Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima thinks Assassin's Creed is "fantastic" - unsurprising given that it's the only game as ambitious, thrilling and fiddly as his own. After playing a full level at E3, Assassin's feels awkward and intuitive - one second you're effortlessly speed-running over rooftops and dispatching guards, the next head-butting walls, cursing the camera and flailing wildly. We suspect it'll be easier with extended practice - after all, MGS3 took about five hours to feel remotely natural - but the elaborate controls may initially scare casual players.
Not in control
It pays little respect to convention - instead of holding L1 to lock-on, you simply tap it on/off to engage combat mode, which takes adjustment, especially since you can't always tell whether you're locked on. All controls are context-sensitive, with different abilities available when you're locked on. The R1 button is used as an 'Aggression Modifier'. Your main buttons are displayed in a tiny icon (e.g. X to blend into the crowd, circle for push, square to punch), but hold R1 and they're aggressively modified (e.g. X to free run, circle to barge, square to attack). 'Punch' may become 'assassinate' when you're holding the right weapon, and alter according to where you're stood, and by whom.
It sounds baffling, but you do adjust. The payoff is that the lead character is hugely flexible, and there's a variety of ways to tackle any situation. In our demo, we reached our target by scaling roofs and strangling guards, but we could have sneaked past disguised as a monk or just battled through.
The combat isn't as complex as feared. Whack square for standard swipes, but with R1 engaged (this time for Defensive mode), you can do one-hit counters - a bit like Onimusha's Issen attacks, but with far more generous timing. There's a variety of gruesome counter-kills (like dodging and tripping a foe in one movement before impaling him), plus dodge moves and pushes - you can shove foes into ladders, which collapse on them. Weapons, selected with the D-pad, include a sword, throwing knives and assassin's blade - Altair's signature weapon that he lost a finger to accommodate - with context-sensitive kills for each weapon.
Free running is intuitive, except when you need to make a bigger leap - once, we vaulted three small ledges before tumbling off a roof. When you jump and cling onto ledges, the jump key becomes a backward leap, not climb, leading to more falls. You can climb anything with handholds by charging X below any wall, before entering free climb. The much-trumpeted Leap Of Faith is performed from specific high spots - rather than crude flashing icons, these high spots are indicated by fluttering pigeons.
We also got a brief glimpse of the horse-riding plain (like Hyrule Field in Zelda) which links the cities, engaging in horse-mounted combat. The rumoured 'twist' - that the game isn't set in 1192, but contains futuristic elements, with you retrieving essential DNA strands - is confirmed by the demo. All characters 'flicker' with a Matrix-style code haze, and the screen almost fades to white when you lose sight of your target in the final chase - suggesting a break in the timeline.
The demo's final scene sees your fallen foe, Talal the slaver, suggesting he isn't that evil, and that you're a pawn in a more sinister plot. At key points in the game, the entire screen 'glitches', and you can tap any button to retrieve brief plot clues.
The need for Creed
Control quibbles aside, it's visually impressive, with hordes of villagers and fluid animation - the draw distance from the Leap Of Faith points is staggering, and anything you see can be reached. Most importantly it feels like a fresh experience: marrying next-gen visuals to a complex set of interactions over a near-unprecedented scale. Clumsy as we were, we wanted to keep playing, relishing the thrill of the unknown. As Hideo Kojima's games attest, it isn't always about flawless mechanics, but the bravery to attempt something new.