Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Running The Rooftops

Crikey - nearly two months since my last update. As is usually the case when there is a long gap between posts, I was wrestling with a game I am not enjoying very much. This time it was the fundamentally awful Neverwinter Nights 2 expansion pack Storm of Zehir - something I will no doubt write about when I have completed it. In the meantime I have been amusing myself murdering the residents of the Holy Lands in Assassin's Creed.

Where to start with this one? Well, you play a bloke in a lab set somewhere in the future but you're put in a machine which lets you relive your genetic memories of an assassin who lived back in the times of the third Crusade which is the main body of the game. Back in the past you are disgraced assassin Altair, working to regain his standing by killing targets of note in the area. What this translates to is hours of fun running over the rooftops of three different ancient cities, leaping like a fool from giant towers and getting into fights with irate guards who don't approve of your antics.

Initial impressions are good. Assassin's Creed looks beautiful - there is no other way to put it. From the detail on your bloke's clothing and weapons to the gorgeous panoramic views of the cities as you first approach it never fails to impress. It isn't just the individual pieces either - the way the character models fit together when they are interacting is very precise which gets rid of that strange weightless feeling you sometimes get with graphical games when someone seems to be sliding over a landscape rather than walking, or someone picks something up and you get the impression the object is following their hand around rather than actually being grasped by it. None of that in Assassin's Creed - everything feels satisfyingly weighty. When Altair plummets from a rooftop and hits the ground, you feel the impact. When he is stabbed by a guard (and he will be - a lot) you feel the impact. It is great for the atmosphere and really draws you in from the first.

After a short while of enjoying the visuals and playing through the initial tutorial phases of the game you'll be thrown into the plot proper and told to go kill someone in nearby Damascus. There is a quick hike through some more lovely terrain and your first breathtaking view of a city before you find yourself standing in a full ancient city wondering what to do next. Fortunately your assassin is an accomplished free runner so it's time to indulge in the next distraction from the main game. Point your chap at a wall, press the appropriate buttons and - look! - up he goes! You can spend hours running through the streets and over the rooftops before you even remember there is a game involved and you should really get on with your mission.

As an aside, if you don't know what free running is go and look for some videos on YouTube. It is quite possibly the coolest thing you'll ever see. Go now. We'll wait.

Anyway, in your time running around like a loon you've probably stumbled across one of the submissions. There are six for each assassination, each revealing a bit more information about your target and allowing you to plan your approach but if you fancy winging it you only have to do two to be allowed to get on with the stabbing. Then you are off on the heels of your chosen ne'er-do-well, wandering up to him and filling his face with your blade. Then you get to do it again - eight more times.

So - does any of this actually hold together? Well, yes. The movement controls are excellent, allowing you to stride purposefully through a crowded street one moment before hitting the free run button and climbing straight up a wall and jumping from rooftop to rooftop. They are possibly a little simple - almost everything can be accomplished by pointing in the direction you want to go and holding down the free run button - but it all looks so stunning that you can get lost in the cinematics and just marvel that you are making your man do all these cool things. Then there is the combat, which is a bit harder to get to grips with. It is also a very simple one-button affair, but relies on precise timing to pull off some of the flashy moves. Whilst that is fine as a concept, either I couldn't do it right or something about the sequence recognition wasn't quite right as I couldn't consistently pull off some of the block / counter combinations and when surrounded by a horde of enemies (something that happens a lot later on) my bloke didn't appear to react in quite the same way as when facing fewer opponents. So the combat isn't great, but with a bit of practice you can become quite a proficient swordsman and again it is helped enormously by the sound and visuals. Both have significant and satisfying weight behind them, meaning you really feel it every time you ram your sword through a hapless guard.

Obviously there are problems with Assassin's Creed. The assassinations - something you'd expect to be a main part of the game - are actually a very small part of the playing time and planning your route to the target, whilst fun, is hampered by both the interface and the cinematics. You are constantly told that clearing the rooftops of guards is a good idea before you go in and eliminate your target. Sadly, to get into the assassination sequence you have to go and stand on a predetermined point and allow the cutscene to play. You can move in these cutscenes but not actually act so I ruined my first kill by moving into position and being unable to stab the target whilst he spewed his piece. Sadly when the cutscene ended he turned round and bumped into me, recognising me instantly and setting every guard in the city on me. The game expects you to stand back and watch the cutscene from its chosen position (one in which on some occasions you really don't want to stand) and then think about your plan and how to execute it. It takes a little getting used to and can be really quite irritating.

That's the cinematics - but the interface is worse. You have a map (accessed by TAB) which is great for getting around, but doesn't zoom in enough to show your target area. It also doesn't remember your zoom level so if you check your map frequently get ready for a lot of scrolling. There is also another screen, accessed through the escape key, which shows the results of your investigations - including any maps you've picked up and the routes suggested by it. But no overlay between the pieces of information or any way to collate them into one place so if you've found a couple of maps you're going to have to flick between them (slowly) to absorb it all. It's a real pain, and hidden in a bizarrely obscure place - I had performed 4 assassinations before I even found these screens, which is nearly half the game.

There are other niggles. One of the last pair of assassinations takes place in Acres's port and for some reason your super-fit free running champion assassin cannot swim so every step is dicing with instant death - and many of the denizens of the docks are drunken sailors who love to try and shove you in. Killing them is frowned upon so you have to be careful. There are also moments when the climbing breaks down a little - for some unexplained reason you have to manoeuvre yourself to precisely the correct position before it will let you proceed which is remarkable mostly because it is so unusual.

These faults do not spoil the game though. I have seen Assassin's Creed get a rough ride in a number of reviews and I'm really not sure why. It is like being in a highly interactive film - the two-levelled plot I mentioned at the beginning may seem pointless but it does evolve in an interesting way, and the story is worth following - and the fact is that you can spend hours just running around enjoying the scenery before even worrying about anything else. Overall though, I think it's the pacing I love the most about Assassin's Creed. When you want it to be slow, it is. You can stride around the city like you own it or entirely disappear into the crowd. But if you want to up the pace you can step on the throttle and zoom to the rooftops and if you want it even more interesting just stab a guard and wait for his mates to descend on you like a pack of wolves.

I loved playing Assassin's Creed. If it wasn't for Mass Effect and Portal I think it would be my favourite game of the last twelve months. Even so, that puts it in the top three and that's hardly a shameful place to be.