Assassin’s Creed is the story of Altaïr, an elite assassin living in the Middle East during the crusades. Except that it isn’t, really. It’s actually the story of some guy living in the present, who, thanks to a Matrix-like virtual reality, can relive the memories of Altaïr, his ancient ancestor. I’m sure there’s a reason why he does this, but by the time the game got around to explaining it I had already stopped caring. A story about medieval assassins wreaking havoc during the Crusades is already good enough; it certainly doesn’t need some kind of meta-story to make it better.
In fact, the narrative of Assassin’s Creed is the most obvious example of how badly designed this game truly is. Rather than just stick with the Crusades Era setting that every mission takes place in (which would have been perfectly fine), we instead get this nonsense about time travel and virtual reality. It adds absolutely nothing to the game or its story, and actually slows things down quite a bit, as you waste time watching pointless cutscenes that try to make sense of this convoluted, superfluous plotline. Worse yet, are the occasional interactive segments that take place in the present, in which you’re limited to walking (running for these scenes is disabled, most likely for no better reason than to punish you for playing this game) around a large empty room, with little to interact with. These parts don’t even contribute anything to the already unnecessary “present day” story, and appear to serve no purpose other than to stretch out the amount of time you waste doing things that aren’t any damn fun.
But that’s just the most obvious flaw in what should be a case study in How Not to Make a Game. To see more shining examples of the stupidity of AC‘s design, let’s take a look at the way it’s structured. The game is broken out into nine assassinations (at least, if nothing else, the title’s not misleading). In order to carry out an assassination, you must first speak with the local head of the Assassin’s Bureau. In terms of gameplay, this means walking from Point A to Point B. That’s it. After that, you must complete an “investigation”, which typically requires you to carry out three or more “mini-missions”. There are only four different kinds of investigations, which are repeated on every level. They are:
- Eavesdrop — Stand near a person, and then watch a cutscene.
- Pickpocket — Stand near a person, watch a cutscene, then walk up to them and press a button.
- Interrogation — Stand near a person, watch a cutscene, and then punch them a couple of times.
- Informer — This one varies. Sometimes, you will have to kill some guards, but other times you just have to stand there and listen to him talk for a bit. The third option is that you might have to run a checkpoint race, which is always done for the most illogical reasons. “Oh Altaïr, I have some information you might find helpful. But first, I accidentally dropped all my flags, and if I don’t get them back, the guards will kill me…for some reason. You would think I would have been more careful with them knowing my life depended on it and not gone running around in a perfect circuit around rooftops and down deserted back alleys, but apparently I’m an idiot. Anyway, if you retrieve all the flags (including that one right next to me that I could easily just get myself) within two minutes, I will share my information with you.”
Aside from the dialogue being spoken, these “investigations” play out exactly the same on every single level. That means that you end up doing the same four missions over and over throughout the game. And when you consider that the eavesdrop, pickpocket and interrogate missions are all basically the same thing (listen to some dialogue and then maybe hit a button), it’s really more like doing the same two missions over and over again. Now, if you’ve figured out that a game about assassins in which you spent most of your time walking around and listening to other people talk doesn’t sound like much fun, then congratulations! You already know more about game design than the makers of Assassin’s Creed. Try not to let that go to your head.
AN INTERMITTENT BLAST
The most disappointing part is that the core gameplay of Assassin’s Creed is actually pretty good; the platforming is nicely done and the sword combat is both fun and surprisingly deep. In fact, this is some of the best fighting I’ve ever played in an action game. Unfortunately, the way the game is designed, these aspects of the game are marginalized, usually appearing either as side missions, or as the consequence of you screwing up and alerting the guards to your presence. Yes, that’s right…the game actually “punishes” your mistakes by making you play the only part of this whole mess that’s actually any fun. Needless to say, I spent a lot of time intentionally drawing attention to myself, picking fights with guards, and just generally playing the game the “wrong” way. Given the game’s interesting locales and excellent graphics, there was the potential here to have a very nice, Crusades-era GTA-type game, but instead we get this disaster of half-assed design and poorly-thought out ideas.
In the end, it’s not that Assassin’s Creed is the worst game ever made, in fact, it manages to be pretty average, but it should have been so much better. The pieces are all there, but the people making the game had no idea how to put them together properly. Far too much time is spent walking around and listening to people talk, and not nearly enough emphasis is put on jumping across rooftops, sneaking into heavily guarded areas, and getting into sword fights; you know, the stuff that’s actually fun. Here’s hoping they sack the design team and do a better job on the inevitable Assassin’s Creed 2.