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Assassin's Creed

More open than Oblivion, more brutal than Hitman: We plunge into the heart of Ubisoft's crusader

"Nothing is true, everything is permitted". That, according to Corey May, Assassin's Creed's scriptwriter, was the motto for the 12th century killers at the heart of the game - the Hashshashin. It's definitely a maxim that chimes throughout this game, because while Assassin's Creed is open-ended and it is open-minded in its approach to morality, method and the murder, the whole project is still mired in Fort Knox-style secrecy.

For while the Montreal-based team are happy to talk about their plans and the plot, much remains unseen, unsaid and under wraps. So all talk of epoch-wandering killers, dredging the genetic memory of dead relatives and that HUD is distinctly off the agenda. (Er, unless you turn to page 42.) But at the same time, they kept hinting at something else, something Dan Brownish in hue, something vague about the Holy Grail, the Knight's Templar, and a global conspiracy.

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Here's what we do know is true: the year is definitely 1191, the climax of the Third Crusade, and our hero Altair and his brethren are attempting to stop what they see as an unjust war between the Christian Crusaders and the Muslim Saracens. And their method of preventing more rhesus positive being spilt across the Holy Land is a series of brutal and targeted political assassinations of what May calls "immoral individuals" on both sides. The idea being that the deaths of these nine war profiteers will bring peace to the region, making Altair a sort of militant Boutros Boutros-Ghali, if you like.

Rock the Casbah
But nothing is ever as easy as whacking a warlord and bumping off the odd monk, or so May reckons. "Along the way he will discover that the Crusades themselves are simply a cover for a much larger conflict - one in which he will play a pivotal role. Once this enemy is discovered, it will be up to Altair and his Assassin brothers to stop them". So the question remains: who are 'they', exactly, and does the hunt for these faux-historical conspirators tie-in with the Holy Land's turbulent past and, indeed, current unrest? Again, May fights speculation with speculation: "What did the Templars find beneath Solomon's Temple? Why did they want it? Where is it today?" All good questions just waiting to be answered.

Luckily, in between attempting to toss a Zippo into the tinderbox of Middle Eastern politics, the team have remembered to also concentrate on the mechanics of murder. Because when the game starts Altair is a Master Assassin - feted, feared and fatal for anyone who crosses his master - Al Mualim. But in what sounds like the now standard all-powerful pre-title sequence playable teaser, Altair's own arrogance sees him fail in his mission to butcher Templar leader Robert de Sable. So we now find him stripped of rank, his middle finger and facing a fight to regain his lost prestige and powers. And with changeable costumes and improved weaponry too, it adds a light RPG element, hence those Oblivion comparisons you may have heard.

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It is also at this point that conventional notions of a Hebrew Hitman clone go the same way as Altair's digit - to be replaced with something a little more pointed, a little sharper, a bit more beautifully deadly. For while our hero has a short stabbing sword concealed in his wrist, Ubisoft also have other tricks hidden in their billowing sleeves of his.

Middle Feast
Because, instead of simply linking missions with a linear narrative, Assassin's Creed treads a less prescribed route. It isn't completely freeroaming though, as instead of a dynamic day/night cycle, your missions take place at a set point within the plot, but you are still free to wander outside it. And with the fort at Masyaf serving as your base, Altair rides out across the Holy Land through the lush forests, blank deserts and arid mountains of modern day Israel and Lebanon. At its edges three magnificent towns form a triangle of civilisation, complete with their own distinct districts, city walls, denizens and civic style. They are: the besieged and heavily westernised town of Acre, Damascus, Saladin's Arabic stronghold in Syria, and Jerusalem, the game's major city and your final objective. And since the road from Jerusalem to Damascus alone is over 130 miles long and the lawless sand between the towns is vast, the horse-riding section that wobbled like Freddie Flintoff in a pedalo when it was first shown at X06 is to play a major role.

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