The original Assassin's Creed ushered in a new era of video game alternate history. The rivalry between the Templars and Assassins sewed the seeds of corruption in a quest for godly power. Even if the spectacular story had come up short, the developers had the novel assassinations and exploration to fall back on.
The First Templar also takes during the Crusades, though nearly two hundred centuries later, when any self-respecting Templar should have been guarding the road to the Palestine or searching for the Holy Grail. Most of the gameplay entails hack-and-slash fights with a few elements of puzzle solving required to open doors and activate levers, and two very similar endings undercut the significant ten-hour playtime. The First Templar attempts to ride on the success of Assassin’s Creed, but the developers only duplicate details like sneaking, spying, hiding, and quick kills in strict linear environments, reminding you of everything Ubisoft's franchise does well, and better.
The main character is Celian, a mild-tempered Templar with no memory of his past. A fellow knight of the Order, an often bloodthirsty, fist-pounding brute named Roland, accompanies Celian to Cyprus where they intend to convene with the Templar Grandmaster on the Holy Grail's location. Muslim forces attack the island, but the two heroes encounter a messenger that asks the warriors to rescue a kidnapped women. With their previous quest on hold, the men journey to Europe to liberate the girl from Inquisition forces. This brings me to the bulk of the gaming experience.
Meet Marie, the supposed damsel in distress.
The hack-and-slash combat falls face first on the side of repetition. You could beat this game in your sleep. Players have but a few buttons to swing Celian's sword and parry attacks. The lone challenge comes in the form of shielded soldiers because they must be broken before the striking the cowering man behind. Otherwise, most of the opponents perish without a sweat.
Traversal further restricts exploration to severe degrees. You can only perform certain actions like jumping or hiding when prompted, and “hidden” areas dwell so close to the well-traveled path you would need to be blind to miss them. You also cannot climb up crates to access the roofs protecting troublesome archers; you must find a conveniently placed ramp first.
There is no map to speak of either; just a black bubble in the upper left corner of the screen to indicate what direction your supposed to head. An actual map could have saved me some frustration if had known I couldn't walk through a pile of rocks or three-foot gaps between trees.
The characters themselves seem awfully dull and shallow in their conversation, and their methods of thinking border on the illogical. For example, you start with Celian and Roland. Now you might assume their allegiance with the Templar Order would give the two a familiar background, yet Celian abandons his "friend" in the dungeon where the Inquisition holds Marie at the woman's request. The developers may have thought this choice a clever way to introduce Marie, but why not have the three allies fight their way out of the stronghold together? Because the game only supports two-player co-op? Worse yet, Roland and Marie add nothing to the narrative beyond mild character support.
Marie irks me in particular. If she is supposed to be a fighter, why is she wearing a cloth shirt that barely covers her unmentionables instead of outfitting herself with armor? It seems the reason Marie was introduced was for sex appeal, but good luck finding something attractive in her plastic facial expressions.
If you swear fealty to the Lord, you too may wear these garbage cans on your head.
As for the graphics, they appear appallingly dated. The slow-motion effect for critical blows look okay, but the general scenery, such as shrubbery and water, is awash with muddy textures. The background fades out during conversations to indicate a depth of field, but I presume the real reason lies with budget cuts. The dry voice acting matched what I thought the characters should sound like, and the background noise, or music as the developers call it, fails to evoke an emotional experience in place of the painfully simple narrative.
Now, a word on items and skills. Throughout the game you collect treasure chests which usually contain pieces of armor or a weapon set. If you miss a chest, you are unable to return to that section to retrieve the goods inside. However, there are no stats on the individual pieces to indicate if they improve your defense or attack power. These enhancements are nearly negligible, though, seeing as the various unlockable skills don't make much of a difference in battle – the exception being “To Your Feet,” an ability that allows Celian to recover more quickly when knocked down.
If you need a historical action adventure to sink your teeth into, I recommend Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood or Prince of Persia. For $39.99, The First Templar breaks already low expectations, but when your competitor uses flashback, open environments, superior graphics, symphonic music, and a multi-million dollar budget, you're bound to fail eventually.
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Developer: Haemimont Games
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Number of Players: 1-2 (Cooperative)
Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Xbox 360