Those Games About the Creed of Assassins
Roughly once a year, Ubisoft sells the “Animus Pack”, a digital version of all the Assassin’s Creed games for PC (except the latest AC Origins game), including almost all DLCs and season passes included, all for a reasonable price. So I thought, why not try out that assassin game thing made in my hometown?
The Assassin’s Creed games felt like a microcosm of the evolution of “AAA games”. Having played all those 13 games released in the span of about 9 years in a bit more than a year, it felt like experiencing the entire video game industry’s evolution at ten times the speed.
But first, back to what the games are actually about. The first game was quite experimental and innovative. The story happens in a fictional version of the current time. Your character has been kidnaped by some scientists that force you to interact with a bed-like device (the “Animus” thing) that lets you relive a simulation of your ancestor’s past that was encoded in your DNA. The simulation then is about an assassin living in the Middle East during the 3rd crusades, in a battle between the shadowy assassins versus the templars. Conspiraties abound about how both factions secretly influenced pivotal events in our history (well, the game’s fictional history).
The game really emphasizes the “game within a game”, with two levels of game menus, one within simulation, and one outside the Animus. The simulation uses terms like “synchronization” to mean completing a level, and “desynchronized” instead of “game over”. The controls are unique, with each button corresponding to body parts: top button for head (look), left for closed hand (punch), right for open hand (push and interact), bottom for feet (walk slow), plus the right shoulder button as a “high stance” modifier (“eagle” vision, weapon, running, jump, etc.). The parcour-like platforming is quite difficult, especially combined with the unique controls, but doing so successfully is very satisfying. The assassinations proper involves lots of planning, and escaping thereafter with the alarm bells ringing is exhilarating.
The detailed environment is immersive, with lots of cultural and historical details, combined with just enough fiction to not be too offensive to any of the cultures involved. On one hand this level of detail seems unnecessary to the gameplay, on the other hand it is so well crafted that it cannot be ignored. The historical back and forth with the inclusion of various fictional conspiracy theories was brilliantly written, and the abrupt ending of the first game that continues immediately in the second was perfectly executed.
With the success of the first game, Ubisoft got ambitious. The sequel AC II is in all aspects better that the first game, and many consider it a classic video game. From there though, the pace started to get a bit hectic. Once game would be released per year, often with another studio building the “minor” sequel (AC Revelations, AC Rogue, AC Chronicles, AC Syndicate, let alone mobile games) while the main Montréal studio would work on the following “major” sequel (AC Brotherhood, AC III, AC IV, AC Unity). The minor instances would obviously remain close to the previous game’s engine, with only a few gimmicks, which the major instances would have heavy engine rewrites, bringing in new innovations and lots, lots of bugs.
Starting with AC III, the game’s design quickly aimed for a more casual audience, with a simplification of the game controls and making the platforming more “automated”, at the cost of less and less player agency, meaning those cool parcour jumps are pretty much automated. The “current day” aspect of the story catches up with the 2012-inspired consipiracies with AC III, and goes through a story shift where not only nearly all conspiracies are revealed, but the current day story became quickly irrelevant and abandoned in the rest of the series. Compared to the more open exploration of the previous games, AC III focuses so much on its (rather subpar and pretentious) story that it ends up feeling like an endless sequence of linear missions and condescending tutorials.
AC II introduced DLCs, AC III introduced the “season pass” with a whole side story sequence, AC Unity introduced co-op and dubious online connectivity requirements, plus in-game currency and micro transactions. All those extra missions and season pass stories are generally outsourced, of lower quality than the main game. Each game had more and more “side things”, from simply collecting items you find on the map, to strategy games with a real-time clock (to be used with the now unavailable iOS apps), to the out-of-place boat missions shoved in AC III, to the absolutely horrible tower defence game of AC Revelations. Getting 100% completion (“100% synchronization”) in those games is a gigantic waste of time. By AC Unity and AC Syndicate, game bugs and other modern gaming crap is now pretty much the norm. There are still quite of lot of fun elements, but the annoying parts that were charming due to a lack of experience in the early games were replaced with corporate greedy crap in the later games.
And yet, the art direction remained absolutely spectacular, unmatched by any video game I’ve ever played. The environments are beautiful, the music exquisite, with great homage and attention to the historical context. The virtual historical tourism of the Assassin’s Creed games almost cancels out all the gameplay and technical issues. And in the case of AC II and AC IV, the games are actually quite fun too, hence why those 2 games are so highly praised. For the other games, unless you really enjoy walking around those virtual historical towns and experiencing the locale’s population, sounds and music, they are not worth the effort.
So, yeah, play AC, AC II and AC IV (and maybe AC Syndicate), forget about all those DLCs and season passes (even if you get them for free), and read online the missing story bits from AC Brotherhood, AC Revelations and AC III. Oh, and skip the movie.