I love Assassin’s Creed. Yeah, I know. To some of you that’ll be like admitting I'm a serial killer. But I do, even though I’ll be the first to admit that it’s in dire need of a refresh. By committing to a sequel every year, as well as regular spin-offs, Ubisoft have stretched their flagship series way too thin and the strain is beginning to show.
So while I’ve played and enjoyed every game so far—except AC3, which was the abyss—I can’t help but feel that its potential is being wasted. Yearly sequels have bled many a great series dry, and Assassin’s Creed deserves better. So here’s how I would change it. You know those present day bits everyone hates? I actually don’t mind them, which should prove that this is all coming from a place of love.
A smaller team
Ten studios worked on Assassin’s Creed Unity. Ten! This is the very definition of too many cooks. The best manager in the world couldn’t get that many people, from all those different time zones, to work efficiently together.
The result is a general feeling of inconsistency. Sidequests like AC3’s homestead and Revelations’ godawful tower defence feel like the were made by a team working alone and then shoehorned into the game—which they probably were.
Assassin’s Creed would benefit from a smaller, more focused team. And I don’t mean small in the indie sense—because you do need huge amounts of people to make blockbuster games like this—but I mean smaller than ten studios.
The series also feels designed by committee, and I think it needs the leadership of a strong auteur. A Ken Levine or a Hideo Kojima who will doggedly pursue their personal creative vision. Just thinking about how many Ubisoft suits the lead on an Assassin’s Creed game has to keep happy is making me feel dizzy.
The reason so many studios work on these sequels is because they’re massive, and they have to do a new one every year. Ubisoft is a business, and businesses exist to make money. They have shareholders to appease, and making games on this scale costs a fortune. But this is having a negative impact on their quality.
Unity was a mess of bugs and frantic patching. The mission design gets noticeably sloppy towards the end of almost every entry in the series, presumably as deadlines begin to loom. And assets are frequently recycled between games.
Ubisoft should adopt the Rockstar model. They release a new Grand Theft Auto every 3-5 years, taking as long as they think they need. In comparison, Assassin’s Creed games feel increasingly mass produced, like they’re rolling off a conveyor belt.
Look at what Ubisoft achieved with Unity in a couple of years. Now imagine what they could have done if they had another two. I can understand Call of Duty sequels being released every year. They’re dumb, flashy, six-hour action movies. But historical epics like Assassin’s Creed deserve more time to be crafted and polished.
A new template
It’s fine for sequels to share the DNA of other games in a series, but Assassin’s Creed has taken this to an extreme. It’s utterly formulaic, recycling the same missions over and over—even the ones no one likes, like tailing and eavesdropping. Those ones have even started showing up in Far Cry, which is just baffling to me.
New features may be added, like AC3 and Black Flag’s brilliant ship combat, but the games still largely stick to the set menu: arbitrary collectables, hay carts, sync points, hiring 'dancers', sneaking through bushes, disabling alarm bells. I think it’s time to create a new standard. Sticking to this formula makes churning out yearly sequels easier for the developers, but as I said, that needs to stop too.
Worryingly, the Assassin's Creed Victory shots (well, I say shots, but they're obviously just concept mock-ups) already suggest the new game is recycling some old ideas. We see the new hero atop a sync point and the rope-swinging is straight out of Black Flag. But it's too early to say. Hopefully Ubisoft Québec are using this framework to do something different. It's heartening to hear that they've already been working on it, in Ubi's words, "for the past few years."
There’s a running meta-commentary in recent Assassin’s Creed games about sinister Templar corporation Abstergo using DNA memories to create mainstream entertainment products. The databases are filled with humorous notes about dumbing things down to broaden the appeal.
Assassin’s Creed is mainstream entertainment, but I wish Ubisoft had loftier goals for it. They treat their games like products, which cheapens them. Whether it’s overpriced ‘special editions’ or the microtransactions in Unity, the company makes it clear, constantly, that they want your money. They do, naturally, and that’s fine—but do they have to be so damn shameless about it?
Ubisoft makes Assassin’s Creed games like Michael Bay makes movies. They create blockbusters designed to sell millions, and that’s their primary goal. But imagine they made an Assassin’s Creed like Stanley Kubrick made a film. As a piece of art. Something culturally important. The series has that potential, buried deep somewhere, but it’ll never manifest as long as they’re using it as a gaudy shopfront.
A different perspective
The endless, generation-spanning war between the Assassins and the Templars is the backbone of Assassin's Creed's mythology. But the idea that the Assassins are the good guys and the Templars are the villains is becoming increasingly blurred. Both groups are equally fanatical about their beliefs, to the point where I kind of hate both of them now. So I think it's time to introduce a third party.
In Metal Gear Solid 2, Hideo Kojima famously replaced longtime protagonist Solid Snake with a floppy-haired newcomer, Raiden. This was met, understandably, with a lot of criticism—but it was actually a stroke of genius. Koj's idea was to make players see Snake from a new perspective: as a mythical hero, rather than the character we were comfortable with. This is an interesting way of refreshing an established mythology without completely changing it, and it could work in Assassin's Creed.
I'd love to play as a character who has some other interest in the Animus, and who doesn't give a damn about the Pieces of Eden, the Templars or the Assassins. There are countless other reasons why someone would want to delve into the memories of their ancestors. Ubisoft are so duty-bound to their progressively bloated mythology that they're not taking full advantage of a really powerful storytelling tool.
I must admit, the Victorian London setting of Victory has intrigued me, but I'm remaining cautiously optimistic. I honestly don't think Ubisoft will break away from their established template any time soon, which is a shame. But that's the cold, hard reality of making blockbuster games. Maybe one solution is giving smaller studios with big ideas access to the license, then letting them make interesting spin-offs.
Even if Assassin’s Creed sticks to the same old routine, the sad truth is, I’ll probably still play them. They’re enjoyable fantasy romps set in stunningly realised locations, and I’m fairly invested in the story. But I’ll always have a niggling feeling as I play that the series has the potential to be so much more.
But hey, at least Desmond’s dead!