The Assassin Prince of Metal Splinter Cell Gear in Persia

At my request, my co-writer and game pusher peterb used his Gamefly powers to obtain Assassin’s Creed for the Xbox 360 the other week. I’ve spent a couple of weeks playing it in between my long sessions of getting repeatedly shot in the head playing Call of Duty 4. To say that Assassin’s Creed is a mixed bag does not really do the game justice. After all, the game has far loftier goals than usual. So, I can’t say that my impressions of the game are merely mixed. No, Assassin’s Creed is more like an exquisitely crafted ceramic dish that someone has covered with dog shit. It is by far the most finely crafted crappy game I’ve played.

First the good stuff. Everything about the game is big. The areas are huge and seamless. You can spend a lot of time in the game climbing up on high towers and looking down at the city or forest below you, and then set off and walk there. These large areas are filled with hundreds of NPCs, both friendly and hostile. Your goal as the main character is the game is to walk through these cities, among these people and complete a set of assassinations to restore your status in the order of the Assassins. In this capacity you have dozens of bad-ass abilities that encompass combat, stealth, thievery, eavesdropping and running, jumping, and climbing over anything that doesn’t move.

By far the best part of the game is running around the cities and climbing on things. Your little puppet runs up walls, grabs on to the tiniest crevices like Spiderman in a white robe. When you get to the top you are treated to a sweeping spinning panoramic shot of everything around you. You can just sit and stare at it all and marvel at the work of hundreds of designers, artists, 3-d modelers, motion capture technicians and animation experts. They have all done their work impeccably. Everything from design and rendering of the cities to the animation of the main character are as completely realized as anything I’ve seen in a video game. And this fact is most clear when you are sitting at the top of one of these eagle-eye viewpoints. Then you can hit a few buttons on the controller and dive head first into a conveniently placed pile of straw.

At this point, the part of your consciousness responsible for suspension of disbelief has a little spasm, and that’s not the last time this will happen. Over and over again Assassin’s Creed makes you want to bury yourself in its premise, only to forcibly tear you out again by reminding you that you are playing an Ubisoft stealth game. Here the checklist:

1. Only 5 NPCs with only 4 lines of dialog each. Here they replaced “I must be seeing things in the shadows!” with “Die! Infidel!”.

2. Complicated context sensitive controls that often leave you jumping off of a wall instead of continuing to climb upwards. I think this is more my problem than the game’s problem though.

3. Although the animations for “counter-attack” kills and assassinations are fantastic, the sword-play still feels a bit disconnected and sloppy to me. I probably just suck.

4. Stupid A.I. Guards will go into a red alert if you walk past them at the wrong speed. But, you can walk down the street and leave a trail of beggar corpses and no one bats an eye. This is a great feature beause it means you get to watch the fantastic assassination animation over and over again.

5. Finally, there is the Metal Gear Solid cardboard box gambit. Given that your stealth cover can be broken just by walking past the wrong person at the wrong speed, you have to have a way to reset the perceptual state of the guards. In Assassin’s Creed you do this by climbing up on the roof of a building and jumping into a cardboard box cabana or a handy pile of straw, at which time everything resets.

Fans of Metal Gear will recognize this mechanic as a time honored way of surviving an alarm state when guiding Solid Snake through an enemy military installation.

I find this gambit more annoying in Creed than in the Metal Gear games because Ubisoft wants you to take the setting and premise of the game seriously, whereas I don’t think anyone on Earth really cares if you believe what is going on in the Metal Gear games.

For me, these problems make performing the core missions of the game almost the opposite of fun. Each of the missions involves some minimum amount of “investigation” time, by which they actually mean a lot of busywork that isn’t climbing cool buildings. Then you track down the victim, watch a long cut scene, put a knife in him, watch another long cut scene, and then if you weren’t lucky you get chased by a dozen guards screaming “You won’t get away from me!” or “You can’t run forever!” or “Die! Infidel!” for about 15 minutes until you finally manage to jump into a cardboard box.

I’d rather just walk around the cities and stealth-assassinate all those annoying beggars who are constantly asking me for “Just one more coin!?!?!?”. But you have to do the missions to open up more world to run around in. Worse, all the new areas are just like the old areas anyway, and they are filled with the same 5 NPCs with the same 4 lines of dialog. The overall effect is to convince present you with a dead world populatd by zombies in which there is nothing at all interesting to do.

Trying to fight my way through this, I managed to complete three or four missions and convince myself that I was having an OK time. I was trying to give Ubisoft credit for at least trying something new. Then I ran into a guy who wanted me to collect 20 widgets in three minutes in order to get to the next plot point. I took one shot at it, but ran into a guard the wrong way and had half the city chasing me screaming one of three lines of dialog. At this point, I turned the Xbox off and put the disk back in the Gamefly envelope.

I think the Penny Arcade defense of this game had it right. If you buy this game and play it once a week for a couple of hours and get one or two tasks done per session, I think the game would be enjoyable. In small doses over a long period of time, the gaping holes in the game’s world are not as obvious because you shield yourself from all of the crippling repetition. Unfortunately, this means I’ll never get to the end of this game. First, I feel like I should give the Gamefly disk back to peterb in a reasonable amount of time, so I can’t just set the game on the shelf and get back to it once in a while. Second, even if I were to pick up a cheap copy of the game later, some other shiny distraction will inevitably keep my from actually playing the game. It will join the pile on that high shelf of games I tell myself I will play, but which I should really sell on Ebay.

As much as I want to enjoy the result of what was obviously thousands of hours hard work by hundreds of people, there just isn’t enough there to keep me going. This makes me sad, so I guess I’ll go get shot in the head some more to make me feel better.