Too Big to Fail | Assassin’s Creed at 10
Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed was one of the more overt examples of an era of “too big to fail” game series; franchises that arrived fully formed with tie-in media, expensive collectors editions and a planned trilogy ready to go before a single copy was even bought. It was very much the forerunner for everything that has come out of the company since, not to mention being the blueprint for the majority of Triple-A franchises going forward.
Yet even Ubisoft could not have imagined that in just ten short years the series would have – depending how you count them – ten main series entries and easily twenty others including spin-offs and smaller games, to say nothing of endless merchandise, novels, comics and the requisite disappointing Hollywood film. It’s even more impressive considering that the original entry in the series was met with charitable tepidness and an eagerness to see more based nearly solely on the fact that at least the series was something new (what a cursed monkey’s paw wish of a compliment that turned out to be).
In hindsight that first game was little more than a shiny tech demo, a criticism that was given at the time but shouted down as the words of heretical haters. The scale and detail of the world was impressive and the ability to climb anything or parkour at any moment was truly a sight to behold in the heady days of 2007 – even if, as people quickly realised, the game somewhat played itself in that regard with minimal player control required. On top of this the story was hyped to a ridiculous degree given its historical fiction angle and (as the marketing assured us) real locations and figures, all of whom had really died or vanished around this point in time. Then came the curve ball a few months from release that it was actually a sci-fi game set in the future. In a time where smartphones were still pretty far from being wildly available, our little minds were blown.
As it turned out the “future” sections (now technically the past as it was set in 2012 to capitalise on that apocalypse trend) were amongst the most disliked portions of Assassin’s Creed; grinding an already sluggish, padding-riddled plot to a halt after every mission. Sequels made quick work of downplaying the future portions until they just outright killed off what was ostensibly the franchise’s protagonist and wrapped up its overarching narrative in order to focus on the various historical settings with only the most minimal interference from the framing device. While this was for the best in terms of making a more enjoyable playing experience in subsequent games, it does feel like an abandonment of what were clearly slightly more ‘artsy’ pretensions in this initial game.
By the time we reached Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio was happily palling around Italy with Da Vinci as his own personal Q and fist-fighting an evil pope in the bowels of the Vatican. The careful attention to detail of the first – choosing people who actually died in that era and quite subtly weaving its fictions into real world history – was dropped somewhat. It was replaced with a heavier lean on an admittedly more engaging conspiratorial slant involving secret ancient races and every major historical figure shaping world events with magic, light-up trinkets. Similarly dropped; its attempts to educate its players in cynical philosophy.
While nothing you wouldn’t find in a first year philosophy class, the first game had a surprisingly hard-line anti-religion streak; forcing you to listen to well-argued and interesting discussions on abuse of power and societal control. Unfortunately they were inorganically thrust upon you in the form of long, unforgivably unskippable cut-scenes with a stationary camera and two characters standing either side of a table. Future games either dropped this angle entirely in favour of swashbuckling high-seas adventures or left the more interesting discussions in the supplementary material that required more reading and little in the way of acrobatic stabbing. Still, the forced philosophy lesson was a noble if misguided inclusion. In other areas the original Assassin’s Creed is an odd example of wilful critical blindness.
While there was no shortage of improvements to be made, many of which were fixed for the sequel, some of the more glaring structural ones were not only never addressed but actively and unquestioningly employed in all future sequels and imitators. Perhaps the most irritating example being the way in which the player character has to climb to the top of a high thing and ‘sync’ with it in order to reveal the map. This was a tedious mechanic by the end of a single playthrough of that first game, as many reviewers moaned about, and yet it’s made its way into not only every subsequent Assassin’s Creed game but almost every other open world game since. While some games will try and sex it up by making you climb a non-stationary high point like a giant, robot giraffe, it’s still the same tired piece of repetitive gameplay that players just accepted as the norm, as ‘how things have always been’ even though it’s been barely a decade since it properly showed up and people were already sick of it then.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#70006C” class=”” size=”19"]Ultimately it was an admirably ambitious but lacklustre first attempt[/[/perfectpullquote]span>
This game has a lot to answer for in popularising numerous, now ubiquitous, design choices that infest most big-budget open-world games like the aforementioned climb’n’sync. Endless fetch quests in lieu of meaningful side-missions, map-filling collect-a-thon nonsense to give the illusion of content and challenge-free, repetitive murder lacking the escalation, whimsy or progression of the likes of GTA’s ambulance, vigilante et al. And within the Assassin’s Creed franchise itself, they were never able to truly fix the combat. Even a decade on the bones of that first, deeply lacking attempt at a fighting system remain firmly entrenched in the DNA of every “improvement” or “fix” to the gameplay they introduce. Shy of getting bored and failing to pay attention to the long and easily countered wind-up to enemy attacks, the only way to inject anything resembling challenge into this first installment was to play exclusively with the hidden-blade, this made for less forgiving timing and more urgency in combat encounters.
Ultimately it was an admirably ambitious but lacklustre first attempt that has led to a far more palatable, bewildering-successful but mediocre series of same-y sequels with only basic changes and upgrades. The central idea at the core of the series, most evident in its raw form in the first game, is an undeniably solid one. However they never truly managed to refine it and, aside from the addition of pirate ships and nautical gameplay, the franchise has never managed to truly evolve the concepts past this slightly fiddly and pleasant-but-dull structure. And maybe, in retrospect, attempting to educate and open the minds of players by injecting real history with bogus conspiracies and encouraging a healthy skepticism of the narrative presented to us by history books, seems just a tiny bit actively unhelpful to our current era and its pervasive “post-truth” mind-set.
Its status within the broader subconscious can’t be denied though. Along with the likes of Call of Duty and Mario, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is amongst the most prominent and instantly recognisable faces of the medium to the wider public. Which is to say it’s passed the ultimate litmus test; even your non-gaming friends and clueless older relatives know what it is. Not bad for a dull historical sci-fi with unremarkable gameplay and pretensions above its capabilities.