A review of Assassin’s Creed: an immersive, groundbreaking experience.

I don’t think there are spoilers, because I talk mostly about the gameplay instead of story. But this review would make more sense if you’ve played them even a little.

I’ve been playing quite a few video games lately, and pretty good ones too. Mass Effect 3, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and Long Live the Queen have been the standouts in the last few months. But none of them have really been worth blogging about: there’s not much to say about them except “That was fun to play and the story was great!”, you know? And my desire to blog is just about non-existent these days, so it takes something truly unique, distinctive or impressive to rouse my mind to analyze why that’s the case.

Assassin’s Creed is the game that’s worth talking about. True to my style (if I have to start something, might as well do so from the beginning), it’s my first, fresh introduction to the series. As of writing, I’ve just finished it and launched right into Assassin’s Creed II, but I think I’ve seen enough of both games to say that the first AC is the far superior experience, and probably will remain the best out of the series, and the most memorable to me.

Why? This is where I argue that the goal of AC isn’t about giving the player a “great gaming experience”, but to provide the player an immersive, embodied experience of being Altair the master assassin. The game medium is merely a means to achieve that, and I think AC has used the medium more effectively than any other game I’ve played. This game’s design is masterful, seamlessly integrating gameplay mechanics, user interface, immersion, and experiential believability (verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief – whatever you want to call it) to create what is more than a “great game” in typical video-gaming conventions. I think AC wholly succeeded in giving me an immersive experience.

The more I played it, the more impressed I became. It’s quite unlike any other game I’ve been playing lately. I’d describe the gameplay mechanics and user interface as fluid, invisible, and minimalistic, which all served to give me a realistic and immersive experience.

I played AC with a controller, and it mapped so well onto Altair that it became practically invisible. It’s just natural to be controlling Altair with those buttons. Even the on-screen control prompts became unnecessary.

Likewise, the HUD sank into the background, even as it displayed only the most necessary and critical information. Most aspects of the UI are wordless, providing audio and visual environmental cues — which are natural things we cue to anyway. For example, people in the world talk a lot, which alerts you to Altair’s level of exposure, even more effectively than the visual HUD symbols and effects. I found myself becoming very sensitive to ambient conversation while playing, especially when civilians/guards are out of Altair’s field of view, and with Animus audio cues when escaping guards. (AC2 doesn’t have similar “disappearing” audio cues, which I really, really miss.) There are many subtle visual cues too. You know a “cutscene” or unavoidable dialogue is happening when the camera zooms in to Altair’s head and shoulders, and the HUD disappears. The colours of the world wash out as Altair loses health/synchrony, and get the blue-gray pixellation upon his last bar of health.

This minimalist UI and easily-accessible gameplay mechanics are not ends in themselves, but serve to give a total immersion experience. Even the lack of cinematic cutscenes, and the tight focus of the camera around Altair, are deliberately designed to bring me “closer” to Altair, give me the sense of actually being him, seeing the world only from his perspective and no one else’s. (Of course it’s deliberate: the concession to video-game cinematics are called “glitches”!) And not being able to see Altair’s face most of the time also allows me to project myself upon him and become him.

Verisimilitude is also heightened through the merging of story and gameplay. The “video game interface” has in-world meaning: the Animus. Sure, it might be contrived, but it makes sense in the game context. I mean, it’s obvious that the HUD of Mass Effect is the video game interface for Vega to play at being Commander Shepard; having that king of mediation already puts me at a distance from Shepard. But in AC, Vega is Desmond, controlling his Ancestor through the video game interface of Animus.

Even Desmond’s own scenes give verisimilitude through the lack of on-screen prompts. One can even construe that the player is seeing Desmond through the security cameras; the single prompt for Desmond to interact with his environment even looks like a Record button. (But that long, long, LONG sequence to quit the game properly… yeah, that might have been a bit too enthusiastic a verisimilitude. Nevertheless, it turned out to be beneficial, as described later.)

So yes, I think AC is incredibly elegant and fluid, probably the best example I’ve seen of how UI design can integrate with gameplay and in-game logic to provide an immersive experience. This is where gameplay mechanics contributes to a story, and allows me to be part of the story, instead of merely interfacing with the story through extraenous controls. This stands in direct contrast to gameplay/interactivity of, say, Mass Effect 3, which is divorced from story; you merely use the interface to experience the game, but it per se doesn’t have anything to do with the story or the world.

This is why I think AC is more concerned with providing an immersive experience, and less concerned with giving one a good gaming experience. A great deal of thought and effort has gone into this. It makes more sense now that I know AC was designed by the same team that worked on Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, a game that has a similarly minimalist UI, and tight integration of mechanics and storytelling.

Maybe I’m so impressed because my usual gaming fare is RPGs and turn-based strategy, which tend to have heavily-mediated gameplay. Turn-based strategy like XCOM: Enemy Unknown, visual novels like Long Live the Queen, and many Bioware RPGs are played entirely through UI. The only other game I know with a similarly minimalist UI is Portal. Then again, I seldom play FPS games, so maybe the likes of AC are common in this genre.

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There’s more to recommend in AC. It’s definitely beautiful. The landscapes and cityscapes are breathtaking, and the people down to the lowliest NPC are all crafted with great care. Nevertheless, this is a severe beauty, not a lush one. The world is suffused with light — a harsh, monochromatic light that makes sharp shadows and edges. I wonder if it’s a deliberately crafted atmosphere that reflects the nature of Holy Land. I haven’t travelled there, but the game does resemble photos of the Palestinian landscapes. It certainly complements Desmond’s likewise light-saturated prison.

The gameplay is also fun, and challenging without being too ragequit-inducing. And it definitely is a sandbox game, with many paths to success, which is good for someone like me who’s inexperienced in adventure/action/fighting games. I don’t have to go toe to toe with a templar in a sword fight, I can easily drop behind him and backstab. I can throw daggers at an archer, or backstab him (after watching his patrol route), or push him off the roof in a swordfight, or avoid him entirely. It’s versatile and surprisingly forgiving: my button-mashing might take longer, but eventually gets somewhere. So far I’ve been able to complete all the assassin investigations mostly in stealth — minimal fighting, backstabs, lots of blending in, escaping guards instead of fighting them. A few of them are tricky, but nothing that close observation and careful gameplay (and kinda average twitch reflexes) couldn’t overcome. Didn’t think I could finish every investigation in each memory block, but I did, yay.

The investigations are somewhat repetitive, though. The middle got tedious, especially the very long Memory Block 4. Maybe this shortcoming is due to an excessive adherence to verisimilitude. I figure that since Altair is a professional assassin, all these tasks must be a standard operating procedure that assassins follow to do their job properly. I guess no job, even assassination, is immune to a measure of dullness… I’m willing to forgive that, although I did find it a drag and ended up playing the game in relatively small chunks. And even this rabid completionist gamer got sick of the flag-collecting and Templar-killing.

While the plot was serviceable (hey, I could see the ending 1/3rd of the way through the game), the storytelling was masterful. There was a strong atmosphere of mystery and paranoia from the get-go; both Altair’s and Desmond’s storylines contribute to this atmosphere in their own distinct ways, and weave together to create a real sense of conspiracy and anxiety. I’m always a fan of less-is-more in storytelling, and AC does this excellently. The story is dribbled to the player in small chunks and oblique glimpses: Altair’s written thoughts in the Animus; the grim and almost occult dialogue he has with his fellow Assassins and victims; Desmond’s confusing conversations with Lucy and Vidic; the emails that provide us veiled glimpses of Abstergo’s true nature and its employees’ allegiances. All these hints and sidelong glances all contribute to the immersion and atmosphere of the story, the feeling that Altair/Desmond/the player is part of a much bigger and more sinister turn of events.

For all its flaws, the first Assassin’s Creed is special, landmark. It has the feel of being experimental, pushing the boundaries to go beyond a mere “game” into something more immersive and experiential. I’m certain I will enjoy AC2 more, but remember it less, than AC. I’ve read many reviews and comparisons between the two, and agree with the reviewers who say that Altair is more badass than Ezio. I think I know why: because I, for a while, became Altair, really stepped into his shoes to experience his life. I suspect I won’t have the same attachment to Ezio, because he’s but a character in the game.

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I must be a quarter of the way through AC2 as of now, and indeed, it has shrunk away from that experimental reach to completely return to conventional gaming expectations. This is probably why reviews laud it as better than AC. I think this is a pity for many reasons, but most of all, because it dilutes the immediate, embodied experience of the story and world.

Examples. Seeing Ezio through “cinematic” shots already reduces the verisimilitude of the Animus experience. (Whereas you always see the back of Altair’s head — which makes sense in terms of the Animus, and in terms of a personal, direct experience of being Altair.) The new shiny menus for inventory, outfits, money… sure, you can rationalize that as Animus 2.0, but the game is now getting bogged down by the conventional trappings and expectations of a “game”, and departing from the elegant simplicity of AC. The plethora of tasks available in-game definitely adds fun and variety, but some of the laserlike focus of assassination and being an assassin (Altair never bothered with outfits and shops and a villa) that was part of AC, has been lost. All these moving parts to get distracted by keep track of dilutes the intensity of both the experience and the story.

I also feel distanced from Desmond. Yes, the long quit sequence of AC was annoying, but I now realize that it served to keep him in my awareness, to remind me, after all that time in the Animus, that I was still him. Now that AC2 bypasses that to go right into Ezio’s world, I found myself wondering every so often, “So what is the story again?”, and forgetting that it is ultimately all about Desmond. I also regret that he and Lucy are on the way to becoming superheroes in their own right. (Lucy beat up guards? Desmond going all superhero via the Bleeding Effect?) The story was more compelling and intimate when they were two “Everymen” caught in the web of the sinister New World Order. But I suppose that’s what happens with stories: the more it unfolds, the more the mystery dissipates.

AC2 is shaping up to be fun, but I doubt I’ll continue with the rest of the series. I am very glad I played through AC first, because it’s a diamond in the rough, an example the metaphysical heights to which gaming can achieve, and an experience I know I’ll never be able to replicate later.

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