Given the name of the website I don't often like to publish things here that are not in some way critical. Obviously there is another fine line between cynicism with a point, and then cynicism for cynicism's sake, which must also be taken into account. After all, criticising is unfortunately a very short walk away from whining and avoiding mindlessly throwing rocks at anything that annoys you is tricky. That separation can fall away at any point if you're not careful you can end up an endless drawl of mindless complaining that will lose its impact if not kept in check simply for the sake of content. An amassing of content that is not only meaningless but also wouldn't be in-keeping with the long standing tradition of infrequent updates that both us and our readers have come to enjoy.
That is the overall philosophy of the website in general anyway. I'm only defining it to demonstrate that this is usually the staus quo of what posts should adhere. Going against all of that of course, I'm now going to do the complete opposite of everything I just said. You can't always be cynical about things, although obviously it will always be easier to hate than to appreciate. That was just demonstrated to me now by the fact that the rhyme in the previous sentence made me annoyed and doubly so because I couldn't think of a better word than appreciate to replace it with, so I'm forced to leave it in there.
At one particularly boring Christmas with my family, of the many which there have been many, one member of my family began to complain that they hated Les Miserable the play, not for any valid or non ridiculous reason, but instead simply because it was too depressing and that everyone should “just lighten up”. Although I didn't think their corrections for a musical set against the backdrop of a bleak and ultimately failed French revolution wasn't mind numbingly stupid in every way, it did make me see that maybe, just maybe we should all just relax and be happy once in a while.
So this is my version of being happy. Today, in the wake of the release and my experiences with Assassins Creed 4: Black Flags, I'm going to give an analysis of the Assassin's Creed series. My analysis will be split up into several pieces, each segment looking at one of the major console release titles in the series. I'm doing this because I don't think there's enough criticism and analysis of video games in the same way that there is books and films and other mediums of art. I also do this because I genuinely believe that the Assassin's Creed franchise is a genuine accomplishment in the medium that should be praised for what it managed to bring to the table by its achievements in terms of narrative, aesthetic brilliance, solid gameplay and ultimately what a shame it is that it never managed to reach the levels of greatness that its earlier instalments seemed to promise.
I also apologise for the length, but I wanted to make this full on. Then again you can stop reading at any time so feel free to do that also.
This isn't an excuse to unabashedly criticise Assassin's Creed 3 and 4 by any means. I didn't enjoy Assassin's Creed 3 by any means, but I did find that Assassin's Creed 4 was a surprisingly refreshing twist on a series whose best years were clearly behind it. With Assassin's Creed 4 I will say that an element of fun has been recovered from whatever flair was lost in 3, which relied far too heavily on a hand holding formula, broken up by cutscenes which contained a noticeable lack of interesting characters or engaging story. The fact that it also failed to uphold its responsibility of being an acceptable conclusion for the Desmond storyline is also such a huge point against it, that it in some ways may have managed to blind my judgement of it somewhat. I want to point out that obviously I have biases and my disdain for Assassin's Creed 3's ending will be the first to be laid out as an unacceptable and thoroughly lazy component of that game for me, for reasons that I will go into.
But with the arrival of Assassin's Creed 4, I am at least relieved of one thing. That thing being that the Creed series has now forgone any possible denial that it is now no longer just a cash cow, for yearly updates to be pumped out of. What started out as a series with a long gestation period of several years which showed massive tweaks and adjustments in each instalment had by the end become a yearly update of unchanged and increasingly lazy content. At least now with the overarching story out of the way, which by its declining years I had already invested far too much time and money into seeing the conclusion of, I now no longer feel any personal pressure to purchase the newest one, becoming increasingly outraged as each subsequent instalment declined in quality. I can now view the series in hindsight and finally, let it go. I can view it as a whole and now enjoy the parts which I liked, whilst ignoring what I didn't and not feel as if every further release was bastardising the series as a whole. I can now view it as the sum of its parts.
So what is Assassin's Creed about then overall. Well in its moment to moment action, Assassin's Creed is the story of a long standing secret society known as the Assassins, who are in a constant battle which rages across the centuries against another secret society known as the Templars who are intent on enslaving the world and all of its populace. What makes Assassin's Creed stand out from most other conspiracy stories is how confidently and fully it jumps into our own history here on Earth as the setting for its stories. The entire theme of the series could be boiled down to “history is written by the victors” and it is in this historical and moral uncertainty that Assassin's Creed revels in.
The backdrop to nearly every Assassin's Creed game is mostly always an event that is unknown to the general public, yet a significant part of history. In the first Assassin's Creed it is during the Third Crusade; an attempt by several European leaders, the most prominent of them being King Richard I of England, attempting to take the Holy Land from Saladin. This is of course only the foreground to the real story. It's under the cover of this initial conflict where the true battle for victory lies as fractured groups of the Templar society carry out their own power plays in the chaos.
It's in this historical grey area, where Assassin's Creed's strength lies. The games can be both set in real events, which give the setting the richness and complexity that wouldn't be as strong in an entirely fictional world. However, these events can be played with in order to benefit the narrative by wielding the notion that history has not been documented in the purest light. History is not a record, it's an interpretation, one that has always been at the mercy of myth makers and conspirators.
Assassin's Creed begins by introducing us to our assassin protagonist Altair, who has been sent on a mission to take back a rare treasure by his mentor and head of the creed, Al Mualim. He is joined by several others, including Malik Alsayf, all of who warn Altair that he has become too hot headed and prideful in his approach to the mission. The game subtly opens with Altair killing a guard to demonstrate this. Altair's companions berate him but Altair brushes it off and claims that he is simply doing what was asked of him to complete the mission. As the group makes its way deeper into Soloman's temple, where they hope to find this treasure, they eventually run across our main antagonist Robert De Sable, a French commander who has come over with the crusader armies. Altair rushes in to kill Robert in order to seize the treasure, but Robert takes advantage of Altair's haste, beating Altair in combat and apparently killing all of the other assassins. He sends a defeated Altair back to Al Mualim, who waits in the assassin stronghold of Masyaf, to inform him of the mission's failure.
Altair returns to Masayaf to admit his failings but finds Malik there, treasure in his only remaining hand having had the other arm cut off during the fighting. Malik is explaining to Al Mualim how he escaped with the treasure and how Altair had jeopardised the entire operation. Al Mualim is incensed with Altair's arrogance, stripping him of his rank and weapons. In order to gain back his honour and possessions, Altair must track down Robert and his 8 accomplices, all of whom know about the existence of the mysterious treasure.
The game quickly sets up both the arc of Altair's character from a narrative standpoint, whilst simultaneously setting up the gameplay progression. As Altair works his way up the ranks he will not only uncover the conspiracy that has been put into action by Robert's accomplices; but also have to reassess his recent actions, be humbled by his fall from grace and face guilt from the effects he's had on his comrades of the creed. From a gameplay standpoint, Altair will also earn back title and equipment and so be awarded with new areas to visit as well as an increasing move set and stat upgrades.
The game's set up is very strong, however it sadly quickly falls into repetition. Unlike most sandbox games, the standard rules of which its sequels adhere to much closer, Assassin's Creed's mission structure revolves around 3 basic tasks that must be repeated within each city. Many other sandboxes will involve the player going to a point on the map, being given a story progressing mission involving various sub objectives and then go on to complete them. In Assassin's Creed however, the mission structure is a lot less varied, with each overall assassination contract not being comprised of several mission but instead several minigames or activities that are spread throughout the city. Each contract is therefore one large mission which can take between 30 minutes to an hour to complete and revolves more around fact finding than player skill.
Once given a target, the player will travel to the Assassin's bureau in one of the three cities of the game: Acre, Damascus or Jerusalem. There the player will be given more detailed information regarding the target and then is let loose on the city to obtain information on the contract's whereabouts and dealings in order to plan an assassination. The basic structure from here on in is simple. The player must climb selected tall buildings and activate viewpoints to open up these fact finding activities. There will be 7 activities per city, of which the player needs only complete 3 in order to then proceed to the main assassination.
Among this selection of activities, there will be 3 main types of activity to choose from. These are pickpocketing, in which the player will follow a courier and then with a timed button press, steal some sort of information. There is also interrogation, in which the player will follow a selected target into an isolated area and then beat them up to force them to give you information. Lastly there is eavesdropping, in which the player must sit on a bench nearby two targets and listen to them have a conversation. Eavesdropping is the least involved activity of the 3, since they are impossible to fail and all the player needs to do is activate the activity and then listen to a set conversation.
This will be your experience of Assassin's Creed for significant portions
Whilst all of these missions have an interesting narrative in themselves and go towards deepening your understanding of your contract's motives and personality, their easy and repetitive nature leaves little enjoyment in playing them other than simply learning more background details. Although Assassin's Creed sets itself out to be an action title, its mission structure leaves it feeling more like an adventure game, with the player following or listening to information for little more than narrative benefit and not the moment to moment challenge of taking part. This is severely revamped in later titles, with character involvement and skill becoming much more integral to completion, a fact that regardless of how well executed Assassin's Creed story is, could only go on to help the series. In it's current state, compared to the later games, the first Assassin's Creed also lacks any real replay value, as I discovered when playing through it again for the purpose of this article.
The failure of Assassin's Creed 1 to truly utilise its control system comes to be one of its greatest failings. The controls appear to be built for a game that revolves around a much more action orientated game, which is only really utilised through the free running during player exploration and combat, both of which rarely, if ever come into play during the main campaign. The game mechanics and their fluid interchangeable nature is severely underused throughout the game.
The controller layout is surprisingly refreshing and exceptionally intuitive, lending itself to a similar design philosophy that was behind the construction of the original Playstation controller. The top face button (or triangle in this instance) relates to actions performed using the head. The left face button (square) is foractions relating to the left hand, or since it is Altair's primary hand for holding weapons; aggressive actions. The right face button (square) is for actions relating to the unarmed hand and finally the bottom face button (Cross) corresponds to actions involving the legs and movement speed.
The move set is also doubled due to the use of the profile system which allows for a character to transition between stealth and hostile actions, all of which continue to correspond to their respective body part. When in low profile, the default mode, hitting any of the face buttons will cause the Altair to perform the action in a stealthy manner. He will slowly push his way past people with his unarmed hand, walk slowly and bow his head so as to blend into the crowd when his legs are activated. When the hidden blade is activated, Altair will silently thrust his blade unnoticed into his intended target. If the head button is pushed then Altair will go into Eagle vision, a form of intuition where the screen will go dark and only highlight hostile or NPCs which can be interacted with.
When in high profile all the actions remain consistent and as intuitive, although now Altair will carry out more noticeable and socially unacceptable actions. Eagle vision is now no longer available, leaving the top face button blank. When in this mode, which is activated by pressing R1 or RB, Altair's movement inputs will now be a lot faster as this causes him to go into a quick jog, which can be turned into a full on sprint, or free running when the bottom face button is pushed. When the unarmed button is pushed, Altair will now tackle and shunt characters who are in front of him so as to avoid tripping over and so interfering with his momentum. If the armed button is hit and Altair has his hidden blade equipped, then Altair will leap into the air and perform a quick assassination kill.
The d pad switches between Altair's weapons, of which there are 4: hands, hidden blade, sword and throwing knives which can also double as a small blade. If any of the other weapons aside from hidden blade are activated, then Altair will attack I the same forceful manner and will immediately go into combat mode, which I will go into later.
What is so impressive about the control system is that in a very few number of buttons, the number of actions that the player can achieve is surprisingly large, with the profile system offering a doubling up effect. The controls are flexible as the player can go from stealth section, to a fast paced escape sequence without changing the basic underlying concept of the control scheme. There is no random, 'hit X to interact with' since the body mapping of the controller keeps the game consistent and intuitive. There are no random rules, much like in many modern games where new orders and updates of the control scheme have to be plastered across the screen. If you have to interact with an item, then it'll simply be the empty hand input and if you have to kill someone then it'll be the armed hand input. The rules are executed and remain the same from the start.
Switching between these different modes of play is quick and simple. You can go from sneaking in a crowd, fighting guards and then fleeing across the roof simply by switching profiles and unselecting your target. It is this fluidity and action orientated mechanics of the game that make me unable to fathom why the game is only action orientated during the actual assassinations themselves and not the rest of the game which is primarily watching people do things from street level. The assassinations themselves barely even utilise the mechanics anyway since many of them are simply watching a character talk and then running up to them, awkwardly trying to stab them as they defend themselves and then running away. These moments are rare and not designed particularly well for the player to control Altair adequately or apply any interesting strategy within their play.
These are especially disappointing when you run around Assassin's Creed cities and realise just how layered and expertly designed they are. Any item that juts out more than a few inches can be grabbed on to and climbed, and it is this dynamic interaction with the environment, as well as the subtle and numerous free run paths that have been interwoven into the architecture that make Assassin's Creed such a blast to run around in when you're not constrained by the missions. There's nothing more satisfying than pulling off a perfect run or escaping from some guards, but this rarely happens in the main game and these moments are reserved for when you're by yourself and actively taunting the guards into a chase. The only time you do have to free run as a game completion imperative is at the end of a main character assassination and even then these come so rarely and are over so quickly that they're a flash in the pan compared to the overall play time.
Combat in the Assassin's Creed series has always been an issue. The sword combat itself is simplistic although does rely heavily on timing and paying attention to the body language of enemies. Combat has greatly been improved in the later instalments, especially regarding the stealth assassination and distraction techniques that the player is able to utilise, but the basic sword play of parry and attack remains mostly unchanged and although beautifully animated and gory, is overly repetitive and easy when mastered. Strangely the combat was even simplified further from Assassin's Creed onwards, but this is a criticism that will be explored more at that chapter.
For all of the game's problems though, many of which are fixed in later sequels, the atmosphere of the game cannot be beaten. As you run through the streets of Jerusalem hearing the people bustle around you, selling items at their market stalls and remarking your strange conduct as you shimmy up a wall or stabs an annoying peasant woman in the face, it really feels like you have stepped back in time. As far as immersion goes in games, I can think of fewer better examples that manage to draw a player in more than Assassin's Creed. The world it has reconstructed and bought to life again is at once similar to ours so as not to distance you from the experience, but is at the same time so very different to the world that we now live that it is almost impossible to not be in awe as you run across the rooftops of the Middle East. It's sort of the temporal equivalent of the uncanny valley, just different enough to interest you, but similar enough to engage you and make you feel strangely attached.
There's also no denying that years on the game can still be visually stunning at points
This is all held together with an ambient soundtrack from Jesper Kyd that plays softly in the background complimenting the sounds of the city that play over it and drawing you in further. I could only describe the soundtrack as simply beautiful and haunting, as it rises and ebbs in the background reminding you that this is still a fragile illusion and that all of this has now gone. The sound design and overall design of the cities is nothing short of amazing, not only from a gameplay perspective to solidify the free running, but on an aesthetic point, everything strongly sets the tone and place of the game.
One of the real achievements of the game is just how well the art design manages to blend together the modern and classical styles. The HUD has a lot of technical information regarding the player's stats under the guise of the animus program, (the science fiction backdrop to this historical conspiracy story that I will go into), yet against the backdrop of 12th century Holy Land it looks completely at home. One of the key themes in the game is just how similar the past is to the present. In the way we act, the stupidity and mistakes that people make and the lack of progression that the modern day Templars pity human kind for is all summed up in the cohesive blending of the past and present aesthetic design in the game.
The game's plot is similarly handed with confidence. The defining idea behind both the Assassins and the Templar order is that knowledge is the true key to power and that it must be attained through questioning and holding nothing certain. They both fight for truth and the safety of all mankind and yet this is where their creeds end in their similarities. The Templars believe that human kind must be saved through control and order. The Assassins uphold that mankind must be protected and justice be served, but that no limitations other than this should be placed on them. Man's free will should remain intact because they are men and they wish for free will also. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”. These are the vague words which the creed lives by and they will go unexplained fully until much later at the end of Assassin's Creed Revelations, but they are the words that govern the entire underlying ideas in the series.
Even though there are hundreds of guards surrounding him, Altair still manages to have a several minute heart to heart. Insightful if slightly unrealistic
If this doesn't stick with you, then you're most like a Templar bastard