So I've finally put enough hours into Assassin's Creed that I'm comfortable reviewing the game. I was able to play about halfway through the game before a scratch on my disc prevented me from progressing further. I blame gnomes.
Overall, it's a great game. Gamers of many genres and styles will love the gameplay. What will vary considerably from one gamer to the next is how quickly that gameplay gets old. Rather than cover every feature, I'll try to use a few features to reveal the big picture.
A lot of strong points. It has the most engrossing melee combat I've ever experienced. The level design is beautiful and provides a great playground for climbing, jumping, and escaping. The excellent graphics, camera angles, and voice-acting combine for a cinematic quality that will have you thinking of Hollywood films. There's a lot of room for gameplay customization.
It's most significant problems are inconsistencies in realism, occasional camera mistakes, long cinematics, and potentially redundant gameplay.
I've got three words for you: best swordplay ever.
Like in many games, you'll start out with minimal abilities and weapons, acquiring more as you progress. When all you can do is attack, block, and grab, combat feels a little frustrating and isn't so impressive. But the first addition to your reportoire, the ability to counterattack, changes everything.
When you counterattack, the camera changes to a cinematic angle to highlight Altair's graceful, dramatic kills. There's an impressive variety of counterattacks. The distance between Altair and the enemy, the relative position the enemy is attacking from (behind, from the side, etc), whether the enemy is using a normal attack or a power attack, and perhaps other factors combine to determine what sort of counterattack Altair uses. One slams his sword through a shoulder. One thrusts his blade through the enemy's chest and out the back. All are bloody and graceful, but each has a unique flavor.
The sword isn't the only option in combat. You can also fight with your dagger, or even rely solely on your assassin wristblade. Each weapon has its own style and counterattacks. Fighting with the wristblade alone is challenging, but definitely satisfying. There's also grabbing (throwing), counter-grabs, and evasive leaps.
And you can mix it up during combat. Surviving is generally not very difficult, but the player is rewarded for learning the nuances of combat and responding quickly to the emerging situation. For example, I was once fighting with the dagger, stabbed someone in the throat with my wristblade, then was able to catch another's attack with the sword in time for a counterattack. You can grab one soldier and throw him into another, thereby evening the odds slightly for a brief time (you might be surrounded by five or six enemies). Or you can throw someone to the ground to make him easy prey for your sword.
A few other points on combat: The animation and sound effects for stabbing someone with your wristblade is incredibly satisfying. Killing an archer on a nearby building with a throwing knife, just as he's aiming his arrow at you, is also great. And there is mounted combat.
What I'm trying to make clear is that you can fight your own way. There's room for developing your own style of combat, and choosing your own difficulty. The cinematic quality of it all sucks me in completely. I know that this is a game I'll be able to replay from time to time, because there are multiple ways to play the game.
LOOK, CUPPY! HORSES!
"Is he crazy? Why is he devoting an entire section to horses?" Because I think they're a microcosm of the whole game. Seriously.
First, they're beautifully rendered and animated. Turning, galloping, trotting, jumping, rearing... it all looks perfect.
Then there's the surprises. You can charge through enemies on your horse, knocking enemies aside and possibly killing them with that alone. You can pull out your sword and swing at them as you race by, too. But, careful! They can trip your horse and send you tumbling! Generally, I jump off my horse once I'm a few meters past the soldiers to face them on foot... and there are multiple animations for this, depending on how fast the horse is moving when you dismount.
If you're fighting by your horse, she'll kick any enemy that wanders too close!
That one took me completely by surprise. And that's what I mean about the horse being representative of the entire game. You notice the visual beauty right away. It moves realistically, immerses you in the gameworld. But there's depth to everything that must be discovered gradually. When you start the game, it seems much simpler than it actually is. The more you play, the more actions that you realize you have at your discretion.
As I've discussed before, cinematics in Assassin's Creed are definitely more compelling than the usual fare because of the player's limited control of camera angles and character movement during the scenes. However, some of them are noticeably long and will irritate many players despite the exceptional player-involvement.
I mentioned inconsistent realism. Beneath your rooftop perch, citizens of many types wander, chatter, preach, and even react to your actions. You sprint down a city street, and a guard says you're going to hurt someone. You climb a building, and a half-dozen people stop to watch, saying things like, "Why would he do that?". I onced killed a pair of guards on a busy road; every person who walked by noticed and responded (some through action, some through words). I'm talking about literally dozens of people over a period of five minutes or longer. Bodies don't fade when they're out of sight. You have to go considerably farther away before corpses disappear.
So what's the problem? Well, one moment, you'll gaze across a district of old Jerusalem, based on real historical information, in awe. The next moment, you'll walk behind a guard who has his back to the wall -- a space hardly big enough for you to squeeze into -- and that doesn't raise any suspicion in his mind. Two soldiers stand within a couple paces of one another, and you can stealth-kill the second before he responds to the first. Honestly, I'm impressed by the degree of realism in the game, but it seems that success makes faults that much more obvious.
The cinematic camera changes during combat are great, but you'll occasionally want to scream in frustration as the camera is blocked by a person or bush. Camera control is an important part of combat in Assassin's Creed. You won't be fooling with it constantly, but slight adjustments now and then help to prevent problems like this. Still, I find it hard to be forgiving about mistakes so obvious. It might have been a difficult problem to fix, but the average gamer won't understand or care about such difficulties.
The story and cinematics are certainly interesting -- more interesting than any game I've played in the past year -- but some cutscenes are irritatingly long.
I think Assassin's Creed is an exceptionally good game. Its strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. If you're an action-oriented gamer, you'll love the combat, roof-jumping, and escapes. If you're an explorer, you'll appreciate the level design, hidden flags, and explorative combat. Achievement-focused gamers can make choices to complicate gameplay, and finding all the flags is no easy feat. Social gamers, this is a game that people can enjoy watching you play; this is gameplay you can share with even non-gamers (the controls are simple enough for non-gamers to perform the most basic actions, too).
But not everyone will enjoy the game for more than two or three weeks. And people who do buy the game should experiment to discover some hidden depths (try switching weapons during combat). I would recommend it as a rental to absolutely anyone, though.