Published November 16, 2007
Leave it to the French to bring us the first parkour video game — and then set it in the Middle Ages.
Though his favored method of movement wasn't really invented until the past decade, Altair, the light-on-his feet protagonist of "Assassin's Creed" ($59.99 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3), somehow feels right at home leaping across Jerusalem rooftops in the year 1191.
Altair climbs churches and walls with never-flagging vigor, hoping to strike down an arms trader or slave runner.
Problem is, he does the same thing over and over again.
There are some great things going for "Assassin's Creed," by France-based Ubisoft's Montreal studio.
Start with realistic, smooth movement physics and a control scheme that's both intuitive and unique (a tough combo for your basic third-person action game).
Gorgeous vistas, ever-shifting color palettes and a refocusing lock-on system keep the visuals interesting.
The story seems fantastic, on paper. There's a twist at the beginning that sets up an innovative "health" meter and level system, and you're plunged into Altair's vintage Third Crusade shoes and white hoodie.
He's working his way from disgrace back into the brotherhood of assassin ranks, by offing nine increasingly high-profile targets.
"Assassin's" is terrific entertainment for perhaps the first couple hours, as you free-run frolic and notice sparkling little tweaks to generic third-person action.
You clear up a fuzzy map by seeking "viewpoints" — high points on the map — from which you can see your next goals. You eavesdrop to find your targets and rescue locals who can aid post-assassination escapes.
The stealth component is fine (Hide with religious scholars! Hide on a bench!) but can get frustrating when you're exposed by a random bump or misstep. Basic swordfights require a rhythm method of attack that is never fully explained.
A sense of dread about my own actions grew during the course of gameplay. It wasn't quite at the moral dilemma level of "BioShock," but that's still a difficult emotion to muster in players.
As the game progresses, though, each set of actions gets a bit too familiar. Mini-missions blur together: Save a couple citizens, search for flags, pickpocket a map.
And the crowd, meant to be a game highlight, seems a bit off somehow.
There are some 120 different character types. These folks are more fully realized than in most game crowd scenes, but that's not enough to avoid annoying repetitions of dialogue lines or the feeling that you're in a town full of septuplets.
This is designed as the first game in a new Ubisoft franchise, and I do hope there's another.
The little miscues can be fixed, the stealth tweaked, and I'd be up for free-running through the French Revolution next time.
Three stars out of four.