Series: The Casual Gamer
Over this past holiday season I finally finished the first title in the Assassin’s Creed series. I picked up the Platinum Hits edition a few years ago, playing it in fits and starts, but it wasn’t until now that I decided to push through and complete the game. And I’m really glad I did.
Be forewarned: potential spoilers beyond this point.
In Assassin’s Creed you play as Desmond Miles, a bartender abducted by the mysterious organization Abstergo. They force him to use a machine called the Animus as a means to unlock and examine the memories of his ancestors, who are assassins, which are encoded in his DNA. The ancestor of focus in this game is Altair, the landscape ancient Israel. Over the course of the game Altair breaks all three tenets of the Assassin’s Creed, is demoted to novice, then assigned to kill nine enemies, all of whom are Templars. Meanwhile, in between sessions, Desmond attempts to piece together clues regarding the organization that holds him and discovers that an age-old struggle between the Assassins and the Templars is still ongoing.
The mechanics of Assassin’s Creed are both interesting and at times aggravating, which was probably not helped at all by the long spans between sessions playing the game. In terms of the physical controls, Altair has two button schemes depending on what you need to accomplish — low profile and high profile. The low profile controls are generally used when you’re trying not to attract attention. Each of the cities you visit are peppered with guards, none of which will hesitate to attack you once they realize you’re an assassin. Using low profile commands reduces the risk of being identified and have to either fight or escape. The high profile controls are used when you want to attack, climb buildings, or run. Operating in high profile mode greatly increases your chances of being identified and attacked by the city guards.
Switching between control schemes can sometimes be frustrating, especially when you’re caught in the middle of a pitched battle. It’s not uncommon to find yourself fighting as many as fifteen or twenty guards, particularly after you’ve completed an assassination and the city is on high alert. More than once I found myself cornered in a location that was difficult to escape, surrounded by guards, and unable to fight them all off. It took me a while to get comfortable enough with the controls to more easily manage such large fights.
Each city you visit holds a number of minor objectives to complete. Many of these are optional, but at least three need to be completed in order to unlock the assassination target. Finding eagle viewpoints gives you a birds-eye view of the city’s district you’re in, opening up groups of objectives surrounding that viewpoint. From there you can then proceed to save individual citizens being harassed by city guard, pick the pockets of people working with the Templars, interrogate preachers who espouse the ideals of the Templars, eavesdrop on conversations, and help fellow assassins complete their own tasks. Completing these objectives quickly becomes monotonous, which at times takes away some of the momentum of the game.
III. Intertwining Storylines
Each of the Assassin’s Creed games has two related storylines that intertwine and influence each other. The ‘B’ story is the one in which you spend the vast majority of time — playing as the assassin as you walk through the ancestor’s memories. The ‘A’ story is the smallest percentage of the game, but arguably the most important as Desmond learns more about Abstergo and the Templars who run the organization. He learns that the Templars have been trying for millenia to locate the Pieces of Eden, which they hope to use to subjugate and control the world. Their goals are ostensibly to end war and conflict by force, while the assassins work to maintain the free will of mankind and achieve peace through diplomacy. This theme is undermined somewhat when Altair discovers that Al Mualim, the leader of the assassins guild, is actually using him to find one of these pieces so he himself can use it to subjugate mankind, implying that even Al Mualim believes it to be the only way to achieve peace.
IV. Assassins and Templars
It’s never made clear in the first game what the origins are of either the Assassins or the Templars. All we learn is that the conflict has been ongoing for a very long time and that the Crusades were the means by which the Templars of the time searched for the Pieces of Eden. Assassin’s Creed portrays the Templars as the evil, world-dominating force and the Assassins as something of a necessary evil, a counterbalance to the Templars’ destructive methods. The Assassins never seem intent on eliminating the Templars. Rather, they seem focused on controlling them, reigning them in, and preventing them from placing the entire known world under their iron rule.
V. Ethics and Morality
Playing as Altair puts you into the odd position of playing as a character type that is typically viewed in popular fiction as evil. Assassins are usually written as mercenaries for hire, selling their services to the highest bidder, killing off hated individuals regardless of the consequence. Here, the Assassins are more of a self-governed group that exists for the sole purpose of making sure that men remain free and that organizations like the Templars can’t force the world under tyrannical rule. The Assassins are beholden to no one, and if their methods are sometimes morally objectionable, it is considered a necessity to ensure that evil men cannot attain or remain in power.
There were times when I felt uncomfortable playing the assassin. On the one hand, killing innocent citizens was always forbidden but killing guards never was. This distinction seemed to be justified merely by the fact that the guards can fight back. Very few of the guards ever seemed to be associated directly with the Templars themselves, which contributed to my sense of discomfort with sometimes needing to take a few out to quietly achieve an objective. The fact that the guards were frequently seen harassing innocent citizens helped reinforce the perception that all the guards were corrupt, however. Drawing this moral line in distinct shades of black and white is probably necessary in a game such as this, particularly to make the storytelling a bit easier, but it did pull me out of the game a few times. A blurrier, messier blending of morality among the city guards would have been more realistic for me, but that’s also not something that you typically see in video games. In this case I’m not sure how much it would change the gameplay and outcome in any event, since you still need to achieve the same objectives. Making the city guard universally corrupt makes killing them seem more just and reduces the sense of moral guilt.
With the nine high-profile targets in the game you see a more conflicting greying of the moral lines. As Altair assassinates each of his targets, he carries a lengthy dialogue with them where they describe their philosophies and the reasons for their actions. They seem confident and self-justified in their reasoning, which causes Altair to question his guild’s objectives and motives. It is Al Mualim who reassures Altair of the purity of their purpose, the same Al Mualim who is revealed later to have the same purpose as the Templars. Interestingly, it is because of Al Mualim that Altair becomes strengthened in the justice of the cause to eliminate the Templar threat, which is important when he has to confront and ultimately defeat Al Mualim, as well.
Overall, I enjoyed playing through Assassin’s Creed, and the development of the ‘A’ story is what ultimately carried me through to the end. It’s never revealed in the game what the exact nature is of these Pieces of Eden, whether they are religious/supernatural or if they are some form of technology, so I’m curious to see how subsequent games develop on this.