Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Review Week Day 2: Assassin's Creed

My apologies for not posting this last night; the election precluded anything else (happy dance). So today we'll bring you two, starting with Assassin's Creed.

Assassin's Creed brings me back to my days playing the original Tenchu games; but here, instead of worrying about line of sight and complete invisibility, the player is more concerned with the social acceptability of their actions. It's a great move that creates a number of interesting situations around a well developed and compelling game world. In most stealth action games ninety percent of the people you encounter are enemies that will shoot on sight and the rest are civilians more accurately described as walking alarms. Here ninety percent of the people you meet are the colorful fauna of a medieval Arabian city, and the other ten percent will ignore you until you do something ridiculous. The bustle of the cities creates a great living world that changes the staple stealth game dynamics in truly interesting ways. Here when you're stalking your target you are just another face in the crowd, and when you're making your escape you have a thousand wandering people to brush and barrel your way through.

The movement and the navigation are where the game shines. Whether you sprint through the streets bowling over old ladies or take to the roofs, the movement is fluid and engaging. Despite the unapproving reactions of the city's populace when you're scaling their neighbor's house, the freedom of motion is incredibly fun independent of the game's motives: it creates a situation where the player is driven to accomplish goals not for the sake of the game but for their own sake, to climb the highest building simply because it's there and they can. In aligning some of the side goals with this natural impulse (placing a Templar in a broken tower atop the cathedral in Acre, the numerous flags scattered across the roofs, the benefits granted by the vantage points), Ubisoft encourages the player to explore, to play, and to generally mess about. The assassination will wait for you, right now there are guards to stalk and side missions to complete, buildings to climb and archers to throw off rooftops.

Which brings us to the combat. Many have maligned the combat for being too repetitive, a complaint that seems to ignore the numerous new moves learned in the remarkably Zelda-esque progression system (every story point reached garners a new life bar and a new tool/ability). To call it repetitious is a matter of opinion and playstyle: the combat can allow for a purely defensive, countering posture, but there is a rhythm to it that utilizes all of the dodges, combinations and throws to full effect, a rhythm which changes depending on the weapon used. I found the combat exceedingly fun, to the point where I spent hours riding my horse through patrols and into military camps simply to see how quickly I could dispatch the guards that surrounded me. It was immensely satisfying toward the end of the game to slice through ten guards in as many seconds, or to kill a templar with a single, perfectly timed counter-attack.

The medieval conspiracy story is interesting enough to drive the play (little motivation is needed when one enjoys the gameplay), but the unskippable cutscenes got tedious at times, and the game ends so abruptly it makes the accomplishment less satisfying. There will obviously be a sequel, and the change of setting will be interesting, but the story ends too quickly to properly close the narrative arc. There is an interesting discussion to be had about the dissonance between the story a game is trying to tell and the actual actions of the player, but here is not the place for it. In this case the story has an interesting question of guilt for the murders you must do as a player, but that imposed guilt was mocked by my own actions. Altair's guilty conscience about the slaying of one of the monstrous assassination targets is rendered hollow when he is standing atop a throne of skulls built from the hundreds of guards murdered and hunted through the cities and kingdom.

There were some bothersome crash bugs in the menu system, and at times I experienced a ridiculous framerate increase in-game (ridiculous in part because my computer is on the lower end of the system reqs). Right now my save game is unplayable and freezes on every load, so I cannot go back and replay some of the missions. Regardless, this is a highly enjoyable game that I would recommend to anyone who likes stealth action and/or open-ended game worlds. The story is capable, the setting believable and the gameplay is remarkably fun.

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