Assassin`s Creed: The Road to Damascus
TomChick - News - 11/14/07 - Link

The first hour or so of Assassin's Creed is set in a pretty conventional place. You're running around a mountain fortress and then through the caynon-shaped overworld beyond. This overworld is so weak that the developers seem somewhat sheepish about putting it in there. Shortly, they'll ask if you'd like to just skip it entirely, as if it never happened. Many hours later, you'll have to revisit these canyons to run an endgame gauntlet of tedious swordfights. You work your way through little sections closed off by glowing walls of energy, a la Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in Phantom Menace. When it comes to overworlds, on the whole, I'd rather be in Shadow of the Colossus.

But the revelatory moment in Assassin's Creed is in this overworld, on the road to Damascus. Just past a loading screen, you'll come to a hill looking down into the city. And there it is: a 12th Century Damascus, no cheating, no skyboxes, no faked geometry, no facades. You'll scarcely believe your eyes. It's all there. And you're about to plunge into it. This is the moment you first realize that Assassin's Creed is not, in fact, carefully built mountains fortresses and canyon-shaped overworlds. It's going to bust out of the conventions and give you actual cities, with actual crowds. The moment is positively Pauline.

Just to fast forward a moment. Assassin's Creed is ruining my experience with Mass Effect, a game built like any other BioWare game, assembled piecemeal from little rooms populated with a few desultory characters. I'm supposed to be in some grand space station at the center of the galaxy, with millions of inhabitants from dozens of alien races. Instead, I'm in a room with a couple of dudes over there, and my imagination has to fill in the rest. But it can't, because it's remembering Damascus.

This is what Assassin's Creed does best. Build a beautiful place and turn you loose. For that alone, it deserves whatever high marks it may get on the 7-9 scale of game reviews. Because its beauty and freedom almost excuse it horrible narrative. Its sense of place is a rare and wonderful thing, unique and haunting. It is, dare I say, revolutionary?

The narrative, however, is what ultimately betrays Assassin's Creed. There's no reason that the best writing this year has to be confined to small, tightly-contained places like the testing facilities at Aperture Technologies, the pressurized compartments of Rapture, or the rail-ride rollercoaster of whatever overseas places Call of Duty 4 hurtles through. Assassin's Creed has in place all the necessary trappings for a great story: a manageable structure, an evocative location, unique characters, and even a powerful historical basis. All that's missing is the story.

The disclaimer before the game even begins is promising. I donít recall the specific wording, but the subtext is "Hey, Muslims, don't be mad at us! Some of our best friends are Muslims! Signed, Ubisoft." Apparently, the impending subject matter will be provocative. Ooh, exciting! Granted, this is from a company in a nation brimming with active and vocal Muslims. Plus, France is only a short road trip from those people in Denmark who got angry about political cartoons. Piss them off, and they might pile into buses, right? But still, it's an intriguing pre-game disclaimer in a space is normally reserved for epileptics. So this is going to be meaty, right?

Unfortunately, no. There's some progressive anti-book burning hoo-ha near the end, but for the most part, Assassin's Creed carefully tiptoes around the religious issues of the Crusades in specific, and the Middle East in general. Jesus, Mohammed, and Jews are scarcely mentioned, with inoffensive historical factions like Templar and Saracen standing in for the real players, the one who might have had some contemporary relevance. It's worth noting that your assassin's disguise is clearly that of a monk, but you're called a "scholar". How very secular.

In fact, it's a bit odd that the main character espouses some strange progressive thinking early on in the game. Under the Temple of Solomon, an Ark is sighted. "The Ark of the Covenant?" one character asks. Our progressive assassin points out that there is no such thing, and that it's just a story.

And in the end, the big reveal is slightly less silly than The Da Vinci Code's "Jesus had kids! Oh noes!" reveal. From the cauldron of the Crusades and the Middle East, all Ubisoft can produce is a world-weary existentialism as bland and inoffensive as vanilla ice cream, with a quote from Ecclesiastes like a cherry on top.

Where are your balls, Ubisoft? Talk more about the Prophet, peace be upon Him. Put a Jewish character in the game and let him be reviled. Show the Crusaders as something other than the dudes playing the role of the cops from GTA. Because you know everyone's thinking about it when they see your game. It's a potentially powerful subject, and it's on all our minds, and your pussyfooting around the weak safe choices is a disappointment, particularly when you insist on wrapping your game in a modern-day shell. Assassin's Creed is as aware of today as it is of the 12th Century. Act like it, for God's sake. Because if your love of the setting were expressed in the writing with one tenth of the passion you show for your love of the architecture, Assassin's Creed could have been an experience as memorable as BioShock or Portal.

The end is easily the worst final three hours I've seen in a game all year, largely because I kept waiting for the promise of the subject matter to be realized. Instead, I get a boss fight against a "surprise" boss who will surprise exactly no one? I get to revisit all the bosses I fought up to now? I get long slogs through combat gauntlets minus many of the tools you've been given up to now?

And it's all for a magic doo-dad that looks like a TRON-ified softball, or maybe a Rubik's cube turned sphere? You might as well have wrapped it in brown paper and stenciled "McGuffin" on the side. So for those of you about to play Assassin's Creed, which is a marvelous game aside from the disappointing lack of meaningful narrative, consider this: stop playing after you've assassinated your 9th target and don't look for answers to any of the deeper questions raised over the course of the game. Your experience with Assassin's Creed will be better for it.

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