Inspired by the Ubisoft series Assassin’s Creed, this article was designed, developed and produced by a mono-cultural man with no religious faith or belief.
Say what you will about the Assassin’s Creed series (I know I have), but there’s no denying the impact it has had on the seventh console generation. Originally intended to be a Prince of Persia game, the original Assassin’s Creed looked to combine free running, flowing combat, stealth assassinations and a plot about secret societies and political intrigue, and it achieved this sci-fi/historical fantasy mash-up to varying degrees of success. I’ve been rather harsh on the series since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the game which succeeded in dumbing down key aspects of what made the first two games interesting, whilst simultaneously introducing meaningless filler features as a way to increase the perceived “value” of the game. In 2012 I published an article wherein I declared that Dishonored was the best Assassin’s Creed game since the original, such was my lack of interest in the series’ now ridiculous lore and focus on anything but assassination. I’d even go as far as to say that podcast I produce semi-regularly can be best described as “two guys who dislike Assassin’s Creed moaning about it to a girl who loves Assassin’s Creed.
Since playing the latest instalment in the series, Black Flag, I’ve come around to the idea that the series isn’t a lost cause after all. While not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, Black Flag does a good job reintroducing the concept of detailed and choice-laden assassination missions, and succeeds in spreading out filler rubbish across wider spaces. In Black Flag, you’re always either role playing as a ruthless assassin or a rumthirsty pirate, and are rarely expected to deviate from this course to chase bits of paper or even care an awful lot about the game’s modern day meta BS. That stuff is still in there, but it’s been pushed so far into the background that it can be easily ignored. Subsequently, I decided it was time for me to re-evaluate the series and chart its evolution from stab-happy action game to real estate simulator/pseudo RPG.
In re-playing Assassin’s Creed (for about the fourth time), I discovered that my nostalgia towards the stealth based level design of the game’s nine assassination mission was somewhat misplaced. Sure, there are missions wherein careful timing and planning is paramount, and there are classic “approach through the crowd” sequences too, but most of these only occur after the game’s half way point. Most of the early assassinations are fairly mundane and sloppy, all things considered. They either take on the form of un-stealth-able (yeah I can make up words too Ubisoft), combat only kills, or the avenues one uses to approach the target are unclear. Coupled with this is of course the game’s terrible guard AI, which often puts a sour note on an otherwise decent assassination level. Guards will come after you apropos of nothing, or because you rode your horse to fast, or because you sneezed too loudly. And once the guards have got wind of your sneeze, they will hound you until it’s simpler to chuck yourself into the nearest river and drown.
What the original AssCreed does possess though, is a strong tonal focus and a fairly reasonable level of payoff for the work you put in. What I mean by this, is that the game never really tries to be any more than it is: a game about assassinating people. Altair has a strong and simple narrative arc which takes him from arrogant asshole to wizened rebel, Desmond Miles hasn’t yet become so infuriating that we count the days until his joyous demise, and the game has a fantastic rogues gallery of historical figures whose evil doings are genuinely unsettling to watch. To my mind, no AssCreed game has ever come close to such a successful cast of villains, and I think that has to do with the fact that none of them, outside Richard 1st, are household names. Did anyone know who Garnier de Naplouse was when they played Assassin’s Creed for the first time? Maybe about 1% of players did. This meant nobody complained about how historically inaccurate his portrayal was, and it made his appearance carry some level of villainous weight. In later games, every recognizable hero and villain feels like a hugely contrived pantomime cameo. When George Washington gets crowned King of Magic Apples, it’s impossible not to call bullshit.
What this achieves is a level of empathy towards Altair and the assassins. You want to kill these guys, despite their final words, because they commit unspeakable acts of leg-breaking and book burning. Through Altair, you actually feel some level of involvement in the Assassins vs Templar kerfuffle.
In Assassin’s Creed II, the series improved upon several of the original’s flaws, but it also took the series in a new direction from which it would never really return. Assassinations were ironed out to provide several high and low avenues of approach, guards were a little more lenient and forgetful, and the ledge, hay and air assassinations all became viable and satisfying options for the kill. II also gave the player more options in terms of equipment and customization, but in doing so it discarded and awful lot of the focus the original game had. The first game had no monetary system, because Altair needed only his wits and a few blades. Ezio receives money for every conceivable act, but there’s never anything particularly satisfying to do with it. You can but new swords and outfits, and you can renovate your uncle’s villa (fun!), but none of it has anything to do with Assassins/Templar war, and little of it has anything to do with Ezio’s character arc. Because of these faux “RPG elements”, II is much longer than its predecessor, but only because it is heavily and unnecessarily tutorialized, and significant chunks of the game are spent performing mundane filler tasks. I don’t need my dad to teach me how to deliver letters, because I’m not four, and I know how to do that in real life.
From here on in, the series lost its way greatly. Brotherhood added more filler tasks, and even introduced the option to hire other people to kill for you, such was its disinterest in actually being about assassination. It also became apparent in Brotherhood that Ezio was not a strong enough character to carry two, let alone three games. Although his arc is interesting and genuinely moving at times in II, he barely changes or evolves during Brotherhood, save for when his beard grows more to show us how experienced he has become. Brotherhood‘s plot could be summarized as: “Hey those Borgias sucked, shall we kill them? No? Well that’s okay someone in the Yellow Pages surely will. Can I interest you in some fetch quests and shop renovation Mr Auditore?”
To my mind, Assassin’s Creed III committed the most heinous crime against the series, because it completely threw any remaining shred of narrative and mechanical focus out of the window. Connor’s story stumbles and never really finds its feet, save to remind us that slavery is bad and that English people were almost exclusively awful for a significant portion of history. Every major character is cartoonish and preditable, yet still more interesting than Connor, who never really gets a chance to prove his worth as a character when most of the game is spent re-learning old tricks and extended the series’ now ludicrous lore, without ever really adding to it. Ship-to-ship combat was an undeniable highlight, but it never really felt like it served a purpose of fit in with the rest of the game; it’s since become clear that ship combat was included to test its popularity in time for Black Flag.
I’d like to put forth a controversial statement and profess that Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag is one of, if not the best game in the series. It brought back stealth elements that were lacking from III, it improved upon naval combat and made it work within the tone and setting of the game, and it focused on the more enjoyable aspects of the series’ open world semi-RPG elements like assassination contracts and fort takeovers. The game throws you right into the mix without bombarding you with tutorials and walk-and-talks, which saves players from the tedium of having to re-learn techniques they perfected five games ago. Most importantly, the game was about assassinating people, and when it wasn’t, it was about being a bad-ass pirate. I could renovate Edward’s base and chase pieces of paper that had been strewn about that place, but I never felt like I had to do it, and the game’s setting was spread out enough that the occasional excursion into filler sections actual felt like a welcome break, rather than a forced chore.
I think Black Flag‘s most glaring success was Edward Kenway, the first protagonist the series has nailed since Ezio in II. He’s charming, charismatic and he’s a refreshingly aloof and non-caring protagonist reminiscent of Altair. Why I really loved Edward though, is because he cares as much about the series’ rubbish magical-meta-lore as I do. Everybody hassles him to pick a side and help the assassins, but he just wants to make money so he can return to his wife. Eventually he comes to feel sorry for the assassins and assists them in the game’s climax, but in doing so he learns that the world would probably be a better place without either faction in it. This all reaches its crescendo in the game’s final, touching moments, when instead of an ending about gods and pseudo-scientific conspiracies, we get a heartfelt ending about the importance of family.
It’s been a while since I’ve considered myself a “fan” of the AssCreed series, but Black Flag kicked enough life into the assassins and co. for me to feel somewhat invested in proceedings once more. The series has never been, and probably never will be perfect, but its glaring positives and flaws always make it interesting to write about and discuss. Each new title presents us with so many great features, and so many terrible ones, so it’s always interesting to examine when and where Ubisoft made good and bad creative decisions.
As for the future of the series? Assassin’s Creed: Unity looks like a step in the wrong direction for me, at least aesthetically. What I’ve seen so far reminds me of the glossy, decadent levels of Brotherhood or III, rather than some of the harder, grimier settings of Assassin’s Creed or Black Flag. The less said about the game’s four cookie cutter white-boy characters the better. The spin-off title Rogue puts you in the shoes of an assassin hunter, and will let you see the war from a different perspective for the first time, which is a welcome change in my mind.
If I was put in charge of the series (I’m always open to offers Ubi) I’d make some pretty radical changes. First of all, I’d do away with viewpoints; if re-playing the first two games taught me anything it was that they have never been a valid use of a person’s time. They exist only so that Ubisoft can say “Look at these beautiful landscapes we have designed for you”, and make you stare at them until your eyes bleed like some sort of homicidal art aficionado. Those landscapes sure are beautiful Ubi, but I can see that when I climb atop buildings anyway whilst getting from A to B, I don’t need it to be shoved down my throat. Cutting of usage of the map until I climb ten identical towers is not good game design, it’s just away to hold players hostage; it’s a seven year old bad design choice and it needs to stop. Ubi also needs to ensure that the next protagonists stand out in their own individual games. I know Ubisoft likes to plan for sequels, but Black Flag proved that one unique character is enough to save a game from its own flaws. I’d also like to see the return of killable citizens. Everybody has bad days, and sometimes we just need to stab a virtual priest.
Most people have AssCreed fatigue at this point (also known as Ass Fatigue), and it’s not hard to see why. I’ve had it for the past few years thanks to Ezio saturation and Assassin’s Creed III, but now that the series has gone from good to bad to good again, it’s been nice to take a step back and put the magnifying glass to this seven year old saga (aw cute) and see how it has evolved and shaped the industry, for better or for worse.