I myself had no reason to before then, you'll find yourself being killed over and over. I had to learn how to fight during the fights which should have been testing everything I'd learned to that point. The counters are tiresomely difficult to time correctly; while it's possible, using the hidden blade, to perform one-hit-kill counters, these are never taught at any point in the game, and for me at least it became a teeth-grinding process of trial, error and muscle memory until I was able to bludgeon my way through the unending ranks of Crusaders who were out for my blood.
This particularly rankled in one of the game's final confrontations in which Richard the Lionheart pits you against your prime target, Robert de Sable, arguing that whoever wins a fight to the death is surely favoured by God and must be telling the truth about what's going on. "Fair enough," I thought, "It's fitting for the period for me to have a duel to the death with de Sable with the ring of honour proving who is vindicated." But no, apparently this trial before God meant de Sable got to send ten heavily armed Templar knights at me, all of whom I had to fight entirely on my own before facing de Sable himself, while Richard happily stood there like a complete plum as if this was entirely fair and reasonable - he is presented as if, compared to the other nutters in the game, he's one of the sane and wise leaders. Similarly, in an earlier confrontation where I had to kill de Sable's decoy, I couldn't, as I had every other time, drop in and knife my target. No, I had to stand there like an absolute lemon during a cutscene before the decoy and a huge gang of knights with archer support all charged at me swords drawn. The game at no point ever trains you to take on these kinds of numbers, yet you're expected to have figured it out. It really is needlessly punishing. So those are my two main issues with the gameplay: the very forced and arbitrary way the game tries to increase the stealth difficulty and the complete lack of progressive, organic training for the combat. The practice area back at the Assassin fortress is far too simplistic and easy to give you a realistic impression of how to perform these skills in the field.
In terms of repetition it's true to say that the preamble before the main assassinations does become predictable after a while. These are times when the game's story, despite being a little unimpressive, sacrifices the gameplay. Sitting on a bench while two stooges talk about party decorations at your next target's big do or swiping some compromising correspondence from a courier's pouch are unchallenging tasks which feel like little more than padding. That being said, some of the Informer missions do change things as the game progresses, with more targets to be eliminated and narrower time limits. Nonetheless I must admit that it's not great; the main problem is that the interrogation, eavesdropping and pickpocket missions give you nothing to practice which is useful during the more harrowing parts of the game. While hunting down targets for an informer do somewhat test your stealth skills, such as they are with the game's rather limited stealth mechanics, there are no mandatory missions which require you to improve your combat, which would have really helped. Similarly these sections are compounded in difficulty by the presence of beggars and various troublemakers - drunks, madmen and the like - who target you and only you for harassment, getting in your way or shoving you about, which reduces rather than enhances the sense of realism. The drunks should be bothering everybody; it could be more interesting trying to avoid sprawling civilians getting into brawls rather than being unrealistically picked out for irritation every time. The madmen wander the streets in ridiculously high numbers. The beggars are just implausible; I think desperately poor women would pick softer-looking targets for their pleading than heavily-armed, stony-faced stalkers. It's really just a forced way of making the stealth more frustrating, and it's really these kinds of very artificial enhancements to difficulty which spoil the later parts of the game.
In the end Assassin's Creed is mostly worth it for the free-running, which really is very enjoyable, and the animations and scenarios can make it very satisfying to leap from roof to roof, shimmy down a fresco, jab some unsuspecting Templar lieutenant in the vitals and then scurry away again before the guards know you from a passing ghost. The graphics are pretty nice for a game from 2007 and it feels reasonably natural. The voice acting isn't stellar and neither are the weird dreamlike cutscenes which occur every time you perform an assassination, in which Altaïr gets to have a long and cryptic dialogue with the person whose throat he just perforated, but the presentation generally gets by. The game played pretty smoothly on the Xbox 360 and apart from some frustrations with the lack of precision on the D-pad picking weapons it runs well on that system. I don't think it's the kind of game I would want to play on PC. It's pretty cheap these days so it's worth getting if you need to kill some time, and even though some of the gameplay elements are a bit cheap and the story's a little pretentious it's still an enjoyable experience.

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