In 2007, Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed: a game whose franchise would form one of the pillars of their future success. It was quite a novel idea: take an action adventure game with some fantastic ideas about alternate history, and then craft an interesting Sci-Fi-esque story that frames the entire experience. To be honest, while the first Assassin’s Creed title had some issues in terms of gameplay and difficulty, the seeds of an expansive, nuanced and infinitely varied franchise had been planted. The only thing they had to do was to try not to milk the franchise too quickly, otherwise fatigue would set in, and the formula would get stale.
By the time Assassin’s Creed: Origins was set to come out, Ubisoft had milked the franchise too quickly, fatigue had set in, and the formula had gotten stale. This tends to happen after nine major releases, ten spin-offs and a handful of mobile titles in less than ten years, but this poor publisher’s gotta make money, after all. Ubisoft had a cunning plan, though: they would overhaul the franchise from the ground up. Gone were the counter combats of yesteryear, the dense cities of modern civilizations and that pesky business of Templars and Assassins being more or less two sides of the same coin. Strip it back, let the gameplay do the talking, and hang the story at the gallows.
In all honesty, it worked, in a short term kind of way. With Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey on the horizon, however, the ploy seems less like a rejuvenation of the franchise and more of a case of throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. There was a period when the Assassin’s Creed series had a style and panache that wasn’t perfect, but it was certainly unique.
To talk about how Assassin’s Creed lost its way, we need to think about where exactly it did it. So let’s talk about Assassin’s Creed: Revelations.
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is probably my favorite of the series. It fits like an old warm sweater, having the controls and gameplay that I am used to having, while adding some unobtrusive things to the mix to keep it vaguely newish. They also brought the story of two protagonists to a definitive close: the tales of Altair and Ezio, brought together by historical revisionism and the replaying of their memories by Desmond, finally get laid to rest to move on to more exciting things. It also doesn’t help that the area that is Constantinople is delightfully warm and inviting to explore, and having somewhere that isn’t exactly the most conventional area to set an Assassin’s Creed game is a refreshing change of pace.
Yet with my love of this game, I cannot deny that it is a flawed beast. I was relieved to finish Assassin’s Creed: Revelations because it was the point where these stories needed to end. After this, there was an overwhelming pressure on Ubisoft to change up the formula. There was something wearing thin around the edges: where once Ezio had to use strategy and cunning in his youth, his old age showed his reliance on gadgets and trickery, as well as a mean left hook, to see his mission through to the end. He is a veteran, with all the acumen and confidence that being a master assassin affords him. But it feels like we are seeing Ezio at his most proficient, his most powerful – and almost too powerful to boot. It makes the game’s combat too easy; less about the cunning and challenge of yesteryear, and more about simply power tripping through generic soldier models.
I did mention previously that Constantinople was a unique and interesting place to hold an Assassin’s Creed game, and it is genuinely disappointing that they did not put the level of detail into the ancient city that they did into future iterations of the franchise. Constantinople’s allure is only skin deep, with the gears of previous Assassin’s Creed games turning beneath the surface. It is a different and distinct coat of paint, made lively by the work of the art directors, but it is simply a palette swap of the stuff that had come before it. I could get swept up in the warmth of the city if it had just something more substantial flowing through its streets. The Den Defences, for all of the criticism, were an interesting concept, but between the tacky tower defense mechanics and the smattering of miscellaneous “collectibles” and side missions that eventually render the task obsolete, it fell by the wayside.
So what does my love of a game widely considered average have to do with an upcoming Ubisoft sandbox? It boils down to what Assassin’s Creed: Revelations had, and what it appears the modern Assassin’s Creed titles – both Origins and Odyssey – lacks: vision. In the first five major installments of the franchise, the games had a goal and a story that they wanted to tell, and despite some of the pitfalls – and the entirety of Assassin’s Creed III being a boring slog – they ultimately succeeded in cementing the tale of Desmond, and the core of the struggle between the assassins and Templars. While games afterwards have interrogated the core of this premise, with III, IV and Rogue allowing the player to take the reins of the proclaimed “bad guys”, and Syndicate blurring the fundamental lines between assassins and Templars, there was never any concurrent thread beyond putting the character in different historical areas and letting them run wild.
Every video game franchise that remains within the public eye for an extended period of time needs to have some sort of staying power. The best of these are the ones that can mix up the finer points, while keeping the core of the experience fresh and exciting. Mario, Wolfenstein, Final Fantasy – these are all franchises that have mixed up the experience a little with every passing iteration, and remain successful for it. The initial downfall for Assassin’s Creed came when these changes were merely cosmetic. There was nothing inherently different between Ezio, Connor, Arno or Jacob/Evie Frye from a gameplay perspective, despite between radically different people spanning five centuries of human history. So if the people aren’t changing, and the series isn’t changing, I could not care less where we go. It is still the same game, repackaged and remarketed as the “safe” option that a game could take.
And now we have Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, trying to launch itself off of the success that Origins made. And for all of the success of Origins, what did it actually do? I struggle to find myself remembering anything largely noteworthy about the plot or the mechanics of the game, except for the eagle – I can critique this game forever and still maintain that Bayek’s bird is a total boss. Small innovations cannot save a franchise that is lost, though, and Origins had a kitchen sink mentality to it. Ship combat? That’s what made IV noteworthy and successful. Dark Souls combat? People seem to like that rather than our unique take on combat, so chuck it in. Loot systems with ever increasing incremental values? Small victories over large ones, say the pundits, and they hoof that in too. It is a homogenization of what once was inspiring and innovative. Something was lost here, and while there is an inkling of what it could be there, I am too blinded by the glitz of the Egyptian “playground” to see it.
Over the course of writing this article, I find myself less and less accepting of the latter two Assassin’s Creed games because they lack the confidence to find what they want to do. Origins, for all of its cosmetic delights, was a game that boiled down to a distraction. There was no “origin” of the franchise other than a handful of contrived circumstances that boiled down to people following a dude. An arc like that could have been handled with more gravitas and depth, instead of thrown into a game where your primary entertainment was “play around in Egypt and have a grand old time.” Odyssey looks to be the same sort of game that foregoes any premise of telling its own story and just leaves the players to dick around and make their own plot, even going so far as to add multiple endings for the chronologically earliest entry in the series, for all the sense that makes.
I just want a story told in an historical setting that is satisfying on more than a cosmetic level. I am sick to death of the notion that success comes from allowing the players to find their own successes. The older Assassin’s Creed titles look to us now like they were following an old template, but beneath it all was the confidence that you could potentially not like what they were giving you, instead of having a catch-all for everybody to enjoy. With Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft has lost the confidence to fail, and is doing everything in its power to make sure that it caters to everybody’s needs. Of course, if you cater to everyone, so much of your attention and effort is divided that everyone may be happy, but no one is truly blown away. In a series with as much ammunition as Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft’s inability to blow me away is a true disappointment – to the point where I hope that I am wrong about my predictions on Odyssey so that I can have a truly enriching experience in this franchise again.