Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 - Xbox 360 version reviewed.
In the games world first impressions count, and few games have made such a dazzling first impression as Assassin's Creed. It's the sort of game that's guaranteed to look good in a trailer or a games conference show-reel; the sort of game that runs so thick with astonishing visuals and the promise of advanced features that even the most cynical games journalist would find it hard not to get caught up in the hype. But now, after eighteen months or so of "will it be great, won't it be great" hysteria we have an answer. Assassin's Creed is everything you ever dreamed it would be,
Well, for the first two hours, anyway.
This is a title of monumental ambition, and in some respects monumental achievements. The graphics really are quite unbelievable. Post Ghost Recon and Gears of War we're getting harder to please with sub-bleached HDR and gritty textures, but there's something so coherent about the way Ubisoft's game renders its Medieval, Middle-Eastern world that makes it utterly gorgeous and utterly believable. I know precious little about the Crusades bar what I've seen in films like Kingdom of Heaven, but the game certainly captures something fascinating and distinctive about the period that looks and feels totally right.
The animation, too, is fantastic, with our hooded hero, Altair, upping the ante on his predecessor - the Prince of Persia - with a series of acrobatic moves that flow neatly into one another with nary a glitch. Whether he's free-running over the rooftops of Damascus, battling guards or barrelling his way through a crowd with troops in hot pursuit, you have to admire the way he interacts with the environment and the way the human elements of the environment interact with him. The views from the high-points of each city, or from isolated towers in the Holy Land at large, are breathtaking in their reach and glimmering detail. Assassin's Creed is a simply beautiful game to watch.
What's more, Ubisoft Montreal has delivered on many of the promises it made about advanced crowd behaviour. The game focuses on activities in the three main settlements of a third crusade era Holy Land, and each of these cities is teeming with soldiers, merchants, beggars, madmen, jar-carriers, scholars, knights and general, busy-body bystanders. Start clambering up walls in the middle of the street and they start commenting on your weird behaviour. Guards watch you to see whether you're behaving suspiciously. Run away from the authorities, and sections of the crowd will help or hinder you according to your previous behaviour. Perhaps it's not quite as convincing as some of Ubisoft's carefully created trailers have made out - in particular the sight of Altair gently pushing through the crowd looks strange and artificial in less populated areas - but it's streets ahead of anything we've seen in an open-world game before.