A merry quintet of "Uh"s for you all and welcome to what will hopefully not come off as a thousand-odd words of griping about Ubisoft's generally excellent Assassin's Creed series of stealthy cinematic stab-em-ups. Like I suspect a great many of you, at least those of you that weren't fixated on the two big FPS releases this month, I played a lot of the new Assassin's Creed 3 this week. To the exclusion of all else, as it turns out. I wasn't too impressed with the game as, again, I'm sure is the case for a lot of others. My extended thoughts on why that is can be found yonder, but today I wanted to discuss the series as a whole and my tumultuous relationship with it. Mostly so I can try to figure out why I let myself get so hyped for this new one, given its disappointing immediate precedent (that would be Revelations) and the already middling word-of-mouth by the time I got around to it. I suspect it has something to do with how much I tended to like the rest of the games, but it doesn't hurt to make sure with a little recollection. Probably.
The first Assassin's Creed was a curious experiment with a strong pedigree and a lot of really smart ideas, somewhat hamstrung by its limited gameplay. It's kind of a shame that the first game is at times so inaccessible, largely because of how each game is so closely related and anyone with a strong interest in the overarching narrative would have to start at the series' nadir. Fortunately, Revelations does a good job providing Cliffs Notes on Altair's life and accomplishments, but in a lamentable twist that just means you have to play Revelations instead of Assassin's Creed 1, which is scarcely an improvement.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Assassin's Creed puts you in the shoes of modern-day hapless gadabout Desmond Miles after he is abducted from his bar-tending job by the shadowy, Templar-affiliated organization Abstergo. It's never good when the name of the evil company that has kidnapped you is based on a term to eliminate or to vanish something without a trace, though I suppose it's better than an evil company named after canopies. He is forced to relive the genetic memories of his ancestor Altair Ibn-La'Ahad, a particularly proficient killer and - as it would later turn out - the eventual originator of a huge clan of anti-Templar assassins that have continued to be a hidden blade in their side for nigh on a thousand years.
The problems with the first game have been well-documented, but essentially the game fools the player into a false sense of open-ended freedom by allowing them to run amok and explore a series of Crusade-era middle eastern cities to their heart's content. However, in order to move the plot forward, the player must gather clues about their next Templar target via a few mini-activities that involve eavesdropping on a conversation or tailing a suspicious character. An interesting approach to creating a mystery adventure game that relies on nothing but the player's reflexes and ability to stay hidden in order to proceed, but unfortunately scuppered by the fact that this was all there was to the game. After the first assassination, the approach might be perceived as an intriguing way to set-up the big set-piece mission at the end of it all, sort of how the oddly similar Sly 2: Band of Thieves would set up each of its heists with a prior series of (thankfully more diverse) "putting the pieces into place" low-stakes missions. After the fourth or fifth identical iteration of this set-up, however, the game is relying on the grace of God to have any players still invested enough to see it through. A microcosm of the series' major problem as a whole, it would later turn out.
Overall, though, I didn't hate the first game. Clearly not, as I was ready to give its sequel a chance even before I was hearing how good it was and how its stealthy gameplay had - hyperbolically, perhaps - become the apotheosis of the sub-genre. But yeah, when I hear about Brad and others deciding to take the haystack plunge into the Assassin's Creed series because of how superb its later entries are, I don't envy them taking those bumpy first few steps.
Assassin's Creed II
When Desmond jumps 300 years forward into the memories of Renaissance ladies' man Ezio Auditore da Firenze, it's a huge shift that's symbolically reflected in how far the gameplay's been evolved and improved. More emphasis is put into how Ezio came to be, both in the literal birth sense and his awakening as one of the most effective and important Assasssins in the order's long history. The second game is careful to mirror the first in its message and approach - find out more about the Templar targets and pick a moment when they're at their weakest and strike - but is also extremely aware of the shortcomings of its antecedent and works to fix every issue a player might've had (and had expressed) with it. What we receive is the very model of a modern video game sequel; a game that simultanteously stays true to its core appeal without feeling the need to drastically change itself to remain popular, like the earnest main character of so many high school makeover movies, while alleviating almost all of its shortcomings in the process. In short? It's pretty good, you guys.
While AC2 does spread itself out a bit in terms of what is needed for the story-essential missions, the game also gives players more incidental material to work with should they choose to faff around a while. Rather than the first game's limited side-quest philosophy of "you want something else to do? Here's some flags. Enjoy", its sequel offers so much of this secondary material that it's likely a player will be spending as much, if not more, time on its extracurricular activities. In this sense the game finally realizes the open-world aspect of its nature; why bother creating such elaborate recreations of famous ancient cities if so much of it is inconsequential to the game? Giving players reasons to explore more of it, beyond for the sake of collectibles, is a satisfying experience for both the players and the poor souls who have poured so much work into their verisimilitude. Even if, perhaps, the real thing didn't have quite so many handholds and hiding places.
AC2 had very much set the bar - when developing future entries, the developers would have their work cut out for them to improve upon it. For better or worse, they elected to simply stay the course by appropriating the same basic formula without rocking the boat too much. We'll be feeling the repercussions of that decision later.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood
For many, Ezio's second outing is the zenith of the franchise; what is essentially a slight tweaking of the second game in a much more elaborately realized city with some welcome (and unwelcome) additions. It lacked the ambition of its two forebears, being as it was a mild improvement of its ancestor, but the series was still firing on all cylinders at this point.
An older Ezio has traveled to Rome to keep tabs on his nemesis Rodrigo Borgia, now Pope Alexander VI. However, a bigger problem arises in the Pope's ambitious nephew Cesar. Mixing in the chaos and debauchery of the extended Borgia clan, something that's worked for TV in the past, was a smart decision for AC2's sequel to follow, but the brightest spark was in using Ezio's middle-aged status as an excuse to prop him up as the new Assassin kingpin and give him his own cadre of junior assassins to order around. The subsequent side-activity of a globe-spanning organization of assassin contracts and missions really gives a sense of a much wider world, even if - conversely - the main action was relegated to a single city. It was also baller as fuck, to use the common vernacular of this site, to gesture in the air and have a bunch of trained killers drop in on your enemies at a convenient moment. It's a clever addition that adds much to the strategy and planning around each scenario, making things much easier while at the same time cunningly providing a crutch that players might rely on until the game happily kicks away from them at the least opportune moments.
What was less fun, though only because it could occasionally highlight the game's minor issues, was the full synchronization feature. Though entirely optional, the game held back the much-vaunted (by crazies) 100% accolade by putting players through the wringer with some occasionally deviously difficult bonus requirements, such as avoiding detection of any kind or only killing a limited number of guards. Intended to not only challenge players but also, in a clever narrative twist, emphasize the prowess of the assassin they were body-jacking, these requirements would drive you crazy if you let them. The better limitations definitely added something to the experience, however.
Assassin's Creed Revelations
For the sake of brevity, because this blog's long enough already, I'll say that Revelations did what Brotherhood did before it, just not well. Which is to say it built on AC2 with some new features that, rather than adding to the experience (like calling on one's running crew), detracted from it instead. Did we really need Tower Defense sequences? A climbing hook that changed nothing because every free-climbing sequence was modified to now require it? An antagonist that was only revealed an hour before the game's end? Constantinople looked nice though.
Assassin's Creed III
Which leads to this new one. I'll skip over the plot, since it's everywhere, but the game's generally at its peak with regards to its characters and not at all at its peak with regards to the story. It is many ways an unfortunate mess of new and mostly superfluous additions to the AC2 format but also a fairly refreshing change to a contemporary era in which we could continue wildly stabbing people we disagree with. Not that I disagreed with them. Kingdoms need taxes to pay for things, you guys. You can't just throw all our tea off a boat because we.. whatever, water under the bridge now.
What is probably most disappointing was the failure to live up to that expectation everyone had that AC 3 would've been to AC 2 as it was to AC 1: A huge step forward, a chance to shake off the aging system its persistent issues without compromising that violent, historically-suspect core which brought in its fans (especially the ones that stuck with it after the first game) and held their interest for four iterations. Instead, it appears Ubisoft was forced to make a leap forward while at the same time not being entirely content to abandon their lucrative system of releasing the same game with a new coat of paint on a yearly cycle. They knew they couldn't have a 65-year-old Ezio creaking around the ruins of ancient worlds that were as dilapidated as he was, but nor were they willing to take an extra year out to revamp the whole AC 2 format, lest they spend a whole year with nothing to show for it and end up with something worse in the subsequent twelve months. Something as potentially disastrous as the first Assassin's Creed, perhaps. That there is definite precedent for this whole stabbin'-'n-stealthin' formula to go pear-shaped must be a troubling proverbial sword of Damocles for its developers. Which is probably a cruelly germane metaphor, considering the whole franchise is predicated on bared blades waiting in the rafters. Rambling again, sorry, time to wind this shebang up:
So now we'll see just what happens to this series. Do they keep with the incrementally improved but increasingly dissatisfying AC2-derived iterations, unfairly testing the devotion of its fanbase? Or attempting the unenviable task of starting the whole thing from scratch once again, with a new approach that somehow doesn't compromise its core appeal? I have no idea, but I have just enough goodwill left to give them the benefit of the doubt for one more game at least.
Everything is permitted, Ubisoft. For now.
Assassin's Creed III