Assassin's Creed I
is my favorite game in the series. There, I said it. Before you leave in horror, I agree, it isn't the best game in the series. That honor likely goes to II
, but nonetheless, for me, Assassin's Creed
is my favorite. It has an undeniable charm that, in my mind, II
Sure, later games tweaked, fine-tuned and altogether polished the gameplay and structure of the game, but in the process it lost the mystery and inherent freshness that the first entry in a series brings.
For me it all begins with Desmond Miles and the modern-day scenes that take place in Abstergo. In the original, the mystery of what Abstergo were up to, and why you were there, was more intricately and subtly revealed. If you wanted to, you could finish the game knowing very little about the goings on of the modern day storyline. Assassin's Creed I
, unlike its (many many) sequels, was more content focusing on the ancestor-protagonist’s story. Yet there still existed a story in the modern day. Instead of the story explicitly being told to you, you could snoop around, reading Vidic and Lucy's emails on their computers, which allowed you to piece together information and come to a conclusion, in your head, of what was going on. It ended up feeling satisfying just by the process itself. It's as if the game merely expected you to go to your bedroom, sleep, and re-enter the animus, and I was the one working outside the box, and discovering information that I'm not supposed
Even if many players ended up doing this, in the moment it captured the feeling of being a prisoner and doing covert reconnaissance without the knowledge of the captors. This form of storytelling, where you are interacting with the environment to find out more, worked beautifully in parallel with the meat of the game, playing as Altair, with a more traditional, straight-forward narrative. The effect of longevity, that these modern-day sequences were sparse intervals in the whole game, meant that there was this gradual, slow discovery of the truth. In contrast, the second game explicitly explains a lot more about the ongoings of Abstergo, and, while it continues to divulge nuggets of information (and characterization) from reading emails and such, there is less of a reliance on this. For me, throughout the series' Abstergo story arc, the most interesting section is of Abstergo being a mysterious, dangerous corporation, one that is using you for who-knows-what-purpose, especially as it's revealed very subtly and slowly.
However, I also ultimately enjoyed the way Altair's story was told. Of course, it felt repetitive and monotonous once you hit the 4th, 5th, or 6th assassinations. The game was, undeniably boringly structured. Each section began with finding out information about the target, through a series of (mostly) boring investigation missions, before finding the target and then delivering the killing blow. There wasn’t even much meat to the plot until the very end of Altair’s story in the game. Once I got to the 7th or 8th assassination, it was a struggle not to put down the game, and it was hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But I persevered through the thick sludge of starting-to-get-boring gameplay and was rewarded with, what is, to this day, an incredibly memorable finale.
The bait-and-switch of the final assassination, rapidly riding across the beautiful countryside in search of the final target, the reveal of the plot twist; the pacing of the final hour or so of Assasin’s Creed
is truly thrilling and memorable. The game pulls itself out the slow tedium and suddenly speeds up, spewing juicy bits of wonderfully-paced and -crafted material. It is unfortunate that the game struggles with staying interesting and enjoyable in it's middle portion, but it's not all terrible, since the finale is only so much better in comparison. Of course that doesn't excuse the boring gameplay, but perhaps it's one positive way to view it.
The game shakes you out of your boots. For so long, throughout the game, you have blindly followed the commands of the Brotherhood leader, Al Mualim, and the gameplay reflects that. Each assassination feels as meaningless as the last; the only reason you’re doing it is because the game tells you to do so. Even if I questioned it internally, the game never addressed it, and that in a way encapsulates the mindset of Altair, until his world is shaken and both he, and the player, are forced to rethink the situation with newfound information. This acute and abrupt switch in the pace and structure of the game, then, fuels the motivation to keep playing and see it through to the end.
The finale itself was simply delightfully crafted, arriving at the footsteps of the hilltown of Masyaf, the story ending where it all began. You slowly make your way through the town, fighting off the enemies on the way to the final confrontation at the castle at the summit. It feels very scripted and authored, but not in a bad way. It works, because in the moment all you can think of is what is right in front of you, and in that way, Ubisoft did an incredible job creating the climax, aligning the mindset of player and character.
I found scripted moments like this throughout the game, but none stick with me as much as the first time you arrive at Damascus, the first major city you do your line of work in. I remember sitting atop a horse and riding through a narrow passage that leads to the gates of Damascus. Before you get down to the gate, however, the game presents you with a wonderful spectacle. Back in 2007 this was breathtaking, and incredible. Perhaps it doesn’t live up to the graphics of today, but I can nevertheless envisage finally seeing the destination, where I’ve been riding to. I took a moment to stop, from atop my horse, to look at the overhead view of Damascus, in all it’s vast entirety. The game plays a sweeping orchestral piece, accentuating how grand and beautiful a sight this is.
Nonetheless, this game is terribly flawed. It fails to execute on so many ideas, ideas that were half-baked, ideas that were fleshed out, improved and made altogether more enjoyable in the game’s sequels. Yet I still can’t help but have a sweet spot for Assassin’s Creed
, the game where it all started. Assassin's Creed II
is perhaps the purest and most complete incarnation of the franchise, but there’s something intangible about the first game that I can’t truly put to words, something that wins me over. This was the first next-gen game I played, and I’ll always have a place in my heart for those great moments, those great memories.
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