Some Thoughts on the Assassin’s Creed Series

The video game landscape upon Assassin’s Creed’s release in 2007 was vastly detached from the video game landscape of today, and this difference is especially applicable to the open-world genre, which has now ascended to a position of dominance. The genre was indeed thriving in 2007, though the great potentials attached to the genre were largely unexplored; the genre saw its birth and popularization only in 2001, of course, with the release of Grand Theft Auto III on the consoles of the day. That series has been expectantly influential, its presence felt now just as it was felt then. Indeed, a scant three years before Assassin’s Creed’s was the release of San Andreas, a justly lauded title of fair ambition, particularly in terms of world design, the map sprawling and seemingly endless, with a vast countryside and three distinct cities, all eventually explorable. San Andreas was both a neat refinement of the genre, though also serving an innovative function; cars controlled smoothly, gunplay’s complexity was bolstered, while even a crude stealth system saw implementation: Rockstar were experimenting. San Andreas was thus a model of excellence for the genre, and while Assassin’s Creed did not usurp that title, additional refinements were affected, largely attributable to the movement systems, liberating and organic, a continued hallmark of the series. San Andreas was praised for having basic climbing and mantling, seemingly facilitating and incentivizing verticality; the groundedness of III and Vice City were now displaced – progress was being made. But these systems are just that: painfully basic, the climbing clunky, unpredictable, and even unintuitive. Assassin’s Creed’s locomotion, conversely, was profoundly complex, mostly consistent, and beautifully intuitive and even inviting: all players can deftly execute great feats of agility, climbing ever higher, clearing large gaps, plunging from great heights, rolling gracefully and enduring the impact.

The contrast, then, is indeed immense, and it was largely within movement systems that Assassin’s Creed pushed the genre further, developers realizing the advantages attached to free-running, to the empowered player. Assassin’s Creed almost splintered the genre; some games cling to excessive groundedness, depriving the player of movement ostensibly for purposes of “realism.” Grand Theft Auto IV, while inheriting San Andreas’s movement systems and advancing them ever slightly, is neat illustration of groundedness, while on the opposite end of the spectrum are open world games with exaggerated, immensely empowering movement systems: consider only the Prototype games, Infamous, Sunset Overdrive, or Crackdown: many are the experiments here, and in a fascinating turn Assassin’s Creed occupies a certain ground. Before, clearing a ten foot wall was a near impossibility – consider clunky San Andreas. Now, players could explore truly anywhere, leaping from roof to roof, exploiting verticality for gameplay functions, simultaneously enriching the experience. Beautiful and ambitious world design also contributes to Assassin’s Creed’s early successes, and while a comparatively dull game by modern standards, and especially dull relative to the subsequent games in the series, the title must be commended for its experimentations, foundationally sound and rife for additional refinement; barebones, flawed, and ambitious, Assassin’s Creed was very much a product of its time.

Assassin’s Creed II was a natural and substantial improvement over its predecessor, boasting a more robust narrative, more complex gameplay systems and, most crucially, a compelling shift in setting and protagonist, Ezio Auditore amongst the most memorable, endearing player characters the industry has ever birthed, his odyssey, begun with Assassin’s Creed II spanning some three titles; it is long and winding, full of considerable character development. But first there was Assassin’s Creed II, moving away from the Crusader-era Middle East through towards the thriving Renaissance, Florence and Venice explored in turn, these beautiful cities complemented by less dense, smaller cities, all neatly connected by a mostly linear though still sufficiently open countryside, the Auditore Villa being a homebase of sorts. But even while exploring these sometimes hostile-heavy cities, even while forced to grapple with a murder plot which resulted in the destruction of brothers and father alike, and even while growing embroiled in a dark and violent, centuries old feud between the Assassins and the Templars, Ezio never becomes some cold antihero, even while surrounded by hardship and periodic devastation. This preservation of character, this rejection of an all-consuming darkness, only heightens Ezio’s endearing attributes – here is a man of patience and resistance, initially a rather impulsive man owing to his youth, though a man who ultimately becomes wise and calculated, both necessitated by those selfsame hardships and devastations; he is no Altair, rejecting that character’s basicness, his staticness. On this front, Ubisoft must again be praised: they have crafted a compelling protagonist who never loses his compellingness, instead seeing it constantly swell in size. Theoretically, a narrative spanning three distinct titles has the tendency to grow overwrought; the player naturally desires change. But Ubisoft manage to avoid all semblances of the overwrought, both because of Ezio’s growth and because of the constant presenting of new and creative environments; Revelations’ Constantinople is aesthetically and culturally detached from Ezio’s homeland, Florence, or Brotherhood’s bustling Rome. Ubisoft’s abundant creativity here prompts player consideration – where precisely will the developers transport the players next? This question is a constancy all throughout the series, even up until the present moment, owing to Ubisoft’s seeming unpredictability on this front, though an unpredictability checked by deliberateness. And so this deliberateness directs Ezio; foes are fought, foes are vanquished; allies are made, allies are murdered; conspiracies are unraveled, conspiracies remain partially understood. Ezio’s tale’s conclusion, as he marries the fiery, red-haired Sofia Sartor, is profoundly satisfying, a wonderful send-off to perhaps a fiercely dynamic, fiercely human character.  

The conclusion of Ezio’s odyssey brought with it the beginning of a new odyssey: Connor’s odyssey, he displacing Ezio as player character. Unlike that former figure, Connor is devoid of depth, devoid even of likability, being defined by an excessive, exaggerated stoicism. True, the late Ezio could display such stoicism if faced with a difficult physical or emotional challenge, but abundant levity rested always just below the surface. Connor, meanwhile, shows no levity, resulting in dullness. The journey from boyish, ignorant and innocent Native American child through towards capable Assassin is brimming with possibilities for narrative greatness, which ultimately go unrealized, the narrative’s greatest heft instead attributable to Haytham Kenway, Connor’s estranged, Templar father. But while Assassin’s Creed III communicates Connor’s journey, also devoting an entire prologue to Haytham, the narrative suffers from additional overambition, as the story also sees continuation and closure of Desmond Miles’s journey. From the first game through towards this one, Desmond was the only constancy, and over time his sequences – admittedly very divisive – have also seen an escalation in complexity and potential enjoyability. Before, Desmond was essentially confined to a cramped office apartment, provided with a bedroom of his own and little else. Now, though, Desmond, having intuited the skills of the Assassins though the “bleeding effect,” can and does scale a skyscraper with ease, promptly leaping from that skyscraper and employing a parachute for traversal purposes, eventually settling on a building otherwise inaccessible, or accessed only with great difficulty. He can navigate a sprawling sports arena, meanwhile, engaging in stealth and combat in turn, searching for answers, the world’s preservation as destruction seems increasingly imminent. In a major narrative failing, it is difficult to delight in or be gripped by these sequences, to care for or empathize with Desmond, whose narrative is rather dull. But even with his commanding dullness, his narrative removal at the conclusion of III unexpectantly dealt a sharp blow to the series broadly. Dull and uncompelling though he may be, Desmond served the function of binding agent, connecting all of these disparate narratives, embodying the developers’ fascination with split temporality, the vacillation between past and present. In removing him, these present day sequences embraced aimlessness, included out of expectation or tradition and respect for the series; they are almost universally boring, seeing the first-person navigation of office complexes or other dull surroundings; much was lost, and Ubisoft are still grappling with how precisely to include these sequences – or pondering whether they should be included at all. From a narrative standpoint, then, Assassin’s Creed III might be reckoned a failure, both Desmond and Connor both showing a poverty of character growth, neither being inherently intriguing nor engaging; the pair merely exist. Subtle and complex gameplay alterations both exist, though, while a new, impossibly beautiful world is presented the player, the Revolutionary cities of America being a monumental achievement, directly responding to the passage of time and the changing of the seasons, while the vast, similarly-changing frontier is also explorable: Ubisoft expertly seized on the potentialities inherent to a new game engine. And yet, Assassin’s Creed III is largely lacking in memorability, innovation.

Gameplay advancements from Assassin’s Creed through to Assassin’s Creed III were instead more in the mold of iteration, subtle refinement – complete overhauls, completely original ideas, were lacking, save for some more experimental instances, principally the naval dimensions found in III and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Brotherhood recruiting and expansion thriving within Brotherhood. Revelations would experiment with bomb-crafting, and while increasing gameplay flexibility, the inclusion seems founded more in expectation, meant to satisfy player demands for newness. Exploration necessarily constitutes a considerable portion of the overall play time in these titles, the player provided free reign – and, because of the characteristic greatness of the movement systems in these titles, simple exploration brings with it ample reward and enjoyability; simply navigating the map brings pleasure, even if for no other end then to obtain some pointless, overabundant collectable: the moment to moment gameplay here, while quiet and contemplative, is richly satisfying. Furthering this quiet trend are the stealth systems, the series adopting a unique approach, revolving around “social stealth.” Benches can be employed for evasion, crowds can be joined to elude perceptive guards who strive to prevent player advancement, attacking on sight, determined to obliterate the player. Many of these abilities and tactics are highly situational, or are used largely in scripted sequences, as when a mobile, potentially concealing crowd is conveniently situated as to heighten or establish usefulness, or as a group of hirable courtesans linger near sexually-charged guards. Stealth, then, is flawed, and is largely centered around visibility. The constant accessibility of rooftops and other elevated structures does mean visual detection is indeed easily avoided, but added depth here in these earlier titles would bolster complexity and enjoyability considerably. Instead, even a crouching system was absent, while noise production is typically irrelevant to detection or evasion – stealth is painfully basic, and the lack of innovation, the near constancy of iteration, is immensely frustrating; across some five years, the stealth systems remained lacking. True, a whistle feature was implemented in III, which can be employed to tempt a guard in hearing range away from his post, seemingly towards a place where he can be stealthily dispatched, his body concealed in the reeds or overbrush, while that same overbrush can be employed as cover, permitting undetected navigation while removed from the safety of vertical spaces. Still, these new “mechanics,” while increasingly flexibility, are far from revolutionary.

The combat systems over this same time frame are similarly situated, featuring refinement rather than innovation. A heavy emphasis upon countering is present, and much combat involves patience, the player waiting for the enemy to strike, whereupon they can be slaughtered almost on the instant, after a typically visceral animation. This combat demands little of the plater, and this sharp overreliance on countering persists throughout, though the inclusion of an intuitive “chain kill” ability in Brotherhood further trivializes combat, laughably easy: a skill-based dimension is completely lacking here. But the spectacular animations, the abundant violence and gracefulness, do result in many cinematic attributes, and surmounting the seemingly insurmountable – triumphing over guards in number of five or six – results in a sharp rush of powerful sensations, satisfactions; Altair, Ezio, and Connor are all fierce individuals, seemingly indestructible in combat. Accordingly, much of the combat is a simple power fantasy; greater player fragility and vulnerability would only heighten tension, which is otherwise lacking in this combat. In stealth, combat, and in exploration, then, minor are the series gameplay improvements from 2007 through towards 2012. 2013’s Black Flag, meanwhile, sought to inject some life into the experience, principally by taking the naval dimensions introduced in III and crafting an entire experience around them. Ubisoft expertly succeeded here: sailing and naval combat can bring incalculable joys, while the world design met with similar successes, larger than ever owing to the vast explorable seas, dotted with islands and the relatively sprawling towns of the Caribbean. Crucially, though despite this largeness the game is never overwhelming, whereas most open-world games have a proclivity for the overwhelming, dampening potential enjoyability. With a charming protagonist as well, and with the appearance of many famous pirates and rouges, Black Flag is an enjoyable experience, even though all its innovations are confined to one distinct realm; in combat and stealth, it is functionally identical to Assassin’s Creed III, and the earlier titles which preceded it; few were the risk here.  

Given the excessive gameplay similarities here, complaints of repetitiveness are indeed justified; substantial alterations were justly desired. Assassin’s Creed Unity offered fair disruption, though never discarding the series’ central identity. The release year of 2014 is immensely consequential, as Unity was the first title released on next-gen hardware, and Ubisoft embraced the added strengths necessarily attached to new hardware. Revolutionary-era Paris was sprawling, beautiful, eclipsing in beauty most environments explored earlier in the series, even III’s dazzling frontier environment. Gorgeous baked-lighting was introduced, the roofs of Parisian buildings dazzling and crisp in their coloration, while the very architecture of the city commands attention, such famous cathedrals as the Notre Dame included and scalable, towering to the heavens, abounding in ornateness. Wonderful, complete freedom was preserved here, and Ubisoft took the series’ iconic free running and honed it to perfection, the animation quality being unrivaled then and now. Repeated are the feats here, many of them on the technical side – there was that new hardware, after all, which enabled the spawning of seemingly dozens upon dozens of NPC’s at any given moment. Stealth saw dramatic improvements for essentially the first time, with a dedicated crouching function implemented, a clever “ghost” indicator also implemented, assisting the player in stealth, cutting down on potential frustrations, while even cover systems were included, alongside more contextual assassination techniques. The narrative, though, was lacking, even with the beautiful, commanding setting. Arno generally fell in line with Connor more than Ezio or Edward Kenway, though unlike them he was potential recipient of substantial customization, heavily emphasized in this title, with manifold different discoverable and craftable garments, many with their own distinct passive bonuses, while a wide variety of weaponry also existed, permitting relative experimentation. In a crucial, turn, though, Ubisoft began experimenting with role-playing game mechanics, deliberately including a basic skill tree. Unintrusive, it benefits from its unintrusiveness; the skills heighten player capabilities and options, absolutely, though here a sharp skill-based dimension is preserved, arbitrary health values and other constraints being mostly lacking; Unity is demanding of the player, and such demands are fiercely welcome after games which sometimes seemed to play themselves. Syndicate, meanwhile, was similarly positioned as Brotherhood or Revelations, being a stopgap of sorts before greater ideas and innovations saw implementation. A wholly new protagonist is introduced – in this case, two protagonists are introduced, this introduction being amongst the game’s greatest contributions – while the new environment of London is, for all its smokestacks and pollution, beautiful and inviting, though massive alterations are again absent; Unity and Syndicate are cut from the same cloth. The addition of a rope-launcher makes mobility more exhilarating than it ever has been, while drivable carriages offer another manner of traversing the city, both inclusions thus being richly empowering. But even with a detached combat system relative to Unity, a system defined by unusualness and accordingly value, the similarities are excessive, and in many ways Unity and Syndicate are oddities, trapped between the more straightforward earlier games in the series (those heavily emphasizing conventional action / adventure), and the more recent games, with a strong role-playing emphasis, greater by far than that observable here.

It is easy to dismiss these three most recent titles – Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla – simply because of their radicalness, the shift in direction they embody; for long-term fans of the franchise, the series has indeed gone astray. But a useful statement must be made: innovate or die. Rather than dying, Ubisoft innovated with Origins’ release, heavily emphasizing the role-plying dimensions, with crafting systems, progression systems, and quite robust armor and weapon customization options. Whereas before, skills and patience were central to gameplay success, now levels and purchased skills similarly contributed to the potentials for success; approach a level ten outpost at level five, for instance, and victory is essentially impossible, the inclusion of these systems thus restricting player freedoms – travel to one end of the map where the developers did not intend, and progress is functionally impossible; accordingly, the joys and freedoms of exploration are dealt a sharp blow; openness is lost. True, victory does not entirely hinge on level, in that combat embraces a, even more skill-based component, building upon Unity’s earlier emphasis upon player skill. Now, death is indeed a tangible reality, making combat more plodding and contemplative, more exhilarating, especially when overcrowded; the presence of two or three enemy NPCs simultaneously is indeed frightful, and this added sense of challenge further increases the joys accompanying victory. But the push towards RPG gameplay systems has resulted in some regressions, principally regarding stealth. True, dedicated crouching remains and foliage is more abundant than ever, while in these games the player has access to some method of marking and tracking enemies as pioneered in the Far Cry games, but the decision to exclude instantaneous enemy death by close-range stealth skill is a major failure; closing the distance on an unsuspecting enemy ought to be rewarded, and here it is only partially, frustratingly rewarded. The free running systems are also defined by regression, the animation quality poor and the systems themselves relatively clunky; the sheer, liberating empowerment of Unity or Syndicate is absent here. With this trio of titles, meanwhile, Ubisoft again embraced, reembraced, dull iteration; Origins was a massive refinement, though only slightly refined by the succeeding tittles. In this regard, they are fiercely linked, and if a player is indifferent to Origins, they will largely be indifferent to Valhalla or Odyssey. True, the shift in settings here is immensely impactful, as has always been the case with the series: Ptolemy-era Egypt is quite detached from the Greece of fair antiquity, while the snowing wastes of Valhalla display additional design departures. But a shift in setting cannot shake off excessive similarities, and this trio is justly divisive, particularly for veterans of the franchise, those with a memory of what once was, relative to what currently is. And the environment of the present moment, for whatever reasons, gravitates towards bloatedness, especially in the open-world genre, as developers cling to the notion that a larger game, a larger gameworld, is somehow inherently better than a smaller, more focused gameworld. Accordingly, the sprawling gameworlds of these three most recent titles are painfully overwrought, suffering from their lofty ambitions, only heightening their intimidating attributes, directly meaning that the vast majority of players will never see these games’ conclusions, a very frustrating admission, suggesting that Ubisoft are alienating much of their playerbase. True, if any given player gravitates towards these role-playing systems or the precise setting and worlds presented, an experience cannot be prolonged enough. But for most, Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla, so similar and so bloated, boasting ridiculously large map sizes, are far too intimidating for completion. A more stripped back approach, the embracing of focused concision, would do wonders for the series, though crucially the lessons learned in recent years must not be forgotten – even with their divisiveness, these games have pushed the series and the genre forward, absolutely. Knowing of this advancement, logic suggests the systems underpinning these games ought not be removed or destroyed outright. Instead, one is hopeful these two different gameplay philosophies, the complex and the comparatively straightforward, can harmoniously coexist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: