Remember when people liked the Assassin’s Creed games? People used to like the Assassin’s Creed games. I used to like the Assassin’s Creed games. There’s a podcast episode buried in the archive that I think is currently offline (because the podcast was a failed experiment) in which I expressed appreciation for the Assassin’s Creed series’ policy of iteration over innovation, tweaking an already mostly functional game rather than trying to reinvent the genre each time. The latter is occasionally successful but there’s something to be said for a series that makes small enough changes as to keep things steadily improving while still having 90% of a good game if they don’t pan out.
That said, there is a line between iteration and find/replace game design, and Assassin’s Creed has been dancing back and forth across that line since Revelations. Revelations was a near-clone of Brotherhood, with a slightly improved Assassin’s Guild mini-game (the improvement of which was much appreciated), an annoying and fortunately easily avoided tower defense mini-game, and the exact same gameplay we had in Brotherhood. You buy shops and upgrade them and steadily improve your income whilst completing side missions and the main plot inside a single sprawling city with lots of things to climb which is mostly unlocked right from the very beginning. Other than the characters, which are wholly forgettable to the point where I literally do not remember the plot, nothing substantial has changed since Brotherhood. Assassin’s Creed II introduced an entirely new upgrade system and significantly changed how you interacted with the map, with side missions not necessarily having anything to do with your next assassination target and the main story having a more cinematic approach where the next mission is the next story chunk rather than being a specific guy on your hit list.
Assassin’s Creed III and Black Flag had the ship combat, featured in III and then taking center stage in IV, but what have we had since then? What was new in Unity? In Syndicate? The problem gets worse when you consider tangentially related games like Liberation and Freedom Cry, where even less iteration occurs (somewhat understandably, since these are expansialones and not real sequels, but the mainline games aren’t the saving grace they need to be to give that excuse weight). Ubisoft is taking a year off the Assassin’s Creed games, and hopefully they’ll be reinvigorated by it, because they’ve had a lot more misses than hits even by the standards of a guy who’s happy to play Assassin’s Creed as a junk food game.
Here’s what really gets me about this series, though. The first Assassin’s Creed was not a junk food game. I think a main reason for this is how Assassin’s Creed approached its plot. It had the plot of a video game, not a movie. In Assassin’s Creed, a character is set up to have a major flaw. The game is then clearly delineated into stages, with each stage being an assassination. At the start of each stage, you visit your handler in the city and get some characterization building dialogue, and then you’re set loose in a city full of side quests and towers to climb, each one getting you closer to your goal. When you feel you’re ready or there just aren’t any side quests left to complete, you return to the handler for some more dialogue, and by now, between the people you’ve stalked and your conversations with the city’s lead assassin, you know what crimes the baddy you’re after has committed. You stalk him and see him do something horrific, and then you strike. After you kill him, though, he gets a moment to justify himself, and he always has a philosophically defensible position even if I ultimately disagree with him (and both Altair and al-Mualim offer counterpoints to the Templars’ justifications).
This would make a terrible movie. The episodic format couldn’t even be adequately adapted to a TV show. There are only tiny snippets of plot and character growth, each one attached to the beginning or completion of a side quest or a part of the main mission. The way the game is structured makes you feel like an assassin, receiving a job, gathering information and thinning the defenses of your target, and then striking at them. Right before you attack, you’re given a look at the depths of evil the Templars are coming from to get your blood pumping to kill the bastard, and then after you’ve done the job you’re given a reason to believe that this person is human, and for all his monstrous qualities he did have ideals and they weren’t all repugnant. The only thing really separating Altair from the Templars were the extremes to which the Templars were willing to go to realize their vision, and it’s not like Altair didn’t occasionally kill someone barely associated with the Templars in order to cover up an interrogation.
The Animus conversations in which Altair and his slain target have a five-minute conversation on the nature of good and evil right after the Templar, a VIP, has been stabbed to death and the guards are about to pounce on Altair, none of that ever made sense, and Ubisoft took it out in Assassin’s Creed II, replacing them with final words that made more sense for someone’s actual dying moments. Not calm, philosophical conversation between people whose enmity no longer mattered, but the bitter spite of someone who’s just been murdered. This was a mistake. As bizarre as those sequences were, they were absolutely vital to the pacing of the first game, and trying to replace them with humanizing moments sprinkled in throughout the game’s narrative just didn’t work, particularly since some of those moments just weren’t humanizing. So Vieri de Pazzi was being pushed to be more evil as an outlet for the pressure his father was putting him under. If we’d heard those words from his own mouth, explained with uncharacteristic calm in an Animus dreamscape that leaves the reality of the situation ambiguous, it could’ve been compelling. Instead, we get them in a letter after he spits a final barb at us while he expires, and it’s not even Vieri who wrote the letter, it’s another Templar telling his dad to back off before the kid cracks. The more amicable and understanding relationship between this other Templar and Vieri as opposed to Vierie’s relationship with his father is not explored.
Assassin’s Creed I was the best Assassin’s Creed game, because it tried to be an Assassin’s Creed game rather than trying to split the difference between being a game and a movie.