Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Analysis: Assassin's Creed

Assassin's Creed is a prime example of an overcomplicated game - a game that could work well with a simple premise, but throws on a bunch of questionable elements to try to make itself more "unique". In this case, the fairly believable universe of "the Crusades" and "Renaissance Italy" are connected to the much less tangible concepts of a world-wide history-spanning conspiracy that includes basically every historical figure worth naming.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. To sum up the story, Assassin's Creed puts the player in the shoes of Desmond Miles, a modern-day man who uses a machine called the Animus to relive the memories of his ancestors, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad and Ezio Auditore, both of whom were assassins. In essence, this story exists to justify the "gamey" aspects and creates a framing device: you are playing Desmond, who is in turn playing the game's protagonist. This means that there are two major aspects of the game to review: the "in-universe" historical periods, and the "meta-contextual" modern conspiracy stuff. Let's start with the former.

Location/Setting
Personally, Assassin's Creed's representation of historical locations and cities is one of its major redeeming factors for me, not because they're "accurate" or "detailed" or anything, but for sheer presentation value. It's one of the few games where cities feel "real"; the streets are bustling, the landscape is sprawling, and despite the eventual repetitiveness of the environments, it generally feels like stuff is going on. There's a lot of what could be called "detail" in the sense of little touches and design choices that make the world feel more natural.

Of course, a lot of the design is there for convenience's sake - whether it's Damascus or Acre or Venice, there will always be boxes and signposts to free-run your way across, and most of the crowds exist for the sake of having crowds rather than establishing an actual infrastructure. I don't blame the game for that, because that's what it needs those things for. It's impressive enough that it has crowds that large and uses them for the gameplay, whereas in comparable sandbox games like GTA the crowd ends up being just sort of an obstacle. In AC, negotiating the crowd either subtly or overtly is a major part of the game.

What ended up compromising the "historical believability" of the whole thing, for me, was how clean-cut everything was in terms of game mechanics. Every high point had a bale of hay underneath (more on that later), there's always people to help or shops to open or whatever. It feels too segregated - less like Altair or Ezio is actually making a difference in the community, and more like he's checking off the next section of his big to-do list (which is probably how the player ends up feeling about it). So much stuff felt the same that there was no part of the city design that really surprised me or felt "new". In all the games, the only place that really impressed me with its uniqueness was the city of Acre in AC1. It was "unique" because it used a totally different architectural style, group of people, and color palette from the standard Middle Eastern cities like Jerusalem or Damascus. In AC2, going from city to city barely meant anything except guards wearing different colored uniforms.

Guards and Combat
The guards were another thing that I really liked about Assassin's Creed, specifically in AC1. I liked the natural progression from "low-level" to "high-level", going from light armor to heavy armor without being unrealistically flashy. I also liked the relatively simple costume design, using things like surcoats to identify allegiance without being overly flashy or colorful. The general "improvement" trend continued in Assassin's Creed 2, but the colors are much more obvious and the armor is more decorated. While this reflects changes in the environment, from the Middle East to Italy, it also feels a bit less subtle. Still, I thought the guards did a pretty good job of establishing sensible uniform concepts while still distinguishing allegiance and class.

As far as their reactions and behaviors go, though, it's a bit of a mixed bag. Assassin's Creed is neat in that enemies will panic or flee from fights if things are going downhill for them. They'll chase after the protagonist if he runs away, they'll throw rocks at him if he tries to climb to safety, and a running escape will usually end with a lot more guards after them. This is balanced by the fact that they're really comically easy to kill, all the time, for the entire game. Enemies attack one at a time and telegraph their attacks in a really obvious fashion, and a patient player can just counter-kill them easily without ever really being in danger.

It's not even really just a question of game mechanics in this case. It rarely feels like the protagonist is in actual danger, because no matter how many people have him surrounded they are bound by rules of chivalry to attack him one-on-one. The funny part is how many ways the game tries to give you to escape - diving through market stalls, hiding in hay bales, hiring mercenaries or using vigilantes to hold them off - but there's no real point. You can run, and they can chase. If they catch you, they're going to attack you one at a time. It's a situation where the player is given a lot of options, but no reason to actually use them.

Essentially, it's a trade-off. Assassin's Creed intends to make the player feel like a total badass by letting him slice his way through guards like a classic swashbuckler hero. On the other hand, it also wants to create a dynamic where he should escape from the guard, making for exciting free-run chases. These two things need to be balanced: the guards need to be more of a threat, or the player shouldn't be expected to want to run from them.

Improvement and Upgrading
In Assassin's Creed 1, the upgrade system was simple and linear: kill a target, get a piece of equipment. It wasn't inventive, and it didn't really reward all the side-quests (flag collecting, templar killing) but it made for distinct and obvious advancement. You also had a whole period to experiment with your new stuff, although really it wasn't that big of an improvement to begin with (better sword, more throwing knives, etc). It was a simple system, but it was balanced pretty well.

Assassin's Creed 2 changed this in two ways. Firstly, money was introduced, providing an overarching concept of purchasing, rather than "earning", upgrades. Secondly, the player received control of a villa that could be upgraded (at cost) to provide more money, making it basically a combination of "thing to spend some money on" and "way to get more money than you know what to do with". While actual upgrades were still unlocked as the story went along, it instead unlocked the option to buy them.

Money in AC2 is spent on three things: personal upgrades, supplies, and Villa upgrades. The first group is a one-time deal (you buy a weapon or piece of armor, you've always got it), so the constant influx of money from the Villa pretty much makes it trivial. The second group (ammunition, medicine, and so on) is more substantial, but remains relatively cheap throughout the game. The third group only exists to bring you more money. Sure, it makes the villa look nicer too, but essentially the only interactive part of the villa involves you getting more money.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood mixed it up a bit by making the entire city of Rome littered with shops and stores that can be re-opened with a relatively small investment. This ended up being less an issue of income and more about convenience: "I want to buy something but I don't want to run all the way over there. I'll just run to that convenient shop window and fix it up into a blacksmith or something". It felt really modular - all you see of the shop is a window, so it feels less like you're fixing the town and more like you're, again, just checking off a list.

AC:B also introduced the concept of assassin recruits, who have a minor RPG system associated with them. These guys would have made a great money sink: buying them armor and weapons, customizing their look, and giving them diverse gear options. Unfortunately, they have a pretty simplistic upgrade scheme: you put points in attack or defense, which upgrades their weapons or armor. Every recruit ends up with both attack and defense maxed out, and when they reach "full assassin" status they all get the same outfit and weapon without any sort of customization. It feels like a real wasted opportunity, especially when the trailers and screenshots were full of diverse groups of assassins.

Story vs Gameplay
Assassin's Creed is a prime example of story/gameplay division. The "game" is about being a stealthy assassin who blends in with crowds to take out targets without being seen. The "story" is about a guy who tends to walk right up to his targets, kills them extravagantly, and then comforts them as they die (even in a case where you specifically have to use a ranged weapon because he's too far away to stab!). The decisions the player makes when controlling Ezio has nothing to do with what he ends up doing. This is hardly unique when it comes to games, but it's still frustrating when being sneaky is the entire point of the game.

This is also one of the areas where the whole "Animus" thing starts to become annoying. It's obvious that the linearity of these sequences is justified by the fact that it "already happened", but it's a really shallow excuse because you have so much freedom in the rest of the game. The game gives you so many tools and tactics that it's really annoying when Altair or Ezio takes the dumbest route possible to complete his objective. Aren't these guys professional assassins? Why is the player allowed to do so much better than them?

AC is also full of a lot of "suspension of disbelief" mechanics. When Altair takes damage, it's "de-synchronization" rather than "getting wounded". This is to explain the fact that he can take a huge amount of damage, and also to reinforce the Animus mechanic. In AC2 it's changed to actually being Ezio's health, since it's reinforced by armor and replenished by medicine, which brings it back to being silly. In cutscenes, things seem to operate under real-life logic - you get stabbed, it hurts.

To be frank, though, the gameplay is pretty schizophrenic too, largely for reasons of simplicity. Jumping 300 feet onto solid rock kills you (as you'd expect), but landing on a hay bale from that height means that you're perfectly fine. There's some justification of this as the assassins being superhuman, but it's a question of impact. They're not immune to falling damage, because normal falls kill them. It's the hay itself that makes them not just okay but fine. One's gravity-based acceleration onto a hard surface, while the other makes hay seem like a cloud made of pillows and marshmallows. It's just a cart's worth, it's not that soft.

Basically, Assassin's Creed should pick a side: is it an unrealistic "rule of cool" setting where assassins can pull off crazy stuff all the time with no effort, or is it a grounded setting where stealthy killers must use tact and guile to avoid an untimely demise? The part that bothers me is that it doesn't choose, it says "I want both" and then screws them both up.

Framing Device
Conspiracy nonsense aside, the Animus is probably my least-favorite part of the game. The Animus, and everything about it, suggests the following logic to me: "A game about being an assassin in a historical setting isn't interesting enough by itself. We need to throw in some meta-elements to make it worthwhile".  It introduces a lot of incongruities of the type described above: it makes the game more "real" by justifying the HUD, loading screens, and so on, but it also holds the game to a higher standard because of it - and it can't actually reach that point.

I'm fairly sure the gaming public would have been okay with a suitably thematic HUD - I mean, we put up with it in almost every other game. If you want to make things unrealistic, then go ahead. Just say "well he's like a swashbuckler and that's what we're going for" if you don't want things to be super-accurate. That's fine. What bothers me about the Animus is that it wants to be realistic and fails, rather than not caring about realism in the first place.

What's worse is how many things are justified by the Animus - but then you get to play as Desmond and it's still in third person and he doesn't get hurt by falls and there's just so much wrong all the time. Why did you bother with this, Assassin's Creed? Did you think the Animus would justify anything? It doesn't! Just let me play the game, I can deal with thematic unrealism! What are you even doing??

Also, let's just get this out of the way, the game's pretty much a joke historically speaking. It's a big hobnob of famous names tied to an arbitrary conspiracy based on two 12th-century factions in the Holy Land who now extend to the beginning and the end of time itself (using the same name). That could be applied to "rule of cool" too ("wouldn't it be crazy if there was a giant worldwide conspiracy responsible for orchestrating every event in history??") but it's just so haphazard that it seems like a self-insert fanfiction. It's an attempt to "totally blow the player's mind" by making them question everything except none of it makes any sense. It's not just a "conspiracy" or a "secret war" or something semi-plausible, it's an all-encompassing super-conspiracy that should have fallen apart under its own weight.

Conclusion
 The parts I like about Assassins's Creed are largely immersion-based. I like the look and feel of the cities, I like the mundane designs, and I like the little details. To a limited extent, I'm willing to connect to the protagonists in terms of doing cool stuff, because it's presented in a way that tries to give it more impact, whether it's through visceral combat or death-defying acrobatics. I like the fact that it uses history as a backdrop, because, well, I like history, and I think it's cool when it gets leveraged in an accessible way for modern audiences.

What I don't like is all the fake stuff, not just because "it's not real" but because it's sloppily done. The framework makes no sense, the plot seems like an overreaching attempt to be deep and meaningful, and even the basic aspects of cutscene-based decision-making is frustrating. What really gets to me about AC is that there is such a divide between these two things. It can't be just "rule of cool" because it has the Animus and wants to be taken seriously as a realistic thing. It's not realistic enough to pull that off because it wants to be a cool and fun game. I would have been happier if it tried to stick with one or the other, but doing both just pulls it apart.

So, To Sum Up:
1) AC does a pretty good job at conveying a world that feels populated, even if it gets a bit repetitive.
2) While the combat and free-running are stylish, the dual nature of "fight" and "flight" are undermined by how weak the enemies are in both fighting and chasing.
3) There's ways to interact with the larger world and attempt to affect the environment, but they're so simplistic that it becomes unimmersive - they're just a game mechanic.
4) The fact that Assassin's Creed can't make up its mind on whether it's "cool" or "real" does more damage to its plausibility than anything else about it.

10 comments:

  1. I think I essentially agree with everything in this post.

    AC is a really cool concept for a game, that somehow was wasted.

    Regarding the animus and the interface: I don't think you'd even need a different interface if you ditched the animus. HUDs aren't realistic in any case, why not leave them nice and futurey rather than artificially antique?

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  2. The future-y HUD is justified by the Animus, but I think it visually interferes with the world. As in, it's starkly different and it doesn't blend in well - when you target someone they get glitchy little computer bits around them to let you know that THIS IS A COMPUTER SIMULATION.

    Having a more visually thematic HUD can be kind of important (maybe I should do a future update on that?) because it establishes a framework for the world. I don't mean that it needs to be "realistic" in the sense that it's justified, because that's what the problem was in the first place. I just would have liked it to be less obtrusive and obvious.

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  3. I guess I was mostly thinking about just the health bar - looking back at some gameplay videos, I remembered that there were some really annoying interface things, like the constant reminders that you can hire courtesans, or perform double kills.

    They definitely overdid it with the computery effects, like when treasure emits little assassin diamonds or how just buying things from a shop breaks the mood entirely.

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  4. I agree, I'd prefer a HUD-less interface - but recognizing that it might be a little much to ask for, I'd settle for a HUD that at least didn't look totally different from the depicted world.

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  5. the true version of history is almost always not what we are told, it doesnt take a genius to realise that not letting the people know the truth is a basic implication from being in power.

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  6. I didn't think the "Templar/Assassin" thing was a bad idea in the first game, where it just seemed like a bit of a secret war or whatever.

    I DID think it was a bad idea when it turned out that LITERALLY EVERY FIGURE IN HISTORY was connected to them and their struggle somehow went back to Adam and Eve, but they still named themselves after their 12th-century incarnations.

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    1. Well said. Besides, I'd say its ethically wrong on many points, but it's just a personal opinion.

      Also agreed on most parts.

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  7. Very nice analysis, I too agree with all its points, except for being so critical about the Anymus. I really liked it in AC1, where it spiced up the otherwise random plot and, as you mentioned, it justified lots of gameplay mechanics.

    Where the plot really got out of hand was AC2's ending, and all of ACB followed suit. That stuff about an ancient alien race, the apple being a superweapon of some kind, and the aliens' superancient and supersecret base being hidden under the Colosseum's foundations, where archeologists would have dug it out sooner or later? That was all so far-fetched that it totally spoiled the game for me. Even worse was the mission where Ezio had to use the apple to kill enemies. That was such a surplus element the authors just had to somehow squeeze in, not succeeding at all... all AC games are brilliant, but this turn of events left a bitter after taste and I'm not looking forward to the sequel, because it's gonna be even crazier.

    The first AC made perfect sense and the Templar-Assassin war spiced up by the Anymus created a mystical story. If only they didn't spoil everything with megalomaniac ideas in the sequel...

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  8. I suppose I'm more bitter than I have to be about the Animus because, to me, "history" is by itself interesting enough to be a game, and the Animus felt like an unnecessary Dan Brown element. Maybe it would be more tolerable if it was JUST the animus - as in, no Desmond sequences, which break the framing device. It definitely wasn't as bad in AC1 as it was afterwards, though.

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  9. I've just found this blog and I'm reading through all of your archives now, you bring some fresh analysis to games! For this article, I think an excellent companion piece is the article that is linked to this blog post- I'm linking to the post instead of the article itself because the commentary may be useful:

    http://www.1up.com/do/blogEntry?bId=8998228

    I think an examination of Ubisoft's use of the historical settings is definitely useful. The characterization of AC 1 as making "Dan Brown look like Voltaire" is quite damning. Having the two big conspiracies be named the Assassins and Templar, yet predate those historical organizations, robs the rich context of the source material. As we see from that essay, it's only the tip of the series' problems.

    In that light, would you say the sequels are better in handling historical material?

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