[Whenever possible, Destructoid critiques overlooked design aspects of games both old and recent for our "Revisited" series.]
Taken as a whole, Assassin's Creed garnered some very mixed reviews. Our own Anthony Burch praised the visual design as well as the free-running and combat mechanics but panned its repetitive gameplay and weak storyline. These are valid complaints and I can not at all disagree with the review.
Reflecting back on the game, however, reveals one aspect which Ubisoft Montreal absolutely nailed in their execution. This particular feature is one which I do not believe enough attention was brought to, despite it offering something that developers of all games could stand to learn from. It should not be subtle and, yet, manages to be such nonetheless.
If you will indulge me beyond the jump, let me tell you what Assassin's Creed has accomplished that few other games manage to tackle with the same level of grace.
The biggest twist to Assassin's Creed comes in the first five minutes of the game. How Ubisoft successfully hid the fact that the entire game is actually set in modern times and not the Crusades is one of the most staggering triumphs I have seen in gaming. That a high-profile title managed to keep largely under wraps what is a truly fundamental aspect of the game -- not some plot twist in the second act but the true setting itself -- is nothing short of an achievement.
Incredible as this may be, it is not specifically the ability of the developer, publisher and PR firm to keep a secret that interests me so much about this. Rather, it's the level of freedom that the layered approach to a setting gives other aspects of game design. By distancing the player from Altair, the character they control through the vast majority of gameplay, the designers paradoxically create a greater level of immersion within the story.
To begin with, it gives players a point of identification with the game's true main character, Desmond. Unless you happen to be a medieval scholar, there is an excellent chance that your knowledge of the world in that time period is far more limited than that of a character such as Altair. As such, it could be difficult for a player to identify with him as a protagonist. By introducing the character of Desmond, who has similarly limited knowledge of the time and its people, it is easy to assume his role as an onlooker.
The background setting also helps in the fight against that long-existing enemy of immersion, the HUD. As games have progressively tried to focus more and more on putting the player as much in the shoes of the figure represented onscreen as possible, the HUD has become a sticking point. Information needs to be provided to the player which indicates the current status of the game, such as the physical condition of your character, how much ammunition he has, etc. Because we are not actually the character we play and do not have access to their particular memory or share any of their senses beyond sight and hearing, displaying relevant information in the corners of the screen has simply become the standard.
It's not very believable, however, and some games have attempted to create a more realistic method of conveying the information. Take, for example, 2005's Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. This game completely threw the HUD out the window. Not only that, it eliminated any such record of the information from the access of the player, relying on visual elements and even gameplay limitations to reflect status. Dead Space opted to display the info on the character model itself, and further maintained the fourth wall with a series of menus accessible by Isaac Clarke which provided all the functions of in-game menus without ever removing the player from the experience.
Assassin's Creed keeps the HUD in its entirety and uses it to display everything you would expect under the guise of the Animus, the machine Desmond is strapped to which displays his genetic memories of Altair. Similarly, pause menus are presented as being menus within the Animus' interface, maintaining the illusion that the events are not just a game. It completely sidesteps the issue of in-game details and menus disassociating the player by simply making the interface part of the story.
This same artifice serves to convenience in other ways. It is rarely necessary for the player to make an arduous and boring trek that serves no purpose in furthering the narrative. Often, the Animus will simply skip ahead to the next relevant moment in Altair's life. Similarly, the concept of "fast travel" -- skipping the passage of well-worn routes -- is made more believable in the same way, presenting a list of locations that the player may wish to visit in a menu which is still believeable in the context of the machine.
Is it all a clever ruse? Of course, but it's one that actually works... almost. If there's one mistake Ubisoft made in devising this ploy, it lies in them not taking it far enough.
Sadly, this little bit of phatasmagoria does not actually extend out into Desmond's "real" world. While it is true that the HUD disappears, giving the portions of the game in which you drag the bartending abductee around the laboratory a more realistic feel, the whole thing comes tumbling down in two ways.
First is the prompt given when Desmond is able to interact with something in his environment. Now, I understand that the designers wanted to make sure that players did not miss out on something of importance by notifying them of an object they could check out. What I don't understand is why they should have to tell us with text in the bottom corner of the screen. Any number of visual cues could have sufficed, and the things you can reach out and touch are fairly obvious anyway.
Not to mention that the Animus has already given the player plenty of instruction in how to control characters within its framework. Why were these controls not simply extended into the real world and left for the player to experiment with? All it would have taken to realize that everything worked the same way is for someone to be annoyed by Desmond's painfully slow saunter around the lab and pull the right trigger, moving the character into a light jog. Hell, every time I've played the game, I've executed the same maneuver either on instinct or out of blind hope that I could make the bastard at least jog. From there, players could have easily extrapolated that other controls may function similarly and we're off to the races.
The other manner in which the illusion is shattered while outside of the Animus is that the game can be paused. While probably overlooked by gamers as simply being a convention of the medium, it could have been far more effective at giving a sense of urgency and reality if the capability for the player to pause the action while in the "real world" was snatched away. In fact, I can't think of a single, logical reason for the player to have to pause at all in these sequences.
Besides these two issues, however, few games have managed to simultaneously feel like a game while offering a rational explanation for why it feels that way. For that, Assassin's Creed should be applauded. It may not be a brilliantly fun game, but the method of telling it through the eyes of one protagonist looking upon another is both novel and, for the most part, executed well.