M (Mature)Release Date:
November 13, 2007 Screenshots: LinkAmazon: Buy Now!Written By:
His name is Abu’l Nuqoud (pronounced “na-kood”). He is the richest man in Damascus in the year 1191 and is referred to as “the merchant king”. My latest mission is to take his life.
I make my descent from the massive tower at Masyaf which houses us the Assassins: basically a clan of 12th century Arabic ninjas based off of the Ismaili Shiite sect the “Hashashin” from whom the actual word “Assassin” originates, and the subject of Ubisoft Montreal’s (Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time) Assassin’s Creed. My character – a man hooded in white, hiding what looks like a somewhat quiet expression on his face, the hood itself curved upwards at the front to resemble a beak. The man himself is named Altaïr (“all-tai-eer”) – “the flying one” in Arabic.
The Assassins’ home itself towers at the top of a hill next to the mountains over Masyaf, just one of the many sparse villages that dot the roads through the Holy Land, all rendered as deep, brown mud brick baked in intense sunlight and casting crisp shadows that wash over the landscape. Arriving at Damascus for the first time is a particularly breathtaking sight. Approaching it from the hills allows for a glimpse over the walls revealing a massive city that feels very real in its size knowing that every bit of it is immediately accessible. No pasted-in scenery, no loading screens, just a massive city that’s right there.
From here, I carry out my mission in a world that feels deep, immersive, and dynamic, but at the same time is filled at every corner with elements that feel jarringly artificial. I won’t spoil much of the plot, but Assassin’s Creed tries to explain its videogame-like absurdities by positioning itself as a simulation on purpose, similar to how Superman 64 excused its foggy, desolate rendition of Metropolis by saying that Superman himself was in a simple simulation. Assassin’s Creed is a world that I want to feel real but am disillusioned with at nearly every turn.
When I ride up to the gate there just happens to be a group of scholars, dressed similarly to myself, passing into the city. Because I helped one of them earlier by fighting off some soldiers harassing them, they allow me to slip right in as one of them. It’s pretty cool to disappear in and out of the general crowd like that, but it seems to be the only way for me to enter any city… which I have to do nearly 10 times.
From here, my first stop is to the local Assassin’s Bureau in the lower class district. The tenements and humble shacks here construct a city of dark slums and alleys all covered in ruinous brick and wood, directly contrasting the bare sun-drenched rooftops above.
At the bureau, I receive the information I need to start the search for my target. I’m told Nuqoud is in the upper class parts of the city and that I should start my search at the Omayyad Mosque and around Salah al-Din’s (known to westerners as Saladin) citadel, both of which are to the west of the Bureau.
This city is big, sprawling, and packed with dense crowds of people, so I decide the best way to start my investigation is to scout the city from above. There are several structures towering over the city allowing for a better view. Approaching the upper class sector, the tightly packed narrows and slums slowly give way to larger buildings more colorfully designed than the simply tan shacks of before. The people themselves for the most part are also dressed in finery, although it seems odd that beggars and other crazy people still walk around here.
I calmly walk through the crowds. Through markets where merchants advertise their wares, through squares where self-proclaimed preachers shout to gathering crowds about Salah al-Din’s fight against King Richard and the crusaders, and street corners where corrupt guards harass distressed citizens, and through smoke-filled alleys where beggars – pathetic as they are, pester any passers by.
All the while Altaïr himself weaves and gently pushes his way through the throngs, fully aware of his environment in ways not seen in games before. After having carried out three assassinations thus far, one in this very city, guards are watchful of the Assassins, and thus surviving means I must take care when walking through crowds and not draw attention to myself.
Eventually, I reach a large structure, probably the citadel, surrounded by two towers. Inside the walls of this quiet compound, away from bustling city right outside, I begin my ascent, jumping from the wall itself to the lowest ledge proceeding upward. Climbing here is not an exercise in carefully jumping but simply path finding. Anywhere else, “climbing” would simply involve using one button to jump to progressively higher platforms. In Assassin’s Creed however, after holding a button (in the case of the PS3 version, the R1 button) to switch Altaïr to more high profile movement (as opposed to casual movement used when walking through crowds) and then pressing the X button – representing his legs, to jump, he simply climbs where I direct him. He’ll grab onto literally anything that even slightly protrudes from the side of the tower – ledges, cracks, windows, bars and ornaments.
As I ascend, the chatter of the crowds below gives way to the sound of the wind as a spectacular view of the city slowly rises into view. From the top, literally the entire city is visible from the very gate through which I entered straight to the other end. From here I spot markets right below me, the people still visible. Right to the south I can see the Omayyad, and further south, a palace. It is at this point that Creed’s attention to historical detail hits me.
Masyaf was recreated with reasonable detail next to the Syrian mountainside, but peering over cities like Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre, and seeing such vivid cities highlighted by landmarks like the Omayyad mosque, the Dome of the Rock, and the massive cathedral that towers over Acre, one wonders if this is indeed what these places looked like at the end of the 12th century. Nuqoud himself, along with eight other men whom I must kill, is in fact based on a real man who died in (or around) 1191. An interactive world this well-researched is rare, especially one used as the backdrop to a commercial game.
Sadly though, that’s all I can make out from up in the tower. In reality, all climbing up towers is supposed to do is “synchronize” my map so a section of the city is visible in it, possibly revealing more points of interest in my investigation. From here I go towards an icon on my map showing the opportunity to pickpocket someone for information. I eventually come up on one man conversing with another about a letter in the market. As they part I tail the man with the letter, hiding in the crowds, stopping everything he stops to look behind. Eventually I’ve inched close enough to steal what he’s got. It’s here that I get my first piece of real info on Nuqoud.
Apparently my target is not very well liked in Damascus. While the people here toil and starve for the war, he plans to throw a lavish feast at his palace. Despicable. My chance to strike will probably come then though, when he’s busy entertaining his guests. In the city I even hear one of the “preachers” speaking in defense of Nuqoud, citing how he opens his doors to the people every week as if to excuse Nuqoud’s excesses. Little does he know I’m set to end the man’s life. However, I’m still not sure where this palace actually is, plus my objective counter still says I need two more “investigations” before I can actually go ahead with the hit. I could interrogate the preacher, but interrogations in Assassin’s Creed are messy, dangerous affairs that almost inevitably result in massive fistfights.
I head towards the “eavesdropping” icon to find a bench conveniently situated by a conversing couple just north of the palace, so I sit down and listen to hear that one of them is a builder who accidentally left some scaffolding near the roof of the palace, sounds like a way in. Then I go towards an icon on my radar representing an informant for the Assassins who has somehow scattered 20 flags all over the nearby buildings, initiating a minigame where I have to find them in less than three minutes in order for him to give me any info.
After all this, according to the game I technically have enough info to start the actual hit, but in reality all I know is that Nuqoud is throwing a party at his place, that some guy left some scaffolding near the roof, and from this informant that a fountain in the palace is climbable. I still don’t even exactly know where this guy’s place is. But I head back to the bureau anyway to tell the agent there what I know and receive the okay to take out Nuqoud.
I look on the map and I now magically know where Nuqoud is – in the palace to the south of the rich quarter of the city with the big “Assassinate” icon over it. Instead of just walking through the streets again, I switch Altaïr to full-on ninja mode by simply holding R1 and letting him loose.
Running and jumping across the roofs, similar to climbing, doesn’t involve much button input for the simple reason that Altaïr moves through his environment far too dynamically for something as big and pronounced as the X button. Simply holding R1 and X will allow him to jump off of just about anything: ledges, planks, beams, anything that sticks out. Controlling him really feels more like steering him. Platforming is no longer about traveling linear obstacle courses but constant movement through and over anything and everything around you.
While heading towards the palace I hug along the ultimate reminder that this place is an artificial simulation: a giant blue wall of computer code that blocks me from an apparently locked district of the city. The game tries to put me back into the context of the “simulation within the game” feeling with a message saying “error, memory cannot be accessed.”
As I get close to the palace I notice guards on the roofs of buildings near it. This game isn’t Splinter Cell, so I can’t hide behind walls or creep in the shadows. Furthermore, these guards simply do not have the awareness you’d expect from guards in any self-respecting stealth game. I can only time myself to quickly reach each guard, stab him, and reach the next before he notices. Stealth here isn’t really creeping around guards as it is hopping from building to building quickly shanking each one like some kind of wraith.
Because of how relatively clean and featureless the walls of the palace are, climbing up for a roof entry seems out of the question, which puts my entry on the ground where guards patrol and where my choices are severely limited. Once I’m down I can only hide in the one designated hiding place there - a pile of hay lying right next to the lavish fountain and garden (it seems everybody from the poorest beggar to the richest merchant in Damascus likes to have some hay near them), or be inevitably spotted by the guards. So I wait on a scaffold hanging over the palace wall until the guards are gone. I jump down and immediately run towards the side door into the main courtyard where the party is being held, making sure to get there fast enough to not be noticed by the guards but also to slow down go casual again once I approach the crowd of guests.
I can already see in what he surrounds himself with what kind of man Abu’l Nuqoud is. In a 12th century Islamic city this man has at the center of his house a fountain statue of a girl wearing only a loincloth, the statue itself is surrounded by belly dancers.
As I move to the center of the courtyard Nuqoud appears in a balcony above. He himself is Arab, but dresses like an Indian. As he makes his announcement to the guests I’m already looking for the quickest way right up to him. The windows on the wall to the balcony itself seem climbable. To my right are also overhangs right below windows leading to the floor where Nuqoud is, but Nuqoud’s words take an interesting turn.
As he welcomes his guests, he only reinforces what I’ve thought of him since that letter as the water from the fountain turns to wine. As the people begin to drink my gaze is fixated on him as I pace back and forth through the back of the crowd. The people cheer him on, but then come his criticisms on Salah al-Din’s campaign.
It all starts to become clear: Nuqoud does not refuse to support the war only for his own indulgences, but because he is opposed to it morally. He criticizes the violence that’s been going on in the region, talking of a world where people of both faiths will live in peace. The Assassins themselves work to end the war as well, killing a few on both sides to stop the prolonging of hostilities. Do we want the same thing? Just as I’m beginning to think twice about why I’m after this man’s life, things take a drastic turn.
The visitors, all devout to the ideals of the land, begin to curse Nuqoud for his apparent blasphemies. As he curses back, they all begin to choke. The fountain wine was poisoned. Nuqoud summons his guards to kill all who try to escape.
At this, I leap into action, immediately bolting up the right wall onto the second floor, running right past the guards who are busy executing Nuqoud’s guests. As soon as Nuqoud sees me, he flees from the balcony, running through the back quarters of the palace as I give chase. Eventually I see him at the bottom of a staircase; I leap right down onto him with my blade going right into his neck. Bam!
With his dying breath he explains his cause once more. A moment of calm that quickly evaporates into “get the hell out of here,” as the guards converge on me. I quickly leap out of the west gate into the city again. The poor sector of Damascus was easy to scale with ladders, broken walls, and low buildings everywhere. These rich quarters have much cleaner and taller walls, leaving me running through crowds, driving Altair around them so as not to trip and fall. Eventually I’ve got to fight my way out.
As an enemy lunges to attack, I – poised and guarded, press the button to counter and watch a shot of Altaïr making the killing move. Defeating these men is a matter of timing and anticipation the enemy’s attacks, countered by simple commands. There’s not much thrill in it, but it works.
After finally getting up a building with them still on my trail, I leap back down into another sack of hay until my pursuers’ alert phase goes into “green” (it’ll never go away otherwise, no matter how long I stay out of sight) I leap out, no one notices. As the guards start to suspect me I just press the button to “blend” and slowly walk by with Altaïr’s head down and his hands clasped together as the alert meter stays at “suspicious.” It doesn’t work for long as the guards spot me again, forcing me back up to the rooftops where I proceed to run and jump from these men like Aladdin from the guards of Agrabbah. Eventually with the alert meter at “yellow,” I slip into this little colored booth thing. In my mind these things have no business being on rooftops where no one but some kind of super-agile assassin would be able to reach them, but they’re the only way I can get the guards to lose interest.
Afterward, I make my way back to the bureau. Mission Complete. As I explain to the agent Nuqoud’s words, he simply explains them away as I head back to Masyaf.
Afterwards I would go on to assassinate other men in Saracen-controlled Jerusalem and the grey, European shaded city of Acre - men like William V, Marquess of Montferrat, Meister Sibrand, and Robert IV de Sable, uncovering a plot that only got more and more elaborate the more I looked into it.
Although these assassinations are largely the same routine repeated in different cities, the depth and scale of the world presented in Assassin’s Creed makes it easy to become swept up in it, even if the game seems to be trying to stop you from being completely swept up in that world.8/
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