I’ve been playing Assassin’s creed games since the first installment of the series launched in 2007. Although I consider myself a fan of every entry in the franchise, even the nearly universally disliked Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I must admit something about the games has changed over time.
This should be expected I suppose; after all, after Assassin’s Creed II released in 2009, developer/publisher Ubisoft has come out with a new installment every year, so it would make sense that the series would evolve over time. However, this begs the question of whether or not the series has evolved in a good way or a bad one.
When people think of the Assassin’s Creed games, they think vast historical settings, a mix of stealth and action, and a narrative that ties in with a present day meta-story. It could be argued that these are the core pillars of the franchise; in other words, these things make Assassin’s Creed what it is.
In my opinion, this aspect of the games has remained strong across all of the titles. In each installment, we as players have been given free reign to run and climb around some of history’s great cities, and it never really loses its luster. The settings of these games are always so detailed and bustling with people that it never ceases to look amazing and give off a bit of a sense of wonder. With the advancements of technology over time, each new setting looks even better than the last.
However, each new title (generally speaking) advances the setting forward in time. While I know that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag director Ashraf Ismail has expressed interest in an ancient egypt setting, and the rumors concerning this are beginning to resurface again, the more recent games have all taken place is a somewhat modern world; the british colonies of Black Flag, the newly founded States of America of AC III, and the french and industrial revolutions of Unity and Syndicate all make for a markedly different experience than the medieval setting of the first game or the Italian renaissance of the first sequel. This being said, the series roots are firmly planted in a time where swords and arrows were the only option. In the later installments, especially syndicate, does it really make sense for the protagonists’ to be jumping into the fray wielding melee weapons? As great as the settings of each game are, it begins to seem like they are at odds with the needs of the gameplay.
Another aspect of the original game that made it stand out from the crowd was the second playable character Desmond, who lived during the present day and whose appearance in the game was something of a surprise. During segments of the game, players could control a character who was trapped in a mysterious lab and embroiled in somewhat of a mystery. Piecing together Desmond’s story was a great addition to the game, and it and the main plotline of Altair the ancient assassin worked together in such a way that made the player invested in both. You wanted to see how Desmond escapes the Abstergo facility and what happens next in the present day story, but you also wanted to get back to the action of Altair’s adventures too.
The next two installments continued this trend, thus solidifying the present day meta-story as a key component of the series. But in Assassin’s Creed III, Desmond dies and his story arc is more or less complete. What now? As the games went on, the present day aspects seemed to be shoved unceremoniously to the background. In Black Flag, Desmond is replaced by a nameless, voiceless researcher with a relatively menial role in the present day narrative. Unity and Syndicate take it down another step further and replace the researcher with whoever is literally playing the actual game. In a strange move that I admit is pretty original but strange nonetheless, the game according to the narrative is still the game, but one made by the fictional Abstergo industries instead of Ubisoft. To put it simply, the player of this game was contacted by the assassins to literally play the game to uncover some bit of information that the group needs for whatever reason.
Surely not everyone cared about Desmond, but to me it seems like this series staple has been reduced to an afterthought, which I find baffling. The present day side-story was a major part of the franchise but its future inclusion seems like it could be in danger of fading into obscurity.
The last topic I’d like to discuss is the unique balance of action and stealth that the Assassin’s Creed titles try to achieve. Looking again at the first title, specifically at the game’s main protagonist Altair, we can see that he is a capable warrior. He has a sword, throwing knives, a bow, and of course the iconic hidden blade. But even as he is bristling with weapons, he is a character with limits. In this game, it’s possible to fight off 1 or 2 guards and if you master the combat system, it is possible to take on a lot more, but you aren’t encouraged to do so. The assassin’s’ way is one that suggests going in quietly and killing only your target.
This has been made less and less true with each new installment of the series. We’ve always has the option to charge in, swords swinging in every direction, but at first this was frowned upon, we were punished a bit for doing it that way. It was the much more difficult way to do things and it didn’t go well with what the game’s narrative was telling us about the stealthy assassins. In the second game, the protagonist Ezio was made much more powerful and had access to a much larger arsenal of weapons than his predecessor. However, the game still valued the stealth approach; It just punished us less for more aggressive playstyles or any mistakes we made.
However, this became a trend, and in the most recent game, protagonists Jacob and Evie Frye can be aggressive as they want with virtually no repercussions. While the combat in these games is still fun, it seems to me like it may have lost sight of what it was supposed to be: a backup plan for when your stealthy approach didn’t pan out like you had hoped.
I believe that the series has changed dramatically over the years because of the evolution of its three core pillars. However, is it a change for the better or for worse? After all, the core aspects of the series that make Assassin’s Creed what it is, seem, to me at least, to be deteriorating. However, this could be a sign that those very core aspects themselves are changing. The series is changing what it means to be an Assassin’s Creed game, but due to it’s yearly schedule it must do so slowly. In either case, Ubisoft has the chance to either reinvent the series or go back to its roots with its next installment. The company has decided that 2016 will not see an entry in this series, so it has plenty of time to think about where to take its long-running franchise down the road.
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