The game starts off in a somewhat expository manner, explaining that the main character of Desmond Miles is going to be reliving the past through "genetic memory" of one of his ancestors: Altair, an assassion who lived during the Third Crusade near Jerusalem. After a brief tutorial session, the game proper starts. In a way, this opening set the scene somewhat for the rest of the series. Every game since has started with some exposition to either get players up to speed somewhat, or remind them of what they already should know. This isn't a bad point of the series; it happens quickly, tells players only the essential details, and throws them into the action.
The storytelling is conducted in a reasonable manner, most of which occurs through cosmetically interactive cutscenes. In the cutscenes the player still has limited control over the movement of their character and sometimes of the camera. There are limits on the range of both, but it still gives the player the feeling that they have some control while still retaining focus on the key parts of the scene. It also includes the strange concept of "glitches" whereby quicktime effects allow the player to press a button to get a "better camera view" of the cutscene at hand. While this is an interesting enough idea, it does distract the player from the content at times, and leaves them wondering "well, why can't I just have the best angle automatically?". This concept was fortunately ditched from subsequent games, but so was the cosmetic interaction.
DNA strands on-screen.. Quick! Push a button!
"The Kingdom" which is the open world space between the three cities of Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus, is one of the most expansive and attractive open world areas in a game to date. It's big, has variety in design, and has some lovely landscape throughout it. It's really a pity that more wasn't done with the area and that it effectively just acts as a treasure hunt area between the cities where all the action happens. It's an area where no set gameplay happens. It's just there for the sake of being there and providing some spatial separation the "real" locations of the game. The level design for all three cities is also spectacular, and the view from some of the highest points is quite dizzying.
Much of the player's time can be (and for the most part was) spent by players climbing to viewpoints, tracking down citizens to save, and hunting through cities and the massive open world area that linked them for collectible flags and templars to kill. These areas are beautifully designed, and even though the technical side of the graphics shows its age today, they are still impeccably designed and look gorgeous. Even now, it's quite easy to stop and admire the handiwork of the talented people of the art team. It's just unfortunate that you're only exploring their landscape mostly to do busy work, and scour it in search of virtual achievements. Yes, that's right, Assassin's Creed has achievements for finding all the flags and killing all the templars scattered about the levels of the game. That's the only gameplay incentive provided to the player to explore, which is a disappointment considering how good it still looks.
Yes, it's a promo shot, but the game still looks good
The main problem with Assassin's Creed is that in retrospective it feels like a tech demo. I enjoyed it at the time, and I can even enjoy it now, but the problem is that the development team really hadn't worked out what they wanted to do in terms of gameplay. The gameplay effectively consists of: free running, exploration, repetitive information gathering missions, and nine assassinations. Ultimately, the bulk of the hours for most players will end up being spent doing exploration, which is a bit of a sad indictment on the gameplay designers, because most of the enjoyment of the game is being derived through the work of the level designers. Of course, you can just run around assassinating guards and getting the satisfying semi-metallic "schink" noise of a successful blade kill on unsuspecting templars, but there's a limit to how long this can last. Especially since escaping any guards chasing you if you happen to get spotted tends to be laughable a laughable simple prospect.
The outside of this, the actual "side missions" the game offers are lamentably straightforward and unfortunately tedious. Saving citizens is a simple prospect of killing a few guards. Eavesdropping for information is sitting on a bench, pushing a button and watching a cutscene. Interrogations require you to walk behind someone, and then just mash the attack button until they yield. Pickpocketing is much the same, except you have to hold the button instead of pushing it repeatedly. There's nothing engaging or varied in these tasks, and the benefits for performing them are fairly limited. Achievements, slightly increased health, and "assassination information" that typically didn't really offer much that was useful for the player. Fortunately, you could get away with only doing a couple of these (rather than all six) before unlocking each assassination. To anyone playing the game now, I would strongly recommend doing on the bare minimum, then jumping to the assassination.
More stabby, less flabby
The assassinations themselves are where the most fun of Assassin's Creed comes from, and it was obvious that this was recognised by the designers, because that's what was expanded significantly in the sequels. They're still fun in the original game. Getting a path close to your target, chasing them down, and ending their life with your hidden blade are... well, being an assassin. This is what players wanted from the game, not "sitting on a bench" creed. The problem is that when you play through the game without engaging in the repetitive aspects of the gameplay, you could potentially get through it in around 8 hours, though I suppose that is on par with (or better than) your average modern day shooter.
The core "historical" sections of the game are also interspersed with modern day segments where you play as Desmond Miles. This also ends up being a bit tedious as well. Desmond walks at an inexorably slow pace, and has very limited interaction with his surroundings. Also, if you don't want to miss out on any of the "story" you have to go around and scour the area he is in whenever you get the chance, else it's quite easy to miss something. Mercifully, the area isn't that large, but that just makes it worse when you're comparing his speed with that of his ancestor Altair.
Assassin's Creed is a game mostly makes you think about what could have been rather than what was, which both a sad indictment on the game, as well as a testament to its premise. Despite it being so woefully thin on the ground in terms of meaningful gameplay, it still managed to garner a lot of interest and a fair amount of praise, which led to the creation of the sequel which delivered in so many ways. That is what I'll be discussing in my next post...