I've been excited about Assassin's Creed for some time, but not, perhaps, for the same reasons as many other gamers. Sure, Ubisoft Montreal has a pedigree of games like Sands of Time and Splinter Cell, but that alone wouldn't guarantee a buy. Likewise, the famous tech demos circulating the web are impressive, but they're not something that would automatically pull me in the game's direction.
No, it's more the unique setting. The group your character belongs to is loosely based on the Hashshashin, a real group of terrorists from the era of the Crusades. So instead of prowling around modern skyscrapers, or fantasy fortresses, you get to stalk ancient cities like Acre and Jerusalem, and face opponents like the Hospitallers or the Saracens. It's unlikely that gamers will get to see this setting again in the forseeable future, which is a shame in an industry where "history" means more World War II shooters.
Of course, I had to torture myself by waiting for the PC port instead of the PS3 or Xbox 360 games, so the suspense managed to build even further. Because there have been these other versions, I'll try not to repeat too many of the points you've heard in other reviews - but you'll have to excuse me if I have a lot to say on something I've invested so much patience in.
Creed is nominally a stealth action game, but it doesn't function in the same manner as games like Thief or Splinter Cell. Your character - Altair - doesn't hide in the shadows, waiting to slip by an enemy or knock them out. Shadows are meaningless in Creed, and the only way to knock someone unconscious is to throw them into a wall. Instead your character mostly takes to the rooftops to stay out of sight, climbing walls, and leaping from ledge to ledge. When the time is right, it only matters that your target is unprepared - you can run directly at some targets and pounce on them, finishing them off with your hidden wrist blade. A sword and a handful of throwing knives let you "cheat," but only so often.
Scaling cities actually becomes one of the most entertaining parts of the game, because the control scheme makes it extremely athletic and simple. When moving up a wall, for instance, Altair will automatically reach for anything resembling a handhold, and lift himself up just by your pointing the controller in the right direction. In a similar way, it's possible to skip along railings and other thin outcroppings just by tapping the jump key with the right timing. Both of these help transform scenes into a medieval District B13, with Altair hurtling himself from building to building and guards biting at his heels.
Since you can't stay in the air the entire time, Ubisoft has developed a concept it calls "social" stealth. Guards and citizens in a town pay attention to what you do, and react to strange behaviour. Killing people is an obvious one, but people will also notice if you shove someone, start climbing in public, or simply move by at an unusual speed. This isn't an obstacle most of the time, but clearly, there are moments when it's better to blend in. In some cases Altair can become virtually invisible, by walking amidst a group of scholars. The concept as a whole is ingenious, and I really hope it's adopted by other game developers.
I say "as a whole" for a reason though, because the game almost immediately makes a serious blunder. It first becomes obvious when you ride out of the Assassin stronghold of Masyaf, past groups of Arab soldiers. While many them will only eye you, it's effectively guaranteed that a few will give chase when your horse trots a few feet away, never mind any galloping.
The game's AI, in a few words, is inconsistent and unrealistic. You'd think for example that guards in a medieval countryside would be accustomed to people on horseback, but nevertheless, they seem to operate on a random and high-strung trigger. On foot the AI isn't much better, as an alarm can be triggered when you're shoved by a roaming lunatic, or by numerous other instances that might grab's someone's attention in real life, but wouldn't immediately raise a panic. For a game that tries to pride itself on a new kind of stealth, it doesn't seem to understand the rules most players would expect.
On a positive note, it does hold up fairly well when subtlety has gone out the window. Unlike many games, the enemies here are capable of both climbing and leaping, and rarely get lost or stuck. This makes them extremely difficult to shake in later missions, which is a plus considering that the rooftop action is one of the principal reasons to play.
I've heard some people describe the console versions of Creed as something you either love or hate, and the cause of the latter has been carried over into the PC version: repetitive mission design. There are nine major assassination targets in the game, but while they all have their own backstories, the mission flow is exactly the same for each. The first step is scaling towers in a city, which lets players locate the Investigation sub-missions; at least two or three of these must be completed before the assassination, after which the goal simply becomes escape.
This in itself wouldn't be an issue if the Investigation types varied in any degree, but they don't - not even in the PC "Director's Cut," which you'd think would have added material. It's always Eavesdropping, Interrogations, Pickpocketing and Informer Challenges, and their gameplay never changes except in terms of increasing difficulty. By the end of Creed you might wish you could skip these entirely, except that it would radically shorten the game.
The game also makes the mistake of involving the player in any number of swordfights. The fight system is actually extremely well designed, maintaining simplicity while allowing for tactics like throws and counters. The AI is also quite adept at taking advantage of your openings, at least when it surrounds you in groups. The trouble is that the game is supposed to revolve around individual killings and stealth, and yet it occasionally feels like you've returned to playing Ubisoft's Prince of Persia series, minus the puzzles.
Visit scenic Palestine
Helping to redeem the frustration of the mission design is, as I highlighted in my intro, the setting. Even if you aren't familiar with the Crusades, the cities were designed with the help of the same historical consultant that worked on Ridley Scott's Kingdom of Heaven, and it shows. The cities look utterly believable, and are populated with everything from towering mosques and cathedrals to claustrophobic slums. The outskirts of the cities, meanwhile, are equally attractive, though mercifully small since they only serve as gateways.
There's only one graphical change to the PC game that I can discern, and that's an improvement in loading times. Because gamers are allowed to install 8GB of material to their hard drives, map areas load considerably faster, which aids in the sense of freeroaming Creed is shooting for. The one tradeoff is in hardware requirements, as the game requires a minimum of a dual-core processor, and a reasonably high-end video card. I however played with a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo and a GeForce 8800 GTS, and got rock-solid framerates at 1280x960 with maximum detail. Lesser systems can probably cope using tweaks.
Hit or miss?
In spite of some serious issues, I'm going to recommend Assassin's Creed. The AI can be forgiven because it has its occasional brilliant moments; the mission design is in worse straits, being entirely predictable, but if nothing else it gives an excuse to tour the Holy Lands, ambush a few more enemies, and clamber up a few more minarets. Those who loathe repetition will probably want to stay clear, but I think that Ubisoft has laid the groundwork for what could be a spectacular series of games. Yes, that's right. Sit through the credits...