Assassin's Creed: An Exercise in Self-Discovery

One of the games I was most looking forward to in 2007 was Assassin's Creed, an action-adventure game set in the twelfth century across cities like Jerusalem and Damascus. The game pits the player in the role of a deadly assassin who is not only superbly capable with a knife and a sword, but could free-climb buildings better than Spider-Man and run through city markets with the grace and ease of a champion parkour runner. And if that doesn't sound like a winning formula, then check out the video below. It's the original trailer that was released for the game and, in my opinion, one of the best promotional videos in the industry's history.

Even after playing the game, I watch that video and I get goosebumps. So why then, did it take me over half a year to finally play the game? That's a good question.

When the game first released last November, it was met with a deafening chorus of disagreement from gamers. There were those who loved it and, oddly enough, those who referred to it as little more than a "tech demo." My friend Brad was in the latter camp and in addition to repeatedly cautioning me away from the game, also penned this review which only served to add to the firestorm surrounding the game. Take a moment and read the review if you get the chance, as it's a pretty good summary of the problems with the game. I don't share Brad's vitriol, but can't really argue against anything he says either.

Brad's closing comment:

Lapsing into formulaic predictability just moments past the title screen, Ubisoft Montreal makes players repeat the same tasks from start to finish while crisscrossing its beautifully-rendered cities an absurd amount of times, wrongly hoping that the impressive means of navigation would be enough to fool people into believing there's any sort of interesting, engaging gameplay to be found. The sad truth is, Assassin's Creed is a prime example of basing a project on a single mechanic rather than creating the appropriate mechanic to support a project. Everything except Altair's athletics feels underdeveloped and painfully shallow, making the end result an overhyped attempt to recoup the development costs for something that's little more than an extended tech demo.

Yet despite the strong criticism warning me against buying the game, I still wanted to see for myself. After all, Ubisoft made Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, a game that I really liked (and authored the guidebook for). Assassin's Creed was probably a larger, more robust version of Sands of Time. And, besides, it's not like Brad and I agree on games very often anyway...

It took less than an hour to realize that nearly everything Brad had said in his review rang true. Yes, the scenery and architecture of this medieval cities are absolutely stunning, and yes Altair's animations are incredibly fluid and very impressive. But it's also true that the game rapidly descends into an exercise in repetition and that it lacks any sense of player accomplishment. I was at once heartbroken to see that climbing the towering cathedral spires requires no more player-input than pushing up on the left thumbstick. That's right, all you do is sprint (R Trigger + A Button) at a wall to make Altair grab onto a ledge, then you just push up with the controls and he automatically climbs the tower. I climbed what appeared to be a 150 foot-tall spire over the weekend while holding the controller in one hand and eating a sandwich with the other. Sands of Time contained lots of climbing as well, but in that game each structure was like a puzzle and you felt like you've achieved something whenever you've picked your way up the side of a building or made your way across a crumbling cliffside. In contrast, climbing in AC is performed on auto-pilot.

I was also more than a bit saddened by the simplistic combat system at work in AC. I was expecting a mash-up of the acrobatic combat seen in Sands of Time with the slow, methodical, plotting and stealthy deviousness from the Hitman series of games. Unfortunately, despite Altair being an assassin, the majority of the combat consists of holding the R Trigger to defend then pressing the X Button to counterattack as soon as one of the enemies makes a move. That's it. Nearly every fight is the same and the only stealth attack is to use a hidden knife while sneaking up behind someone. I was expecting a bit more if for no other reason than Ubisoft had given us so much more with Sands of Time.

Despite these disappointments (not to mention the very shallow pool of mission design) I still found myself enjoying the game and, in a way, kind of glad there wasn't more substance to be had. I laid on the couch, recovering from my sickness, methodically zig-zagging my way through each city in attempt to climb every high point. I ducked into alleys and scoured courtyards in hopes of saving every citizen in distress. I even found myself searching the countryside for the various flags, not only in hopes of unlocking an Achievement or two but because I wanted to see the breadth of the fantastic level design. Despite each of these gameplay mechanics being tedious, repetitive, and quite a bit dated in terms of gameplay design, I was enjoying the mindlessness of it all.

I told Kristin that I was "surprisingly really enjoying the braindead nature of the game" and it was then that I realized why this game could engender so many polarizing opinions. It's my belief that there are those who always want to be challenged. They want a lot of substance with their games, they demand a lot from their money, and they are very quick to be critical of a game that doesn't offer something new... and a lot of it. Then there are people who want to enjoy a pretty ride, not have to think too hard, and simply enjoy a nice well-made game without a lot of fuss and struggle.

I am both of these people.

It dawned on me in the store the other day that when it comes to playing games, I'd much rather author a guidebook for the elaborate, multi-faceted, complex games than I would simply play them in my leisure. As odd as it may sound, I'd rather not write guidebooks for the simplistic, more "casual" games out there even though the projects would be magnitudes easier to do. The reason for this is twofold. First off, I get a rush from writing books for complicated games that really challenge me, especially ones that challenge my ability to organize and track numerous gameplay aspects and really dive deeper than just providing a surficial walkthrough and collection of maps. And on the other hand, I know that I will not invest enough time and energy into a sophisticated game in my leisure time to ever truly scratch the surface with it. I have too many other interests and, frankly, I know I'll just be pulled away from it to work on another game before finishing it anyway, so why bother?

I'd much rather try to write the guidebook for a game like Oblivion or Final Fantasy XIII than try to play it on my own because I know I won't ever really see everything there is and any attempt to will just feel like work. Similarly, I'd much rather write the guidebook for a game like Forza Motorsport or Gran Turismo and relaxingly play Project Gotham Racing or DiRT for personal enjoyment because getting the most out of them requires me to literally approach them as I would when I'm "at work." Writing the guidebook forces me to be methodical and to see everything there is in a game -- these are things I enjoy doing with games -- so that's why I tend to enjoy what many would consider simpler games when I'm playing for personal enjoyment.

Assassin's Creed fits the bill perfectly for me. It's a beautiful game with an interesting cast and story and although the gameplay mechanics are indeed repetitive, and a bit on the shallow end, they are also arranged like one big easy-to-follow checklist. I like checklists. The game allows me to be thorough and quenches the thirst of my innate completionist ways, but without ever really challenging me or requiring much effort or forethought. And in hindsight this is ultimately why I won't end up playing Grand Theft Auto IV... that series just has far too much to do, and too many distractions and built-in complexities and frustrations that I can't ever imagine seeing 10% of what the game has in store without growing tired of the whole thing or simply having to put the game down for too long because of work.

So, instead, I will continue to play AC for an hour or two periodically until I finish the game and will continue to save all the citizens (no matter how many times I hear the same generic thank-you message) and climb all of the viewpoints (with sandwich in hand) and all the while I will continue to hope that Ubisoft makes a sequel that builds on the fantastic architecture and animations and adds dozens of layers of complexity and depth to it.

Even if it means I won't end up playing it...

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