Assassin’s Creed: From Innovation To Generic Sandboxes & Corporate Greed

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I remember unboxing my Xbox 360 all the way back in in the beginning of 2008. I couldn’t wait to plug the damn thing in and start up Halo 3. I remember rushing to the living room with my cousins and playing that game the entire night. It wasn’t until we were about to go to bed that one of my cousins noticed that I had another game that I hadn’t opened yet.

“What’s this?” He asked. And I said that it was some game that my dads’ friend gave me. He asked if we could try it. And even though our moms were breathing down our necks to go to bed, we asked to stay up just a little longer to play it. The game was Assassin’s Creed.

I had no idea what this game was. And it wasn’t until I saw the developers name show on the screen that I actually got excited. Ubisoft. Sure, we hear that name now and bile starts creeping up our throats, and our eyes fill with rage. But there was a time where that name would bring a glimmer to my eyes. Having been such a huge fan of the Prince of Persia series, I was stunned that I had no idea about this Assassins Creed game. The game started and my cousin and I were blown away. From the opening cinematic to the opening moments of the game, I was hooked. Not only was the 14 year old me amazed by the graphics, but how much the gameplay had improved over the Prince of Persia games. From the climbing mechanics, to the parkour, to the combat. It was like the Prince of Persia game I had dreamt of. Not to mention the narrative had so much more style and depth. Altair was an intriguing character, and his connection to Desmond and the conflicts with the Templars was all so fascinating to the tall, lanky, and acne riddled teenager me.

Though admittedly, after about 6 hours into the game, the veneer did somewhat fade. I began to realize the inconsistencies in the narrative, some of the mechanical drawbacks in the gameplay, especially the combat; but regardless, I feel that most games we played for the first time around the beginning of the 360/PS3 era, wearing our new HD glasses of ours, gave us that same feeling of awe as HD graphical fidelity was all the roar.

A couple years later Assassins Creed 2 came out, and this time, Ubisoft nailed it.

Assassins Creed 2 was the first game I felt where I was truly transported to a fictional world. I was no longer relying on my imagination to fill in the visual gaps of Video Games. No, I was there. In Venice, Tuscany, and Florence. During the height of the Italian Renaissance. Playing as Ezio Auditore Firenze. Assassins Creed 2 was alive. It had style, flare, and breadth. It’s protagonist was personable, and full of energy. The characters had depth, motive, and complexities. Missions were varied. The combat and traversal mechanics were sped up and had new variations. Weapons and outfits could be customized. Heck there was even a property business you could run. There was so much to do, and everything simply blended so perfectly together with the locations and time period the game took place in.

I loved Assassins Creed 2. But it was here where Ubisoft started seeing those big dollar signs in the clouds, and where the executives of the company saw the opportunity to make such a rich and vibrant game series, into an udder bleeding cash cow.

I played Assassins Creed 2 in the early Spring of 2010, a couple months after its release. I took my time with it, and finished it a couple months later in late April, early May. And only mere months later did I start hearing about a new game in the works. Assassins Creed: Brotherhood. I was confused, but at the same time excited. I couldn’t imagine Ubisoft releasing another game so quickly, and in my mind it didn’t even make sense. “How could they make a game like this in just one year?” I asked myself. But regardless, I was excited. So when Assassins Creed: Brotherhood came out; I jumped and bought it in its first week of release. And in just a couple hours, I realized that this wasn’t the same game. I mean, okay that’s a little dramatic. It was, but there was definitely something missing. There was a lack of immersion. From the tone, atmosphere, music, and overall narrative, it wasn’t what I felt in Assassins Creed 2. After realizing that Ubisoft intentionally wanted to try something different with this game, and focus more on multiplayer rather than its Single player, and to test out different mechanics, some of which were actually quite good, I gave it a pass and hoped that the next game would be the one I was looking for.

I was hoping that this was simply a misstep, and possibly a necessary game to test the waters and try some new things, and that in few years we’d get Assassins Creed 3, which would give me the same feeling I got in the second game. Fast forward a year, and Ubisoft slams yet another game in our faces.

Assassins Creed Revelations came out in the fall of 2011, and it was the third year in a row that an Assassins game had come out. Though I was more skeptical and my brows furrowed stronger with this game, I still kept a sliver of hope. Revelations wasn’t a bad game by any means. I’d actually say that it was better than Brotherhood in terms of its narrative. It showed a different side to Ezio, and its tone was definitely darker. Thinking more about it, it was probably the most complex game in terms of characters and themes. And it definitely struck a stronger chord with me emotionally. But even so, the gameplay didn’t evolve. And there were a few things like the awful tower defense mini games that were simply unnecessary. Though it did have the narrative tones I was looking for, it still didn’t feel like a game that had evolved from a gameplay aspect.

Revelations was the game that made me tell myself to stop buying Assassin Creed games. Not because it was bad, but because I had finally become fatigued.

But, because I’m a consumerist pig, and simply can’t keep my word when it comes to Video Games, a year later I bought Assassin’s Creed 3. And you know what? I liked it. Call me a contrarian, call me whatever you want; but I don’t understand why people jump on this game so much. It was no Assassin’s Creed 2, but it was fine. The setting was a nice change of pace, hunting was an added, Far Cry type deal that added some nuance. And though the protagonist was surely no Ezio, he wasn’t terrible. It was the most bare-bones Assassin’s Creed game. And it was here where I started treating this series like what it had become – an annual triple A blockbuster release title – Just a product that you know is coming, you know is going to offer you the same experience but with a couple different quirks. It’s not bad, it’s not great. It’s there, and it’s comfortable. And when I realized that this was how I was playing Assassin’s Creed 3, I realized how far Ubisoft had taken this franchise from where it used to be. And the sad part was, I didn’t really care.

Video games had evolved so much since Assassin’s Creed 2. Games like Red Dead, Skyrim, Mass Effect, were all examples of games that I could get lost in. That were complex and huge. That evolved not only in their narrative, but with their gameplay. Games were starting to play better, and feel better. They were starting to feel like how games used to play during the 16 bit era. Fluid controls and animations. Perfecting gameplay in a 3D environment. Not to mention narratives that were interesting and characters that were emotionally grounded and real. The industry was moving forward. But Assassins Creed wasn’t. It had become yet another generic open world sandbox game, with superficial, repetitive mission structures, unintuitive controls, and a lack of overall polish. The games became a dull, drab, collect-a-thon, with a bunch of icons on the map that was a laughably poor excuse for extending content.

So with that, I was finally done with the series. And I actually kept my word this time.

I looked past Black Flag, even though the reviews for it were better and the gameplay did seem to pull some new tricks. But even so, just by looking at gameplay footage, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a new experience. And I won’t even mention the handheld and mobile spin-offs as for me, they might as well not exist; but is another example of corporate greed leading to an abysmal over-saturation of a franchise.

Ubisoft’s Vice President put the company’s thoughts on annual releases clearly:

We are able to offer people a new Assassins Creed every year because they want Assassins Creed every year….

And that my friends is exactly what happened. When we the public can’t speak with our wallets, this is exactly what happens.

The year after Black Flag came Unity…and…well…yeah, I think it’s best we don’t talk about Unity.

Then the series shifted into a more modern era. Assassin’s Creed went into the genre that seemed completely cliché, Steampunk England. However, it seemed that Syndicate was the first game in a long time that truly felt fresh and new. Sure it had many of the long-running Assassin’s Creed tropes, but it felt more nuanced. You could play as two different characters this time, and for the first time ever, one of them was a woman. But regardless, Syndicate was the first game that saw a sizeable dip in sales numbers for the franchise. It was the first time that majority of people jumped off the Assassin’s Creed train. And even though I have yet to play Syndicate, I’ve heard from many reviewers that I wholeheartedly trust when they say that it was a shame, because Syndicate was actually a good game. Sometimes even great.

But maybe it was for the best. Because that dip in sales was finally enough for Ubisoft to take the hint and take a year off.

Honestly, I kinda wish that they’d take a couple more years off. It’s not like the company’s struggling financially. Ghost Recon Wildlands for some weird reason is 2017’s best-selling game so far. And they have other long running IP’s like Far Cry and Watch Dogs, and other multiplayer heavy games like For Honor to keep them going.

If it was up to me I wouldn’t release a new Assassin’s game at least until 2019. Heck I’d even wait for the next generation of consoles.

The franchise is tired. People know what it’s about. Even if the next Assassin’s game that’s going to come out this year is going to be a complete re-design; I really doubt it’s going to be enough. Heck they’re still going to be using the Anvil engine for the game. And clearly the Anvil engine hasn’t aged well. Sure they’ve tweaked and upgraded it, but even looking at Ubisoft’s most recent titles like For Honor and Wildlands, you can see that there’s clearly a disconnect that doesn’t make these games feel like what a next gen game should be. And it’s still playing catch-up with other triple A titles like Horizon, Uncharted, and even Doom when it comes to graphics and overall visuals. How many times have we seen downgrades from Ubisoft games? Even a good Ubisoft game like Watch Dogs 2 still doesn’t compare visually to many other recent titles.

It’s really unfortunate. Assassin’s Creed really could have been a series to go down in history. If the first game, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Revelations were the only games that existed in the franchise; Revelations being renamed as the official 3rd installment, and they released in 2007, 2009, and 2012, respectively; then this would have been considered one of the best trilogies in gaming history. But alas, corporate greed, and foolish executive decisions led to this once truly brilliant franchise, become the joke of the video game industry.

I hope the next Assassin’s Creed game is going to give me back that same feeling I had when I first launched the second game. I hope that I’m wrong in thinking that Ubisoft have not learnt much if anything in this short hiatus. But I guess all we can do is hope and see.

What are your thoughts? Do you think the next Assassin’s Creed game is going to succeed in reviving a dead franchise? What was your favourite game in the series? Let us know in the comments below!

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