The Evolution of Assassin’s Creed

Triple A franchises have been a major standard in video gaming for a long time. They have been the financial basis for the success of home consoles, and their brand-recognition allows for a fanbase to stay loyal and continuously grow. This is also one of the reasons why it has become more and more difficult for developers and publishers to “strike gold” and create their own successful franchise. Looking at this fact, it’s difficult to imagine that Assassin’s Creed recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary. In a year filled to the brim with record breaking sequels (Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare) and surprisingly solid newcomers (Mass Effect, Bioshock, Uncharted), it comes as a bit of a shock that Assassin’s Creed began a fresh new franchise.

Let’s take some time to look back at the series’ beginnings, it’s innovations, it’s disappointments, and how Assassin’s Creed has evolved into something that’s almost unrecognizable now compared to its first game in 2007. For the sake of brevity, this analysis will not include segments about the mobile-phone games and the side-scrolling handheld games. The focus here is the progression of the main series, as each game has the same foundation of mechanics and aesthetics.

Assassin’s Creed (2007)

Released on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

Assassin’s Creed throws players in an open world where they must stealthily track their targets and outrun enemies through a complex free-running system. The game’s platforming and tower-climbing were quite impressive at the time of release, but the major flaw in Assassin’s Creed is its repetition. After a certain amount of gameplay, each city begins to feel the same, and the quests leading up to assassinations lack any form of variety. While still a highly-praised game, it’s been referred to as the “proof of concept” of the franchise for good reason.

The game also sets up the duality of the franchise’s narrative structure. In the present-day, a large and ominous company attempts to send descendants of historical assassins into the memories of their ancestors in order to uncover ancient secrets. The modern day plot is far more complex than that last sentence gives it credit for, but what’s important right now is to mention the uniqueness of how Assassin’s Creed presents its story. Instead of just taking place during the crusades, the game deftly ties a sci-fi modern-day plot into its narrative.

 

Assassin’s Creed II (2009)

Released on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

(Part 1 of Ezio Trilogy)

Many fans of the series claim that Assassin’s Creed II is still the absolute peak of the series. This sequel took each great idea from the first installment and enhanced or fixed them. Gameplay was tightened, the strict structure was loosened and filled with variety, and combat was fleshed out with multiple ways to directly approach opponents. It was a major step in the right direction in terms of mechanics. If the amazing sales of the first game didn’t impress Ubisoft, then Assassin’s Creed II certainly solidified their satisfaction with the budding series.

The game is the first of three to follow the main character Ezio, taking place in the 1400’s Renaissance instead of the crusades. The plot was given more in-game time to develop compared to the previous game, and all of the characters earn more screen-time and develop very well. Assassins Creed II sets the groundwork for a trilogy within the series, titled the Ezio Trilogy.

 

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010)

Released on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

(Part 2 of Ezio Trilogy)

Instead of a two-year gap like there was between Assassin’s Creed and its sequel, development for the third game in the series started shortly after II was released. While the game doesn’t feel rushed in any way, there also isn’t too much of a leap in terms of gameplay. Combat has changed to the point where enemies aggressively control the pace of each battle, and now horses have been included in the game’s free-running system in fun ways.

Though many saw the story as a step backward from II, Brotherhood’s biggest contribution to the franchise was its multiplayer. Stealth and illusion are key elements, as players have to both find their target while camouflaging themselves to avoid their own assassination. It was a unique take on multiplayer during a time when FPS games dominated the online servers, and it was very well received.

 

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (2011)

Released on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

(Part 3 of Ezio Trilogy)

The final entry into the Ezio Trilogy, Revelations ties up Ezio’s story while also offering the limited return of Altaïr, the assassin protagonist from the first game. Not much has changed gameplay-wise: again, the time between games was only a year. At this point, Ubisoft was making enough money that they could justify turning Assassin’s Creed into a yearly franchise.

One of the game’s focuses was adding to the district-capture side-quests that originated in Brotherhood. Tower-defense mechanics had been implemented to those side-quests. In addition, the player is given the opportunity to play as present-day protagonist Desmond more than ever before. The story of Revelations was praised, but the gameplay was beginning to feel slightly formulaic.

 

Assassin’s Creed III (2012)

Released on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC

Assassin’s Creed III did a lot to mix up the gameplay from the past four games. The setting jumped about 200 years from Revelations, now taking place in colonial America. The stealth and free-running have been modified to fit a more natural environment: Woodlands, tall grass, and less towers meant that these systems needed to be refined. The new weather system also played a large part in modifying the gameplay, which was a welcome change of pace.

Glitches became a bit of a problem, but the game was praised for the new life it was able to breathe into the franchise. The game’s narrative was also praised, and not only because of the change of setting after three games in the Renaissance. And one of the most important aspects of the game, naval missions and battles, became the basis for the next game.

 

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

Released on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, PC

Perhaps the biggest departure from the series’ formula was the critically lauded and beloved Black Flag. Being primarily a naval exploration game based on the pirates of the 18th century, the developers took a major chance in focusing on such a drastic different style of play from the previous entries. The player still can play traditional-AC-style on the mainland, but countless hours would be lost to the seas as they upgraded their ship, raided galleons, and sang shanties with their crew.

As much as Assassin’s Creed III was a welcome change of pace for the series, Black Flag completely turned the series upside-down (in a good way). The game was also the first to be released on the new generation of PlayStation and Xbox, as well as being on last-generation consoles. The games sold extremely well thanks to this, in addition to the game being as unique and inventive as it was.

 

Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (2014)

Released on: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC

November of 2014 saw two games released in the series: Rogue and Unity. Rogue was intended to be the final release on last-gen consoles, as Ubisoft was going all-in with their yearly franchise on the far more powerful PS4 and Xbox One. As such, Rogue was the first main game not developed by Ubisoft Montreal. Ubisoft Sofia took the helm on this game, and their inexperience in the franchise shows in many ways.

Rogue has been praised for its unique narrative, and for the first time players can experience the world as a Templar instead of an Assassin. Beyond that, however, the game was essentially a clone of Black Flag. There was very little in the way of variety from the previous game, and it’s clear that publisher Ubisoft was putting all of their efforts into the next-gen game, Unity.

 

Assassin’s Creed: Unity (2014)

Released on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Three years after Unity’s release, and I still chuckle when I think about the game’s disastrous launch. The high number of bugs and glitches in the game day-one were laughable, and most were hilarious enough to fill 10-minute compilation YouTube videos. It didn’t matter if there was a brilliant game behind the bugs, the gaming community had already written off Unity as another yearly-franchise-entry that was far too forced to live up to its name.

Now, we don’t have to feel bad about laughing at the game whatsoever. Underneath the launch-problems, Unity is just a fairly standard Assassin’s Creed. Once again, the story was praised, but most believed that the gameplay was a massive step backward from Black Flag and even III. The franchise-fatigue from Brotherhood and Revelations came roaring back after Black Flag, and Ubisoft wasn’t out of the mud when the dust settled from the Unity disaster.

 

Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (2015)

Released on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

Developed by Ubisoft Quebec in what seemed to be an effort to give Ubisoft Montreal a break from the franchise, Syndicate takes place in Victorian England and does a lot to separate itself from Unity. The game is split between twin protagonists, one of which being the first female assassin playable character in the main games. The story and characters were praised, but the gameplay was muddled, repetitive, and very formulaic.

Granted, the game was still fun to play for most, but the lack of variety was showing the stresses of one of the few open-world yearly-franchises. Generally, yearly-franchises are either sports games or first person shooters. The former has the advantage of constant variety through reality-simulation. The latter boasts shorter campaigns and a focus on multiplayer. Assassin’s Creed games generally take 12-20 hours to complete. The difficulty here is that the more you play the same game, the less variety there can possibly be. The fact that these games have been releasing yearly from 2009 to 2015 is one of Syndicate’s biggest issues: It never stood a chance unless the developers had pulled a complete 180 degree turn, as they did with Black Flag.

 

Assassin’s Creed: Origins (2017)

Released on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

All of that franchise-fatigue must have spoken volumes to Ubisoft (along with the drastically dropping sales from the series). In a move that is truly unheard of from a yearly-franchise, Ubisoft did not put forward plans for a home-console Assassin’s Creed game to be released in 2016.

November 2017, however, saw the release of Assassin’s Creed: Origins. For the first time since Black Flag, both the narrative and the gameplay were praised. It was as if Ubisoft performed CPR on their slowly dying franchise, and, for the most part, the series came back better than ever. The fully explorable open-world has been compared to The Elder Scrolls, and combat has been adjusted to fit the new style. Taking on opponents relies on hit-box style combat, rather than the brawling “strike/counterstrike” the series had been so comfortable with.

If you’d like to see a full review of Assassin’s Creed: Origins, you can do so here.

Conclusion

Assassin’s Creed has been on top of the world, the laughing stock of the gaming community, and more than once they were somewhere in the middle of the two. Despite its many flaws, the open-world of the first game was an amazing starting point for the franchise. Ubisoft has fought through a ton of franchise-fatigue, and most of the games are memorable in their own unique ways (for better or worse). The fanbase is divided on their favorites, but this is by no means a bad thing. Whether you prefer the refinement of Assassin’s Creed II, the modernity of Origins, or the open seas of Black Flag, there’s at least one game in this franchise that every type of gamer can enjoy.

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