Assassin’s Creed you great big enigma, I have such mixed feelings about you. With romping around the Holy Land back in 2007, you introduced yourself as an exciting and innovative title, just when consoles needed it. The follow-up was one of the best games of the previous generation, a stone-cold GOTY contender for most. Since then, the output has been much less consistent. Mindblowing CGI trailers with cracking soundtracks failed to hide the ageing engine and creaking gameplay of the later titles. Highs on the high seas with Black Flag countered the universal disappointment of ACIII. All this wrapped in a mishandled meta-narrative that I still can’t decide whether it’s engrossing genius or utter nonsense.
Perhaps the thing that has coloured the series in recent years is the yearly release cycle. Whilst many don’t like the sacrifices this can lead to in innovation and quality, it does mean that a lot of ideas don’t make the final cut, which is exactly where we come in. Here are 5 things that Ezio and co. didn’t get to slip that hidden blade into.
1. Knowing your assassin from your elbow
For all the hidden blades, poison darts, smoke bombs and other stealthy distractions, the main thing you will do in most AC games is standing in the middle of a circle of enemies who are taking turns to swing at you – throwing stealth out the window in favour of a vastly overpowered/broken counter kill system. Sure, there are the sections where “thou shalt not get caught”, otherwise known as the “tedious insta game-over” that completely destroys any sense of an open world, but those sections are the least fun of all.
This wasn’t always the state of play though; plans were in place during development of AC:Brotherhood to introduce a mechanic whereby if you were surrounded by four or more enemies they would form an unescapable cordon. Your job was to manoeuvre yourself or your enemies to prevent this from happening (or otherwise escape). Once formed, all of your enemies would strike at the same time, leading you to look like that poor mutt who tried to eat a porcupine (I won’t link it – just think… pin cushion).
Dropped when: the AI devs took an early lunch and decided that soldiers probably wouldn’t ever try and co-ordinate attacks when faced by a genocidal Italian.
2. Time for a character assassination
For a game with the simplest of premises: Templars bad, Assassins good, the plot of the AC franchises is ludicrously complicated. My theory on this particular paradox is that the narrative is designed to paper over the rather large crack that is the complete absence of any interesting protagonists. I was thinking about how to write about the boring brotherhood and came to the conclusion that only alliteration would save me from falling asleep halfway through. Note – all are men until Syndicate, and no, I don’t count the spin-offs because no one does.
So in order you have:
- Desmond the dumbfounded douche
- Altair the argumentative asshole
- Ezio the European excitement-sponge
- Connor the charisma-vaccum
- Shay Cormac, the shifty shyster
- Arno, not you, anyone but you
You may notice the conspicuous absence of pirate-bothering arch murdere Edward Kenway. For me he’s the most interesting of the lot, though not really a bonifide assassin and either way, the exception that proves the tedious rule. Ubisoft are so aware of this issues that for Syndicate they’ve drafted in two characters in the hope that between them they can be interesting enough to fill the hole of the protagonist. Considering how boring the assassins are, I occasionally find myself willing the Templars to win. The sad thing is, it seems that interesting characters were only on the menu for the briefest time.
Dropped when: now I don’t want to say that to entertain anyone you have to offend someone, but this disclaimer tells you everything you need to know about the anodyne characters in the game. I’m not sure how much help uplay are going to offer in this department either.
3. Killing innovation
I’m going to put my hands up right now when I say that I understand the concept, if it aint broke, don’t fix it (something Stuart Lancaster could have learned before the world cup, amiright rugby fans?! Sorry, I digress). To analogise this point, if I buy my other half a puppy for her birthday and it goes down a treat, Christmas is an absolute shoe-in, I’ll buy another puppy. Two puppies is manageable and we will have learned from our mistakes from the first so the second will be even better trained*. However, and this is important, you cannot keep introducing puppies into the household on a yearly basis. It will be messy, noisy and the training only half finished. Eventually the newer puppies will start to tarnish the memories of the original puppies, even though there is little difference between them.
*And grant me a free pass to play Fallout 4 for a few weeks non-stop. Good lord is that a great game.
So too with the production cycle for the AC games. Every year an increasingly tired product is released alienating more of the fanbase. Arguably, the only real innovation since ACII was the inclusion of naval-gazing warfare, which is tantamount to me switching it up on valentines and buying a snake (side note, would be an interesting experiment to see how a snake fits into the puppy dynamic).
It wasn’t always supposed to be like this. The annualisation of franchises, learned mostly from the successes of certain sports franchises, was actually chosen in favour of open world, procedurally generated storylines in which random events would dictate not only the story, but the length of the game. The game would constantly evolve after your actions and new targets would emerge in the course of a playthrough to help keep players engaged during a longer development cycle that lead to a revolutionary new game.
Dropped when: Gamestop and BestBuy couldn’t agree on the exclusive clothing packs for their bespoke pre-order editions. A vastly more frequent release schedule was used as a compromise.
It doesn’t matter which protagonist you are playing as when it comes to the next festive that didn’t make it. Whether you’re in the holy lands or the high seas, one thing that dogs you through the AC experience is a currency that won’t quit. Earning money in game is obviously not exclusive to AC, however, I’m talking here about how you spend those hard gotten gains.
In almost every entry into the canon you work your fingers to the bone, stabbing, jumping and otherwise counter-killing your way through a vibrant city. The one thing this city lacks is anything meaningful to spend your money on. The aesthetic purchases seem to be aimed at the sort of person labours over Uplay points to see which old Altair hat they can buy (spoilers: this is no one) and have no effect whatsoever on your experience. A lot of the time it’s tough to tell even the visual difference between one stabby implement and the next. Your other option is to buy things that help you earn more money, that you spend on more nonsense like buying vases (I ask you!).Again, Black Flag offer us an exception to this with the ship upgrade system but the pedant in me is forced to clear his throat… ahem, not very assassin is it? he burbles.
The arbitrary cash-sponges in each game were initially replaced by something even worse. The AC universe paints history in it’s most family friendly light. However, if a aspiring Assassin wanted to chart an area, rather than climb the nearest tower, risking life and limb, he would have simply paid a member of the working class to do it at a greatly undervalued price. So too in the Creed. Initially, thousands of chimney sweeps and ne’er-do-wells would litter the streets offering to execute the more mundane missions (read: eavesdropping) for you. You would establish a network of youths who became your eyes, ears, and (for the sake of console players) thumbs.
Dropped when: Ubisoft saw the potential in this and decided to take out the rights on “Oliver, the videogame” in which you would play as Fagin or the Artful Dodger building a criminal empire. Sadly this was pulled when it was revealed that in action games people prefer to play them, rather than pay people to play for them making pay-to-win micro-transaction controversies even more mind-boggling.
5. The beginning is nigh
Where better to finish than the start? To paraphrase Neitzche as I so often like to do: “stare into the intro, and the intro looks terrible given the overall project budgets”. As you may have picked up over the course of this article, dear reader, I have a very love-hate relationship with this titan of modern gaming. What this translates to in recent years is a keenness to play the first hour of the game to see if it’s different/new/interesting/cool enough to warrant another chunk of my time. I’ve platinumed three of the titles perhaps proving that I have invested heavily when fun was to be had. Either that, or I’m a glutton for punishment.
Now, judging by the incredibly lush and exciting CGI trailers, Ubisoft understands the need to build hype around their games. Sadly, for many of them, the hype building ends precisely as you press the any button to first launch each game. Whether it’s the drawn out framing narrative of the first game, or the drawn out framing narrative of the second game, or the drawn our framing narra… oh you get the point. I do have a soft spot for the meta-nonsense I mentioned earlier, but it has no place at all at the front of the game. For a game about sneaking and stabbing, it takes a long time to get to the point.
Dropped when: I booted up my copy of Unity to be thrown into an exciting castle battle. Superb, they’ve cracked it! I’m now sucked in. A magical sword… Cool! Uh oh. Exposition alert – oh no, the meta-narrative has jumped in. I’ll forgive that. Now to the real game. I’m playing kiss-chase as a child? What’s the meaning of this. Oh for crying out loud, have they learned nothing from how boring young Connor sections were in ACIII? Screw this I’m playing Wolfenstein.
What did you think of that friend? Have you fallen out of love with Desmond and his extended family, or are you a slovenly AC apologist. Either way, sound off in the comments and let us know what game you want us to cover next.
Disclosure: This article is based on absolutely no solid fact, sadly the gene sequencing equipment we used to delve into developers memories only turned up episodes of the Simpsons from season 4. No eavesdropping or pickpocketing form any of the detail above. So it’s best, ignored, forgotten, or otherwise scorned. See you next time.