A Much Darker, Dimmer Project
If I had to pick one desert isle game, it would undoubtedly be Thief: The Dark Project. This first and still foremost sneaker remains my all-time favorite game a decade after it fired its first water arrow, due to atmosphere as thick as Heidi Montag and an incredible sense of freedom. Even though this was the first game about slinking through the shadows and conking bad guys over the head, the levels were wildly freeform. I've replayed Thief and its Metal Age sequel a good two dozen times over the years, and I don't think I've stalked through a mission the same way twice.
So I was mighty jazzed when people started calling Assassin's Creed the second coming of Thief last year. Wild talk about sneaking through wide-open medieval cities you could explore from top to bottom had me so fired up that I almost bought the game for the Xbox 360 last year. Only word of a PC port stayed my hand, largely because I thought that mouse-and-keyboard controls would be the only way to properly experience a hardcore sneaker like this.
Now that the game has finally hit the PC, I'm glad that I waited. Maybe this is just another case of me arriving late for the party and being spoiled by months of hype, but Assassin's Creed seems overproduced and flimsy. Even though the three cities in Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre are big and have an authentic Middle Eastern vibe (minarets everywhere will do that, I guess), everything is laid out in such a step-by-step fashion that it's like you're walking with mommy through a crowded store. Sneaking is almost entirely absent, which feels weird in a game about a hooded assassin with the powers of The Shadow, the storyline is clunky, and level goals are so repetitive that you've seen everything that the game has to offer after a few hours of play. There is no room for free thinking here, let alone any Thiefly freewheeling.
Trouble begins with the plot. While the meat of the game takes place in the Middle Eastern Crusader kingdoms of the 12th century, that story is introduced with a cutscene-anchored plot device about searching for information through genetic memories. So while you're mainly stepping out in the sneakers of Altair, a ninja-like Islamic assassin plying his trade and killing nine public figures in the aforementioned medieval burgs during the Crusader occupation, you're also a 21st century bartender named Desmond Miles who's been kidnapped and hooked up to a geegaw called the Animus so that sinister scientists can peek at his brain. All of the events occurring in the game are just memories that you're recalling while laid out on a table. It's all sort of like Vanilla Sky with extra pretentiousness.
Which is nifty…in theory. The story evolves into a grand conspiracy running through the centuries that's vaguely reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, and rather entertaining if you don't look too closely at the multicultural-friendly "Muslims good, Christians bad" characterizations and dialogue. Using this sort of you-are-there gimmick to draw players into a fantastic world has worked well in the past, too. The Ultima RPGs, for instance, had the protagonist venturing to the fantasy realm of Britannia from our own world at the start of every adventure. Seeing some average schlub sucked out of his easy chair and into a magical gate set up a great, geeky "That could be me!" vibe.
Here, though, the modern stuff is too big of an influence on gameplay. Instead of just introducing the genetic memory claptrap and then ditching it for cutting throats in medieval Damascus, you're beaten over the head with sci-fi nonsense. Visuals are frequently interrupted by computer code that runs up the screen like blips in the matrix. Even something as simple as locking on to an NPC gives him or her a halo of funky electronic gibberish. Larger static-like glitches are even used as a gameplay device during cutscenes, as you're rewarded with a new camera angle if you click the mouse fast enough when this interference ripples across the screen.