Again, I should point out that I'm something of a casual gamer and am usually behind the curve of these sorts of games. The last game I played that could be reasonably compared to Assassin's Creed is probably No More Heroes, a game for the Wii I didn't particularly love (but didn't hate either). Interestingly, there are a number of parallels between those two games, but Assassin's Creed is by far the superior game. Here are some thoughts on various aspects of the game:
- Story: The game starts in a near future scenario, with some random bartender being kidnapped by a huge corporation. It turns out that the bartender is the descendant of a Third-Crusade-era assassin, and the corporation wands to force the bartender to relive his ancestor's memories, which are stored in his DNA. So for the majority of the game, your character is strapped into a machine called the Animus, which is a quasi-VR machine that lets him live out his ancestor's memories. Most of the gameplay is centered around the ancestor, a cocky assassin by the name of Altaïr, who is ordered to assassinate a bunch of people in order to counter the assassin organization's enemies, the Templars. There are these stones called "Pieces of Eden" that apparently hold a lot of power. The Templars want them to help in the Crusade (or something like that) and the Assassins have their own plans. Back in the future, the corporation I mentioned earlier is hoping that the memories they're uncovering will lead them to a "Piece of Eden." The story is actually pretty decent, though it ends on a question mark that will presumably be expanded upon in an upcoming sequel (and I mean that literally - it ends with this line of dialogue "What does it mean?"). There are some "twists" in the story that are somewhat obvious, and most of the exposition is essentially repeating various plot points, but it's a serviceable story. The framing device of having a near future person experience memories of an ancestor is interesting, but ultimately, most of the scenes you play in the future are pointless (they allow you to walk around and there are a few actions you can do, but otherwise, you're severely limited).
- Gameplay: For a game about assassins, there are surprisingly few assassinations in the game. Most of your time is spent doing various information gathering tasks leading up to each assassination. The world of the game consists of several cities, and for the most part you are free to wander about and do whatever you want (like climbing atop one of the many spires in a given city, then jumping off... and then repeating that about 10 times because it's so cool). It's not exactly an open-ended sandbox game like the Grand Theft Auto series, but it does work really well. I'll go into more detail in the following sections, but for the most part, the gameplay is a lot of fun. Even just faffing about in the city, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, climbing preposterously high towers and jumping off them, etc... is a lot of fun. The only real complaint is that the game gets rather repetitive. For each assassination, you face pretty much the same exact set of challenges. There are about 9 assassinations (not counting the various "informant" missions along the way), and by the time you get to the third one, you start wondering if anything new will appear. The ending of the game does alleviate this a bit, but for the most part, you're repeating the same tasks over and over again. This didn't bother me all that much. Perhaps it was because this was the first game I played in a while that really pulled me in, and the gameplay itself is fun enough that the repetition didn't get too annoying.
- Combat: This is actually a weak point in the game. It's not the worst ever, and it gets the job done, but it could use some serious improvement. At the start of the game, you only have a sword and you only really know one technique for attacking enemies (a somewhat awkward button mashing combo), but as you complete missions, your superior grants you new weapons and abilities. The problem is that after I learned the first couple of skills (the combo, the counter attack, etc...) I pretty much stopped paying attention, because those first couple of sills were getting the job done for me. For instance, I don't think I ever used the throwing knives. This seems to be a relatively common thing with this game. There are lots of subtle maneuvers that you can do if you want, but you don't need to do so to win the game (for instance, to get more throwing knives, you can pickpocket various citizens during the game - something I never did once because I never used the throwing knives in the first place). There is also apparently a combo move you can do with your hidden blade that becomes very important during the last two sections of the game, but which I was never able to get the hang of... The one thing I will say about the combat is that when you do actually get a combo move or counter shot, the resulting animation is actually pretty satisfying. So it can be fun, and I suppose with more practice, I could perhaps have had more fun with the combat system, but I do believe it could use an overhaul in the sequel.
- Missions and Tasks: As previously mentioned, before each assassination, you need to perform a series of information gathering tasks. There are essentially four different types of tasks: eavesdropping, pickpocketing, interrogations, and informants. Eavesdropping is the easiest, and thus it appears early in the game and then disappears later on. Pickpocketing is reasonably interesting. I was never sure if I was doing the interrogations in the best way (I gather you're supposed to wait for the subject to be alone, then beat him for the info), but I suppose I did a good enough job with it. The informant tasks can be the most fun, but also the most frustrating. Basically, an informant is another assassin that's in the city who is failing miserably at their own tasks. If you help them out, they'll give you info. This always amounts to sorta mini-assassination missions. These can be really fun, but a couple of them get really frustrating because there's a time limit and some of the guards get extra suspicious after a few failed attempts. It would have been nice if there was more variety to these missions. There's nothing particularly wrong with them, but they do get rather repetitive. The assassinations themselves are pretty fun, though I found myself basically relying on a brute force strategy of just killing everyone in my way, rather than relying on stealth. I'm not sure if this was the intention or not, but I didn't see anything like the Hitman series of games where you can do all manner of things to make the kill seem like an accident, etc... Of course, the Hitman games are mildly frustrating becaues how the heck are you supposed to know that if you ask the bartender for some aphrodisiac, then spike your target's drink, he'll take a girl to his bedroom, then walk out to the balcony where you will be waiting to push him off? But once you know the tricks, it can be a lot of fun devising other ways around the issue. There don't seem to be a lot of tricks or alternate methodologies in Assassin's Creed, thus the replay value isn't really there for me...
- Stealth: Quite frankly, there's not much of it. They've pretty much relegated stealth to a button you can hold down if you don't want to attract attention (and there are times when alert guards around around, so this is necessary). One of the things that the Hitman games did really well was to make it seem like everyone is watching you. As you walk past, some people will follow you with their heads, others will scratch their chin as if recognizing that something is awry. The first time I played those games, these behaviors really did get to me and would contribute significantly to the tension of a given level (in a good way too). None of that subtlety is in Assassin's Creed, and consequently, neither is a lot of that tension. That said, it can be kinda neat when you do get caught and you have to find a way to lose your pursuers (which amounts to hiding in stacks of hay or rooftop, uh, hiding place thingies). Later in the game, perhaps because of the repetition, this starts to get rather annoying. As previously mentioned, there are some times during the assassination attempts where you need to use stealth to approach the target, but for the most part, once you get to the target, you have to take the brute force approach.
- Visuals and Audio: This is quite possibly the prettiest game I've ever played. The environment and visuals are breathtaking, and this is the game I whip out when I want to show someone how cool an HD game can be (climbing to the top of a spire and doing a leap of faith is a lot of fun, and visually impressive too). The audio is pretty good too - not very showy, but effective and not annoying (which is generally what you ask for in a soundtrack).
- Usability: The menus and options on the PC version are infamously difficult to use (check out this video of someone trying to quit the game - amazingly poor usability), but the PS3 is rather better. One other annoyance is the lack of PS3 trophies. I understand that the game was developed before they existed, but it's obvious that the game was designed with XBox achievements in mind, so it should be relatively trivial to port them to PS3 trophies, right? Well, probably not, and I'm sure they won't ever do it because spending more time and money on a game that's been out for a year already is probably not a profitable decision, but still. There are all these things in the game that are obviously meant for such a system, and I even spent some time picking up all the flags in one of the cities (only 20 flags), but it's meaningless and there's no real reason to pursue such things. Of course, PS3 Trophies are pretty meaningless in themselves and I'm surprised at how much I like getting a trophy, but that's another discussion entirely. Otherwise, the game does a reasonable job with this sort of thing. The only real complaints are the ones already mentioned - repetitive gameplay, poor combat system and repetitive gameplay.
In comparison to other similar games, I'd say it's better than No More Heroes, but perhaps not as good as Hitman: Blood Money. They've all got similar structures - an assassin takes on various jobs. No More Heroes is even more repetitive than Assassin's Creed, and its lame attempt at a sandbox and its stupid pre-assassination missions are much worse than anything in Creed. The only thing worthwhile was the boss fights, which were on par with Creed. On the other hand, Hitman had a much more varied list of missions with all sorts of alternative methods for completing a level and a good amount of tension generated in the process. The variations actually make it tough the first time through - I have no idea how people figure out some of these things - but replaying levels a few times can still be fun. Assassin's Creed still stacks up favorably and I liked it a lot, but it's not a classic. I look forward to the sequel though, and if they can improve on some of these issues, it could be a great game.