Retrospective: Assassin’s Creed

Just as Assassin's Creed protagonist Altaïr overlooks the city below, we take a landscape look at the game

Just as Assassin's Creed protagonist Altaïr overlooks the city below, we take a landscape look at the game

Editor’s note: We here at Silicon Sasquatch don’t think new games deserve all the attention. To illustrate that point we’re introducing our new Retrospective features: articles that focus an analytical eye on older releases in a non-review format. Our inaugural Retrospective takes a fresh look at Ubisoft Entertainment’s 2007 action-adventure game, Assassin’s Creed. This particular title made games press headlines at release — for reasons both good and bad. Scant details about Assassin’s Creed II have trickled out over the last month, and considering the goodly amount of time since the original was released, it seems like a perfect opportunity to look over Altaïr’s adventures with 20/20 hindsight. Enjoy.

Assassin’s Creed is confusing.

Developer Ubisoft Montreal manages to simultaneously offer a graphically beautiful game with very good, fluid controls while presenting an experience with enough frustrating pacing and banal mission structures to mire the player’s enjoyment in the muck.

I had never played the game until a few weeks ago, but being an astute follower of the gaming press and culture I know that the game’s reputation precedes it. From the barely hidden initial plot twist (SPOILER: It’s about two storylines, one modern and one during the Third Crusade) to the innovative free running exploration style and the controversy surrounding the game’s review scores — yes, I know about Assassin’s Creed.

Even so I’m surprised by how much I enjoy the game. The controls seem daunting at first, but fall into place quickly for experienced gamers. Further, the usage of the controls — holding down a button to switch between “high-visibility” activities like fighting and “low-visibility” ones like blending into the crowd — meshes well with the assassin, Altaïr, and his need slither about undetected while being ready to strike at a moment’s notice.

The game shines when the player must stay in the shadows -- stealth kills are a rush, rewarding the player's patience

The game shines when the player must stay in the shadows -- stealth kills are a rush, rewarding the player's patience

The problem I have with the game, though, is that it takes one fun idea and rubber-stamps it into a 12-plus-hour experience. You climb towers to fill out your map and ascertain your next investigation; from there you pickpocket, eavesdrop, intimidate or help out a fellow assassin to get the info you need. Gather enough information and you can attempt an assassination on the area’s boss. It sounds fine, but repeat the process nine times and it all becomes very…average. These activities in and of themselves are fun, but no remodeling of the established pattern causes the eyelids to droop — something that happens during the course of Assassin’s Creed’s plot, too.

The protagonist slot is shared between Altaïr, the Crusades-era assassin cover boy, and his 21st-century descendant Desmond, a lab-rat for a shadowy pharmaceutical company called Abstergo Industries. Both Altaïr and Desmond are tasked with completing their missions without knowing any of the background information or, really a reason why. Only as they untangle the mysteries do they begin to feel manipulated.

But as a whole it all feels a bit flat, and the motivations for both characters aren’t believable enough to prove too interesting. However, the way the distant relatives intertwine and mirror one another over the course of the game is very impressive.

I kept playing, though mostly because of my in-game wanderlust. Exploring the ancient cities of Jerusalem, Acre and Damascus is quite visually enjoyable. The graphics and game engine for Assassin’s Creed have aged well — the game looks gorgeous, there’s still a great rush from climbing a city’s high tower and taking a Leap of Faith swan dive. Even the combat engine is reliable. Fighting is hardly a highlight, though — the swordplay is a little stiff, and ranges wildly from making the player feel like a badass to feeling cornered and hopeless.

The animations used to bring Altaïr's climbing antics to life are impressive without relying on demanding control schemes

The animations used to bring Altaïr's climbing antics to life are impressive without relying on demanding control schemes

But taking a look back at Assassin’s Creed means looking at its spotty critical reception as well. The now-defunct Electronic Gaming Monthly famously panned the game with a three score-average rating of a 5 out of 10. Just above mediocre. IGN gave the game a 77 out of 100, which, when run through the IGN score filter, is also patently average. Edge gave the game a 7 out of 10.

One of the harshest critiques came from Destructoid, which gave it a 55/100 and called it “a disappointing, repetitive game.” However the review goes on to add, “Once you get past all that…there’s absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have a hell of a fun time with it.”

Accusations at the time were whispers that claimed reviews which scored the game over a certain mark let the accompanying websites break the non-disclosure agreement’s review street date. It sounds good for Ubisoft in theory — ifall the pre-launch impressions of your game are positive, strong sales will likely follow. But it’s bad ethics in terms of principle, and the supposed pressure for “good” reviews backfired as other sites ran their own less-than-glowing reviews. Ubisoft was pushed into a corner: Would they admit they allowed positive reviews out first, or alternatively stay quiet and allow their NDA to be thoroughly abused?

In all honesty, the scores of 7s and the like seem about right. For all that Assassin’s Creed does right in terms of its gameplay, engine, graphics and design, it comes up short in a lot of other areas. Sometimes it tries too hard (the story), and sometimes it’s just uninspired (the lack of mission variety). The glowing reviews clearly came from individuals captivated by the scenery, while the negative reviews seem, to me at least, to strike a sort of middle ground.

Assassin’s Creed is neither groundbreaking nor a once-in-a-lifetime gaming experience. It’s certainly not a Game of the Year contender. Truly, it’s more akin to a movie like last summer’s Iron Man: A popcorn flick with artistic credentials that happens to do a damn good job of setting up the sequel.

If Assassin’s Creed II mends the shortcomings of the first game while keeping its solid fundamentals, Ubisoft may put out a title that won’t need manufactured positive press — it’ll make its own.