Assassin’s Creed. The mere mention of the name makes a certain subset of gamers go on a rant about annualized sequels, microtransactions, bad companion apps, lack of gameplay innovation, and everything else that is wrong with the gaming industry in the year 2014. In the eyes of many, Ubisoft’s historical open world stealth action series has become the epitome of bloated AAA blockbusters, designed by committee to appeal to the lowest common denominator and maximize profits. And you know, it is very hard to argue against that. There are seven mainline games in the series, along with several spinoff titles, and even more is scheduled for the near future.
That said, it was not always this way.
In 2003, a Quebecois Ubisoft designer named Patrice Désilets directed the critically acclaimed Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a modern reboot of the classic adventure game series created by Jordan Mechner. Inspired by a book on the Crusades he read, Désilets started on a new project tentatively titled Prince of Persia: Assassin, a spinoff where the player would control an assassin protecting the Prince. This would soon become an entirely new IP. Assassin’s Creed was born.
The initial information showed Assassin’s Creed as a purely historical assassin simulator, in which the titular assassin Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad hunt his targets in the Holy Land during the Crusades. To be exact, the game would take place in the year 1191, and the setting would encompass Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem as well as the no-man’s land known as the Kingdom, all of which could be explored freely and feature climbable environments as well as large crowds of people Altaïr could blend in with. The Holy Land circa 1191 was – and still is – a very rarely used setting in video games, and sparked a considerable amount of interest at the time of the game’s reveal at E3 2006. Assassin’s Creed won several “best of show” awards, and became one of the most anticipated titles of the time. The game was eventually released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 in late 2007.
In the game, Altaïr starts out as a bit of an arrogant dick whose impatience ends up getting one of his fellow assassins killed and another one badly injured during a mission to recover an artifact. As punishment, Altaïr is stripped of his rank, equipment, and skills (not sure how that works, but it’s a video game so let’s just roll with that) and has to gain back his status by killing a list of high profile targets. Nothing too special, but it works.
However, there was one thing Ubisoft did not mention in the initial reveal, and which would cause some controversy among the press and gamers. One of the pre-release gameplay videos showed strange computer glitch type effects, hinting at a sci-fi frame story of some sort. Indeed, it would be revealed that the player is in fact in control of Altaïr’s modern-day descendent named Desmond Miles, who has been kidnapped by the mysterious Abstergo corporation and put inside an “Animus” system in order to access a certain memory of his ancestor.
The modern day plot and Desmond’s gameplay sections (which mainly consist of walking around and reading people’s emails) were, unsurprisingly, panned by most reviewers and gamers. Not that the main game was without problems, either; according to a Something Awful forums poster who worked on Assassin’s Creed as an animator (and posted his stories in a Let’s Play thread in 2010), as much as 85% of the planned content had to be cut from the game. As a result, the first Assassin’s Creed has the distinct feel of a tech demo to it. The gameplay is basically this:
1. Talk to the leader of the Assassins, Al Mualim, and get your next target
2. Ride to the city your target is in
3. Climb tall buildings and activate viewpoints to reveal map, jump off and land in conveniently placed hay cart
4. Find local Assassin bureau, talk to the rafiq there and find out how to get intel
5. Get intel by doing a series of small missions involving eavesdropping and pickpocketing, as well as informant challenges where you’re tasked to gather flags or kill a bunch of people without being seen
6. Go to bureau with your intel and prepare for assassination mission
7. Sneak up on target and stab him to death (sneaking not mandatory, as long as the target dies it’s all good)
8. Run away, lose or kill the guards
9. Tell rafiq you’ve done your job
10. Go to Al Mualim, get skill and/or item as well as next target
That is it. That is the entire game. The only sidequests involve gathering Templar flags and killing Templars hiding in various corners of the map. As you might expect, Assassin’s Creed got a lot of flak for all the repetition, because you really just keep doing the same thing for the 15-20 hours you spend playing the story. The PC version tried to alleviate the situation by adding a few extra mission types for gathering intel, so you could at least try something different every once in a while, but it was a minor improvement at best.
The actual assassinations are open-ended and you can approach each situation whichever way you feel like, you are never forced to do things you don’t want to. One of the main design philosophies of Assassin’s Creed was that each player is allowed to craft their own story the way they see fit, without overt scripting or handholding. It should come as no surprise that the assassinations are the best parts of the game, and frankly I don’t think Ubisoft has ever quite managed to recapture the feel of these missions.
When your plan works perfectly, the satisfaction is immense. When you screw up and end up killing half the city guard along with your target.. well, shit happens, and the guy is dead so mission accomplished. It should be mentioned that actual real-life assassins at the time would generally kill their targets in a public area in broad daylight and cause a ruckus in order to strike fear to their enemies, so if the shit hits the fan you can always say that you’re roleplaying an actual Hashashin! Or something to that effect.
What does work extremely well is the atmosphere of the game. Each city feels completely distinct, and it’s fun to just take in the environment at street level. The lack of interesting content in the cities is a bit of a shame; you may occasionally have to save a citizen who is being harassed by some guards, but that’s about it. The graphics have naturally aged a little bit over the years but Assassin’s Creed still looks quite good, especially when running at high resolutions on PC. The console versions have their issues with screen tearing and frame rates, with the 360 version having the edge performance-wise.
The gameplay is a bit of a mixed bag. When the climbing and freerunning works, it’s incredibly satisfying. When it doesn’t, you find yourself shouting at the TV while Altaïr is getting stuck on every object in the general vicinity. He also can’t swim, so water is instant death. This is only really a problem in one mission where the target is hiding out on a ship in the Acre harbor and the docks are full of drunk assholes who try to push you into the water. The mechanics would get smoothed out in the later games, but it’s never quite been perfect. At times you screw up a stealthy assassination simply because the controls decided not to co-operate, which is also something the series has never quite managed to get rid of.
The actual stealth mechanics are rather basic, Altaïr can hide from enemies in rooftop gardens or haystacks or blend in with groups of monks and that’s your lot. Walking slowly and generally not drawing attention to yourself works well enough, at least until later on in the game where poor Al gets mobbed by a dozen guards if someone as much as catches him jaywalking. I do suppose that’s understandable because you’d think someone would tell the guards to look out for a heavily armed guy in a white hood, but it’s still rather annoying.
When you inevitably do get in a fight, you get to choose from a few different weapons. Altaïr’s sword is the main weapon you’ll probably be using, but if you want to be more stylish you can try out the dagger instead. That, or the Assassins’ signature hidden blade that is used for the actual assassinations but can also be utilized in combat if you’re skilled. The hidden blade is extremely hard to block and counter with, but it can be very effective if you time your inputs right. Countering is the easiest way to get through combat in Assassin’s Creed, as it allows you to kill enemies with one hit, and since enemies are polite enough to come at you one at a time, the combat is never particularly hard. You also get some ludicrously violent kill animations when you finish off your opponents with combos or counters, so there’s that. Don’t try them out on civilians too often, though; Altaïr did not kill innocents, so if you whack too many people you get desynchronized. That’s a fancy word for dying in the AC games. I will admit that some of the annoying beggars did get shanked when I played through the game, but they were hardly innocent anyway. Not with that voice acting.
The sound design deserves a special mention, with an extra special mention going to the SHANK sound that plays when you assassinate someone with the hidden blade. That never gets old, unfortunately it’s no longer used in the series’ games. The soundtrack was composed by Jesper Kyd, and while I prefer his AC2 work there’s some good stuff here as well. The chase theme is particularly memorable. On the other hand, the voice acting is rather mediocre (with Nolan North as Nolan North playing Desmond) and there are no subtitles for some weird reason. Thanks, lads.
Despite its issues, the original Assassin’s Creed is one of my favorite games in the series. It can be painfully repetitive and the mechanics aren’t quite there yet, but the assassinations are so much fun that the game is worth playing through at least once. While Assassin’s Creed was considered a fine foundation and was fairly successful, it took another two years for the series to really find its footing and become a real blockbuster franchise. For that to happen, a trip to Florence was in order.