There have certainly been games as good-looking as “Assassin’s Creed”, but always in carefully contained locations. There’s never been a game that looks this good and allows this much free-roaming, effectively busting out of the convention that traditionally places players into the equivalent of movie sets built from facades. Though it’s hampered by a barely coherent and ultimately pointless time-travel storyline, “Assassin’s Creed” is a triumph of technology and animation that sets a new standard for technical gee-wizardry in videogames and should see strong sales to match.
“Assassin’s Creed” takes place during the Crusades, among three different cities, each of which is wide open for leaping among rooftops and lurking among crowds using a simple control system. Moving around the city shows off excellent animation as the assassin works his medieval parkour. It also serves to familiarize the player with the environment, which enables one to sneak around or escape from guards. Eventually, each district features a set-piece assassination mission, such as crashing a party, interrupting an execution, or skipping across boats to reach a ship out in the harbor.
All the exhilarating acrobatics and skulking are wrapped in a strange meta-layer. The player’s character isn’t the assassin, but his modern-day descendent, who is exploring genetic memory inside a holographic simulation. The story alternates among the two time periods, which starts off as a great device to build suspense. Why is a simple bartender being forced to relive his ancestor’s life? What does the insidious pharmaceutical company Abstergo want? What is the connection between the assassin’s victims and the modern day?
But it never goes anywhere. In fact, it ends with the lead character musing, “What does it all mean, I wonder?” “Assassin’s Creed” pretends to the thoughtful theology of Umberto Eco, but ends up with a less coherent version of the glib intrigue of “The Da Vinci Code”.
The contemporary part of the storyline is little more than a cheap justification for playing a 12th-century assassin with a radar display in the corner of his screen. It also means areas of ancient cities can be closed behind glowing blue walls that announce, “You cannot access this part of memory.” There’s no need to suspend disbelief when “Assassin’s Creed” just strangles it in the crib.
This is easily one of the most gorgeous videogames yet, a splendid combination of realistic animation and architecture that exceeds the best Hollywood production design. The cities are spectacular, crammed with citizens, guards, thugs, beggars, and drunks. But the real star is the meticulously crafted architecture, from the burned-out buildings of Acre to the gilded minarets of Damascus to the cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues of Jerusalem.
Just as spectacular as the cities are the swordfights, which are a gratifying combination of interactivity and scripted animation. Unfortunately, “Assassin’s Creed” ends with a long gantlet of battles, effectively dispensing with all the free-form exploration and acrobatics in favor of a brutally frustrating exercise in reloading and trying again. But until that point, this is one of the most thrilling and gorgeous games of the year.