This was a tough one. I desperately wanted to love this game: The setting, the plot, and the presentation are all excellent. The stealth-oriented action is first rate. But as this increasingly tedious game wore on and on, and the horrifically balky controls betrayed my onscreen character again and again, I realized there was no way I could give this game four stars, let alone five. Like Bioshock before it, Assassin's Creed gives up all of its admittedly wonderful surprises in the first hour or so of game play. After that, it's just repetition and frustration, as the game gets harder by simply making the control system more untenable over time. And this is a shame. Done right, Assassin's Creed could have--and should have--been nearly perfect.
One heads-up I should admit right up front: As I write this review, I'm only about two-thirds of the way through the game, so I will reserve the right to adjust the overall score accordingly as I continue through to the end (which I will). But make no mistake: For all the wonder of discovering the world of Assassin's Creed, what you're eventually left with is pure frustration. It's just too repetitive and too long of a game to be any fun over time. I can't believe I'm arguing that a game should be cut short, but like most recent Neil Stephenson books or Peter Jackson movies, sometimes you need someone to tell you when to stop. And Assassin's Creed would have worked better as a much shorter game, so the wonder never had the chance to turn into full-blown tedium.
You play Altair, a member of a group of assassins operating in the Middle East during the Middle Ages. After a fall from grace at the beginning of the game, you're conveniently stripped of your assassin powers and forced to earn them back, one by one, by completing various missions in three major cities, Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem, and, to a less extent, in the area between these cities, simply called the Kingdom. There's also an annoying and pointless side-plot involving you as Altair's present-day descendent, who is reliving Altair's life through a machine that resuscitates memories from genes. Or something.
Anyway, most of the game takes place in these cities, where you are sent, three times in succession, to each, in order to assassinate a valuable target. Along the way, you'll explore each city section, the Kingdom, and the area in and around Masyaf, where the assassins are headquartered. As you complete each mission, a power is returned and you become more formidable.
As in Bioshock, your onscreen character gains a tremendous number of powers over time, all of which require unique button combinations. Unlike Bioshock, however, this is handled reasonably well here, as the game slowly returns your powers and abilities, and you optionally train to use them. I never really felt overwhelmed by controls, which is a huge problem in 360 version of Bioshock.
There are some stunning sequences. You need to scale the heights of the tallest buildings in each city in order to get a better lay of the land and locate targets, and the scenes in which reach the apex of these buildings and then, optionally, leap down into some bale of hay like a circus act--called "the leap of faith," incidentally--are gorgeous. These bits of the game, and the time you'll spend jumping from rooftop to rooftop, are very reminiscent of Crackdown (see my review), albeit a more medieval version. (Even open-ended missions based around three cities in Assassin's Creed follow the progression of Crackdown.) I mostly enjoyed the jumping and scaling aspects of the game quite a bit.
You battle enemies in a variety of ways, sneak attack guards, battle on horseback, and spend a lot of time simply exploring and finding small milestones in the forms of various flags. There's a lot to do in each section of each city, and out in the kingdom, and you can blow through it or stick around and savor each, sucking every last possible bit of game play out of it, all according to your wants. Credit the game makers for at least padding it out so that even the most completist gamers will have something to occupy many hours of time.
Unfortunately, the game is just too frustrating to merit this kind of time. As you run through the city streets looking to escape from the guards, you will often find yourself latching onto ladders or jumping up to protruding areas of buildings when you don't mean to. Conversely, as you try to scale buildings or ladders to escape, you will annoyingly stop moving sometimes, as the guards hurl arrows and rocks at you, knocking you down when you should have been blocks away. And if you should be drawn into a fight with the guards, an increasingly dangerous proposition as the game progresses, it's often difficult to break out and continue running. And many of these fights are simply unwinnable.
But it gets worse. I can't count the number of times I'd successfully assassinated a major or minor milestone character only to have the guards be perversely alerted to my presence, presumably because it was just getting late in the game and things just had to be made arbitrarily more difficult. This leads to an annoying and repetitive sequence of events where you run away and/or scale buildings to try to escape, attempt to hide and thus escape the guards for good using one of a few available techniques, and then restart the whole thing over again. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, repeat. Rinse repeat. Let me know when that gets boring.
I never actually threw the controller at the wall while playing Assassin's Creed, but I wanted to. I did, however, curse out loud more times than I'd like to admit. It's just frustrating, and again, it's seems arbitrarily difficult. You go to a lot of trouble, for example, ensuring that no one can see a particular assassination and then the alarm is sounded just the same, making the previous five minutes worth of work moot. You just have run around like an idiot until you escape and then do it all over again. Oh joy.
The graphics and sound, and overall atmosphere of Assassin's Creed are first rate. The game is broad and deep, with huge and believable cities, each of which is alike enough to establish a theme, but different enough to seem like discrete places, alive and breathing. The world here is just so fully realized and is apparently historically accurate. It's gorgeous.
Where this all falls apart is in the repetition. While the voice acting is mostly fantastic, for example, there's not enough of it and the same dialog is used again and again. Every single accused thief in each of the three cities--and there are hundreds of them--is accompanied by the same exact dialog. Each of the beggars that you run into, all too often, say exactly the same thing to you. Each of the guards that discover you on the rooftops warns you with exactly the same language. The repetitiveness of the whole thing just wears on you, and while I'm sure it's an issue of disc space more than anything else, this game would have been better served with a lot more dialog and fewer missions. At the very least, the dialog repetitiveness should have been constrained at the city level. But the dialog is consistent across all locations.
Assassin's Creed offers no multiplayer options at all, though that could have potentially been an incredible option: Imagine slinking along the rooftops of Damascus or Jerusalem seeking out other assassins as they, in turn, looked for you. That said, the single player campaign is incredibly lengthy (if frustrating) and I'm sure the more anal retentive will spend a lot of time in each city, and out in the kingdom, seeking to find every single flag. In this way, the game also resembles Crackdown, because it gives you a reason to keep playing even after all of the game's major objectives have been completed.
So close and yet so far: Assassin's Creed should have been a superstar of the 2007 holiday season, taking its rightful place next to such titles as Call of Duty 4 and Halo 3. But thanks to some overly-frustrating controls and game play, and a too-lengthy, repetitive, and tedious campaign, the game quickly becomes tiresome. And that's a shame, because all the pieces are in place, this game could have been a classic. But I've rarely cursed out loud at a game as often as I have with Assassin's Creed, and it's just impossible to overlook how frustrating this game really is. Ultimately, it's just a huge disappointment, a game that should have been great but is not.