As a lover of stealth games, I decided to finally play the immensely popular Assassin’s Creed series. What I learned was that stealth seemed secondary to action and that the first game in the series was ridiculously clunky. Despite this, I believe the game’s concept has tremendous potential and I understand why the series became a juggernaut in the industry. Still, the first game has a boatload of shortcomings that make it a frustrating experience.
What makes Assassin’s Creed have so much potential is its concept. The main character accesses his ancestor’s memories and uses these memories to locate ancient artifacts. The memories that are accesses are that of an elite assassin. What makes the idea so enthralling is that the series draws its settings and stories from major historical events. In the case of the first Assassin’s Creed, the game takes place in the Holy Land during the 3rd Crusade. History is something that I personally find very interesting, so going to these critical points in civilization is a concept that really makes me want to play more of the series.
The plot of Assassin’s Creed is centered on the conflict between the Assassin’s Order and the Knights Templar. Both operate as underground societies with ambitions to shape the world. The protagonist, Altaïr, is tasked with eliminating 9 key members of the Knights Templar. These are all influential people in society who are scheming to overthrow their leaders and install a new order. They commit dastardly deeds to enforce their will on the people around them and the player must find and assassinate them. The plot is shrouded in mystery, as you piece by piece uncover the plans of the Knights Templar and what their scheme entails. While that’s happening, you have brief interludes outside of the memories in the modern-day world, which has plenty of intrigue of its own. The story is what made me want to keep playing the game, as I wanted to learn what was really happening in the memories and in the modern world. The story is mostly condensed towards the end, and I wish it had been paced more evenly throughout the game. The first half of the game is fairly slow moving but it does pick up at the end.
Assassin’s Creed for better or worse is known as an innovative and influential game. Much of today’s game market draws at least a little inspiration from Assassin’s Creed. One example of this is climbable towers that reveal portions of the map. Farcry, Horizon Zero Dawn, and even The Legend of Zelda are all example of major titles that adopted the dreaded “Ubisoft tower”. The concept is that towers are scattered across the map, and climbing these towers unveils portions of the map. Generally, this includes revealing collectables, sidequests, and other content. This all started in the original Assassin’s Creed. To be honest this is kind of an odd concept to adopt, it is not particularly fun, at best it’s a minor annoyance. Climbing viewpoints to get a scope of the area around you and to spot points of interest is something that could be engaging. But climbing towers to reveal the map just feels contrived.
To be fair to Assassin’s Creed, at the time the technology to climb towers was actually kind of impressive. Seamlessly running up walls, grabbing ledges, and scaling a building was a novelty. Maybe I am just grumpy and unimpressed because by the time I played the first Assassin’s Creed, this was something I had already seen dozens of times, but I at least understand the appeal. I wish that there had just been far less of these towers. In the game there are 3 major cities and the surrounding kingdom area. There are 3 districts in each of Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus. One district per assassination target. There should have been 1 tower per district to reveal the entire thing. Instead, there’s about 10 each. This is completely obnoxious and unnecessary as the mechanic grew tiresome after the 5th tower scaled. Hours of game time are toiled away holding up on the joystick to watch Altaïr slowly make his way upwards.
At its heart, this is the key issue that I had with Assassin’s Creed, the game is needlessly repetitive. The towers are just a single example of that fact. Each of the assassination quests can be broken into 4 parts: Go to the new district, climb towers to reveal the map, do intel missions, and finally assassinate the target. The first 3 of those aspects are inane and mind-numbing. Intel missions consist of revealing knowledge about the target you want to assassinate. Things such as his location, where the guards are, how to break into his hideout, and other general tips. The player can do a few of these to unlock the assassination mission and extra intel quests will just give you bonus information. Intel quests on paper sound like an enjoyable experience, but in practice they are just as repetitive as climbing towers. Things like eavesdropping, pickpocketing, and interrogating are just slow and mindless filler. The only enjoyable intel missions were things such as clearing out guards or stealthily assassinating archers. Those types of missions were engaging and required some thought and execution, the rest of the quests not so much.
As far as the main assassination goes, these missions were fun for the most part. You have to infiltrate areas and avoid guards as to not alert everybody. This requires some planning and clever pathing to get to the target undetected. Once the target is eliminated, you have to make your way back to your hideout. By far and away these were the most enjoyable portions of the game. Actually assassinating, like the title of the game implies. Also, a lot of story and exposition were provided in these sections to make them even more desirable to play. My one issue is that some of the targets were actually impossible to take out stealthily. You had to take them on in a duel rather than sneaking up behind them.
The crux of this problem is that Assassin’s Creed seems to not actually contain a lot of stealth elements. Sure, running and hiding from guards could be considered stealth. But I wouldn’t consider Need for Speed: Most Wanted to be a stealth game even though you do just that. When the game actually lets you sneak about and take out guards and targets, I had a lot of fun. Unfortunately, there seems to be a larger emphasis on action and adventure rather than espionage and tactical assassination. Sword fighting enemies was just easier and more common than actually assassinating. To be fair, my own expectations lend to my bias as I thought more stealth would be present, but still I feel let down. This is more of an action-adventure with some stealth elements rather than a stealth game with some action elements. Also, the Assassin’s Order is based on the real life Hashishin. They were a group of assassins who would take out their political opposition in public to make statements. So, I suppose the emphasis on eliminating the targets in public is fine, but I would have still liked to see more stealth options implemented.
Outside of assassinations and intel missions, most of the game time will be spent running from place to place. This aspect I actually enjoyed, it felt good to run across rooftops and parkour my way across the city. If you do anything out of the ordinary, guards would be alerted and you would have to go into hiding. Exploring these historic cities was fairly fun, albeit the choice of location was a little bleak. All 3 cities were brown and sandy and a little more color may have been appreciated, but that’s a minor flaw. When I do try more games in the series, I look forward to exploring other cities. Other than that, the game does have a few control problems. I found the controls to be a little unwieldy and sometimes it was difficult to have the character do what I wanted him to do. I give a little leeway here because as a 2007 game parkouring across rooftops and scaling city walls was a new concept and it works fairly well. Also, the user interface is pretty confusing and requires to many button presses to do what you want. This is a concession made to fit the games theme of being in a simulation, but when I have to go through 5 different menus to quit the game I think they went a little too far.
Overall, I understand why Assassin’s Creed is such an influential game. An open world with completely traversable cities is a tempting prospect. I can’t help but feel a little let down however, as I feel the series has tremendous potential due to its concept. Traveling to different periods in history and impacting the course of civilization as an assassin just sounds so cool. I hope future titles live up to this idea, as I felt the first Assassin’s Creed felt more like a proof of concept than independent and functional game.