Spoilers, so… Ya know. Also, this is not a review. It’s a recap/retrospective, so chill out.
Assassin’s Creed was the surprise hit of 2007, one of those games that came from nowhere to raise the attention of audiences and show off what was possible on the new-gen consoles.
Well, it didn’t quite come out from nowhere… The legend goes that Assassin’s Creed was originally conceived by Patrice Desilets, the mastermind behind the early days of the series, as a spin-off/reboot of Ubisoft’s popular Prince of Persia series, before becoming the game we know today. Advertisements for the game touted its massive crowds, open world, free-form mission structure, and unprecedented Parkour-influenced navigation. What they didn’t advertise was “The Twist.”
Err, wrong Twist.
As far as almost everyone knew when the game first released, Assassin’s Creed would place you in the shoes of a 12th century killer on a quest to… Do something. It was all very vague, and, while we were expecting surprises, what we got turned Assassin’s Creed into water cooler conversation, as well as a multi-million selling franchise.
Nothing is True
When the game begins, the player, as expected, is walking around an ancient city in a hooded white robe (not the racist kind), but something is wrong; the lighting is out of control, too many tutorial boxes are popping up, and voices are crying out about the danger “he” is in. Before long, the player relinquishes control and “The Twist” is revealed: the game is set in the present day and all of the period elements are a result of a machine, called “The Animus,” which allows users to enter the memories of their ancestors. Though some trailers vaguely hinted at a sci-fi element, and Kristen Bell totally spilled the beans on IGN in 2006, presumably by accident, it is still regarded as one of the best kept secrets in videogames. Part of the shock is that the game doesn’t wait until the player is comfortable and invested before pulling the rug out from under them; it takes about one minute of gameplay before all expectations are tossed out of the window.
The plot and narrative structure are very clever. After spending a few minutes chatting with Doctor Vidic (named for his dickishness, one assumes) and Lucy Stillman, played by the aforementioned Kristen Bell, the protagonist Desmond straps into the Animus and enters the identity, the memories, of his ancestor, Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, which roughly translates into Zak Wojnar. Altair’s story is set in 1191, during The Crusades. Altair is also a member of The Order of Assassins. As the name suggests, they kill people, but they have a code, a creed. An Assassin’s Creed, if you will. The Assassins vow to never kill the innocent, to maintain stealth, and to never compromise their peers. Naturally, Altair’s story begins with him on a mission in Solomon’s Temple, killing a bystander and charging into a battle which results in the death of one of his allies, and disfigurement for the other. The leader of the Assassins, Al Mualim, is none too pleased, and stabs Altair nearly to death. Oh, and he demotes him, as well. It seems Altair has misinterpreted the fourth, most secret part of the Creed: nothing is true, and everything is permitted.
Al Mualim. I don’t think Al is his first name.
I really like the Animus. It’s a genuis way to implement videogame conventions and limitations (Why can’t I go over there? Because you’re in a computer-aided simulation!) The possibilities are endless, for any number of characters in any historical period, with the science fiction and historical fiction elements balancing each other out. One thing I really didn’t like, however, is how Altair looks identical to his descendent in the present day. It’s presumably for Desmond’s benefit, but if that’s true, then why does Altair have a different voice? The game says that the animus translates dialogue into English, but most, if not all, of the other Arab characters all have accents. If the game wasn’t so otherwise painstakingly dedicated to historical accuracy, I’d say there was some white-washing afoot. I’ll assume that Ubisoft is not racist, but that they merely hired a bad actor for their lead.
Anyway, back in the present day, Desmond Miles, the player character who is strapped into the Animus, gets time in between each assassination in his genetic memory to talk to his captors and check their e-mail. The present day world of Assassin’s Creed is similar, but different, to the real world. Vidic and Lucy allude to a secret war between Assassins and Templars, a fight, we eventually discover, that has been raging since at least The Crusades. Altair is an Assassin and each of his targets, in his quest to regain his honor, are Templars! The goal of the Templars is a New World Order in which everybody is happy, but nobody is free, and the Assassins are opposed to this, believing that freedom is a basic human right; “The Guilded Cage” provided by the Templars is a cage nonetheless. Unfortunately, in the present day, the Assassins are all but destroyed, and the Templars’ current identity is Abstergo, a massively powerful corporation.
Doctor Vidic makes it clear that he sees Desmond as a tool to get what he wants, and that he would leave him in the Animus all day if he could. Fortunately, Lucy Stillman acts as the voice of reason and lets Desmond get some much-needed rest in between Animus sessions. Eventually, she reveals herself to be an Assassin, too. This whole time, Desmond thought the Assassins were some kind of wacky cult, and only now does he realize they are fighting a war for the world, and that they have been, since the dawn of history.
Everything is Permitted
While AC1’s first stages are combat-oriented, the main bulk of the experience is open-world stealth. Though there is a “Kingdom” linking them, it is mostly superfluous, and most of the action takes place in either Jerusalem, Damascus, or Acre, each distinguishable from the other by color schemes, types of fauna present, and architecture. Before he can pursue each chapter’s target, Altair must first gather intel on the subject. In any other game, the intel-gathering missions would be sidequests for when you’re done with the main story, but here, they’re mandatory to progress. While the player can learn helpful information from these missions, the simple desire to “get to the good stuff” meant that I almost never did any more than the bare minimum number of side quests required. The sidequests are no different from the first assassination to the last, and, while the player does become acquainted with the three cities, it definitely feels like eating vegetables, if you know what I’m saying.
Once the vegetables are out of the way, Altair can finally move on to the main course, Assassination missions. Each of the nine targets get an establishing scene in which their cruelty is put on display, justifying their imminent death; then, after a valiant but almost always unsuccessful attempt at stealth, Altair stabs his prey in the neck with the blade he hides under his sleeve, Taxi Driver-style. At this point, the current setting gives way to a cyber-reality, manufactured by the Animus, in which Altair hears the confession of his target before they die. The implication here is that Altair either incapacitated every single guard before killing his target, or was really good enough to reach his target without being seen, with enough time to hear their confession. Only once was I able to reach my target without being seen, and even then, as soon as my blade pierced his neck, his entourage came down on me like Mr. Burns’s hounds. I wonder now, if it’s even possible to do most of them “correctly.”
There’s a tricky balance between stealth and combat (perhaps only ever truly mastered by the Metal Gear series), and Ubisoft has been on all sides of it. In classic Splinter Cell titles, Sam Fisher is all but doomed if he’s spotted. In the Far Cry series, the protagonist can usually make success with stealth or action, and the games are usually paced well enough to ensure plenty of both. Assassin’s Creed is stuck in a strange place in which the game tells you to be stealthy (it’s right there in the creed, remember?), but the game mechanics are geared more towards straight combat; sword fighting is no more than a two-button affair, and while their duration means the encounters will wear out their welcome before too long, they are also very low in difficulty, severely reducing the penalty for blowing the sneaky approach. Altair does have a special ability, “Eagle Vision,” which allows him to see enemies from long distances and discern them from innocent members of the crowd using some kind of infrared night vision.
Navigation, mind-blowing in 2007, still holds up today, and is the most memorable part of the gameplay experience. By merely holding the analog stick in a direction, Altair will find footholds and realistically scale the side of a building in an impressive display of animation. In addition, holding the R1 button in conjunction with the X button will initiate Free Running, in which Altair hops over obstacles and jumps over gaps. It looks great, and while you occasionally jump at odd angles away from your intended target, most buildings are short enough that getting back up isn’t too much hassle. You definitely want to stay up there; the guards who patrol the roofs are easily and quietly dispatched with throwing knives, much more easily than the male drunkards and female beggars who annoy you on the streets. There’s no option to give them money to shut them up; all they do is annoy you and make you want to break that first tenant of the Creed…
Alex Amancio, Creative Director of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and Assassin’s Creed: Unity, said that the core gameplay of the series is in three parts: stealth, combat, and navigation. In this first game, the three parts are very segregated. Use stealth, blending with scholars to get close to your target, engage them in combat, hitting the attack button until your prey is dead, and then free-run away from angry guards until you find a hiding spot. Such is the pattern for every assassination mission in the game.
While some aspects of the gameplay have aged considerably since 2007, the concept, the story, and the narrative flow all still remain novel and charming. Going from Desmond, to Altair on the street, to Altair on a mission, to Altair talking to Al Mualim back at the home base, and then back to Desmond, it all creates a particular rhythm, and with all the different plotlines to keep track of, it is easy to digest them from the safety of a comfortably-paced narrative.
“The Red Sea was never parted. Water never turned to wine. It was not the machinations of Eris that spawned the Trojan War, but this!”
As the game winds down, Altair fights the leader of the Templars, Robert De Sable, while Richard The Lionhearted plays referee. Meanwhile, in the present, a battle wages outside of the Abstergo building as several Assassins try to bust Desmond out. While the player can never leave the room, and there is no view from the windows, the sounds of a gun battle are heard, one the Assassins ultimately lose.
With his last breaths, a dying De Sable tells Altair that the object he stole from Solomon’s temple is a powerful treasure, and that Al Mualim is a Templar who used the Order of Assassins to kill everyone who knew its secret.
On his way back to Al Mualim’s compound, Altair finds his fellow Assassins brainwashed, as if under a spell or something. Such is the power of the artifact which Abstergo has been waiting to see, the Apple of Eden. Yeah. That Apple. Rather than looking quite like an apple, though, it’s a large metal ball which opens up and, through the power of illusion, can bend the will of any who look upon it to that of its wielder. Through willpower and awesomeness, however, Altair is able to see through the illusion and strike down his old master, at which point the Apple opens up and displays a 3D holographic globe (with modern borders, no less!) with dots over where the other apples, Pieces of Eden, can be found.
This map was what Vidic and his Templar masters were looking for. Vidic plans to kill Desmond, but Lucy talks him into waiting until the data can be verified, to which he begrudgingly agrees. Once left alone, Desmond’s vision becomes infrared, like Altair’s Eagle Vision, and he sees numerous messages written all over the lab, in blood.
Once the seemingly endless credits (which come complete with unprecedented electronic dance music) are over, Desmond is free to wander the lab and analyze the messages, but the average player will be hard-pressed to decipher them without a degree in Cryptology. There are also new E-Mails to read, hinting at Templar involvement in famous historical events or legends, such as the Tunguska explosion of 1908, and the Philadelphia Experiment, as well as artifacts such as The Holy Grail and Crystal Skulls, like from Indiana Jones! Or not, depending on who you ask.
Assassin’s Creed is an episodic series, and AC1 set up a lot of dominoes for the future to knock down. Between the numerous threads set up in e-mails, to hints given in dialogue about the Templars and their origins, there’s a wealth of subtle clues which really add replay value for those looking to unravel the conspiracies without using a wiki. At one point, Desmond and Vidic have a conversation in which Vidic reveals the Templars don’t create technology; they just control its release to the world. He goes on to say such marvels were gifts, left behind by “those who came before…”
Assassin’s Creed is an excellent example of a product which adds up to more than just the sum of its parts. The repetitive nature of the game wears thin by the end, but the whole experience comes together in such a way that you don’t really mind. The stealth lacks polish, the combat is mindlessly easy, and navigation is a little rough around the edges, but the game juggles the three elements at a measured pace, so, barring the prolonged sword fighting gauntlets that bookend the story, the player is never doing the same thing for very long. It’s a surprisingly charming structure, turning increasingly familiar locales like the Animus room and Al Mualim’s office from claustrophobic and threatening to safe and familiar, and back again. On the other hand, the narrative, either in the present or the past is very interesting, although, aside from that cliff-hanger ending, it never seems to go anywhere. Likewise, Altair, despite having a clear arc, is completely crippled by terrible acting; his actor is merely reading lines off a paper, and, when compared to Nolan North as Desmond and Kristen Bell’s Lucy, it’s a shame that the lead actor fails to deliver the goods. Altair becomes more interesting in the PSP-exclusive sequel, Bloodlines, in which he gets a much-improved voice actor and, as de facto leader of the Assassins, takes the fight to the Templars on their island base of Cyprus. Perhaps we’ll cover that in a later episode… AC1 is full of disparate elements which, when viewed on their own, are too unpolished to sustain themselves. However, when placed together, the resulting magic is what made Assassin’s Creed, the game, the success story it was in 2007, and Assassin’s Creed, the series, Ubisoft’s best-selling franchise.
Come back soon (by which I mean, when I’m done playing it) to see how Assassin’s Creed II follows up.