Assassin's Creed I

Special Series Playthrough - Assassin’s Creed

I never got into AC. 2007 was a bumper year for gaming and I was still lost in Oblivion, so the series passed me by. Plus I’m crap at Stealth. But then Black Flag came out and I took a punt purely for the pirates. It was brilliant. A mature, immersive, realistic game – I was right there with Blackbeard while the Golden Age of Piracy fell, I wasn’t fighting a Kraken and I never shivered me timbers - I was a real pirate and it was brutal.

But I hated the modern-day story - why would I give up being a scurvy scoundrel on the high seas to wander some corporate offices? Still, there were larger forces at work, a conspiracy, which stayed with me. Was I missing something? What was the Assassin’s Creed anyway?

With AC taking a break after Odyssey (2018), now’s the perfect time to play the entire series and see if one beats the mighty Black Flag. That’s a tall order, but I’m also going to find the definitive AC game, find out what the Assassins and Templars are arguing about, what all that modern-era stuff was for. It’s going to be epic. A lot of assassinating, a lot of history, a lot of stealth I’ll have no patience for. Time to take the Creed.

Part One, Assassin’s Creed I

So this is where it all began. At least for us. The Assassins and the Templars have been at it for generations already, and we’ve been dropped into the 12th century, the 3rd Crusade for the Holy Land, and into Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad.

Altair is sent to stop Templars from digging up something, but after making a mess of things, including leading the Templars back to our hideout (it's the huge castle on a hill, kinda hard to miss), Altair is stabbed by his mentor Al Mualim for disrespecting the Creed. I thought the creed is ‘everything is permitted’. Except being a bit crap at your job? What is our job anyway? With the title Assassin, I thought it was obvious. Far from it.

In short, the Templars discovered a pre-history race existed, the Isu. A solar flare wiped them out but humans – including a few Isu-Human hybrids - survived. The Templars also discovered the Isu created humans as labour, and that they were bred to be controlled - with no masters, humans have run rampant and will destroy themselves eventually. Battle-weary and surrounded by corruption, The Templars figure humanity's survival requires control, and begin looking to return us to a slave race. Resisting them are the secret Brotherhood of Assassins, and both sides are on the hunt for powerful Isu relics which could sway their secret war. This is top stuff. I regret not taking the Creed earlier.

Turns out Al Mualim only fake-stabbed Altair to make a point – he’s got one of those joke fake knifes!? I’ll do the jokes, Al Mualim. Humbled, Altair is sent to assassinate Templars while trying to find a “Piece of Eden”, an Isu artefact that can induce visions; perfect for the Templars to unite all of the Holy Land under their influence. Well, we’ll see about that, right Altair? Wait, who the hell is this winey brat?

Pulled out of Altair, we’re now his distant descendent, Desmond; from Altair with his flowing robes and chiselled chin to this grumpy hipster in a hoodie? To be fair, he has been kidnapped, but he’s getting to play in a VR machine and be a badass Assassin – you were a barman, cheer up man. Okay, so far all he’s witnessed is his ancestor falling off horses but still.

In the modern era the war still rages. The Templars discovered 'instinct' is actually genetic memories and their 'Animus' machine lets you relive ancestors’ memories embedded in your own mind - how cool is that?!

They’re forcing Des to relive Altair to find the resting place of the Apple he’s after, so they can go dig it up and control folks in modern times. The scene is set for a fantastic journey through history as objects, people and entire events became part of the battle for our freedom in the past, present and future. A pre-history sci-fi race, conspiracy theories, involved in historical events and people; so many opportunities with this narrative, this is great. I should have left Cyrodiil years ago. In fact, the only issue I have with ACI is … me.

Assassin Altair spends most of his time being Assassinated Altair. Every time I get into a bit of business, I’ve forgotten which profile Altair’s in; ‘High’ draws attention but allows action/fight moves, while ‘Low’ is for blending in and doing stealth assassinations. So far I’ve not managed either. ACI was a console game originally but on a mouse ‘n keyboard it’s not intuitive. It’s in my head but try telling my fingers. I’m constantly fighting it – he won’t clamber up a wall, is it because I’m in Low profile? I’ll just try clicking on – oh, I just accidentally stabbed a passing washerwoman. Now I’m wanted.

I get attacked by a washerwoman-sympathiser, try to fight and just pray to them instead. How are you now in Low profile?! Get up! I swap to High, get blocked, switch to Low again by accident, switch back to High, draw the sword, and now I’ve ‘desynchronised’ – this is a nice touch, the more you deviate from Altair’s memory (sure he didn’t remember getting killed this often) the more you lose connection to the memory and eventually get kicked back to Desmond. And that’s a fate worse than death.

Altair’s lack of in-the-thick-of-it fight skills makes sense; he’s is an assassin not a thug, we’re not expected to batter our way to the target like in Black Flag, but with multiple keys and stances, my Altair just looks drunk. He can even control his horse in high or low mode – how do you sneak on a horse? All I seem to do is fall off it or accidently stab it then get kicked by it, understandably. Plus, I just don’t get why the guards are so against someone running. If I run past one, they start chasing; I’m might just be late for work! Or avoiding Desmond.

ACI looks good, lean yet detailed. Controlling it though … most of my experience of the ‘Holy Land’ is from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and I’m steering Altair like he’s balancing a laundry basket. The city layouts are well done though, and when you and Altair do get it together, the parkour really isn’t bad, and we can use praying holy men as a cover, get involved in local squabbles and help various NPCs to gain support – folks will run to your aid or slow down chasing soldiers. I need the help because Altair’s stealthy ways are, for me, more like High / Low / High / Spotted / Damnit.

As you enter a new region, a contact sends you off to sway the balance of power and collect info on the target. For a while this takes on the tone of a Hitman game and I get into it, but it’s not really that at all. I thought I’d be tracking, planning, figuring out routines and routes but it’s eavesdropping (Hard when you can’t stop Altair breakdancing next to the person you’re supposed to be tailing) and collecting evidence before the actual assassination unlocks and then you just have at it.

As I lumber on, I start realise ACI isn’t quite as epic as its narrative seems. I thought the modern era would be a parallel story with Des fighting Templars for the Apple, picking up clues and location knowledge from Altair, but Des never leaves his prison cell except to eavesdrop on exposition. He just loafs about and the modern-day era feels like it’s here to justify mucking about in the past; and that’s fine with me – get in the animus you wiener.

Pretty quickly though, I’m burnt out on being an Assassin too. Altair is one of the most famed Assassins, but I found him lacking character-wise and in his era, the Templars are just the bad guys he kills, there’s little of the conspiracy or real crusade-era moments I hoped to be embroiled in. Still, I do feel like a man with a mission; I’m a terrible embarrassment to the Creed, but you get that it’s important even if we don’t really know why; some of it is explained by Al Mualim, but it doesn’t resonate how I expected. Altair’s reputation is justified though – you only see him when it’s too late. Unfortunately, everyone sees me coming. Even the horses take off when they see my Altair stumbling down the street like he's had a few.

That it ends with a betrayal makes it feel a bit small, not the epic ‘this is only the beginning’ I was expecting – the Assassinations aren’t what I was hoping for either, it would have been better to tie-in to Altair’s impetuous nature by unlocking the target straight away and leave you to decide how much prep you want – the less prep the harder it is, forcing Altair to mature. I keep seeing ways to do kills but the game insists on a way that makes it feel contrived rather than a challenge; and from a technical perspective, it’s not intuitive; there’s a ledge a foot away and Altair takes a plunge instead. Sure they’ll work that out in later games.

My career as an Assassin is off to a shaky start. Not only was I crap, but I never felt like I was really in the 12th Century, or mixed up in a secret war for the freedom of humankind – it feels light, I never really got the sense I was getting tangled up in something bigger. Ultimately, ACI is a middle-ages Splinter Cell.

There’s no contest between this and Black Flag, but I do see it’s DNA in Black Flag, and for a 12-year-old game, ACI is still worth a play; it’s a good game, and where the Creed began. I can’t wait to see how the rest of the series built on this. It’s put me in a hidden killing mood, and I have a lot to kill. Question is, can I stay hidden long enough?

Up next is ACII, considered the high point of the series;

let’s hope FBT masters the High/Low stance thing this time.