Within the next few weeks, PC gamers will finally get a chance to get their hands on Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, the much-hyped, open-ended, free-running action game released last holiday season on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. In it, players control Altair, a talented assassin working for a mysterious brotherhood who's tasked with eliminating nine main targets in the cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre. The plot gets far more involved than that, but this preview isn't going to be the one to spoil it for you.
Things start out with an extremely long tutorial section wherein Altair enrages his brotherhood by breaching its guiding principles. As is standard operating procedure in many video games, Altair is then stripped of his super-powered abilities, items, and wealth of health pellets and forced to earn them back by successfully executing the main story content. The game takes place from a third-person perspective and affords players the opportunity to ride and run around its sprawling environments, collecting clues through side-missions to mount an attack against the primary targets assigned by your brotherhood.
Since there are already plenty of reviews and reams of information out there detailing how this game is structured and what players must do to be successful, we'll concentrate on a few issues we noticed during installation and our play session. Our two primary gaming rigs run Windows Vista 32-bit. Naturally they were the first we tried, and unfortunately the installation process failed on both.
This was a little confusing to us, as Gamespy editors were playing the game only a few feet away. We tried their preview build in our Computer, but got the same installation error. So what was the difference? They were using Windows XP. And before we continue, we should point out that this is a preview build we're talking about, meaning it's not a finished version of the game. Yet even so, the game is supposed to release in early April and, well, that's pretty soon.
So we dusted the cobwebs off our old gaming rig that for whatever reason hadn't been dumped into a trash compactor and lo and behold, the game installed properly. At the tail end of the installation process a hardware compatibility check popped up, and to our dismay our processor did not meet the minimum requirements. In the rig we had a 3.4 GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 512 MB Radeon X1900, and 2 GB of RAM and the game still ran, though with a less than ideal framerate. The compatibility check identified the problem was our processor, the game's minimum requirements for which are a 2.6 GHz Pentium D or AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800+.
On this older rig we tried to crank up the visuals, but wound up getting generally under 10 frames per second in populated areas. To keep things running at a decent clip, we turned down most of the settings, though we left the game in 1920 x 1200 resolution, and wound up with a very playable experience. Of course it's nothing a graphics maniac is going to be able to stand, but the game could still be enjoyed.
And the gameplay on the PC version turned out to be a little better than on consoles, thanks mostly to the ability to aim Altair's movements with both the mouse and WASD keys. The mouse controls the facing of the camera that sits behind Altair, and he'll run along in whatever direction it's angled. Because a mouse's responsiveness is greater than that of a thumbstick, we actually had an easier time maneuvering Altair around the many tight alleyways and crevices of the game's dense urban landscapes and rocky environs.
In addition to this, you can use A or D, left or right, to give Altair a quick command to, if he's running forward, change direction about 45 degrees to either side. This is great for throwing off pursuing guards, and because the mouse-controlled camera is more responsive, it's easier to orient yourself to Altair's new movement vector and plan the rest of your escape path.
As you might expect, all the controls in the game can be bound to whatever keys you want, but we'll go over the default settings. Moving forward, backward, and to the left and right is done with WASD. The E key controls Altair's head, which you'll need to use to snap to first-person mode to paint threats and friendly targets in cities (when you're at full power), to "synchronize" when on high perches, and to initiate eavesdropping missions.
Left Shift controls Altair's open hand, which can be used as he's walking through cities to harmlessly brush aside pedestrians, drop down from ledges, and vault from the horses he'll occasionally ride. The space bar controls Altair's legs, letting him jump or blend into crowds.
These key assignments change when you enter active mode, triggered with the right mouse button, and become useful for when you're trying to freely and quickly climb around cities or sprint from attackers. Holding RMB enables this mode, making Altair move faster, Shift performs a shoulder tackle, and Space makes him sprint or, if next to walls, run up its side and attempt to hand on to a ledge or ornamental outcropping. Once latched onto a wall and assuming there are handholds above or to the side, Altair is able to continue up to rooftops and precarious perches along the cities' skylines, taking in often gorgeous views of wonderfully complex and realistic architecture drenched in brilliant sunlight.
Once back on the ground, you'll frequently have to deal with mobs of enemy guards. When starting out these guys aren't very alert, but as missions get completed they become more and more aware of who you are, and will start attacking almost instantly. To fight them off, Altair gets quite a few options. You start out with a push, block, and sword slash, but soon learn techniques like a block-break, counter slash, and dodge. Since you're usually mobbed by large groups of soldiers, four or more, you'll need to stay fairly focused, as you'll have to watch their movements and time when you should block, counter, and attack.
The left mouse button swings your sword. A light tap does a weak attack, while holding LMB does a charge-up strong slice. If you're quick enough, you can hit LMB just as your sword makes contact with an enemy and perform a combo kill, which switches from the scaled-back third person camera to up-close, giving you a front row seat for brutal finishing moves.
Fighting soldiers isn't all random -- some of the time you're doing it to complete a quest. In the PC version of Assassin's Creed, players get four more types of missions. Please note these are not main quest missions, but rather the missions you must undertake within cities to learn enough about your main target in order to go after them. Back on consoles players could do eavesdropping quests, interrogations, pickpocketing quests, and assassination and flag collection quests for informers. On PC, rooftop race, informer escort, merchant stand destruction, and archer stealth assassination quests have been added in.
The side mission discovery process still works the same on PC as it did on consoles. As Altair you must climb to the highest points in the city and survey them (the "synchronize" ability described earlier), which makes visible on your map the side quests available in the surrounding vicinity. Usually you have to climb up a few towers before you've uncovered enough side quests to gain enough information to finally pursue your primary target. Of the new ones, we tried out the rooftop race and informer escort, both of which were started by focusing (F key) on a stationary informer target.
Rooftop race is really simple. You talk to the informer, he tells you to find another guy, and a timer pops up onscreen. Your task is simply to reach that other guy before the timer runs out, which requires you do a lot of roof hopping. The second, informer escort, is a little more involved. It requires you walk alongside your target for a brief while until accosted by a band of enemies. Since we were early on in the game there weren't many enemies, so this type of mission might prove to be much more difficult later on when guards attack you simply for trotting by. We'll have to get back to you once we've played more to let you know what kind of impact these additional side-quests really have on the overall game experience.
Other than that, the game plays much like it did on consoles, offering stunning metropolitan vistas to climb all over, an interesting storyline, and an entertaining, open-ended gameplay structure. Here's hoping the final build installs on our Vista rigs.
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