I've always had a soft spot for Assassin's Creed. It's a polarising series, and some of you probably bubble with hatred every time the name is mentioned. But the thing that has always attracted me to the games is being able to explore a well realised historical setting. Ubisoft have taken me from Renaissance Italy to the pirate-filled seas of the Caribbean, and although the series has varied wildly in terms of quality over the years, the world design has always been top notch.
I recently bought the original in the Steam summer sale, and decided to revisit it—mostly out of curiosity. How has the series changed? Playing the first assassination, I'm struck by the freedom I have. I'm stalking my target in an indoor market, hopping between wooden beams in the rafters. It's a large space, and I can choose when, and where, to strike. Compare this to Assassin's Creed 3, where pretty much every major assassination is scripted, and you can see how the series lost its way.
When pressed about this in an AMA on Reddit, AC3 creative director Alex Hutchinson, now the lead on Far Cry 4, said this: “The dilemma is consistency versus fantasy: I really feel that to make them more 'gamey' is to make them more fantastical, which reduces the power of the feeling of living through history.” The key word there is 'gamey', which Hutchinson seems to consider a negative. This says everything you need to know about why Assassin's Creed 3 lept off the steeple and missed the haystack. Ubisoft became so enamoured with creating a cinematic spectacle, and telling the ponderous present-day story of charisma vacuum Desmond Miles, that they forgot they were making a game .
Of course, the series has always suffered from over-scripting, like the chase scenes in AC2 where your target would actually wait for you to catch up. But these were always accompanied by showcase assassination missions that would afford you some degree of freedom. Playing the first game, I'm certain this was the original vision for the series. To let you stalk and eliminate targets any way you like, using a vast, detailed historical setting as your playground, But this fell to the wayside as Ubisoft seemingly became obsessed with making a (barely) interactive film.
Black Flag felt like an apology for AC3. Missions were more open, with more alternate paths. But the hangover from the last game was still there, with insta-fail scripted missions and the present-day stuff, which, true to the series' legacy, felt like it was getting in the way. One minute you're swinging between ships, swordfighting with pirates, and the next you're working for Ubisoft, wandering around an office reading emails. I didn't mind these bits—and the lack of Desmond Miles was a bonus—but I think Ubisoft give too much weight to their tale of the modern-day Assassins and Templars. They've got the entirety of human history through which to weave stories; why focus on the present so much?
I'm not suggesting they get rid of the modern-day stuff entirely, because it's a crucial part of the fiction and gives some context to your historical adventures, but it could be used more subtly, and sparingly, than it has before. Despite my complaints about Desmond, I still want to know what happens after the end of AC3, because I'm sufficiently invested in the game's (admittedly quite silly) mythology.
Unity is the next game in the series, and adds four player co-op. I was ready to abandon the series after AC3, but Black Flag won me back, and now I'm tentatively looking forward to the new one. But I worry that Ubisoft's vision will be so clouded by the new technology they have at their disposal and, once again, try to make a film. I hope someone in charge of Unity replayed the first game too and realised the enormous potential the series has to be an open-ended, systems-driven stealth game that uses those wonderful settings as more than just atmospheric window dressing.