When it comes to Altair, protagonist of last year’s most polarizing game, Assassin’s Creed, I’m torn between adoration and disgust. On the one hand, Altair is a total badass who can run across rooftops and climb church towers with ease. On the other, he is really not so nice a guy, even aside from the whole assassin thing.
It’s clear Ubisoft put a lot of focus on the free running system (which, by the way, is pure fun) and the animations that go along with it. The animations in particular convey a lot about Altair: he moves with confidence, even arrogance, and runs, leaps, and climbs with the grace of a skilled athlete. Upon reaching a perch high above Jerusalem, Altair crouches on a thin plank like it’s no big deal. He’s like a cat; he even swaggers a bit when he walks.
All of this goes quite some way to endear him to the player (or to me, at least). Yes, he’s a cocky little bastard, but he can clearly back up all that talk.
And yet the game constantly reminds you that, while (in the first three missions, which is as far as I’ve gotten) Altair’s targets are clearly evil men–the first brutally stabs and murders an innocent man in the middle of a public square–Altair himself is merely the less evil of the two. The evil side of our murderous protagonist is shown through both not only in cutscenes, but through certain game mechanics as well.
It is made clear off the bat that Altair doesn’t think much of the Creed, one rule of which states that assassins must not kill innocents, when he murders an old man in the opening scene of the game. Soon enough, the assassin leader demotes Altair (losing most of the sync bar and his weapons) for breaking the Creed and causing a lot of trouble. Altair isn’t phased; the leader and the men at the Assassin’s Bureaus scold his continued arrogance and disdain for the Creed.
Altair’s violent personality is reflected in the options available for interacting with the people of the various cities he travels to. Of particular note is the game’s somewhat troublesome treatment of the homeless beggars.
Women beggars (they are all women, as are the citizens you can rescue, which strikes me as very strange, not to mention unrealistic) are placed in certain areas of a given city, and when Altair enters that area, they will run up to him and harass him for money, prevent his movement, and draw attention to him by loudly telling him about their poor starving family.
At first I felt bad for them, but as they became more and more abundant and really began to impede my progress, I just felt annoyed. The only options given to the player to deal with them are to gently push them out of the way if you’re not in a hurry, or if you are, kill or beat them. You can’t give donations (another odd thing, given that you can pickpocket “thugs”, though for knives, not money).
That the violent reaction, however, falls in line with Altair’s character: the arrogant killer we’re supposed to be rooting for. The game defies expectations by not making the protagonist a noble rebel killing off truly evil men who deserve what they get, and the gameplay is not conflicting with the story here, which is good. Every other investigative option given to Altair thus far is violent, with the exception of eavesdropping, but that’s easy and it comes at no cost to Altair at all (whereas giving alms would cost him money he could spend on weapons and whatnot). As disgusting as it is, this is our protagonist through and through. (That said, I would like to see Ubisoft take a different approach to this in future installments.)
So I want to like Altair, with his effortless skill and arrogant ways, but I can’t, because he’s only slightly better than the men he’s sent to kill. Of course, having only finished the first two assassinations, I’m looking forward to seeing what character arc (if any!) occurs as the story progresses.