Assassin’s Creed 1 Retrospective — Brilliance Marred By Repetition

For better and for worse, Assassin’s Creed always finds itself built upon whatever video game tropes are topical at the time. From the towers used to reveal the map, to the large open worlds, to the RPG elements present in the latest releases, it is clear that Assassin’s Creed is both shaping the gaming landscape and is always taking notes of what other games are doing.

But there was a time, right there at the beginning, when Assassin’s Creed was not trend setting. It set out to be something new, something different. Originally poised to be a Prince of Persia sequel for the seventh generation of consoles, the game director Patrice Désilets pushed to differentiate this game from the prior games. From the decision to shift from the protagonist being a prince to being an assassin, to the inclusion of the animus as the narrative framing device, the game slowly but surely pivoted to becoming a new IP.

Early concept art shows an assassin rescuing the child who may have been the titular Prince of Persia. Image Credit: Ubisoft Brasil on Facebook

With that came a freedom to do new things, no longer bogged down by the expectations of what a Prince of Persia game should be. Although it’s still worth noting there’s still Prince of Persia fingerprints that were left on Assassin’s Creed. Not just the obvious things, like the parkour that was adapted to work in a sandbox setting, or the sword fighting, or the historical backdrop. The animus was established as this device that can access your ancestor’s memories via your DNA. Thus the story had a right way to progress, a canon path forward. This is not unlike how Prince of Persia is presented as a retelling of a story, and thus when the protagonist suffers an untimely death, it’s the narrator who misspoke, and backtracks the story to get it right this time. I make this comparison because it is my opinion that this narrative framing is one of the single most important aspects of the franchise. What was a tongue-in-cheek way of telling the player “No no, the protagonist doesn’t die here” in Prince of Persia became a significant plot point in Assassin’s Creed, and what gave the early games a reason for being.

Analyzing things like themes, narrative devices and the like isn’t my strong suit, so I can only summarize the plot and speak to how I connect with it. I may not always have logical reasons for why I do or don’t connect with story beats, but I do my best to justify it. Spoiler warning for here on forward.

Story

Contentious may not be a strong enough word to describe feelings towards the modern day in Assassin’s Creed. The common sentiment I’ve seen expressed over the years is that the modern day segments were an unwelcome distraction from the historical playground that everyone wants to spend all their time in. I’m not alone in enjoying the modern day segments, but given the trajectory that the modern day took, it’s clear that we were in the minority. But my recent replay of Assassin’s Creed 1 (AC1 henceforth) has reinforced my love for this meta narrative, and it has recemented itself as critical to the plot for the whole franchise. I would go so far as to argue that the games are sci-fi first, period pieces second. AC1 opens with confusion, discomfort, and panic as characters argue over a distorted memory. Desmond, the modern day protagonist, is ejected from the animus having absolutely no idea what’s going on. The first minutes of the game are then spent with characters explaining what the animus is and how it works. The conceit of the franchise is that memories are stored in our DNA; not just our own, but that of all our ancestors as well. The attempt to load into the memory that depicts the event in interest was inaccessible because Desmond “[lacks] the confidence to step into [his] ancestor’s body.” To fix this, Desmond must start at an earlier memory, and work his way towards the target memory, gaining synchronization with his ancestor along the way. Countless times I’ve seen people say “But that’s now how DNA or memories work.” No, it’s not, but this is science fiction and so real world science is bent to accommodate the story. Then there’s the Apple of Eden, built by a technologically far superior civilization that predated humans.

That Apple of Eden, and other Pieces of Eden found in other games, are the end goals for Abstergo. Initially, you aren’t quite sure what this artifact is. You see it right at the beginning of the game as an adornment on top of the Ark of the Covenant. Curiously, it’s this artifact on top of the Ark that everybody wants, not the 10 Commandments contained within. There’s obvious religious implications here, and yet it’s as if the Ark and Commandments are a red herring, a distraction from the real prize.

The sphere with cross on top holds the Apple of Eden. Image Credit: Kainzorus Prime on the Assassin’s Creed Wiki

It’s not until halfway through the game you do get to see the Apple itself, which is well before its powers are revealed to you. You know what it is Abstergo wants, but not what it is. But it must be very special for them to be so hellbent on retrieving it. The powers of the Apple remain ambiguous until the very end, not just in this game but in future ones as well. From what we do see, it can compel people to do as the wielder wishes, as well as reveal information to the wielder. This comes to a head as the ancestral protagonist, Altaïr fights against his master who is using the Apple to brainwash the people of Masyaf, and creates illusions Altaïr must defeat. Upon defeating his master, Altaïr goes to destroy the Apple, only to realize that it contains so much tempting knowledge, among which is a map showing the locations of other Apples. With that Abstergo has gotten what they wanted.

The Apple displaying a map of the locations of other Apples. Image Credit: Kainzorus Prime on the Assassin’s Creed Wiki

Those are the bookends of the game: the disorienting beginning as the animus tries to access your memories; and the end goal for Abstergo, a map of devices capable of mind control. I summarize the plot like this because I found it to be a captivating through line for the game. AC1 had this tension, you were a prisoner, and your captors desperately want something that only you can find. At points in the story (after most “memory blocks”, the chapters of the story), you exit the animus. These provide opportunities to speak to your captors and learn more about who they are, what they do and what they want. The constant in-and-out was a reminder that you’re getting closer to something. With every ejection from the animus, the mood shifts a little bit more. Warren, the modern day antagonist, gets mixes of excitement and anxiousness as he desperately inches closer and closer to his goal. And when you reach it, it’s far crazier than whatever you were expecting. Mind control tech developed by a long gone civilization? I was left thinking the same thing that Altaïr was probably thinking: the world just got a lot bigger, and a lot scarier.

This is why the game connected with me, drew me into this universe. The game successfully elicited fear and excitement from me as the story progressed, and ended on an enthralling cliffhanger. Altaïr’s personal story is good, lacking execution in places, but good nonetheless. But even upon my first playthrough, I had accepted that the life story of Altaïr is incidental to what the end goal actually is. I have greater appreciation for his life story now than I did on my first playthrough, but to be honest it was hard to connect with it due to the simple fact it was boring. I was far more interested to see where the plot with Abstergo goes.

I called Altaïr’s story boring, and that’s not fair. His story is a really interesting one, riddled with philosophical conundrums at every turn. He kills because he must for the good of mankind, and yet every kill muddies the waters, makes him wonder if he’s really benefiting the world. Or maybe he’s just a cog in a machine that won’t stop turning no matter what he does. The issue is, the gameplay fails to deliver on the ideas the game has set up.

Gameplay

I think the first thing to bring up here is what makes AC1 so ambitious compared to later games. The game was originally meant to be played HUD-less. Now I can’t find definitive proof of this online, but I can find years old discussions where people point out the clear intent behind the game’s design. Whether or not this has been confirmed by the devs, I think it’s a fair assumption. Let’s look at the ways the game supports this:

  • Viewpoints gave Altaïr a bird’s eye view of the map. For a time, open world was synonymous with climbing towers to un-fog sections of your map. At the time of AC1 though, this was a novel concept, and it was meant to serve a purpose beyond padding out content. In a game without a HUD, the ability to locate missions and landmarks is crucial. The most pragmatic way to facilitate this is let the character get up high and survey the land. Viewpoints in particular are almost always towers that have eagles circling above them, allowing the player to almost always be able to spot one from anywhere in the map where the sky isn’t obstructed. From up on high, the character can see things like the Assassin Bureaus, which no matter the city always have a lattice roof, logo visible, and green metallic dome. Talking to the Bureau leaders, they will direct you towards investigation missions around the map, naming landmarks of where to look. In the final game, viewpoints automatically place waypoints on the investigations, viewable on the in game map and minimap, rendering finding these investigations is trivial. But without those maps, being told to find a herald in front of a church, or a guard in a market, would mean climbing high would be most convenient.
  • The sound design is intended to aid in this further. There is a litany of sounds all around you, usually quite repetitive. An example are the heralds and town criers, who seem to only have two or three speeches they give, no matter what or where. However, one herald might be giving a speech about your target. Realizing he’s not using the same script as the other heralds, you can assume he knows something about your target, and you can initiate a beat-up interrogation. Or again with the Assassin Bureaus, which always have the sound of bottles clinking together to let you know when you’re close to the building. NPC’s that you can pickpocket or eavesdrop on are always having a conversation that’s audibly distinct from the generic chatter that serves as background noise in the cities. (Small aside since I’m already here. The sound design is iconic. I have some issues with the sound quality that I’ll get to, but purely in terms of what the sounds are, it comes pretty close to being immersive. Especially menu sounds and the hidden blade sound.)
  • Eagle Vision. A staple of the franchise that has been tweaked and reworked numerous times over the years, but it all started here. The protagonist of each Assassin’s Creed game is capable of extrasensory perception of their environment, with it being dubbed Eagle Vision in AC1. If Altaïr is standing still, and the player has full synchronization (full health), then Eagle Vision can be activated. When active, the world turns a dim black and white, and people of interest glow. Allies glow blue, enemies red, sources of information white, and your assassination targets yellow. In a game without a minimap telling you where missions or enemies are, this would play a vital role in allowing the player survey their surroundings and determine who to approach, and who to avoid.
The target can be differentiated from the guards, and all enemies differentiated from civilians thanks to Eagle Vision. Image Credit: Kainzorus Prime on the Assassin’s Creed Wiki

I chalk all this up under what I would call deliberate game design. A clear intention on the devs’ part, an anticipation of player behavior and preparation to accommodate it. The devs are thinking of what choices players will make, and deciding on how to either make that choice fun, or find a way to subtly guide the player back on track. I’ll use the hidden blade as an example of the former. I found the sword play in AC1 to be a slog. It had weight, but was far too slow paced for my taste. It felt button mash-y most of the time, with occasional counter attacks that rarely killed the enemy outright. But early on I discovered you can equip your hidden blade mid combat. Now, the hidden blade is a stealth weapon. You cannot attack with it, and it offers no defense. What you can do with it is pull an incredibly tightly timed counter attack, which in fact is an instant kill every time. I have seen many people praise this over the years, it’s a high risk high reward tool at your disposal. Except, that’s not the only thing you can do with it, as I’ve learned on my most recent playthrough. If you have your hidden blade equipped during combat, and an enemy taunts you, you can actually assassinate them right then and there. Additionally, when you assassinate an enemy mid combat, there’s a chance to cause nearby enemies to flinch, which you then can assassinate them as well. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it’s best to make use of the opportunity. And finally, any enemy that’s been knocked to the ground can also be assassinated. Meaning if you grab and enemy, and throw them into the wall beside you, they’ll fall over and you can kill them quicker than waiting for the counter kill. None of these mechanics are taught to you other than counter attacks, and that’s taught specifically in the context of fighting with the sword. It’s the clearest example I can think of displaying the devs’ ability to account for player experimentation. I did not know of all these kill methods when I started my most recent playthrough. They were things I found on my own, and that makes them that much more rewarding. Is combat still slow and clunky compared to pretty much every other game in the franchise? Yes. But I look forward to experimenting with all of their combat systems to see if they have similar amounts of hidden depth, because my gut feeling says no and I want to be proven wrong.

The other clear example of deliberate game design I can think of is during the final fight with Altaïr’s mentor, Al Mualim. He uses the Apple to create multiple copies of himself, and Altaïr must fight them all off at once. The fight ends when the real Al Mualim is killed. Except for the particularly brave, this can be done rather quickly. Put some distance between the Al Mualim’s and yourself, and activate Eagle Vision. The real one will glow gold as he’s your target, and the rest are red because they’re simply enemies. So now you know which of the copies to focus on. This is a risky strategy because again, Eagle Vision can only be activated when Altaïr is standing still. In the middle of a fight with multiple enemies, you have a very narrow window where this is possible, and would generally be ill-advised. But the devs included the ability to do so anyways, there ready for the players that would dare try it.

The real Al Mualim glowing yellow, allowing a player brave enough to stand still in a fight to find the real target. Image Credit: Super Cheats Assassin‘s Creed Walkthrough

Not to drag the point out further than necessary, but other small attentions to details I love include:

  • When playing with a controller, the face buttons roughly map to Altaïr’s body when viewed from behind. Triangle/Y is for head actions, Square/X for the left hand, Circle/B for the right hand, and Cross/A for the feet. They really tried to keep the button mapping intuitive for players. So using Circle/B for catching a ledge when falling, and also for grabbing enemies in combat feels natural because that has reasonably become the “grab-type action” button.
  • There’s always hay and birds on rooftop ledges when a leap of faith is possible. This is not coincidence, it was a deliberate inclusion to help players navigate the world more easily.
  • The synchronization bar that functions as a health bar is made to resemble a DNA strand. When you lock onto characters, there’s visual glitches that surround them. I’m unable to identify what one of them is, but I only recently realized the other is a DNA fingerprint, consistent with the other UI theming.

At this point, I would be remiss to not also talk about the other series staple: parkour. Not just the ability to vault over objects here and there, but the ability to scale the sides of buildings, tightrope walk, and so on. The dense cities play a vital role in what made the parkour so much fun. AC1 feels like a playground, and while the parkour mechanics are in their infancy, and slower than I’d like, I still find satisfaction in it. And trust me, they are certainly slow, or at least when you’re climbing vertically. Altaïr pausing with every hold he grabs feels like a very odd decision. AC2 fixes this by simply removing the pause between each movement, and the climbing is quite literally 100% better for it. Yet I have to admit, for the cities we’re given to climb around in, the parkour doesn’t feel horrendously slow. Viewpoints are mini-puzzles as you have to find the handholds that will allow Altaïr to continue upwards. It’s certainly not a complicated puzzle, but the game isn’t going to allow you to simply hold up on the joystick and climb up to the top. The scale of the buildings in AC1 is certainly smaller than later games as well, so while climbing is slow, it admittedly doesn’t feel unbearably slow when every so often I’m stopping to look for what the best way up is. Not to get ahead of myself, but in AC2, the faster climbing is also coupled with buildings with more handholds, not requiring as much route planning.

Aside from scaling building sides, Altaïr is also nimble on his feet and is capable of acrobatic leaps, tightrope walks, balance beams, and so on. These abilities find the most utility when traversing rooftops, where there will always be gaps and obstacles in your way as you cross the map. This next part is pure conjecture, but it also feels like the devs notes the routes between each mission, and included convenient scaffolding and platforms and whatnot to make crossing rooftops easier specifically in the direction of missions. Short of actually mapping the location of every mission and all parkour routes in the game, I advise to take this with a grain of salt. But it really felt like when I was traveling to a mission, or booking it to the Assassin Bureau after an assassination, there was always scaffolding in just the right places for me. Maybe it’s just confirmation bias, or maybe that was really something the devs mapped out after creating the basic map. Who knows, but either way dashing across the rooftops was always tons of fun for me.

Even with aged graphics, this view never gets old. Image Credit: nstav13 on Reddit

With combat and parkour covered, what other gameplay system is there to talk about? From the words of the developers themselves:

This was the first learning that helped shape Assassin’s Creed II. We identified our three main gameplay pillars: the fight, the navigation, and the social stealth. And the entire game was designed around these pillars.

Granted this is in reference to AC2, but the mentality is clear. There is combat, there is parkour, and there is social stealth. The gist is that the assassins are capable of hiding in plain sight by mimicking the behavior of those in their surroundings, rendering them inconspicuous to their enemies. I’ll reveal my bias now: when considering the franchise as a whole, I think social stealth is one of the most important systems there is. It doesn’t matter as much to me if the combat is more akin to Batman Arkham or Dark Souls, or if the parkour is through trees or rooftops, but social stealth should not be substituted for other kinds of stealth. Used in conjunction with other, more traditional stealth systems, sure, but never outright gone for the sake of something else. Social stealth just makes so much sense within the scope of these games, and the closest comparison I can make is imagine playing Hitman 2016 or its sequels without disguises. Very technically possible maybe, but it would just feel wrong to remove the ability from the hitman’s (read as: assassin’s) arsenal. Social stealth was something that set Assassin’s Creed apart from other games. Metal Gear, Splinter Cell, Deus Ex, etc. all have line of sight stealth. Avoid being directly seen by enemies is the name of the game for many franchises. But games where the goal is to have enemies walk right past you and not even realize that it was you? Not quite as many games do that, I don’t think.

So with that in mind, the social stealth in AC1 must be pivotal, right? Ehhhhh, not so much. I defend the game where I can, and sing its praises where I think it deserves it. But for a system that very quickly evolved to being one of the most important things in the franchise, I’m forced to admit that in AC1 it is very lacking. There are two, count it two, places where you can practice social stealth: when sitting on a bench next to NPC’s, and when blending in with scholars. The former is only necessary when doing eavesdrop missions or hiding from guards, and the latter allows you to walk (very slowly) past guards. You have no control of what direction the scholars are walking, and they move so slowly, they really only serve a function when they help with access to story-based locations. If I’m traveling across the city, it is very rare I’m going to blend with them. Otherwise, you can hold Cross/A and you’ll pose like a scholar even when alone and assume the dreaded slow walk. It works if you aren’t trying to flee a scene, but if you are this does not function as a mobile hiding spot, that’s only for joining the groups of scholars.

Perhaps I should be grouping in other NPC-based interactions in with the social stealth as well. There are “save citizen” missions across every city, and completing them either unlocks the aforementioned scholars, or vigilantes who will grab hold of enemies chasing you to allow you to escape. There are beggars who will run up to you and impede your movement, making it hard to reach your destination without dropping your cover to push past them. Similarly, there are drunkards/mentally ill NPC’s sporadically around who will shove you if you get too close, forcing you out of cover. Overall, these are little things that are mostly ignorable, and never really engaging. I find it curious that for being a “gameplay pillar,” as well as being the only pillar that coincides with one of the tenets of the creed (be a blade in the crowd), it has such a subdued role in the game. Like many things, AC2 will take this and expand on it, but here in the beginning it’s barely noteworthy. There’s some interesting fledgling ideas here, but it’s just so easy to ignore them, and I think that’s a shame.

I’m not even going to address the part where Altaïr is the only one in the group armed to the teeth. That’s one of those details you just accept and move on. Image Credit: Kainzorus Prime on the Assassin’s Creed Wiki

Mission Structure

Not every section can have a clear segue.

Unfortunately, I think it was the missions themselves that were AC1’s biggest downfall. Take any game from 2007 and play them today, and I’ll bet much of the gameplay will feel dated and clunky by today’s standards. AC1 felt clunky by 2007’s standards as well, but that may not have been a death blow if the rest of the game made up for it. But really, it didn’t. The reality is, I’d say 90% of the game follows a rigid structure: You go to a city; you use viewpoints to clear the map; you perform investigation missions which are invariably beat-up interrogations, eavesdropping, pickpocketing, or informant tasks; you confirm with the bureau leader to begin the assassination; you assassinate the target; and you retreat back to the bureau to complete the memory block. Every. Single. Time. The investigation missions are completely lacking in depth. When you go to do an eavesdrop, you always find the nearby bench and trigger the conversation. Always. When you need to beat up someone for info, you always wait for them to finish their speech, follow them into an alley, and then start a fist fight. Always. When you want to pickpocket someone, you start the mission from a reasonable distance, and once their back is to you, you walk in close and hold Circle/B to grab the document from their pocket. Always. There is no room to express yourself here. There is no way to experiment with gameplay systems. You will perform the same kinds of missions in the exact same ways every time, and you will do it with nothing to break up the monotony in between. Simplicity and repetition are not inherently bad. As an introduction to the missions within the first half hour of the game, I wouldn’t complain they’re too simple. The problem is that the last time you perform these missions in the game, there is no meaningful difference from the tutorial missions. The missions did not grow in scope, or complexity, or ever once subvert expectations. That is the death blow for this game. No matter how much I praise the ideas, the concepts, the considerations, the deliberate game design, the passion present in the little details if you just stop to look…the game just becomes so boring.

When I was researching aspects of the HUD-less section, I came across someone who argued that the repetition wasn’t a mistake or oversight. It was meant to reinforce the lessons players would organically learn by being forced to watch and listen to their surroundings, providing predictable circumstances that would initiate investigations. And there is validity to this thought process, but only within the scope of initiating missions. Because again, the games never do something new with the missions. Altaïr is never caught during an eavesdrop and forced into a fight. Altaïr never pickpockets a rooftop guard. A herald you have to beat up never once runs from a fight, forcing you to chase him down. The problem is not that the missions all have the same triggers, and in a HUD-less game that might even be a good thing. But there is no content in the game that doesn’t feel on par with what could essentially be side missions.

That is of course, unless you consider the assassinations. These are the game’s bread and butter (and potentially the game’s saving grace). The assassinations are grouped into two categories: ones where you can make a plan of attack, and ones that are scripted. Investigations (usually) result in important info pertaining to your target. Guard routes, infiltration opportunities, hiding spots, escape routes, etc. For the assassination, it is up to the player to apply this gained knowledge as they see fit. There is no waypoints for the hiding spots or escape routes, so if you want to make use of them then you better actually examine the documents you collect and remember where they are. This might be the best remnant of HUD-less design there is. Your minimap does not become bloated with icons detailing the minutia of your surroundings. There are not dozens of visual cues on screen at once, literally highlighting all the things you can utilize during the assassination. The most the player gets is an icon on the minimap for the target, and that’s it. (It’s worth noting that the minimap isn’t actually even a map. It contains no information about your surroundings, and only points you in the direction of missions/the target. It is functionally a compass more than a map.)

On the other hand, the scripted assassinations are…scripted. Sorry, but just like mission itself, there’s little room for me to express myself. You show up to start the mission, a cutscene plays, and whatever info you’ve gathered is now rendered useless because instead you’re following a scripted sequence, usually chasing a target that’s become aware of your presence. You still perform all the investigations leading up to it, so you can still very well take the time studying everything you’ve learned and coming up with a plan. Only for it to fall apart and nothing you learned matters anymore. This could be a cool subversion of expectations, but it is not done sparingly, so it is just as equally expected as the more involved missions.

When the assassinations are good, they’re great. They’re engaging and do not hold your hand. They expect you the player to actually read the documents and learn from them and develop a plan that you hold yourself to. But when the missions are bad…well look. The assassinations remain the highlight of the game. Every one ends in philosophical posturing, first as the target explains their point of view, then afterwards back at the bureau when Altaïr speaks with the leader to discuss the target’s philosophy, and then again with Al Mualim later. From a story perspective, these are great moments for Altaïr. But the game is just so damn repetitive, it cannot afford to waste the assassination missions by making them scripted. It is where the game has the greatest chance to shine, for the boring investigations to amount to something great, something that the player decided to do on their own. And when it works and they make a clean escape, the player earned that. The game is not in the position to forfeit all of that to make half the assassinations be a matter of the target saying “You’ll never catch me assassin!”, and then running away. The only thing I can think of that explains this is that developing the assassinations was time intensive, and making them more scripted was necessary to finish the game in a timely manner.

Hints of Cut Content

This section is 100% speculation and I can only present the things I say here as a gut feeling I have and nothing more. But I really do feel like there’s something missing here, and I’ll do my best to present why here:

  • Masyaf and the Kingdom both feel far more empty than they should. And I just can’t believe they’d go to the trouble of making them as big (for the time) as they are with the only intention being to fill them with flags, a completely pointless, reward-less collectible. The only size estimate for the Kingdom I can find puts it at relatively close in size to Revelations’ Constantinople (in total encompassing square footage, not just explorable areas), which doesn’t sound too far fetched if you strip away everything but a couple buildings. Which is the problem. How are you going to have an entire map the size of a game that comes out 4 years later, and have nothing worthwhile to do there? I don’t want to assume it exists solely to pad game time. Which leaves me guessing it was likely to fill a similar role as the Frontier from AC3: an in between area that still is home to several missions and things to do.
  • I also mentioned Masyaf, as I have to imagine there was more to do there as well, if only because it takes more time to leave than I’d like. Every time you’re done talking to Al Mualim, you have to exit the fortress, make your way down the hill and through the gate, get on a horse, and ride for like a hundred more meters of empty outskirts before you trigger the load screen/fast travel screen. What does this accomplish? Why force players to spend this much time just to go from Al Mualim to the edge of Masyaf, when there’s nothing to see or do in between (except for the pointless flags)? The only things that happen in Masyaf are Robert De Sable’s invasion at the beginning of the game, and your 3 tutorials for the different types of investigations. Masyaf could be reduced in size by half and nothing would change. The fast travel screen trigger could happen right at the city gate and nothing would change. The fast travel screen trigger could happen at the castle gate and nothing would change. And this is why I feel like content is missing. Again, what’s the point of its size if only 25% of it is used? The immersion of riding a horse for 30 seconds through inconsequential outskirts? The game has a lot of generic content, and I know if missions were added they’d likely be more generic missions. More content doesn’t mean better, even for a game that feels as constrained as AC1. But I still want to know what they were really planning on doing with it.
Why on earth is the Kingdom so big when not a single story related mission takes place there? What is the point of the bottom half of Masyaf? No story missions take place there, it only serves to take longer to get to the edge of the map. Image Credit: Senningiri_GR on the Ubisoft Forums
  • Eagle Vision isn’t used once in the story. It is by all accounts, a pointless mechanic whose relevance only comes up when Desmond unlocks it for the first time upon beating the game. You don’t need to have allies highlighted blue because there’s never a time where you need to discern allies in a crowd. You never need to discern where enemies are because the character models make it obvious. You never need to know who are sources of info because you can lock onto them, something you can’t do for normal civilians (except mercenaries you can pickpocket for knives, but again character models make this an easy distinction). You never need to see who’s highlighted yellow as the assassination target because every single time save for once, there’s a cutscene that explicitly shows you the target. It’s a mechanic I’m glad to see expanded on in later games, but it literally has use in one single fight, and comes up in the story at the very end. I’ll say this for the last time, they had to have had plans for it, and due to time had to scrap it. It probably goes hand in hand with the HUD-less game design. Once they gave us a minimap and made NPC’s lock-on-able, the purpose of Eagle Vision was rendered a moot point. Instead of reworking it to have a purpose in this altered version of the game, it just got relegated to being an untouched mechanic.

There’s also evidence of ideas that don’t necessarily equate to cut content, but instead that the devs bit off more than they could chew. During the modern day sections, you have opportunities to read the emails of your captors. The emails you can read set up a lot of lore. They’re the basis for the comic about the Russian assassin Nikolai Orelov, they set up Daniel Cross, reference several Abstergo facilities that come up in later games/comics. I find it pretty impressive, they had a whole universe in mind. I also want to point out that one of the emails says that 96% percent of the population of Africa has been killed by a virus. A quick google search says that means 924,000,000 dead. That’s…a lot of dead people. And this is why I chalk it up to “bit off more than they can chew” because the games never try to address this again, and it’s probably for the best because that’s an insane world event to try to write around. They also mention that the last movie studio in the world closed due to the rise of games and piracy. Then there’s an entire city dead due to some fluoride mind control test. It seems like they were really trying to set up this dystopian modern day, and if the games ever truly intended to have a fully modern day installment, I wonder what it would have looked like. All media that comes out after this game, from the sequels to comics, don’t depict normal life for civilians as very changed from our world. But AC1 was shooting for the moon, saying that society was on the verge of something, likely being controlled fully by Abstergo (and this is before the Apple was a concern), or maybe a societal revolt against Abstergo. This isn’t a fault of AC1, and it bears no responsibility for the failure of other media to expand on these ideas. I just think this is evidence that the devs really had more ideas than they could fit into the games.

The Ugly

I’ve covered the good and the bad at this point, but I feel like it’s worth addressing the ugly too. No doubt the game has aged, but on a technical level it has not aged gracefully.

Let’s start with the worst offender in my opinion. The sound quality is abysmal. Nothing out of music and cutscene dialogue sounds good. Audio volumes are all over the place, the clarity of audio varies wildly. You’ll be at the top of a viewpoint, a town crier under you will sound like he’s standing right next to you, and even louder than him you’ll hear a “Get down from there” from a guard that sounds like he’s speaking to you through tin cans and string. This is why I called it almost immersive earlier, because if they mixed their audio right, this could sound like a very convincing city with discussions around every corner, and audio queues to help lead you around organically. But instead, town criers, beggars, and save-citizen missions just blast your ears once you get within a certain distance.

The graphics have not aged well either. I got my first 4K TV mid last year, replacing the TV I’ve had since 2013. So maybe I’m seeing this game with greater clarity than I’ve ever seen before, and the flaws become magnified. Either way, this is the first game I think I’ve played that the graphics have aged in a way that’s detrimental to the experience. I’ve also recently replayed the first Watch Dogs and noticed signs of aging there too: blurry textures on character models and the like, but AC1 it’s rough. I’ll have to check my PS3’s settings because AC1 should be able to run at 1080p, but it feels like I’m only at 720. Or maybe I have the issue backwards, because the Ubisoft support page says it’s optimized to support 720p, and the game is running worse because I have it running at a higher resolution. And I’m getting tons of screen tearing and stuttering. Synchronizing viewpoints are by far the worst offenders, which is really disappointing. I‘ve also recently busted my Sega Dreamcast to play a few old games, and that’s only 480p on my tv run through RCA connectors, not HDMI, and yet the graphics felt more crisp. Maybe the substantially lower polygon count meant resolution wasn’t the limiting factor, but it seemed like it had even less aliasing than I’m seeing in AC1. I’m not sure, but I will be playing the Ezio Collection remaster on PS4 next, so assuredly these same issues won’t be present there. AC1 has some amazing atmosphere, and the cities are cool to look at, but these graphics are not what the game deserves.

Ending on a Positive Note

I cannot end this on a negative note. The title of this is “Brilliance Marred by Repetition” for a reason, because I genuinely think this game has touches of brilliance. Dated gameplay mechanics are not the worst sin a game can be guilty of. Who knows what people will have to say 10 years from now about the hottest games coming out today. It’s the mission structure that I think turns most people off, and prevents them from immersing themselves in this wonderfully intriguing universe.

It’s a universe with ancient civilizations waiting to be rediscovered. With the conceit that the history of our world as we know it is wrong, and with the animus we can see what truly happened. A universe where something big is just around the corner, and whatever it is, it sure as hell isn’t good, and it’s up to us to stop it. It’s a game that had thought put into how to lead the player around organically, without a handy-dandy map marker telling them where everything is (even if that did eventually get added in). Where the combat encourages experimentation to find new ways to kill enemies; ways not ever taught in training or tutorials. A game where the player was trusted to be able to plot assassinations themselves, without needing to be told where to go or what to do. It’s a game dripping with little details, showing the devs never once forgot that this is a simulated memory accessed through Desmond’s DNA, and almost all aspects of the UI respect this. A game that laid the groundwork for social stealth, a unique opportunity to manage the threat of enemies. For being the first game in the franchise, it shocks me how much of this game is fundamentally good, even when execution lacks in places. This is not a game confused about its identity. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and is doing everything it can to live up to it.

With some more proper mission variety, who knows. Maybe reception would have been warmer, and AC2 wouldn’t have been such a heel turn in nearly every way. Would that be a good thing or bad thing? I’ll let you know in the next article.