Grand ambition, the kind that dreams of a game that could only run on Xbox 360, deserves a warm and grateful welcome — and Assassin’s Creed is brimming with it. But Ubisoft’s latest is also an incomplete dream — one that’s not fully realized in too many ways — and that deserves a blade slipped gently between the ribs. Spending $60 on this mixed bag of high highs and low lows is a tough call, but we’d do it simply because the good parts are that spectacular. Still, mind our caveats — we expect Assassin’s Creed to infuriate a lot of the people who play it.
Assassin’s grand ambition is to create living, breathing medieval cities and countryside that teem with people and eye-popping vistas, and its monumental success in doing so makes it one of the prettiest games on 360. All game long, you’ll pause at the top of an impossibly high tower to marvel at the sprawl of rooftops unspooling into the horizon, or dawdle in the middle of a busy city square to appreciate the bustling crowds. Everyday citizens respond naturally to you, guards chase you like you owe them money, and you can free-run across rooftops with a grace that would make the new James Bond jealous as hell. In short, this game’s graphics and crowd A.I. succeed brilliantly at immersing you in a medieval Holy Land fantasy.
But don’t play tourist for too long. After all, your job is to reshape the political machinations behind the Crusade, and that means you’ve got loads of key figures to kill at the behest of your master. The plot’s made even more interesting by a parallel, set-in-the-future story line that starts off as fascinating...but more on that later.
As far as gameplay goes, it boils down to this: you’ve got nine main targets to scout, stalk, and kill. Each one is fantastic fun, offering a great range of different environments and people. You’ll creep through ornate palaces to take out a fat merchant, hunt down a creepy doctor in a hospital, and even put an end to a scholar’s book-burning madness.
The open environments and variety of paths remind us of a spellbinding mixture of Gun and the Hitman series with tons of swordplay, free-running, and exploration thrown in for good measure. But that doesn’t mean you should expect to focus much on stealth and cunning. Quite the opposite, in fact. Assassin’s is almost entirely about action, which isn’t a bad thing, but it probably contradicts a lot of expectations.
Speaking of all that combat, what we love about Assassin’s many group battles is that there’s very little of that enemies-politely-waiting-their-turn-to-stab-you crap. These boys are in it to make you bleed, and you’ve got to scramble around and use your entire arsenal to stay alive.
You’ll need a whole lot more than your wits, though — you’ll need an absurd amount of practice. It’s a damn shame that Ubisoft Montreal sacrificed simplicity and usability simply to get all fancy and high-minded with the controls. Y is my head, A is my feet? Who cares, just make the game handle smoothly! Unfortunately, until your skills are maxed out at the end of game, the split-second timing required to pull of advanced moves will feel more like luck than skill, and even after what must be the longest tutorial ever, you’ll still constantly study the manual for a glimmer of help and hope.
In another badly missed opportunity, the 210 side missions in the game are brutally repetitive. With only six simplistic types of side quests on the menu, you’ll get to the point where you can beat each one with your eyes closed — and you’ll wish you could do it in your sleep to avoid the monotony. On top of that, you’d have to be smoking something to want to collect all 420 flags scattered around the game. Exactly what part of that tedium is supposed to make us feel like über-assassins? There’s one saving grace here, and it’s a big one: If you’re not obsessed with completing every side quest, you’d don’t have to — roughly a third is all that’s required to just finish the game. Whew!
And then…there’s the ending. What a letdown! Treading lightly, let’s just say that only one of the two primary storylines is satisfyingly resolved. The other just stops as abruptly as The Sopranos’ series finale…without six seasons of groundwork to make it meaningful. It’s an utterly unfair cliffhanger that, while pointing to an intriguing future for Assassin’s as a series, stains the whole game with a sour aftertaste.
So yeah, that’s a heap of caveats and complaints, and it’s a shame that the meat of Assassin’s isn’t as satisfying as its first impression. We still think you gotta play it (or at least rent it) because the good parts are truly majestic. Just go in with your eyes wide open, and listen for the snik! of the game’s hidden blade popping out to kill off any hope of this game living up to its full potential.
+ Spectacular cities brim with jaw-dropping vistas.
+ Primary missions kick ass.
- Repetitive side missions and ornery controls make us really wanna kill someone.
? What the hell kind of ending is that?