Saturday, January 09, 2010

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal & Griptonite
Publisher: Ubisoft
Action - Playstation Portable
1 player
Assassin's Creed Bloodlines

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines was released just a week before Assassin's Creed II to present a side story that takes place between the events of the first and second game. I'm told that the game mechanics are also somewhere in between the first and second game. As my first entry into the Assassin's Creed series, I came away with some appreciation of what people enjoyed. Yet, I couldn't shake the feeling that it's not the type of game to appeal to me as a whole.

Let's start with the basics. You assume the role of Altair the assassin. Here the story focuses on his clashes with the Templars in Cyprus. Similar to the main AC games, you will be exploring large cities, climbing buildings, sneaking around and killing as needed. If you manage to get up close to an opponent without being noticed, you can do a quick assassination. If you are detected, you have several combat options as well.

In terms of structure, the game basically has you follow a linear plot line. You are confined to a specific area because of the story, but otherwise you're free to explore the area as needed, move the plot along, or trigger subquests. Bloodlines offers some breaks from the main plot by allowing you to interact with some NPCs scattered throughout. Their tasks generally revolve around making deliveries (generally timed), defending innocent people, and assassinating specific targets. After playing Grand Theft Auto Chinatown Wars and reinforcing my thoughts with this game, I realize that sandbox gaming bores me. There's an illusion of freedom where you can do a lot of side goals, but ultimately what you actually can do is very limited. Here in this game you can walk and you can kill. Every quest is a some iteration of that.

The exploration aspect of the game is really nicely done though. I imagine that each city in the console/PC Assassin games is one complete entity, but here in Assassin's Creed Bloodlines city areas are sectioned off by districts. Nevertheless, each district has plenty to see, places to climb, and coins to find. Most 3D games with platforming elements have incorporated a form of collect-a-thon and ACB is no different. Here they are coins. Gold and silver coins can be found spread throughout the world. Collecting these coins means more game currency to buy upgrades to Altair's abilities, such as higher damage or more throwing knives. But they also count towards "Accomplishments". Yep, in going with the fads of XBL, there are now Achievements in portable gaming. But what this means is that you have an incentive to explore every nook and cranny of each location. You really get a sense of scale of the environment, as you jump across roof gaps and ascend on vertical towers.

One major downside in this portable version is that while the big city feel is intact, the streets don't feel as lively. Compared to the multitudes of people coming and going in the console versions, usually you'll only see up to 4-5 people on the screen at once here. Where this really comes into play is when you meet other Templars. They show up as a yellow dot on your map, to give you an indicator of when to be more discrete with your actions. But as the game is loading these people into memory as you walk through the city, the Templars seem to appear out of nowhere. You still have enough warning for the most part, but it is a little disorienting and matters a lot when you fight.

The combat is in of itself a high point. It's a very simple system: one button to attack, one button to block. Time the attack correctly and you can chain up to 3 hits. Hold block and hit attack right when the enemy is striking and you'll perform a counter. This timing-based system is very reminiscent of Vagrant Story. It's simple, yet very interactive because of the timing aspects. But where ACB missteps is that each enemy is more or less a carbon copy of the other. They may look different - some with helmets, others hold shields. But the all act alike. That makes the combat really repetitive. For example, once you've attracted attention, all Templars in the area will rush towards you. So then it's just combo combo combo / counter until they're all dead. And because of the memory issue, once you've killed the 4 Templars on your screen, all of a sudden another 3 will instantly warp in. It's really irritating because it disrupts your experience, and you pretty much dispose of all of them in the same way. In a game like this, fighting is supposed to be secondary, because you can assassinate people stealthily and avoid conflict. But in this PSP outing, there are definitely a lot of situations where you are forced to fight.

As a consequence, Assassin's Creed Bloodlines does have a more combat-oriented experience than other games of the series. The major manifestation of this is in boss battles. Unlike the other games, there is a boss to each area that has a health bar. You cannot assassinate bosses in this game. You are forced to fight them. But that's also when the battle system comes to life. The boss patterns are infinitely more interesting than what the regular Templar grunts do, and some of the later ones will present quite a nice challenge. I found myself continuing a bunch of times on certain fights. I just wish the regular encounters were as interesting.

Assassin's Creed Bloodlines is not a bad game at all. I can see glimpses of why people might like it and the main games from the series. There is charm in being dropped in a massive city, getting familiarized with it, exploring it, and taking it all in. The combat too is deeper than I would have thought a game like this would be. But for me, it's less than the sum of its parts. There's not much you can do other than explore and fight the same enemy over and over. That might be fine for some, but the game ultimately left me empty.