Assassin’s Creed is an undeniably ambitious game. Attempting to follow in the storied tradition of greats such as chocolate and peanut butter, it wants to be a bunch of awesome things made even more awesome by way of combination—specifically, equal parts tense stealth game, badass fighting game, and open-world sandbox game rolled into one. It even wants to deliver a complicated plot that will keep you guessing to the very end. The result is sort of like dumping your chocolate and peanut butter into a bowl of ice cream along with every other item from the make-your-own-sundae bar. The mixture as a whole is a little odd, but once you learn to identify the things you like and pick around the things you don’t there are some incredible taste sensations to be had.
Despite taking place during the Third Crusade in the embattled Holy Land surrounding Jerusalem, Assassin’s Creed barely touches upon religious issues and instead focuses more on general issues of power over society. You play an assassin named Altair (pronounced Al-Taa-Ir) who is tasked with the killing of nine influential men—including both Christians and Muslims—towards the greater goal of restoring order to the land and bringing justice to the people. There is also another element to the story, a sci-fi bit that may not be to some people’s liking. Although it does permeate the HUD and other parts of the graphical interface it only surfaces directly as very brief interludes a few times during the game, and the story as a whole remains interesting enough to drive the action forward.
That action revolves around the nine assassinations, and each one follows the same basic formula. You go to the city district your current target resides in (three districts in each of three cities), find out where and what your target is up to, and then take him out. There are investigation mini-games—eavesdropping, pick-pocketing, interrogation, and other forms of information gathering—which you must completed to move on, as well as lookout points to climb and citizens to rescue from the guards, optional tasks encouraged by the increase to your maximum health and additional means of escape from the guards they grant. The assassinations themselves often come down to a scripted sequence followed by a brief stalking or a brawl and a large dose of the plot. Though not entirely unsatisfying, those hoping for more of a Hitman-esque arena to set up your own style of assassination will be disappointed.
To accomplish all this you’ll rely on Altair’s three rather impressive skills sets—fighting, sneaking, and acrobatics. Fighting, while it looks amazing with tons of cinematic flourishes and gruesome finishing moves, basically comes down to a one-button timing game. Repeatedly press the attack button with the right timing and you’ll score a kill. Likewise, the proper timing on that same button while blocking will score you a counter strike, either sending your foe sprawling or killing him outright. Mess it up and you’re likely to take some damage. There are a few other wrinkles, but that’s pretty much it. Your enemies always have swords, and come in maybe three or four different difficulties, but once you master the system no number of enemies is ever really hard again.
When you don’t feel like fighting, or in rare instances when it’s actually required, Altair’s stealth abilities come in handy. Assassin’s Creed doesn’t use typical stealth mechanics though, but rather the concept of hiding as its mainstay. When the guards aren’t alerted, you can hide in plain sight, by moving slowly and blending into crowds. In this state you can assassinate even the toughest enemies in the game with a strike from your hidden blade. Once the charade is up though, you’ll have to run to one of many pre-set hiding points—piles of hay, small cloth-draped gazebos, etc.—or kill all the guards chasing you before you can go back to being sneaky again. It’s a little hokey, but it more or less functions as intended, leading to some tense moments and harrowing chases.
One of the real highlights of Assassin’s Creed is Altair’s incredible acrobatic abilities. Taking a page from the Price of Persia’s playbook, Altair is a master of all things running and jumping. Anything and everything is a potential hand or foot hold, and scaling city structures using the seamless controls is not only a joy but one that nets very tangible strategic rewards. It also gives you an opportunity, particularly when climbing the many lookout points, to gape in awe at exactly how beautiful Assassin’s Creed is, arguably featuring the best art direction ever in a game. The cities and surrounding landscape are fantastically presented, and the panoramic views from high above are truly breathtaking.
Through the first third of the game, which amounts to a greatly extended tutorial, you are shown all of these wonderful things you can do. What happens after that is a very subtle escalation of the difficulty that continues through the rest of the game. Hacking through guards too easy? How about larger and larger groups then, with better countering abilities and trickier timings? Sneaking around too easy? Try getting past more guards on higher alert who will spot you if you’re careless. Likewise, later city districts have trickier buildings to climb, with more archers positioned on the roofs. It’s a very clever and refined way to make a game, but the subtlety is at times too slight, and there is a great repetition of the same basic elements for most of the game with little in the way of overt addition.
Incredibly stylish and undeniably unique, Assassin’s Creed’s particular choices in combining all these gameplay elements will be debated by supporters and critics alike for a long time. If it all sounds like too much to realistically fit into one game, at least in this case it is, but not by as wide a margin as you might imagine. The result, while not quite all it could have been, is definitely more than the sum of its parts. While Assassin’s Creed doesn’t manage to deliver a top notch experience in any one of these areas individually, it gets enough things right in all of them and gives you a lot of freedom in how to use them, all while looking pretty damn cool. Though it degenerates into a lot of fighting at the end, and makes a fair number of mistakes in its execution along the way, there’s something entrancing about this game and each of the amazing things you can do. Your mileage may vary on precisely how quickly the game’s repetition exceeds its subtle nuance, but it’s well worth checking out for the first times if not for the seventy thirds.