Assassin’s Creed: Outsider’s View on the Decline of a Franchise

If you look around this blog, you might realize that I’m not an avid video game player. In fact, I rarely play video games because I found them boring most of the time. I played Final Fantasy once but never managed to finish it. Then came The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth which is a reasonably enjoyable strategy game except for the obviously bias gameplay and very predictable AI. I tried this and that along the way but never quite finished any. For a long time, the only games I turned to were small puzzle games which took no more than a couple of hours to finish. That was until rather recently.

Assassin’s Creed I is the first game that really get me into gaming, and the reason is I love the engine. It does what Patrice Désilets, the creator of the franchise, intended as an open world game. Although the missions are repetitive and rather boring, the environment is very interactive. The game play is very simple, but the freedom is amazing. This result in a very strategic gameplay. You can brute force through missions if you like, but the game favors more creative and careful thinking. Be curious and observant, and there are many possible courses of actions to reach a goal. Be too bold and you might run into deep trouble with a small army after you.

I would have loved more story and background for the characters in Assassin’s Creed I, but ACI is obviously not about the narrative; it is more about the gameplay. However, there are obviously a lot of thought put into the historical background and finding a way to portray The Third Crusade in a neutral light. The religious affiliation of the Assassins, which are inspired by the Hashashin founded by a  passionate Ismaili believer Hassan-i Sabbah, and the Christian Templar are removed from the game. They fight instead on the view of how peace should be achieved. The Assassins believe peace should be found upon freedom. The Templars believe peace can only be achieved by control. However, the exact philosophies behind these different opinions are never addressed.

I think many gamers were not happy about ACI because of its lack of good narrative and clear course of action. The goals of missions are all clear, but how to achieve them are not. This might make some people feels like the game is not well structured. I think it is in fact the opposite. I think games are usually too strictly structured. The only thing you can do in those case is just follow what the programmers want you to do. To my limited experience, Assassin’s Creed I is very different from other game in that regards. You are only given the goal. Everything else is left to you. This is, in fact, very demanding to program because every possible interaction between the player and the environment must be taken into account. I do programming on a regular basis. I can tell you that any program that goes in a linear line is much, much easier to write. So there is obviously a lot of thinking going into the gameplay despite  how simple it seems to look. This is what I truly love about the game: an open world that allows for open mind. We can have really good creative and strategic play in that environment. I felt like I was a five-year-old let loose on a playground the entire time.

In Assassin’s Creed II, Ubisoft takes a slightly different approach. It’s more driven by narrative building on characters’ background and Renaissance conspiracies. The first installment of ACII was preceded by a release of a short live-action feature Assassin’s Creed: Lineage made in-house by Ubisoft and its division, Hybride Technologies. The visual is stunning. The story is well written and always keeping viewers on the edge of the seat. The action scenes are beautifully choreographed. I will mourn the fact that it is only a thirty-minute film to the end of my day. In any case, the message is clear: we’re all about the story now, the gameplay might have to be compromised.

But did it really need to? Yes, unfortunately. ACII is a very addictive game because of the narrative. We always want to know what happen next, who in Italian history would Ezio meet next, or when can we hug Leonardo da Vinci again (it might be just me, but I am certain a group of fans want to do that on a regular basis). Having well written script does wonders to the game. But with a large-scale story comes large-scale environment which compromises the gameplay in an open world. I don’t feel like there is as much interaction between the environment and the character. The missions can only be executed with restricted strategy. A lot of time the way to execute the mission is narrowed to just one. This leaves me highly frustrated with ACII especially when I can clearly see another course of action I preferred but cannot do anything about it because of the action-oriented gameplay. The game is still really good, though, so I went on to play Brotherhood and Revelations.

In the middle of Brotherhood was when I realized that the heart and soul of Assassin’s Creed that I fall in love with was gone.

The narrative is still good. The script still does wonders. But the game no longer favors creative gameplay in the way ACI does. It also becomes overly and meaninglessly complicated. There are little this and that you are encouraged to do but does not improve the experience. There is little need for strategy to get through a mission, you can really just barge through it (I’ve tried with success). It is becoming like other games where you just sit back and do what the programmers want you to do it, and it’s done.

Revelations is where it truly falls apart for me. I play it because I still want to know the conclusion to all the open threads like who is Desmond Miles, what was going to happen to the present time, what are the roles the Ones That Come Before, or what is the conclusion to Desmond’s story. However, when compared to earlier installment, the narrative of Revelations is not just poor, it can be insultingly so at times. A lot of things in the gameplay are obviously not thoroughly calibrated or thought out. There are excessive elements everywhere (like too much bomb components; honestly, not everybody like to use bombs). The assassin’s apprentices are under Ezio when his primary mission is to look for the Key of Masyaf, not saving the city like in Brotherhood. More importantly, what happen that makes him cross the Mediterranean to Masyaf anyway? Does that not warrant a sequence in the beginning of the game or maybe another thirty-minute feature? It seems to me that the project completely loses its direction in every aspect and thus turns into a pale mimicry of what it was. I don’t know if this is due to the pressure of releasing an installment a year or the loss of Patrice Désilets as its creative director. I tend to think it is both but much more heavily influenced by the former. I really do not see the reason to push for once a year release when it is the quality that keeps people, gamers or non-gamers like myself, coming back for more. As long as there is a fixed schedule, I believe the fans would be fine with it. Once every two or three years might be a good compromise for better quality.

Now I am wary every time Ubisoft promises that the next one will be bigger and better, because bigger means fewer details and better in gamer’s terminology does not promise creativity I so sourly miss. I can find consolation somewhat from playing Portal, but Portal is a puzzle game first and foremost, and therefore lack strategic planning which I enjoy in ACI. Then again, this is just my preference. Assassin’s Creed is Ubisoft’s top franchise at the moment so they have no reason to not continue on what they have done for the past few years no matter what some people might think.

I just hope that they might recognize that the reason some people like me pick up their game is because it offers something unique. Assassin’s Creed started out being unique because it allows creative and strategic thinking. It has also shown that a game can have a narrative thread so good it hooks people into playing and craving more. While both traits never really co-exist in AC franchise, I believe they can. Creative does not mean complicated, as is the direction of the game right now, but allowing the freedom for the player to think and do things their own way. The only problem is, like I said, the creative gameplay requires a lot of attention to the detail in  the programming. Therefore, the scale of the game cannot be too large if it is to be delivered in a timely manner. It also limits how much visual can be put in. To me, A pretty game is pretty, but a game is made to be played not just to be looked at. If I find the game boring, I turn it off. There isn’t a reason to waste my time with it no matter how good it looks.

At this point, I will reserve in commenting on Assassin’s Creed III which will be released on 31st October worldwide. From the trailers, it looks quite promising narrative-wise although they do not appeal to the eyes like the trailers from Brotherhood or Revelations. I can only wish that maybe, just maybe, it is because they have paid more attention to the game this time. At this point, I just hope they can bring the Assassins’ Creed I know and love back again.

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