We’ve all been there. We’ve bought a game based on the hype, the trailers, the pre-release reviews from (supposedly) respectable gaming magazines and news sites. We’ve held the packaging in our hands, staring into and through the cover at the contents within, looking forward to hours of joy spent immersed in an amazing, meticulously built fantasy world. We’ve all felt that thrill of anticipation as we popped the disc into our game console or PC, not quite knowing what to expect.
And we’ve all felt crushing disappointment, frustration, and even rage, at being screwed over.
Like most gamers I have had the misfortune of playing several such games, and I’ve regretted every single minute of my life spent on them. And since Reaxxion is a site dedicated to holding the gaming industry accountable, how better to do this than to tell developers what NOT to do when creating a new game?
So let’s take a game that started out with spectacular, and turned out to be spectacularly awful, and see where it went wrong, with the original Assassin’s Creed.
Step 1: Pick A Great Setting…
This game could have been one of the greatest RPGs ever made. This was the game series that was supposed to be the spiritual successor to the Prince of Persia saga, one of the greatest game franchises of all time. At first glance, it had the perfect mix of ingredients.
Instead, it sits like an ugly, putrid recycled dog’s breakfast among the games that I have played as a classic example of how to take a brilliant idea and then completely ruin its delivery.
As anyone who has been keeping up with modern games for the past few years is aware, the premise of the Assassin’s Creed series is that a secret society of assassins has existed since at least the Middle Ages, taking action to preserve human freedom from the evil intentions of shadowy figures and sinister cabals that seek dominion over the unwitting people of Earth. Despite the bloody and clandestine nature of their work, the Assassins firmly believe that they are working for the betterment of Mankind, and in AC1, the player is given every reason to believe this.
In and of itself, this is not a bad start at all— when it comes to a simple yet plausible back-story, many games could do worse. Many have done worse. (I’m lookin’ at you, Metroid: Other M.)
AC1 also rendered several major locations from the Crusades in all of their historical glory. Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre are all brought to vivid, epic life, while in the background an uneasy peace exists between the Templars and the Saracens.
It’s a fantastic start for a great, action-packed stealth video game.
Which is precisely why it is so infuriating that Ubisoft cocked it up so badly.
Step 2: …Then Make It Politically Correct
The makers of AC1 went out of their way to point out that they weren’t trying to offend anyone in depicting the various faiths of the Holy Land during the time of the Crusades (they even put a big fat disclaimer screen at the start of the game).
However, not all faiths are treated equally within AC1.
The bad guys are, of course, Christians, specifically the Knights Templar, probably the most famous of the ancient militant arms of the Christian faith. In order to believe that the Templars were really all that bad, you have to know literally nothing about the history of the Crusades, which, in fairness, the average person doesn’t.
However, the anti-Christian bias in AC1 goes beyond mere slant and straight into the realm of caricature. Virtually every Templar is portrayed as deceitful, hateful, and evil, and yet, if memory serves, there isn’t a single major Islamic (or Jewish) target in the entire game.
The reason for this is very simple. When Christians are depicted in ways that are disagreeable and offensive to them, they tend to react with mild irritation; the best of them pray for the soul of the one causing the offence. At worst, they might issue a strongly worded call to boycott a particular game. And that’s it, job done.
However, when Muslims see something that they don’t like, they react by going on killing sprees and rioting in the streets. Like feminists, they simply want something to be angry about. Unlike feminists, they’re also perfectly willing to kill the objects of their anger.
It is not particularly surprising, then, to find that, like almost all mainstream movies and video games in recent years that have anything to do with the history of the Crusades, Ubisoft’s development team simply whitewashed the entire blood-soaked history of the so-called religion of “peace”, in favour of presenting Christians once again in the worst possible light.
Well, all right, fine, so AC1 was a little too PC. But surely that was made up for when Ubisoft created a believable environment to move around in with absorbing gameplay, right?
Step 3: Flunk Physics
The gameplay within AC1 is not bad, not all of the time anyway, but it’s not very good either. One particularly off note, in a game chock full of them, is of course the infamous physics engine within this title.
As I’ve said in all of my previous writings here, a game absolutely has to be believable in order to be considered “good”. There is nothing remotely believable about the physics in AC1. I could go on about this at some length, but I’ll leave the Game Theorists to do the job instead:
By itself, a bad physics engine isn’t the end of the world. Some of the greatest games ever made have ridiculous in-game physics. Case in point: HALO: Combat Evolved, where giving any NPC even the lightest of knocks with a Warthog would instantly kill him. Yet those flaws were merely minor annoyances in otherwise legendary games, because playing them wasn’t an endless cycle of…
Step 4: Lather, Rinse, Repeat
Somehow, with such an interesting premise, AC1 is exactly what a good game should never be: boring.
I can’t even remember how many times I went through the exact same mission in this supposedly “open-world” game, with virtually the exact same dialogue, characteristics, and outcomes. Every side quest basically comes down to “Assassinate generic villain” or “Save generic civilian”- time and again, and again, and bloody again, for the entire game.
Other games have managed to take the exact same “laundry list” and make it work. I’ve played Batman: Arkham City twice now, and even though the “Rescue Political Prisoner” and other side-quest missions are all basically the same, they simply add to the overall atmosphere and replay value of the game.
When done well, such side quests can turn a good game into a great one. When done badly, they just turn a mediocre game into a train-wreck.
And all of that is before we get to the truly terrible sin of AC1…
Step 5: Make It Unplayable
The worst thing about this game by a mile was the control scheme and its responsiveness during combat. The control response was so bad as to render the game literally unplayable during its most important parts (the bits involving sharp pieces of steel being stuck into NPCs).
I’m really not sure exactly how Ubisoft managed to FUBAR the combat system so thoroughly. After all, they did a great job with Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, which is one of the best RPGs I’ve ever played. With this game, however, the combat system is utterly useless. It is beyond frustrating when you’re facing a single opponent and you can’t get Altair to face in the correct direction, let alone swing his sword properly. For some reason, when locked in combat mode, the game prevents you from doing anything even remotely resembling intelligent fighting.
It was so bad, in fact, that I ended up blowing my top and destroying my Xbox 360 controller about halfway through the game. I’m normally a mild-mannered chap, but this game was so atrociously unplayable that I simply had to smash something. Net result: over $80 spent on new controllers, and a really interesting dent in the wooden floor of my apartment.
A stealth assassination game that features as one of its set-pieces a massive fight against 20-odd opponents and yet doesn’t let you fight them properly, is a failure.
“Go Forth, And Sin No More”
It takes a lot to create a truly great game. The premise, gameplay, controls, story, sound effects, and replay value all have to be top-notch. Some games are fortunate enough to start out with the story and premise already taken care of, so all they have to do is concentrate on gameplay and user experience. Games that fail to do this, as Assassin’s Creed so egregiously failed on so many levels, commit the cardinal sin of gaming: they ignore the end-user completely, and become nothing better than a form of digital onanism on the part of the developers.
Such games are trash, and deserve to be treated as such.
If you have an example of a game that committed these sins, or others that I didn’t cover, stick the titles in the comments below.