I have an on and off relationship with the Assassin’s Creed series, in that I was at one point totally in love with it but later became totally uninterested and somewhat resentful of the franchise. If you had asked me in 2009 about my favourite game series, I would have said that Assassin’s Creed (though only two games in at the time) was definitely up there. This was partly because of my reaction to the first two games, but also due to my expectations for later instalments. The series had me gripped, I needed to know what was going to happen next.
Like most others, my first Assassin’s Creed game was the original. While many were turned off by its repetitive nature, I simply fell in love with it. The freedom of movement was so impressive and the visual fidelity was just wonderful. It was an open world game which made the open world itself enjoyable, it was so liberating to go around the cities via the rooftops and this novelty never really wore off. On top of this I loved the story and really enjoyed the assassination missions. It was a proper assassin game, you had a contract, you put in the leg work to find out how you could assassinate that person and you later killed them. The leg work part wasn’t great, content repeated and what you were doing didn’t always make sense, but it added to the experience by making that final mission feel really important. My reaction to it was kind of similar to the heist missions in Grand Theft Auto V, the heists themselves were fantastic but the preparation was often really mundane and boring. However these mundane tasks helped to elevate the eventual heists by giving you the feeling of working towards something special. It shouldn’t work but it does.
On top of this there was a palpable sense of intrigue that permeated the game. There was always this niggling worry about why you were taking these people down and whether you were really working towards a greater good. It pulled this off well with a controlled drip of information, giving you little tips that these people are bad people, but allowing for some ambiguity. It embraced the fact that there are moral grey areas, and actually handled morality much better than games with straight up morality systems. It was an experience with notable flaws, but its core story was very strong and it did make you feel like an assassin (something later games didn’t really do).
Then Assassin’s Creed 2 came out and blew the original out of the water. It included a lot of what worked so well in the first game, but also built on the original’s weaknesses in brilliant ways. The dull character of Altair was traded in for the instantly loveable Ezio, and the mission structure was more varied and interesting throughout. It was a real adventure that felt epic in scale, spanning cities and decades, but also retained some personality and intimacy in the way the original didn’t. These latter points were achieved by simply telling a rather rote family revenge story that worked because the characters it relied on were interesting and the game made you care about them. The pacing was also excellent and made you connect with Ezio and the locations in brilliant ways. You were privy to the protagonists birth and were with him as he grew up, this made you so close to him – you grew as a player while he grew as a character. This was also twinned with the games superb sense of place, a mix of high action and meandering calm helped make each city a home as missions made the most of the varied locations.
The culmination of the excellent Assassin’s Creed 2 was a huge cliff hanger ending that signalled the future for the series. It was a real shocker and indicated that things were on the up and up, things were going to change and the real struggle was in the modern day. We’ve had our time messing around in animuses (or is it animi?), this was a learning experience for Desmond but now he is a real assassin and the chase is on to save the world. Bring on the modern day, bring on the modern Templars, bring on abstergo and all its might… Or so I thought.
The next step was of course Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, a beloved title for some but a game that really disappointed me. It was a great iteration on what worked in Assassin’s Creed 2, but it didn’t capture what worked for me in that game and what I wanted from a sequel. Two felt like a real adventure, this was due to the multiple interesting locations, the origin story that went from cradle to assassin, and the fact that it was a jump up from what came before. Brotherhood dialled this down, it put you in Rome (a big Rome at that), but only Rome. It was a great city to explore, but it didn’t feel distinct, it felt like being back in Assassin’s Creed 2 and not in a way that really appealed to me. Brotherhood was a really well made game that perfected a lot of the AC2 formula, on a gameplay level, but it just wasn’t what I wanted as a fan of Assassin’s Creed. I didn’t want a refinement, I already had Assassin’s Creed 2 and I was perfectly happy with it, I wanted the next step forward in the franchise. I wanted the game that I was led to believe was coming next, this felt like stalling and the entire story (when it had one, Brotherhood had a definite beginning and end but the long stretch in the middle is almost devoid of interesting narrative) came off as padding. New complications to the storyline subtracted from the momentum I felt at the end of AC2.
This is when things went downhill for me. Revelations announced itself as the final part in the Ezio trilogy, but I felt resentful of this. It was never supposed to be an Ezio trilogy, the series had become a victim of its own success. They had stumbled onto something brilliant and seemed too scared to let go of it. Assassin’s Creed 2 worked so well because it was a departure in so many ways, it gave a unique experience and felt like a sublime middle chapter in an interesting extended narrative. This latter point became untrue, as the narrative spiralled out of control with growing complications added for the sake of it, in a way that felt like delaying the inevitable. Also the distinct feeling of AC2 was gone, replaced with familiarity. The later Ezio games could be praised for building upon what was good about AC2, but in reality I didn’t feel this was true. They iterated on a formula but didn’t capture the real appeal of that game. The sense of adventure, departure and novelty was gone. The shine had dulled and the series was collapsing into tedium.
Assassin’s Creed 3 looked like it could be a step forward though. A new protagonists, a distinct time period and the implication that we would finally capitalise on the end of Assassin’s Creed 2. The problem was Assassin’s Creed 3 wasn’t very good. It was pretty, bits of it showed promise, but as a whole product it was severely underwhelming. The game took hours to get going, the mission design throughout was subpar and uninteresting, the protagonist was dull, the story had become nonsense, the game didn’t know what it wanted to be, and it just felt all over the place. It tried to fit so much in and just none of it really worked. Ship combat was fun, but it seemed so out of place. Add to this an aggravating ending, that was far worse than other controversial finales in 2012, and you don’t have a great game on your hands.
Assassin’s Creed was dead to me, I had invested so much time into the franchise and I felt I was getting punished for this. I was going back out of obligation and I just didn’t want anything to do with it anymore. Of course I didn’t manage to do this, when I got a Vita it came with Liberation and I played through another Assassin’s Creed game. I really disliked it though, and my annoyance with the series was strengthened. I had turned my back and not even their new pirate game could sway me. I was done with annualised Assassin’s Creed and every time they showed off new Black Flag trailers I couldn’t stop thinking, well you make it look interesting but you’ve fooled me so many times, I know you can’t make these games anymore…. I was wrong.
Unsurprisingly I got back on the Assassin’s Creed train. Black Flag came out and people were raving about it, and importantly those raving were the ones who were as sour towards AC3 as I was. Close friends told me that I had to play it and wouldn’t listen to my misgivings. I was intrigued and I caved and picked it up. Thankfully this was a decision I didn’t regret, as I have found myself totally in love with an Assassin’s Creed game in a way that I haven’t been since Assassin’s Creed 2. I thought I couldn’t love again but Black Flag had managed to recapture the spirit of AC2 and it’s something really special.
So why is Black Flag so good. For a thorough analysis you can check our review, but at this point I am more won over by Black Flag than Hugh Thomas was. Black Flag is something different, it’s a departure for the series that mixes up the formula and gives us something new in the way Assassin’s Creed 2 did. Once again, I feel a real sense of progression and the game design is imaginative and solid. The game takes the bits from previous games that have worked but puts a lot of them in a new context, builds upon things and changes the overall structure. This isn’t a city to city adventure, this is a proper pirate game that makes travelling the open seas a pure thrill. The world is full of quality content, and though I haven’t finished the main story and the narrative isn’t that appealing I don’t really care. I’ve put countless hours into the game already and there are just so many brilliant things to do. There’s a solidity to the gameplay that AC3 lacked and it’s just effortlessly fun to play. There’s clear influence from Far Cry 3 in the hunting and crafting, and placing that in a much larger world adds so much to the experience. It’s just great to engage with AC4 on every level, it rewards you and provides you with joy. It’s scale makes it feel like a real adventure again, the gameplay differences make it feel distinct and it’s a step forward for the series. Put simply, it’s a remarkable game.
On a narrative level this comment doesn’t hold, but as a product AC4 is the follow up to Assassin’s Creed 2 that I always wanted. It’s a game that capitalises on the real successes of that fantastic title, not by iteration but by working on the philosophy that drove that game. Taking the series to the next level, upping the ante and creating a new feeling world that you feel totally at home with. It’s not as special a game to me as AC2 was, partly due to AC2 coming at the right time in my life and the lasting impact that game had on a narrative level. The sense of place isn’t as strong either, it’s a much more mechanically focused game than AC2, it’s a sandbox that you can pirate in (which is awesome) rather than cities that felt like a home. As a game it’s a step above, as an experience it’s not quite as special. However it’s a marvellous title that has done what I thought couldn’t be done, it has rekindled my interest in the series. Some of the shackles of AC3 remain in the design, including some irritating main missions, simplified combat and annoyingly streamlined controls which don’t realise that sometimes you want to run but not free run. However, Brotherhood showed that there was room for iteration and improvement on a lot of AC2s mechanics and this holds true of AC4. But like AC2 before it, though you could improve certain parts it is the whole product which is so impressive and it is this that Ubisoft haven’t been able to capture for so long.
It’s been a rocky road Assassin’s Creed – we fell in love, took a break and effectively split up – but now we’re back together and I couldn’t be happier. You’ve messed up in the past Assassin’s Creed, but we will let the past be the past and live in the present. I’m still wary of the future, but right now I couldn’t be more impressed with the current direction series. Ubisoft are on the right track again, I think they finally understand and I’m finally excited about the franchise again. In fact… I want more.