If the primary function of a video game is to provide interactive escapism, the ability to see and experience worlds wholly foreign to modern life, then Ubisoft's highly anticipated "Assassin's Creed" is an absolute achievement.
When you first push into the wealthy district of Jerusalem and climb to the apex of a minaret, the majesty of Ubisoft's vision becomes apparent. Thousands of people conduct their business in the sandy streets below. The sun glimmers off the gilded Dome of the Rock. A single bird spirals through the air above you. It's a breathtaking moment and an achievement in video game artistry.
It almost makes the game worth sixty bucks. Almost.
Unfortunately, the other half of the equation in video games is providing raw entertainment, and a handful of questionable design decisions bring "Assassin's Creed" crashing back to earth like the hero, Altair, when he makes a misstep on top of an ancient tower. While the exploration elements of "Assassin's Creed" may soar, the repetitive laundry list of missions the player is tasked with turn the game into a bit of a chore.
"Assassin's Creed" spins the yarn of Altair, a member of the Hashshashin order, a secret cabal that undertook political murder in the Holy Land. (Little factoid: Hashshashin is where the word "assassin" is actually derived.)
The game has two plot twists in it that will not be spoiled here, but their effect on the narrative renders it uneven, but certainly not uninteresting.
Early on, Altair's arrogance gets the better of him and he is reduced in rank within the order. To restore his honor, he must commit nine murders. The execution of said murders (if you’ll pardon the pun) take up the majority of the game.
The assassination missions send you to each major city three times, each time exploring a new district to gather intelligence on your latest target. Each target is particularly loathsome, such as a slave trader or a butcher posing as a doctor.
Your first few murders are quite exciting, actually. The rhythm of accepting an assignment, collecting intelligence to set up the successful execution, and then finally assassinating the target before making a dramatic getaway through the crowded streets or lofty rooftops works exceptionally well. But when it becomes apparent that you must repeat this nearly exact same process nine times with only a slight change in scenery, "Assassin's Creed" starts to stumble.
Some of the investigations themselves are not particularly engaging. The eavesdropping mission, for example, is as simplistic as sitting on a city bench and looking at a shady character. The interrogation mission tasks you with following a servant of the target to a dark alley and then beating him until he imparts some information.
When it comes time to actually assassinate the target, the game regains its pulse even though the motions of entering an enemy stronghold are just as repetitive as the investigation missions. Some assassinations require you to sneak up behind a target and thrust a small blade into their neck, while others devolve into chaotic chases through packed streets.
As your assassin regains rank and recovers weapons and skills, the combat in "Assassin's Creed" grows more interesting. It's easy to dismiss it as a button-masher, but once you earn back a short blade for countering attacks and the ability to dodge blows (yes, you actually have to earn that skill), dealing with throngs of city guards becomes more manageable. However, by the last third of the game, the combat is lopsided in your favor. With a little practice, you’ll be plenty adept at surviving street fights.
Like a "Grand Theft Auto" game, there are optional missions that extend the life of "Assassin's Creed." There are hundreds of flags strewn about the kingdom to collect, dozens of citizens to rescue from belligerent guards, and many vantage points to check out for a logbook of sorts. These side missions are designed to encourage exploration, but the sweeping scenes are reward enough for poking your nose around the Holy Land.
"Assassin's Creed" is easily one of the finest-looking games of this generation, thanks in no small part to Ubisoft's ambitious vision for reconstructing the Holy Land of the Third Crusade. From the meticulous detail in the courtyard surrounding the Dome of the Rock to the jaw-dropping vistas you see while galloping across the kingdom on horseback, no game this year will edge gamers closer to splurging on a high-definition television.
But the insane visuals do come at an occasional cost. There were multiple times when smooth animations turned jittery. Once caught in a spin, the game struggles to recover, sometimes taking upwards of five minutes to restore fluidity. On one occasion, the game simply had to be restarted because it was nearly unplayable.
(Note: The Xbox 360 version of "Assassin's Creed" was used for this review, but there are no game content differences between it and the PlayStation 3 edition.)
"Assassin's Creed" is certainly worth a rental so you can storm through a campsite full of Crusaders on horseback, crushing them beneath your hooves. It's worth a rental to drive your secret blade into the throat of a dastardly figure or two and escape detection by weaving through streets full of beggars and vase-carrying merchants. But it's not worth a purchase to endure ten hours of highly repetitive missions that during the middle third of the game into a bore — albeit a beautiful one.