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The Evolution of Assassin’s Creed

/ Oct 26th, 2012 5 Comments

Assassin's Creed 3
Assassin's Creed 3

Assassin’s Creed 3

The Assassin’s Creed series holds a special place in my heart.  On Black Friday of 2007 I spent months’ worth of hard-earned money on a PlayStation 3, but was too poor to buy a game.  Weeks later I had finally saved up the sixty dollars to purchase a game but couldn’t decide what my first choice would be.  Would it be Modern Warfare 4?  Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune?  Ratchet and Clank?  After what seemed like forever I finally decided on Assassin’s Creed.  It was the first game I bought for my PlayStation 3 and, consequently, was my introduction into the current generation of games.

Why Assassin’s Creed, though?  Out of all those critically acclaimed games why would anyone want to choose a game that received a great deal of mixed reviews and was deemed repetitive by many outlets?  The reason is quite simple, really.  Since the game’s reveal in 2006 it was seen as the title that would be the first definitive “next-gen” experience.  The famous E3 trailer and gameplay demo showed us something never quite seen in a video game.  Created by Ubisoft Montreal—the renowned team behind Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time—Assassin’s Creed promised stealth assassinations akin to Splinter Cell, the fluid acrobatics of Sands of Time, and a beautifully rendered open world taking place during the Third Crusade.  Realistic crowd control?  Climb up and around any surface?  Kill people with a hidden wrist blade?  Sold!

An Assassin Born

[adsense250itp]Despite every negative thing I had read about having to “research” assassination targets and repeat tasks, I couldn’t help myself.  When I purchased Assassin’s Creed I was a senior in college, finished with finals, and on the verge of Christmas break.  With no commitments I spent days doing nothing but playing.  I jumped off of tall buildings into haystacks.  I collected flags that had no purpose.  To get as much information as possible on assassination targets I repeated the mundane tasks of eavesdropping, pickpocketing, and beating up people.  Obviously I was biased because I loved it.  Looking back on the game I realized how hollow most of the actual gameplay of Assassin’s Creed was.  Across all the assassinations there literally was no variety and you only had to do a few certain tasks before you could finally assassinate a person.  Because of this, the game could be completed in a few short hours if you were persistent enough.  As repetitive and bland as it truly was, the game was a blast.  I loved it because, at the time, it felt so new and held so much promise.  I was playing the next generation of gaming, how could you beat that?

Assassin's Creed

Assassin’s Creed 1 was flawed but innovative

The best part about the first Assassin’s Creed was the plot. The first entry of the game had an order of assassins, the Crusades, the Templars, and…genetic memory?  Even in its early stages of development, people were intrigued about the futuristic element hinted at in videos.  Even though Kristen Bell let that part of the plot slip about a year too early (and even though it was revealed minutes into the actual game), the idea of the Animus and its ability to let people relive events from their ancestors’ past was golden.  Maybe Desmond himself seemed a little one-note, but the small hints about Abstergo and the outside world peppered throughout the present day sequences instilled Assassin’s Creed with a genuine lore—something you wanted to know more about.  While the struggles of Altair weren’t that thrilling for me, I still felt invested in the story Ubisoft crafted in a time period I knew little about.

The Renaissance and an Assassin’s Evolution

Two years was a long time to wait for Assassin’s Creed 2, especially after the crazy final moments of the first game.  It was an even longer wait for those curious to see if the issues from the first game could be fixed.  Without any notion of hyperbole, Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of the finest sequels in gaming and managed to create an impeccably refined system that fully realized the promise put forth in 2006.

The Animus became the perfect “get out of jail free card” because the developers could literally place the game in any time period they wanted and have an assassin embroiled in any historic events of their choosing.  For the second installment, the Italian Renaissance was not only representative of the change in time and scenery but also in the evolution of the gameplay.  Suddenly you were Ezio Auditore, playing him from birth to his growth into an assassin.  Then new things started happening.  A monetary system was introduced where players could buy items, weapons, and armor.  Armor could be damaged, repaired, and upgraded.  Different weapon classes were introduced with different statistics like speed and damage.  Eventually your family villa was introduced and you could upgrade it.  The villa became a home away from home where you collected money from the game’s economy, looked at your art and weapon collection, or trained your combat skills.  Combat in the game was overhauled; instead of just killing and dodging, you had different moves that made you feel deadly no matter how many opponents you faced.

Perhaps the biggest triumph was that the game no longer felt linear.  Though this was the second Assassin’s Creed game, it practically felt like a new title.  Gone were the rigid standards of how to take out a target.  You could hire groups to blend in with and get in close for the kill or you could poison your target and simply walk away.  The game felt less linear with this new freedom.  Even if Assassin’s Creed 2 just had these changes it still would have been a solid game.  However, it was transformed when you realized how much there was to do aside from just killing people and advancing the plot.  The notoriety system kept you on your toes and always mindful of never being too high profile.  Hidden locations and catacombs were scattered throughout the world.  These areas were a chance to show off how acrobatic Ezio was and always rewarded you with a nice prize.  To me, though, none of these things compared to the Subject 16/The Truth puzzles—quite possibly one of my favorite elements of any game, ever.  Subject 16 was the man who came before Desmond and he left little “notes” in the Animus that revealed tiny bits of information on the Templars and Abstergo.  The Subject 16 puzzles usually involved a famous symbol, piece of art, or photograph from history and you had to decode them.  At first the puzzles were easy to solve but grew increasingly difficult and abstract.  Not only were they fun to solve but they contained information about the Templars’ involvement throughout human history and the mythic “Pieces of Eden.”  Slowly, a story began to emerge; and with each puzzle solved it unlocked a small segment of a video clip called “The Truth” which revealed a chilling truth about human history that the game had been hinting at.  Not only did these puzzles open the floodgates of how the Assassin’s Creed universe and lore affects human history but they gave you a reason to keep playing, just so you could unlock that next puzzle.  The team also wasn’t quick to abandon Altair because Ezio could also discover pieces of Altair’s codex—a journal of sorts that gave some insight into the first protagonist.

Assassin's Creed 2

Assassin’s Creed 2 was praised for its improvements

Ezio’s story in Assassin’s Creed 2 was full of betrayal and loss. The fact that it allowed us to gradually become a master assassin was one of its biggest strengths.  It was also helped by a great cast of secondary characters including Leonardo da Vinci and the Pope.  However, it was the way the past and future elements were seamlessly blended together that made the story truly shine.  I don’t know when it happened, but someone at Ubisoft Montreal finally realized that they had an entire universe on their hands.  This universe was filled with so many moments in history that were ripe for the picking.  Though it was only hinted at in the first game, Assassin’s Creed 2 truly felt big.  It was a game that knew how much it could offer players and it never buckled under the weight of that pressure.

The Assassins Start a Fraternity

It was probably due to the success of the second game that Ubisoft milked two more games out of Ezio’s story.  Story wise, Brotherhood continued the plot in a great direction while adding more questions than answers.  The game itself did feel a bit smaller even though new elements were incorporated.  Brotherhood carried over the economy and region development but did it in one main map.  While Rome itself had several districts, only a few were densely populated.  There were still secrets to collect everywhere which gave players a reason to scour every edge of the map.  Probably the biggest addition to the game was the ability to recruit assassins.  Ezio was able to recruit assassins, send them on missions across Europe in a little mini-game, and eventually use them to help out during combat.  If you were lazy, you could actually use your recruits to do all the work for you and kill targets.  Brotherhood gave you side objectives in missions to achieve 100% memory sync.  Often these objectives would require you to complete the mission in a certain amount of time, remain unseen, or even without losing health.  It gave you incentive to play missions again in order to feel like a true assassin.

Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

Brotherhood’s multiplayer was surprisingly fun

What Brotherhood might be remembered the most for, however, is its introduction of multiplayer.  Many were hesitant at the announcement of multiplayer because around this time it felt like every game was tacking on multiplayer.  As jaded as most were to the idea, Brotherhood’s multiplayer was quite refreshing.  It maintained what actually made Assassin’s Creed good and translated it surprisingly well into the online sphere.  More importantly, though, it was fun.  Regardless of the positives, Brotherhood was a double-edged sword.  In one way, it was a smaller game that didn’t encapsulate that “newness” and “bigness” of its predecessor.  What it managed to do well was to show that the series had life in it and could evolve into something different but similar.

An Assassin’s End

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations wasn’t a surprise for anyone.  There was no way the series was just going to wrap up Ezio’s and Desmond’s story the way it did.  The biggest surprise was that Ezio was actually going to be pretty old in this game.  Well, it worked for Solid Snake so why not here?  Revelations was deemed as the final story in Ezio’s journey; it was also going to tie up any loose ends with Altair and answer a lot of burning questions.  Revelations actually showed that the gameplay and the engine were beginning to show their age.  While all the new weapons and gadgets were appreciated in Assassin’s Creed 2, they felt a bit superfluous in Brotherhood.  No one really needed that many weapons of the same type that barely had any noticeable differences.  These games focused on quick and deadly combat and the animations only changed with different weapon classes.  Revelations continued this trend by adding bombs on top of everything.  To be honest, the bomb crafting system in Revelations was a blast (slight pun intended) because it allowed for some creative methods of dispatching and sneaking around guards.  That being said, it didn’t stop me from feeling bad that I had no use for the multitudes of weapons and other things I could use.  Maybe Ubisoft just wanted to give players as many options as they could when it came to killing.  If that is the case, then great, but it doesn’t change the fact that they felt unnecessary.

Part of Revelation’s plot revolves around Ezio and his involvement with the assassin’s guild in Constantinople (and a cute romance sub-plot).  Here the historical plot really does take a backseat to the real meat of what’s going on: Ezio is searching for keys to unlock Altair’s library and learn the truth of the assassins, the “First Civilization”, and Desmond.  This is the reason to be invested in seeing Revelations all the way through.  I won’t lie, I wasn’t too concerned with the historical plot but as the journey came to an end for both Ezio and Altair, I got a little teary-eyed.  Maybe this is the biggest strength of the Assassin’s Creed series as a whole.  Though a game isn’t as great as its predecessors, you still are completely invested in the characters and a story that you want to see it through.

Assassin's Creed Revelations

Ezio and Altair had good sendoffs in Revelations

Yet again Ubisoft was willing to show that it would try something new and experiment with mechanics, even if it they didn’t feel right.  This can be said for the “tower defense” mini-game that made many scratch their heads.  In concept, it was an okay idea but suffered from mediocre execution.  It just wasn’t fleshed out enough and it’s doubtful it will ever return.  What worked for me, though, were the first-person Desmond sequences.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I enjoyed these puzzles that helped you dive into Desmond’s past.  If anything, Ubisoft was trying to be poetic and figurative with their storytelling and they pulled it off with a decent amount of success.  Who could forget the multiplayer?  It was expanded upon, improved, and actually contained a bit of a story line from Abstergo’s perspective.  It was nice to see that the multiplayer didn’t suffer from a cut-and-paste execution and was more fun to play than in Brotherhood.

Now, Assassin’s Creed 3 is upon us.  If what Ubisoft has said is true, this is going to be the biggest and best entry in the series yet.  Not only has it been in development since early 2010 but it is using a new engine that was built from the ground up.  Assassin’s Creed is truly a series obsessed with evolving.  It has aged and evolved along with this generation to become one of the most recognizable franchises in gaming.  My history with the game runs deep and I wasn’t too infatuated to recognize the flaws of the first installment.  Anyone can tell you that Assassin’s Creed 2 more than made up for the sins of the first game.  While Ezio’s story became slightly staler with each game and the gameplay got increasingly overworked, the overarching plot of the series had continued to intrigue.  When October 30 comes around and gamers are finally given control over Connor as he takes on the American Revolution, I think they will be in for a treat.  Will this be Desmond’s swan song?  Who knows.  Will the game be bogged down by excessive mechanics like past entries?  Quite possibly.  What’s certain, though, is that Assassin’s Creed 3 is built on the foundations of an ever-evolving series that over time has captivated millions of gamers—and that’s something to be excited about.

Ben Sheene

Ben Sheene

Senior Editor at Gaming Illustrated
Ben is from Kentucky where he originally began playing games (an activity he still continues to this day). With a love for writing he graduated from Centre College with a BA in English. He recently moved to California to pursue whatever future endeavors were there. A passion for music, gaming, blogging, and existing keeps him up at night and crafts him into the person he is today.
Ben Sheene

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