Angry Robot

Assassin's Creed Impressions

When I first heard of Assassin’s Creed, I didn’t pay much attention because unless they’re Metal Gear: Solid, stealth games don’t hold my attention for long. Reading up on the game before X07, though, I quickly changed my tune.

You play a sneaky assassin, sure. But there’s a lot more going on. The game is being developed by the team behind Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. It has a historical setting, Jerusalem in 1191, and the game’s recreation is apparently as historically accurate as you can expect when talking of a city from a thousand years ago. The game’s plot is true-ish to history, as well; it concerns the hashashein sect of Islam, the hash-smoking cult who gave assassins their name. The hashashein operated during the Crusades, but their targets were more likely to be oppressive Islamic authorities than marauding Christians and they had a strict code about what constituted a good killing: it had to be public so as to make an impression, but not from a distance (dagger good, arrow bad) and must not involve the killing of innocents. It’s interesting to consider this in the context of modern-day terrorism.

But on to the game. Assassin’s Creed follows a hashashein member and the various gameplay modes are based on the cult’s murder-related value system. There’s a mode in which you are trying to get close to the target without arousing the suspicion of the guards; then, you often have to chase the target through crowded streets; there is of course the combat mode; and there’s a run-away-and-hide-somewhere mode as well. Or at least that’s how the demo I saw played out.

The control system is unique and seemed like the one thing that could mar an otherwise promising game. Or, it could like totally kick ass. Like Gears of War and its multipurpose ‘A’ button, the controls are context-sensitive. When this works, the game can be much easier to play – I triggered a whole sequence of rooftop leaping and grabbing and flipping simply by holding down a button and pointing in a given direction. You don’t need to carefully time a button press to make a jump. But when it doesn’t work, it can be confusing and frustrating, with your character performing unexpected moves because you happened to be close to a table/wall or whatever. Similarly, when you have different modes of gameplay, it can be tricky simply keeping track of all the different controls for each. That said, only the combat controls seemed substantially different, the other modes were more or less the same. And it should be said that I had only the barest runthrough of the controls, and good in-game tutorials may well overcome any confusion I felt – or rather any confusion I saw the potential for.

And fuggit: controls be damned, this historical game has some mysterious sci-fi elements to it. The rep wasn’t talking about it, but it’s everywhere in the game: highlight graphics to indicate the person you’re targeting are quite obviously digital in nature. There’s an ‘eagle vision’ mode that looks like something out of a Tom Clancy game. And when you finally kill one of your targets, you go into a death confessional mode (they had a fancier catchphrase for it) that takes place in some white-backgrounded nether realm, Matrix-style. Something’s up, and Ubi are transmuting the mystery into hype, like alchemists of publicity. Shit, I’ll buy that for a dollar.

The game has a sandbox aspect to it. When you’re not on a mission, you can stroll around the city as you please. There is some manner of system for rewarding you for finding hard-to-reach places, which I think meant the rooftops. That was an appealing aspect. Like I said, I’m not much for the sneaks, but count me in for the huge leaps from rooftop to rooftop, and the hundred-foot swan dives into bales of hay. This game could be the Crackdown of the dark ages. The Ubisoft guy did point out that the missions were open to different tactics, so you could leap your way to the murderizin’ of some poor plutocrat instead of blending in with the crowds. Distractions work well too, as he demonstrated by throwing a hobo from a rooftop, which preoccupied the guards as our hero slipped past. I guess you’d lose points on the “don’t harm innocents” scale though.

Another thing worth mentioning: cutscenes. The rep claimed the game has none. Cutscene-like things may be triggered and play out, which we witnessed, but you remain in control of the character at all times and can simply walk away. Also, you can press a button to toggle through different angles on a scene while it’s happening. In my eyes, those are still cutscenes, but at least they’re trying out new things.

The rep echoed a lot of the online literature by bragging about the “social stealth” aspect, i.e. getting lost in the crowd. To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought of this at all had he not mentioned it. I think that’s one of those things that’s exciting to developers since hardware limitations didn’t let them do large, smart crowds before, but to the relatively naive player like myself, it’s nothing too thrilling. (Aren’t there lots of crowds in Oblivion too?)

All in all, this is one to keep an eye on.