The game's manual, written in a "more amusing than most" in game style, provides instructions ostensibly written by Lucy Stillman, replete with comments ostensibly scrawled underneath by the ostensibly irritable Dr. Vidic. It makes a point of joking about the game's optional flag-collecting, citizen saving side quests:
"Picking up flags and helping old ladies! I thought Desmond's ancestor was an assassin, not some flag-stealing Robin Hood. I suppose that performing these activities helps our subject synchronise with his ancestor and we will have to endure it, but really Miss Stillman! The coma is starting to look like an increasingly attractive option."
Isn't it just? AC suffers from a bad case of "Bard's Tale/Simpsons Game" syndrome. This is the mistaken belief that asking the player to perform repetitive, unimaginative and stereotypically "gamey" tasks is excusable, as long as the game seems aware of how soul-numbing said tasks are. Let's say two men are kicking an old lady to death to steal her purse. One of them stops punting her for a moment, turns to the other, and says:
"You know what, Marcus?"
"What's that, Nathaniel?"
"It occurs to me that our actions could be construed as... morally questionable by an objective onlooker."
"Kicking an old lady to death for the meager change in her purse, you mean?"
"Well...yes. Yes, I suppose you're probably right about that..."
"...but in many ways we are the victims of social inequality here. Where else are we going to get money for skag and whores from?"
"Quite so, Marcus; quite so. What a sad world we live in..."
Kick, Kick, Kick
As the Pope would tell you if you were stuck in a lift with him, being aware something is a sin but doing it anyway does not exculpate the sinner. I'm fully aware that the previous two metaphors were wholly superfluous, and yet I left them in- how charmingly self-referential of me, right? Here's an idea that cuts out any need for sin altogether: interesting side quests! Then you won't have to make pointed "lord, but aren't we ever so bloody PoMo?" comments in your instruction manual, I won't have to complain about them, and there's a healthy chance we'll all be a bit happier.
Gameyness extends to the methods of interaction with the world as a whole. If the sum of interaction in Space Invaders consisted of moving left and right on a 2D plane and pressing fire, the sum of AC's interactions consist of moving about in a 3D space, identifying who you want to kill through mundane mini-games and then killing them. If you're lucky you might get to kill some other people too. You probably will because of the targeting system, whether you mean to or not. It's a point at whichAC's undeniably belting "next-gen" presentation works against it. Walking around one of the vibrant, massive cities, it soon becomes apparent that all one can do is kill or be killed. The perennially optimistic English student in me wants to interpret this as a statement on the concentrated, ultimately barren life of an assassin- after all, Altair would hardly be shooting pool or wooing girlfriends with chocolates. Whatever the intention, the effect is that all Altair does is kill things, and this means that all the player does is kill things.
And the beggars! This is usually the point where the reviewer complains about the beggars, how persistent and spleen-wrenchingly annoying they are. And they are a problem, as are the crazy people who shove you about and the drunks who punch you if you walk near them. Me? I just killed the ****ers. If someone came up to me and pestered me for change...BAM! Concealed knife to the stomach. "Oops, you seem to have tripped over there: let me help you up..." *stabby-stab-stab* "...Good heavens, you're bleeding profusely from your lower abdomen. Just let me try and..." *stabbity-stab* I found the small detrimental effect it had on my health (and soul) a relatively fair exchange. As far as addressing the issue of poverty goes it's arguably less humanitarian than writing to your MP, but the effect is significantly more immediate.
But I said all you'll be doing is killing people: this isn't strictly true. Altair also "interrogates" people by using standard modern-day police methods for interrogating terrorism suspects. To wit, he follows them into dark alleyways and beats the **** out of them until they tell 'fess up and tell him something interesting, before concluding the interview with some peculiarly emotive dialogue like:
Snitch: "Please, I've told you all I know. Surely our business is done?"
Altair: "Not yet, my friend: there's one last thing I need from you."
Snitch: "What's that?"
Altair: "Your life."
I actually LOL'ed and cringed at the same time, which is rare for a game. I guess I crOLnged. While "interrogating" a propagandising preacher (which the game calls a "despot", apparently operating under a different definition than I'd normally apply) I landed a stray punch on two passing thugs, who proceeded to attack me in return. However, much like the itinerants I had already made it my business to stab should they offend me, these thugs counted as civilians: and in order to prevent Altair getting too stab-happy, attacking civilians takes a bar of life off Altair's health meter. This leaves me fighting three men, all of whom hurt me if they punch me, and two of whom hurt me if I punch them. It is an odd situation: I'm no mathematician, but I think it would hurt me less overall if I let them all kick me to death while proffering no physical resistance.
Perhaps the oddest thing about AC is its schizophrenia toward player empowerment. At times, when Altair is bounding across rooftops, leaping gracefully off walls and stabbing people in the spine with one fluid motion, the player feels so empowered, so godlike- it's a rush of the first order. Other times Altair will be shoved by an emaciated hobo and go reeling into a guard, who will take it on himself to stab Altair to within an inch of his life for the frankly unthinkable crime of being shoved around by hobos. Sometimes Altair will fling himself off buildings with an abandon hovering somewhere between careless and reckless: other times he will stand on the edge of platforms, peering over but stubbornly refusing to step off the ****ing thing without a disproportionate amount of player input.
Most disconcerting is when Altair is fleeing the law. Bouncing off walls and flinging yourself off church towers you turn around, readying a triumphant grin at having lost your pursuers, only to see the guards right behind you, matching your superhuman nimbleness and athleticism with equally superhuman traits...which makes the traits you have seem less superhuman and just plain human. It cheapens the whole experience, and not with the intent of making the player appreciate their human vulnerability: it's clumsy design.
Not just particularly proficient Parkour practitioners, these lawmen: for a group of people who seem, for the most part, as thick as twelve short planks nailed together, the guards possess a surprising level of prescience. They are generally suspicious of Altair: possibly because he's white; possibly because of his swaggering gait; possibly because of the dozens of shiny, sharp and deadly looking pieces of metal he has strapped to every limb. But if Altair walks around a bit slower, bows his head and clasps his hands together, and looks for all the world like even more of a ****ing nutcase than he usually does, they seem content to ignore him. As Altair's notoriety grows, his boss warns him to be careful because:
"They know you are coming- the man in a white hood."
"Do they indeed? Heaven forfend we dye the ******** hood, then! You've got a nice black one: let's swap! But then how would everyone know I'm an assassin, if I don't wear the uniform? But we don't want people to know I'm an assassin, do we?" And so it goes on, Altair continuing his work, existing in an ambiguous state of utter infamy and stealthy obscurity wherein one can dress like an assassin, walk like an assassin, tout all the spiky tools of an assassin, but be allowed to walk around unimpeded provided he clasps his hands together and puts his head down.
Maybe it's just that AC doesn't let logic interfere with its having a good time. Interactions with the public certainly provide plenty of laughs, although never intentional ones. Rescuing a rather ugly lady from four soldiers prompted her to thank me profusely, saying:
"Thank you for saving me. They did not say what they wanted from me, but I could see the darkness in their eyes. I do not have anything to offer as a reward, but I shall see to it that my brothers know you are a friend."
I think your virtue's safe, love. The camera then pans to (what I can only assume are) her brothers, standing about a meter and a half away the whole ruddy time, apparently too busy discussing the relative merits of Sean Connery's turn as Richard the Lionheart to intercede in the brutal assault on their sister.
Likewise, the game never lets logic hamper Altair's extensive conversations with the people he has just killed (the tenses are important, there). It is content to ignore how he finishes these five-minute long dialogues in between the time it takes a guard to see him stab the victim, and the time it takes the guard to run across the room in response. Incompetent guards or a very fast talking protagonist? Temporal causality: begone, foul beast of pedantry!
And what do we find out, in these ever so slightly "feeling the urge to skip this" inducing cutscenes? Well, there are a certain amount of Templars and conspiracies, that's for sure, and a lot of killing people who may or may not deserve to be killed. My favourite thing about playing Altair was the sheer gormlessness he exhibited. Time after time he would be given a target, let's say along the lines of:
"Go kill x. He is a corrupt mayor turned arms dealer who has enslaved his city, embezzled his citizen's taxes, chemically sterilised their women and turned their children into zombies using black magic."
Upon turning up at the target's house and ramming a sword through their neck he would find out the man was, in fact, the manager of the local diabetes suffering kitten sanctuary. Altair would look a bit perplexed and go ask his boss what the deal was: his boss would spout a piece of tautology and placate him with something shiny, and the process would repeat.
Would I buy AC? No. This is the type of game that renting was invented for. I can't see much replay value in it- heck, there's hardly enough incentive to play through the game once given it's unashamedly repetitive missions and petty side quests. Play it, by all means, but you'd only be unhappy if you ended up buying it full-price.