The mainstream success of Assassin’s Creed has me happy as a fan, but the sacrifices it made makes me question if it was worth it.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has had a rollercoaster history of development and direction. When the first game released in 2007, it gave me a fresh perspective of creativity that I haven’t really experienced in another AAA franchise since. From the beginning, the stealth action-adventure series has delved into different important eras of history through simulation. This created a balance between living out these characters’ stories with the Assassin Brotherhood, all while the main character of the series is learning how to be an assassin in the modern-day. Even though this is still relevant to the more recent entries of the franchise, its identity of a unique open-world experience has fleeted away.
Assassin’s Creed has become one of those rare franchises for me where I will always get the latest entry; Ubisoft has earned that for me due to the experiences that the franchise delivers. I love climbing up towers to synchronize and Leap of Faith into a barrel of hay, or killing targets and speaking to them in the “white” room before their death. There is also the fact that you are an assassin with (normally) an incredible outfit. We have seen games like Horizon Zero Dawn and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild borrow ideas that were introduced in Assassin’s Creed like viewpoints, but it isn’t the same because that is a part of the franchise’s identity. However, over the years, the elements that have given Assassin’s Creed its own identity have felt diminished to attract a more mainstream audience.
Up to the latest entry in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, I like to consider that there have been three different eras of Assassin’s Creed. The first is what I call “the Desmond era.” The Desmond era consists of every mainline game from the original Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed III. During this time, Desmond was the main character and focus of the overall story. Most of those who have played the Assassin’s Creed franchise from the beginning will likely tell you that they do not care much for the modern-day/Desmond story. I am not one of those people and I believe based on what was originally planned for the franchise, it could have done some incredibly great things.
For those unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed, the series began with the lead protagonist Desmond Miles, who is someone with an ancestral connection to the Assassin Brotherhood. After being captured by a company known as Abstergo, Desmond is put inside a machine called the Animus which allows him to live the lives of his previous Assassin ancestors to learn their skills. He also learns more about the Assassins’ enemy known as the Templars, an organization determined to create a utopia under their lead. During modern times, the Templars are the creators of Abstergo. After learning that those of the current creed infiltrated the company, Desmond escapes with them to train and become an Assassin to take down Abstergo.
At the time of playing through these titles leading up to Assassin’s Creed III, my friends (as well as myself) thought that the plan was for the final game to be set during the modern era as Desmond finally unlocks all the skills he needs to become an Assassin. But that never came to be. In Assassin’s Creed III, Desmond was killed off in an attempt to save the planet, leaving the future of the series up in the air. Desmond’s voice actor, Nolan North, has spoken about the character and the pitch that he was first given that didn’t come to fruition, due to rumored differences between Ubisoft and former creative director Patrice Désilets. Désilets was the creative director for Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed II, and Brotherhood, before parting ways with the studio in the summer of 2010. So with no main protagonist and the series’ lead director gone, where does the franchise go from here?
Starting with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, this begins “the Fallout era” where our new main protagonist is technically a random Abstergo employee. This particularly wasn’t a bad thing, because it showed us the inner workings of how Abstergo and the Templars functioned as an organization, but it was clear that Ubisoft didn’t have a direction with the modern-day story. Assassin’s Creed Rogue is more or less a direct sequel to Black Flag when it came to Abstergo’s in-house story and ended with a major cliffhanger that, as far as I’m aware, never gets resolved fully. The next two entries, Assassin’s Creed Unity and Syndicate, are nearly absent from the real-world story aside from some interaction with lesser side characters from Desmond’s era, but to a degree that it isn’t even worth mentioning.
It wasn’t until “the New era” where things have begun to shape up with a new protagonist named Layla. The purpose behind playing as these Assassins to directly affect what is happening outside of the Animus has been relatively absent. That being said, there have definitely been entries that try their best with what they could to move this storyline forward, but in recent years, that is hardly the case.
Following Syndicate, Ubisoft decided to revamp the franchise by turning the series into an action-RPG with Assassin’s Creed Origins. Initially, this didn’t bother me as long as Origins kept the things that made Assassin’s Creed the series that it was. My only hopes were that it had fun stealth gameplay, the white room where the Assassin you were playing as spoke to the templar you killed before their death, and those compelling moments of storytelling that you can’t get anywhere else.
When it came to Assassin’s Creed Origins, I loved Bayek as a character, his story, and how it all ties into the Brotherhood. All of the things I wanted from an Assassin’s Creed game were in Origins, but after playing more than 25 hours of the latest entry, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, nothing of what makes the franchise special to me is present. Origins was able to strike a good balance between being a stealth game as well as an action-RPG, but Odyssey removes the stealth aspects almost completely. Traveling through the massive expanses of Greece, most of the time I find it difficult even to find a pile of hay to hide in. To me, Odyssey feels more like Shadow of War or The Witcher III with an Assassin’s Creed skin over it. I simply can’t recognize it compared to any of the other titles in the series.
With the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Ubisoft taking a year break, I hope that this next entry in the series is a return to form. My main hope is that Valhalla brings back a narrative where the historical and real-world aspects go hand-in-hand with each other. I want Valhalla to make me feel like an actual Assassin again with its gameplay instead of something I can expect from the majority of other AAA open-world titles. Assassin’s Creed is one of my favorite video game franchises, but in its current state, I feel like it is now just a dark shadow looming over what made the franchise special in the first place.
*Feature art credited to Teadsantap on Reddit.