When I first started playing Castlevania: Lords of Shadow, I very strongly disliked it. Straying very far from the gameplay styles of all 34 Castlevania and spin-off games before it, the game was punctuated by quick-time button presses and awkward riding sequences, and it left a bitter taste on my tongue, not unlike a burrito filled entirely with vinegar. But the further I waded through the game, I soon found myself understanding it better, and eventually it grew on me enough to enjoy it. And I feel that my experience with Assassin's Creed is following the same path. On my first night of trying it out, I did not enjoy myself. I thought the controls were weird, the game was confusing, and the entire system within was needlessly overwhelming. But as I played further, I discovered there's actually a decent game in here, once I got the hang of things. Mind you, I said "decent". I didn't say Assassin's Creed is a great game, because I don't believe so. But there's potential in here.
Assassin's Creed puts you straight into the mind of — shockingly — an assassin. Well, actually, it's more like you're in the mind of a distant descendant of an assassin named Altaïr, who, after completely messing up a job, is stripped of his rank and must earn it back by killing those in power who are corrupting society. Scientists are probing your brain daily to dig up memories passed down genetically through the generations to your stealthy ancestor. These memories have a purpose for the company, something that will change the world, as they see it. As time goes on and missions are completed, you learn more about the company responsible for your confinement and the overall reasoning behind your sequester. It's an intriguing new angle, though you'll spend most of your gaming time acting as the assassin rather than the descendant.
If I had to accurately describe the gameplay motif, I'd use "stealth" as the mot clé here, as your missions require you to be as inconspicuous as possible. (And for someone such as myself who isn't yet as immersed in the genre, preferring to just blow up, stab, and immolate everything in my path without worry of what other beings are watching in my games, this was a great challenge.) In order to accomplish your goals, which are basically assassination of those who work contrary to your order, you'll need to gain information, either by interrogation, pickpocketing, or just the ancient art of eavesdropping. That last one is very straightforward: just sit on a nearby bench and overhear a couple of locals doling out information concerning your next target. Pickpocketing and interrogation are a bit more difficult, or at least it seemed that way. When you're trying to get an item of value from someone's pocket, you basically have to hold your hand out and whisk it by them without the person noticing you. Sometimes it's easy; other times, you're easily caught, and then the town guards will be alerted and try to slice your abdomen. Interrogation can be difficult as well, requiring you to follow a target until they wander into a secluded area away from the eyes of the guards. Then, pretend your target is a Rock'em Sock'em robot and sock'em good until they give information. Sometimes the "informant" doesn't go to the most private alleyway, and you end up just alerting guards or citizens to your location as you pummel a man in the street. Ah, the life of an assassin.
Indeed, the biggest issue comes from guards, who are everywhere (and I mean pretty much everywhere) and are watching everyone's every move. If you're just walking through the town, trying to blend in without pulling any sudden moves, you'll have no problems. There's no eternal law against walking. But if you start doing anything unusual, like suddenly climbing buildings, pushing around citizens like you're a "big man on campus", or worse yet, commit bloody treason with your blade, they'll come at you in droves, ready to basically murder you in the street without question. This is especially true after you've killed a specific target in town: suddenly, the entire city's soldier base will be on high alert. Now, I wouldn't mind having to engage in fighting because that's usually a fun part of gaming. But here's the problem: the battle system is broken and horribly flawed. What could have been a crafty and strategic fighting system turns out to be a button-masher with the hopes you'll actually slaughter your opponents. The timing for counterattacks and moves that actually succeed in overpowering the crowd of soldiers around you is extremely precise, and in the heat of the situation, failure is likely. That's a bloody shame, considering you're, well, an assassin with fighting skills, but you spend more time smashing the attack button and the counterattack sequence in hopes that you'll make contact. But instead, you spend more time clashing scimitars as someone comes up behind you and gives you a new orifice in the back of your neck. Thank goodness you can secretly sneak up on someone and jab them with a small knife with no one, not even nearby guards, being wise to you. That part is worth trying.
Partly an assassin, entirely a snappy dresser. That robe... ohhh baby!
Though it has been greatly overshadowed by subsequent entries in the series and other games in general, I was impressed by the game's grand scope. The world is large and disorienting, so I was constantly consulting the map. You aren't directly given a map, however, so finding your way around either involves blind sifting through towns and the countryside or climbing tall towers to "synchronize" your character with memories of his surroundings. Synchronizing also (somehow) reveals which specific citizens you need to deal with on the ground, implanting this information on your map.
I would argue that the cities are the major focus, although the rustic landscape is enjoyable to tour as well. Painstaking efforts have been put into their labyrinthine construction, and it's so easy to get lost in their enormity. I've never been to Damascus, myself, but if it's anything like the city depicted in Assassin's Creed, it's impressively vast. The game takes you to many large cities, modeled after the many metropoles of centuries past, complete with injections of several different European and Middle Eastern cultures. (As a side note here, one of the first screens we see is one telling us that the game was "designed, developed and produced by a multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs." That should put to rest any naysayers who might proclaim racist undertones!)
Every city is filled with countless citizens minding their own business and the city guards, minding everyone's business. To the unexpecting, the crowds can overwhelm the senses. To the easily annoyed, they can be a straightforward trigger, because they can easily get in your way. I was trying to eavesdrop on a pair of individuals, one of whom I wished to pickpocket, and some lady kept getting in my grill asking for money because she was sick and hungry. Number one, that's frustrating because I still have to listen to her whining in the background. Number two, I get that she's in need, but this game doesn't even have currency, so I couldn't help her even if I wanted to.
I think if I didn't have the luxury of finding random horses everywhere to ride from one major metropolitan area to the next, I'd be bored out of my mind from travel. Granted, the scenery is quite nice, but I'm a fellow who likes getting where I'm going without stopping to sniff every flower.
The audio of the game also deserves mention, as it does genuinely immerse you in your surroundings. Music cues are very minimal, only occurring on specific occasions, leaving you to bask in the sounds of your surroundings. Although the subtle touches of natural sounds in travel are important, once again it's inside the towns when sound is most important. As you walk through the grand cities, people are talking everywhere, usually about little of interest, but sometimes certain voices will stand out. The street preachers of salvation certainly come to mind, as well as guards telling you to back off. In essence, the voices make the game come more alive, not some majestic soundtrack with a thousand cellos fighting for your eardrums.
Yet I still need to re-address the first point I made, which was that Assassin's Creed had to grow on me before I could appreciate it. When I first played it, the game seemed needlessly complicated with its many required goals, somewhat overwhelming tutorial, and lackluster street swashbuckling. But the more I played it, the more in tune I became with how the system functioned and the more I learned that the game is more limited than I once believed and that the freedom you feel is quite contained and fairly linear. This was a new type of game for me, but Assassin's Creed has shown that maybe there's a future for me in stealthy assassination. Failing that, I'm a decent pickpocketer now. Assassin's Creed has its flaws, for sure — that one time I tried to escape a horde of guards and somehow accidentally scaled a citizen instead of a building comes to mind — but once you get into the swing of things, there's a solid game under here, albeit one that can get a bit repetitive over time.
My time as an assassin was enjoyable, but I still feel guilty for accidentally causing a passing woman to drop the jar she was carrying. I never replaced it. I just walked away.