What I'm about to say will have no real impact on whether you buy Assassin's Creed or not, because it's already knocking dead certs off the top spot and is selling like hot cakes. If you haven't bought it already, you're probably not going to bother and can't see why everyone's making a song and dance about some game set in Turkey or something with knights running over rooftops or whatever.
Well, I've been singing and dancing with the best of ’em and now I'm settling down for a few good sessions to see if it lives up to the hype. Before I even played the game, the first thing I thought was, how come the Crusades have never been done before? It's rich in legend, myth and intrigue, plus the obligatory violence that every game setting needs. All I can say is, good call Ubi!
Assassin's Creed sure is purdy. The animation is absolutely incredible as Altair swaggers down streets and then shoulders his way through crowds with all the animal magnetism of Viggo Mortenson. And that's before he starts leaping from rooftops and showing us his parkour prowess. All this and not a hint of framerate drop means it's a pretty slick debut.
When it comes to crowd scenes, Assassin's Creed has got it licked. The 12th century cities of Damascus, Jerusalem and Acre are beautifully realised and bustle with activity and noise. Carpet sellers, beggars and agitators mingle with scholars and soldiers, who all make up the thriving cast of NPCs. Walking the streets is a joy and passersby react if you start scaling walls and leaping off rooftops. You go on your way as people question your sanity under their breath.
I'd like to say it's Hitman in a cooler setting, but it doesn't quite engage me as much as Agent 47 first did. Altai has none of the freedom that 47 is given in the Hitman games, leaving me feeling like I'm being led by the nose. Instead of being given a multitude of possible solutions to one puzzle, Assassin's Creed merely leads you down a set path and then finally gives you a bit of space to do the actual killing.
We all like to bleat on about sandbox gaming, but I think Assassin's Creed could have scaled new heights. I would like to be able to turn on taps and steal apples – hey, I'm an assassin; I don't need to pay for fruit. I'd like to be able to open doors in the bustling cities and jump through windows, running through houses in a Jason Bourne style. Except it doesn't quite go like that. There's a lot more stab here, run there and jumping in hay involved. And that's not quite so cool.
Ubisoft has tried to reset the balance, by allowing you a modicum of control over your character during cutscenes. However, being allowed to pace in a small circle doesn't do much to alleviate the overall lack of freedom. The cutscenes are still largely non-interactive and the overall gameplay is still far more limited than it could have been.
Assassin's Creed has highlighted the fact that we're now at a point where cutscenes are almost invisible. They're seamlessly integrated into the actual game – well kind of. Times are such that we no longer have to ogle at glorious cutscenes before being thrown jarringly back to clunky-in-comparison ingame graphics. However, we still have to endure the ya-de-ya-de-can-we-get-back-to-the-game-now issue.
Despite Ubisoft's best, if minimal, efforts, the cutscenes in Assassin's Creed still offer a moment of forced inactivity, which need something more to be relieved, than a little bit of room-pacing.
There's a lot to be said for a good cutscene. Sometimes the gamer needs a change of pace or time to reflect and what better way than a beauteous cutscene? Understandably, an adventure game like Assassin's Creed needs a little bit of exposition and for the most part it's fairly well done. Maybe developers will never come up with a truly successful way round the cutscene, and maybe we need to accept that.
Perhaps it's too much to expect games to deliver full interactivity at every level, deliver a great narrative and a realistic, immersive experience. That's quite a big ask. Movies just have to tell a story to a passive viewer. There's no control handed over, no random element. For a movie, the art is crafted and delivered, but with games, the art is crafted and then tinkered with by the acts and decisions of the player.
As game environments become ever more complicated and mechanics become more and more polished, gamers are expecting more and more control. Our cutscenes are indistinguishable from the game, so why shouldn't we expect to interact at every juncture? Maybe it's just too much to ask. Maybe, instead we just need quality cutscenes, which means great voice acting, great directing and top notch story telling.
Give me a good story, the ability to silently kill a target, scale and wall, leap over rooftops and hide in a haystack any day of the week and I'll be happy.
Most played: Assassin's Creed
Most wanted: Fable 2