Assassin’s Creed (PS3)

The Assassin’s Creed series has been one I’ve been mildly interested in for years.  A few years ago my partner got himself a PS3 and it happened to be one of the first games he played.  He loved it so much he tore through the rest of the series fairly quick and replayed them often.  When he got a PS4, he upgraded his collection to the remakes as he doesn’t plan to keep the PS3, so I bought his PS3 ones for myself since I happily run all four PS systems.

This week I finished up the first game, titled simply Assassin’s Creed so of course I have to talk about it.  To quote the description:

The setting is 1191 AD. The Third Crusade is tearing the Holy Land apart. You, Altair, intend to stop the hostilities by suppressing both sides of the conflict. You are an Assassin, a warrior shrouded in secrecy and feared for your ruthlessness. Your actions can throw your immediate environment into chaos, and your existence will shape events during this pivotal moment in history. As an assassin you will master the skills, tactics, and weapons of history’s deadliest and most secretive clan of warriors. Plan your attacks, strike without mercy, and fight your way to escape.

Despite being eleven years old, Assassin’s Creed managed to impress me quickly with its graphics and game play mechanics.  There are essentially two openings, the one in the present, in which bartender Desmond Miles has been kidnapped and is being forced to replay his ancestor’s genetic memories, and the past opening in which said ancestor Altair has screwed up and been demoted, and thus must conduct nine assassinations across three cities to regain his rank and honor.

As an assassin, you must learn to move and blend with the crowds of the towns, avoid calling undue attention from the guards, research your targets to plan their demise, conduct the actual assassination, and then escape.  Along the way, you must adhere to the Assassin’s Creed, which includes never killing innocents.  Fortunately the city guards are not so innocent, so you can slay them left and right, particularly if you want to help the citizens being harassed by them or need to draw some other guards away from their posts.  Still, stealth is the name of the game, and bodies call attention pretty quick, as does acting “rude”, such as by knocking jars out of people’s hands or climbing buildings.

Graphically the game is on-point.  The first time I climbed a tower and did a synchronization to view the landscape was just breath-taking!  I tried to climb as many as I could just to enjoy the views, and for the fun of the leap of faith to return to the ground.  Even these seemingly innocuous activities, that in most games might just be a fun thing to do, could be challenging.  Some of the view points required avoiding guards to reach or climbing nearby buildings and leaping over to get to a climbable part.  A few had guards at the top that needed a quick stabbing to get them out of the way.  And several you had to figure out on your own which one it was before the rest in a given district would be marked on your map to find.

The cities of Damascus, Acre, and Jerusalem are amazingly detailed, with each having their own distinctive flavors and styles.  While I’m no expert, they seemed to be fairly accurate representations of the historical cities.  I was seriously wishing the PS3 had the graphic capture abilities of the PS4 just so I could take pictures and share them on Facebook to say “look at the prettiness!”.

Investigations required differing skills, including eavesdropping, pick pocketing, straight up interrogation, and sometimes doing tasks for informants that might include assassinations or races.  I hated the races and avoided all of them, but the rest were fun though each one had a different bit of controlling to learn before you could do it right.  As the game progresses, each investigation would increase in difficulty – for example a pick pocket target may have a limited area they walk in before disappearing, or an interrogation target might have a very small window of isolation before you’d be contending with thugs jumping in on the action.  The assassinations themselves would also increase in difficulty.  The first two were the only ones I found really had an option to do a fairly quick and stealthy back stab.  The rest you had to deal with guards getting between you and the target as well as targets that would fight back or flee.

In terms of game play, I really enjoyed it overall.  The climbing mechanics are amazing, with the animation being extremely well done and fluid for the motions.  The investigation and tower challenges required just enough thinking to be challenging without being frustratingly so, the guards getting increasingly stronger as Altair does kept it from being too easy to deal with them later in the game, and the actual assassinations varied enough to keep them from being dull.  The investigations and limit to three cities did make it feel a little repetitive going through each trio of targets (one per city and district in that city), but it wasn’t enough to take away the overall enjoyment of the game.

In terms of negatives, the beggars, crazies, and street preachers were just plain aggravating.  At times I’d get stuck with two beggars saying the same thing as they chased me down the street, or one of the crazy folks would punch me into a target or guard, breaking my cover.  And hearing the same spiel over and over again made me want to lower the sound, but unfortunately Assassin’s Creed has no subtitles so doing that would have meant missing actual important dialog.  The save system is also a bit frustrating.  While the system arguably auto saved regularly, if you quit and came back to the game, you were not returned to the last save spot, rather you went back to the Assassin’s Guild building if you were in a city, or where you entered the area if you were on the main map.

I was also regularly frustrated by the inability to tell Altair to just put his weapon away and run!  In this game, you pretty much never fight just one guard, it’s usually 2-4, and increases in number as you go.  A few times while fleeing a few, I’d end up with some 10-20 guards on me, and god forbid I accidentally hit the attack button.  Then it was pretty much fight or die because Altair no longer would run away no matter how much I’d try!  I couldn’t even get him to at least move to a more strategically advantageous spot!  The fighting mechanics themselves could be a bit frustrating, particularly trying to remember the right combination to block/counter or break a grab/counter, when fighting off a hoard of soldiers.  I fully admit, many of my fights ended up being me just smashing the heck out of the attack button and pressing R1 hoping for a counter.

The story itself was compelling, with each kill building on the last and a much bigger story arc coming in to play.  Altair himself changes with each target, as he questions the possible moral ambiguity of some of the men based on their dying words and the reasoning behind these particular targets being selected.   Apparently many of the characters are based on historical figures, but I admit my knowledge of that time period and the Crusades in general is lacking enough that I didn’t get most of the connections.  The present day stuff that framed the story, with the Animus that Desmond is connected to for relieving the memories, is interesting in a way, but not built up enough to really make much sense of it.  The whole genetic memory reading thing requires quite a bit of handwavium that doesn’t hold up to even mild scrutiny.

All that said, I quite enjoyed playing Assassin’s Creed and I’m looking forward to starting Assassin’s Creed II either later today or tomorrow.  I can certainly see why my friend enjoyed them so much!