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Assassins Creed Revisited – the game that launched a franchise

Having recently played the underwhelming Assassins Creed Unity to try and find out whether all its launch bugs have been fixed  I thought it might be interesting to go back to where the franchise started and see how the initial instalment fares on a  modern PC. Time to go back to where it started, this is the original Assassins Creed revisited.

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Assassins Creed was released in 2007, which still stands as one of the single greatest years in gaming history. The 360/PS3 generation hit its stride and we saw new franchises appearing throughout the year, such as the Darkness and S.T.A.L.K.E.R., as well as great sequels like Halo 3, Call of Duty 4, Project Gotham Racing 4 and Super Mario Galaxy. As the year drew to a close we saw a torrent of landmark franchises appear –  Portal, Bioshock, Mass Effect, Uncharted and of course, Assassins Creed. Looking back at the sheer volume of incredible games that 2007 produced I find it absolutely unbelievable that I played and completed John Woo’s Strangehold. What was I thinking…

Assassins Creed had a little bit of an odd arrival. The developers and marketing were very clear about what the game was – it emphasised running and hiding over fighting, it heavily featured climbing and exploration, and there was a secret sub story in the modern world. On release people seemed to criticise it for these very reasons, as well as a few additional ones – it was hugely repetitive and there seemed to be a distinct lack of actual assassinating.

Setting

For those that don’t know, here’s the set up…

You play as master assassin Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad of the Secret Order of Assassins. Except you don’t, because you play as master bartender Desmond Miles of the order of tedious protaganists. Altaïr and the assassins are locked in a centuries long conflict with the Templars, a group that wish to control mankind because generic evil motivation. In the present the Templars have formed Abstergo industries and kidnapped Desmond because he is a descendant of Altaïr. They hope to unlock his “genetic memories” using a device called an Animus. Ultimately their goal is to allow them to find the “Apple of Eden” – a powerful and generic Mcguffin that could end the world. Abstergo are refreshingly honest about their intent to kill Desmond and it’s unlikely his lack of winning personality will convince them otherwise.

If you didn’t follow that plot summary, you’re not alone. I wrote it and I barely understand it.

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Desmond wakes after his own voice sends him to sleep.
Assassins Creed Revisited

Having played nearly every AC game since the start I wasn’t sure how the first would hold up. Revisiting Assassins Creed with the benefit of hindsight it is clear just how refreshing and novel an IP this game is. I’ve said it many times, but often the first instalment in a franchise doesn’t get the credit it deserves for setting up the ideas and concept that later games would perfect. Is Assassins Creed 2 the better game? Undoubtedly yes, but it would not exist without the brilliant framework laid down by Altaïr’s story.

That said the game doesn’t make it easy to get going. As introductions go, Assassins Creed must surely have one of the slowest. The game begins with Desmond freaking out in the Animus so that he can have the game explained to him. Abstergo decide to ease Desmond into the Animus gently by making him endure a horrendously slow and unskippable tutorial. Next Altaïr is sent on a short mission that mostly comprises unskippable cut scenes and a gentle intro to the game’s parkour mechanic. Altaïr screws up, returns to the Assassin’s hideout but brings the Templars with him. You fight them off, are stripped of all your gear and forced to endure torture by cutscene.

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Altaïr losing most of his weapons, and with it the game’s fun.

Following this you are sent on a variety of short boring missions in the Assassin compound, followed by more dialogue, then another few missions, then some more dialogue. It’s all offensively slow. At points it becomes almost comical: eventually you are give your equipment and told to go to Jerusalem, only to find a man blocking the gate who makes you participate in a sword fighting tutorial.

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One of the many bastards that need something from you. Nice shadows though.

If you can make it past the introduction, you are let loose on horseback through “The Kingdom” which acts as a hub that connects the game’s three cities and the Assassins hideout. Arriving in Jerusalem on horseback the city appears stretched out below you, waiting to be explored. This was breath taking in 2007, and it is still an impressive introduction. It’s all a bit of a shame really, because even during this tedious start the visuals are impressive, the location is intriguing, the set up is great and the game controls well. It’s just a pity it takes so long to get the main meat of the game.

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Welcome to the Kingdom – a beautiful but empty land.
Gameplay

The game itself follows a very consistent formula: climb a specific tower and “synchronise” to display 6 objectives in each area, complete enough to qualify for the assassination mission and then get killing. Success in each assassination triggers a bizarre scene where Altair has a chat with his victim just before they snuff it. These propel the plot along, but also kill the rhythm.

The climbing is certainly slow by comparison to modern entries in the series, but also feel more authentic. The game allows you to make more suicidal leaps, for better or worse, and there is generally less of a feeling of having your hand held. The game is also true to its’ word in that it emphasises stealth and flight over standing and fighting. The highlights of the game are committing an assassination, only to have the scramble over nearby rooftops to lose a hoard of pursuing enemies.

We take a look back at the Assassins Creed game that started it all.

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The rooftop escapes are the highlight

In fairness to Assassins Creed  it was never supposed to be about the combat, but even so it’s a missed opportunity. The Batman Arkham series has shown that a one button combat system can work brilliantly, but here it comes off as overly simplistic. Altair also doesn’t have the same interesting bag of tricks that Enzo would come to possess, meaning combat is not only less interesting but notably harder than later entries.

Personally, I loved Assassins Creed in 2007 but I was bored senseless by the end of it. All of the tasks are the same and the assassinations are largely forgettable. There is a lot of rinse and repeat until it’s game over. Others hated the fact that before starting each new assassination you are required to travel from your assassin hideout all the way to your destination on horseback. Others bemoaned the sections in between assassinations where Desmond tries to escape Abstergo. Personally I quite enjoyed this travelling as I felt it gave a sense of realism and build up, but like most of Assassins Creed it wears out its’ welcome long before the game’s end.

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Personally I enjoyed the dramatic arrival at a new city, but like most of Assassins Creed it wears out by the end.

The sections of the game spent outside the Animus are definitely the minority portion, but still take a significant amount of time. Desmond has gotten a lot of grief over the years, and rightly so. The sections in the real world do offer variety but they are too bogged down in dialogue. Meanwhile Desmond’s attempts to learn more and ultimately escape do not have the drama that they promise and are a missed opportunity.

PC Port

I played the game on PC via UPlay, Ubisoft’s own game service. This was the Director’s Cut version of the game which adds additional tasks for the build up to assassinations. This was something the game needed but it’s not enough to prevent the game from being hugely repetitive. Loading up Assassins Creed I was a little disappointed that the game won’t scale up to 4K, but 1080p is acceptable. I was more annoyed the game disables anti-aliasing at higher resolutions. 1080p and 4x AA might have been a dream in 2008 but what is the point in giving options if you aren’t allowed to use them? Fortunately thanks to the brilliant Tweak Guides it is possible to enable this in the .ini file, and it makes a vast amount of difference. The screenshots below show a lot of the jagged edges, but due to the speed of the characters and camera the effect is far greater when the game is in motion.

Screenshot comparison
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Standard 1080p – notice the aliasing on the ropes and roof edges. In motion this is very noticeable.
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1080p with 4xAA enabled via the .ini file. The difference is enormous in practice.
Controls

Trying to control the game provides bigger problems. The Xbox One controller is supported, but neither trigger works. I had to map the trigger to the shoulder bumpers to make the game playable. Also the thumb sticks are completely wrong by default, with turning the camera controlled by, of all things, the triggers. I also tried an X360 controller but had no further luck.

I’ve always found the game’s “puppeteer” system quite graceful – the four face buttons correspond to parts of the body – head, arms and legs. Pulling a trigger changes your actions from low key to disruptive, for example gently part a crowd becomes grab and throw. Due to the issues with the controller triggers, I tried the keyboard and mouse controls. How quickly the mighty can fall. They are a mess and you should consider a controller mandatory.

The loading times on Xbox 360 were epic, and on PC these are now nearly non-existent, although I am running on an SSD. The game played without any major issues for me, but alt-tabbing during cutscenes caused a lot of (hilarious) audio desynchronization.

Graphics

Assassins Creed has aged gracefully, but it has aged. The draw distances and crowd density were a highlight at the time and they hold up well. The scenery is propped up by excellent art design and there appears to be some kind of shader over everything that helps the overall look. That said character models have definitely suffered and look very simplistic by more modern standards.

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Art direction and draw distance remain impressive 10 years on.

Like most of the rest of the game it is a story of highs and lows. Sitting atop a tower overlooking the bustling city below still impresses, but leaping down to that level reveals some of the detail is a little lacking.

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“Hey you guuuuuuys…”

Overall the PC version is a significant improvement on the Xbox 360 (especially with the anti-aliasing turned on), but the difficulty with the controls counteracts some of this benefit.

Conclusion

Overall the concept of genetic memory and the Animus is a brilliant set up for a game series. This has been proven by the heights the series would go on to achieve. This initial chapter is something of a graceful blunder. I have vast amounts of respect for the creative vision and confidence it took to make a game with this premise and setting, particularly a game set in the ancient middle east. That said I can’t help but think that even at the time the developers knew they were releasing something of an unfinished product. I can’t believe that they intended you to complete the same 6 tasks over and over again without knowing it would become repetitive.

Should I play it?

There is enjoyment to be had here for sure, the setting is fantastic and the visuals hold up. However the PC controls are a broken mess and you need a lot of patience to get through the intro, particularly if you’ve played later games in the series.

If you’ve never played an Assassins Creed game and you start here, you’re in for a unique and ground breaking game. My advice would be to speed through Assassins Creed doing the bare minimum. You’ll get less bored of all the repetition and you will take less time to get to the much improved Assassins Creed II.

Position at the time of writing?

4 – Less fun to play than Assassins Creed Unity, though far more daring and original at the time.

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