Wednesday, January 9, 2008

History, gameplay and graphics shine in "Assassin's Creed"

I just have one question, Honorable Assassin Altair - where can I get one of those cool, retractable blades?

The game, published by Ubisoft for the Xbox 360 and the PS3, is one of the runaway hits of 2007. "AC," according to NPD numbers from November, sold over 1.35 million units. Not bad at all for a new IP.

Set in Israel and Syria in the late 1100s, "AC" allows gamers the chance to step into the role of Altair, a member of a group of assassins. He has some really cool tricks, weapons and tries his hardest to be a Mideast version of Robin Hood.

The game begins in the near future with a science team attempting to send one of Altair's relatives into past memories for some deadly mischief. Though I am trying my best to grasp this, I think in the end the gamer is just playing a game in the midst of a game. An interesting concept, nonetheless.

The first thing to grab gamers is arguably the huge environment. There's minimal loading, and the areas are spectacular. The open sandbox really makes this game one of the best open-ended stories I have seen yet. I enjoy having freedoms in video games. If I don't want to do the mission and do side quests, please let me do so. This game does it beautifully. From traveling the road to Damascus, to roaming the cluttered streets of Jerusalem, this game is visually stunning.

You start the game in training, learning how to hide from soldiers and guards chasing you. You learn how to move through crowds, how to blend with scholars and how to master the art of killing. You will also learn about Eagle Vision, which has two uses. The first use is to discern 'who's who' in the ancestor's world. Here's a small breakdown: Red NPCs are enemies, white NPCs have information, yellow NPCs are your targets and blue NPCs are allies. It really comes in handy using the feature. You don't have to worry about hitting an innocent if you can spot your friends and foes.

You will also use Eagle Vision to map the territory you are traveling. You have to use Altair's superior climbing skills to get atop tall buildings (don't worry - they show up on the map OR they have an eagle or two flying above them) and use Eagle Vision to map the area. It's an awesome view - definitely the best seat in the house.

Ready to climb down? Not quite. You use the Leap of Faith feature to swan dive into a cart of hay. That will jar you the first times you do it.

As far as the enemy A.I., they are formidable. Expect a challenge when you kill a target and have to outwit and outrun soldiers and the like. The worst? A city alert. Liken it to the six-star alerts in "GTA." You even have the Pay-in-sprays too, just like "GTA." They are the carts of hay or small structures on the rooftops. Another cool way to evade the soldiers is to join a moving band of scholars. You have to blend - just what the word states - and the heat will drop off of you quickly. You'll also need the scholars to get past guards and into certain cities. They are silent, but provide a moving hiding place.

Looking for enemies? Don't worry - your ancestor got busy on these guys called Templars. Oh, believe me, they are ticked off with you and nothing, not even blending, will stop their relentless attacks. According to history, your ancestor killed all of them throughout the country. You can't miss them - they have on a white covering with a red cross. As much as I like the Red Cross (I have an aunt that works for them), I diced those templars with a host of weapons. Make no mistake - if the templars catch you slipping, they will kill you. They take no prisoners.

There are also mini missions - from pick-pocketing to saving citizens. For the pick-pocketing missions, you have to hold the B button down to steal the designated person's item. Be careful - and don't try to steal while they are looking at you. When you help citizens, they don't have money, but they do know townsfolk and give you perks, like a group that will cover your escape if you run through them. I never used them because by the time they showed up, I was trying to end the soldiers' hot pursuit.

One word of advice - when you do the save citizen minigames, try to get overhead - it's pretty easy because you can climb up most structures. The soldiers will leave the citizen they were harassing and climb to your position. You can cut them down as they climb or jump to you. They'll fall to their deaths and you'll be free - most cases. If you fight them one on one, be prepared to find yourself back in the near-future lab, staring at the Plexiglas above you. You don't have to worry about dying - you are really just a memory that you can control.

However, the main draw in the game are the assassin missions. You'll have a variety of them to complete, from killing a speaker to a *priest,* in several different locales. One of the toughest is infiltrating a monastery filled with NPCs that are mentally unstable. As you walk deeper into the building, some of them will attack you - it's really a challenge because you can't kill them - I did on one mission - and you will get in trouble. You'll end up facing a priest - and his men are as tough as him.

The missions can be repetitive at times - you'll feel you have saved a town or two after saving citizens all over the city. You'll tire of having to restart the pick-pocketing missions over and over again. It can be frustrating, but when you look at the game and realize there's nothing else as innovative as this on the market, you cut it some slack.

The voice acting is good - the beggars, the town criers are eerily accurate. The soundtrack will dazzle as well.

Yet, the sweetest thing about the game? The graphics. You will find yourself in awe of the Holy Land as you scale a building and just look around. It's absolutely incredible. I found myself pausing to look and marvel. I have always wanted to travel to Israel - and this game only ignited my desire to go soon.

The people are well animated - the Leap of Faith is spectacular, the towns like lifelike and the countryside itself? Amazing. With the exception of having to deal with rowdy soldiers and mercenaries from time to time, it's a blast just riding your horse, or traveling on foot, down the road to Damascus. If you play it just once, you won't believe your eyes.

The controls are solid - you won't fall too often, but once you are on the rooftops in town, it's a different world. If you get up enough speed, you can even jump long distances. And what I find interesting is - most of the assassin's bureau are located on rooftops themselves. The camera angles, however, need a few tweaks. Sometimes, you will be on a rooftop and be stuck in a crazy camera angle. And when you are trying to run from soldiers, great camera angles are essential to get away.

Running from rooftop to rooftop and scaling tall buildings in a single bound never, ever gets old.

The good: Open sandbox, killer graphics, awesome gameplay, intelligent enemy A.I., Leap of Faith, FTW!

The bad: Relentless enemy A.I. won't allow you to take in the beautiful sites - some camera angle issues - but minor.

The ugly: Why in the devil does every templar want to kill the ancestor? There's some serious, serious hating going on.

Overall: 9.5 (out of 10): This game is one of the best games of the year on the PS3 and Xbox 360. You don't have to worry about picking up an Uzi and spraying down enemies - just grab your throwing knives and slice them like a Thanksgiving turkey. This game combines several elements and flawlessly executes them to near perfection. Yeah, the learning curve may be a wii bit frustrating at times, but it's so worth it.

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