Disclaimer: I haven’t played Assassin’s Creed: Origins yet so this post will mainly discuss every game in the series up to Syndicate.
Eagles, white cloaks and the slashing of hidden daggers. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade, you should have at least some knowledge of what Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series is about. An ever-changing saga that has evolved many times over the years, the series has taken players to Renaissance Italy, the American Revolution, Victorian London and — with the most recent release of Assassin’s Creed: Origins — Ancient Egypt.
With the number of entries into the series, many have since forgotten the clever groundwork laid into the original 2007 game, dismissing it as a repetitious, glitch-ridden mess. Despite winning many awards, it doesn’t get as much praise as it once did, but I believe that many features and trademarks of the series peaked in this title. I would like to present my thoughts on why I believe Assassin’s Creed is actually the best of the series.
What weapons come to mind when you think of the series as a whole? Your mind may gravitate towards the pistol from II or the Guillotine Gun that appeared in Unity. Perhaps it was the brutally-heavy axes or poison-tipped blades that the Ezio games introduced. In Assassin’s Creed, you only had three weapons to use against your enemies, with each one filling a specific role during play. The broadsword was your primary weapon, which came into use in all combat against guards and targets. There was also the hidden blade and throwing knives, which opened up stealth and ranged options to use during missions. This barebones approach to combat made it both easier to learn and quicker to resolve. It wasn’t deep, but it didn’t need to be. You were an assassin, not a soldier.
I think the biggest factor I preferred about this game was its vastly superior storytelling. Both the modern day and historical settings mirrored each other well. You’d follow Desmond in the Abstergo facility and learn about the Templars, and then enter the animus to become Altaïr and learn more about the Assassin order. There was never a huge overload of information given at one time, but seeking out more was optional through your conversations with Lucy or checking the emails on Vidic’s computer. In a way, this was more rewarding and felt realistic. By interacting with the world around him, Desmond could uncover more details about his situation and learn the truth about Abstergo. With the exception of Black Flag and Rogue, this was largely absent in future games, instead giving you a less-interactive database on the pause menu for which you could access the information.
The assassinations themselves were probably my favourite parts of the game. At the beginning of every memory you would be sent to a city to learn about the target, be it via eavesdropping on their subordinates, pickpocketing letters from couriers, or interrogating key individuals for details on their schedules. Once you’d completed three of these six tasks the game would let you go forward with the assassination, or you could finish the rest for additional intel. This is an underrated aspect of Assassin’s Creed due to how useful paying attention to the intel was. It gave you hints at hidden areas you could use to ambush the target, or would inform you of how the target would flee if they became alerted to your presence. It meant that each assassination would require some thought going into it and could yield different methods of completion, sort of like a historical Hitman game. Future games, however, would present a very limited number of ways to complete an assassination which ruined the creativity and made a more linear experience.
I also found the targets themselves to be written much better in this game. While villains of later titles became more cartoonishly evil, such as Syndicate‘s Crawford Starrick or Black Flag‘s Woodes Rogers, every target in the first game felt rounded, with clear motives and personalities that were reinforced by a well-provided backstory to accompany it.
There was the tyrannical ruler of Jerusalem, Majd Addin, who used fear and intimidation to control the city. He would hold mock trials for those he alleged as enemies of Jerusalem, but twisted and exaggerated the evidence to ensure the result would always be the death penalty. There was also Sibrand, who was once a fierce warrior turned paranoid coward after becoming aware of the Assassin order. Once his paranoia had become a burden, he spent much of his time hidden away on a ship at the docks, doubling patrols in the area and even going so far as to publicly executing a scholar in similar Assassin robes as a warning.
Then there was the doctor, Garnier de Naplouse, who genuinely believed he was helping the people in his hospital despite the fact he was committing cruel acts upon them. Talal, the slaver of Jerusalem, locked people up who he believed were a threat to the city. The list goes on and each of the targets in Assassin’s Creed had committed these heinous acts because they believed it was contributing towards achieving the Templar goal. The ends justified the means to them, which opposed the freedom and progressive ideology that the Assassins hold sacred. I found this to bring a much more interesting edge to the plot of Assassin’s Creed, where targets were rounded characters that fit in well with the setting. Later installments would write the Templars as cartoonish supervillains that only wish to possess a Piece of Eden to control the populace.
As mentioned earlier, the loudest criticism of Assassin’s Creed was directed at its repetitive mission structure, in which many felt it cumbersome to be continuously performing the same setups for assassinations. This is a completely valid critique of the game, but I should stress that later games in the series also suffered from this problem. III, Black Flag and Rogue had a lot of stealth-based missions that had you tail a target by using clusters of bushes to navigate. Hiding in these places was a feature exclusive to the Kenway games that allowed for new ways to sneak around the level, but once you’ve followed a target by darting from bush-to-bush for the 30th time in Black Flag it got terribly repetitive.
One thing that adds to the repetition of the series is the amount of activities and side missions to complete. The first game only had towers and civilian missions that didn’t take long to complete, but later games would add tombs, contracts, escort missions, fetch quests, races, naval battles, collectibles, liberation missions, animus glitches and murder mysteries. Some of this extra content is quite fun, but it became obvious that a lot of it was used to extend the game’s longevity. Unlocking the entire map in Black Flag meant spending 15 hours simply going to each island and unlocking the viewpoints.
As time went on, the series just became needlessly bloated, and while Assassin’s Creed began as a finely crafted 15 hour experience, it would later turn into a 40 hour grind to see every possible piece of content and collect every useful item. What happened to quality over quantity?
I found the shift from “historical assassins” to “action game set in the past” had disrupted the flow of the series. Somewhere along the way, possibly right after the Ezio games had reached completion, it became clear that Ubisoft had no idea where to take the story and thus the modern day narrative was needlessly dragged out. With Origins being a soft-reboot of the franchise, it’s possible that everything may become a little more focused in the future and these issues may be salvageable. I still love the series as a whole, but it never got better for me than the first game.