Celebrating a Decade of Assassin’s Creed Part 1: 2007-2012

For the past two console generations, Assassin’s Creed has been a premier title in AAA gaming. Ubisoft’s biggest franchise is made up of a barrage of different ideas that...

For the past two console generations, Assassin’s Creed has been a premier title in AAA gaming. Ubisoft’s biggest franchise is made up of a barrage of different ideas that on paper you just wouldn’t think would work. Part modern day sci-fi conspiracy thriller, part historical epic and part high fantasy lore that rewrites the entirety of Earth’s history as we know it, all told in a fashion far from chronological. Somehow though, with a controller in hand, it all works seamlessly. From modest beginnings to a masterpiece, the franchise had strayed into fatigue-inducing limbo but, after a two-year break, the series has been reinvented with Assassin’s Creed Origins, a game sure to keep the franchise thriving for a few more years. This reinvention marks the ten-year anniversary of the sprawling series and in celebration let’s take a brief look at each core game (and the occasional movie) and discuss my general thoughts and what each adds to the legacy of Assassin’s Creed. In this first article I will look at the first five years of the franchise and in my second I will explore the next five culminating in the recently released Assassin’s Creed Origins.

Assassin’s Creed (2007)

Looking back on the first Assassin’s Creed, in many ways, it seems like a proof-of-concept. I do enjoy the game a lot, it introduced us to many of the series’ ideas: the conflict between the Assassins and Templars, the Pieces of Eden and Abstergo and the Animus. The Third Crusade proved a great setting creating the sense of location and atmosphere that has become synonymous with the series which is aided by a fantastic soundtrack and impeccable sound design. The mass introduction of lore doesn’t disguise the fact that the narrative is bare-bones: travel to this city, gather information on your target (by completing the same three missions over and over) and then assassinate your target. Rinse and repeat. The game also introduced the mechanic of climbing up to viewpoints before synchronizing to reveal parts of the game’s map which is one of the most satisfying features in gaming. Looking back, the first Assassin’s Creed feels like the first Star Wars movie. It introduces us via a simplistic plot and some world-building, letting us get to know the characters and rules before expanding into the franchise we know and love in the sequel.

Assassin’s Creed II (2009)

There is little to say about Assassin’s Creed 2 that hasn’t already been said. I agree with the consensus that the game is nothing short of a masterpiece and I claim it be my favourite video game of all time. There is not one aspect in the game that is not an improvement over the first. Renaissance Italy is not your first thought of where to set an action game, but the location is my favourite in gaming and I know every rooftop and alley in the virtual Florence and Venice as well as every delectable music cue of Jesper Kyd’s score. In the present-day, Desmond’s story continues and allows us to explore the vast mythology of the series which at this point in the franchise has become intriguing and not convoluted as it does later. Ezio is of course the true star of the game however and while the story can be seen as a basic revenge plot, the characterisation that occurs over decades from Ezio’s teen years to him becoming a tired and seasoned Assassin is perfect. From its heart-wrenching beginning to its mind-fuck of an ending there is no hyperbole when discussing Assassin’s Creed 2. It is gaming perfection. I could, and have, written about AC2 for hours: check out my in-depth revisit of the game by clicking here!

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010)

Due no doubt to the introduction of an annual release date, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood feels smaller than AC2. Smaller doesn’t always mean worse of course but Brotherhood fails to live up to the epic proportions of AC2 in any way. The world is smaller (restrained to a single city: Rome) and the narrative only tells of the next few years of Ezio’s life instead of delving into decades like its predecessor. Now don’t get me wrong I do enjoy the game very much. As a fan of the present-day narrative I enjoyed expanding Desmond’s role and the bold, weird ending of the game. Rome is beautiful, as is the music once again, and the Borgia family are good antagonists. Cesare is the rare Assassin’s Creed villain who is a physical adversary for Ezio which allows the game to culminate in a pretty epic battlefield duel between the characters which I much prefer to the repeatedly-punching-the-fat-pope-in-the-face confrontation in AC2’s final act. The gameplay is a refined version of what we saw in Assassin’s Creed 2, now with crossbows and chain kills to dominate even more unlucky city guards. I must mention the prologue too which is one of my favourite hours in Assassin’s Creed history. Seeing Ezio think his life as a killer is over is a profound change of pace before violence erupts as our home base from the last game is destroyed in a huge invasion by the Borgia in an action sequence of a scale never seen before.

In the pantheon of Assassin’s Creed, Brotherhood will also be remembered by introducing multiplayer to the franchise. I loved the multiplayer mode which brought a slower mindset to the rapid world of online gaming and I hope one day it returns to the franchise; it is one of AC’s most unique features over the past decade. Looking back, my disappointments with Brotherhood mainly stem from its placement in the series. Any game that has to follow Assassin’s Creed 2 will look weak by comparison and Brotherhood has enough strengths to be a solid instalment in the franchise, just far from its peak. Like with AC2 I wrote up more detailed thoughts on Brotherhood which you can read here!

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (2011)

Revelations concludes Ezio’s story in the games and does a fine job of doing it. The game feels very similar to Brotherhood and is once again set in one location, this time Constantinople. Revelations fails in several regards, all of which seem to stem from it being a placeholder game in the franchise: it has to conclude Ezio’s tale and keep the franchise in the public eye for the upcoming release of AC3. The narrative set in 1511 is dull and the antagonists are unmemorable, the introduction of bombs and the hook-blade feels like a gimmick and the present-day sections with Desmond in an ‘Animus-coma’ talking to the computer ghost of Subject 16 and exploring his past via clunky first-person platforming sequences is just wasting time until the big events of the next game. Revelations saving grace is that it works as a character study of Ezio. He’s aging now, still lethal but most definitely hurting and the narrative sends him on a quest of self-actualisation as he finally understands his place in the universe. At the end he finds love in Sofia and retires in a way that brings aching melancholy to the franchise that will emotionally affect you if you have invested time in the previous two games. It’s not the best game to begin exploring the franchise but for fans it feels worth it for the journey despite the stagnant gameplay. Revelations also features my favourite version of the franchise’s multiplayer mode and the one I spent the most time playing.

Assassin’s Creed Embers (2011)

Now I’m not going to talk about every piece of extra Assassin’s Creed material here because there is just so much. Therefore I won’t be covering the spin-off games or comics or novels in these two articles (I will briefly discuss the movie in Part 2), but I had to briefly mention Embers. Embers is a 21-minute animated short film that is set in 1524 and details the last days of Ezio Auditore. It’s far from the epic action of the games and is slight and simple in its execution. Ezio is retired before briefly helping young Assassin Shao Jun as his last act for the Order. Despite the film culminating in Ezio’s death, a heart attack in his home city of Florence, it is a happy ending for Ezio, surrounded by love instead of blood and is a vital part of the Assassin’s Creed canon. It shows the emotional and narrative heights the series can hit when it isn’t trying to be constant action for the low attention span gamer.

Assassin’s Creed III (2012)

Assassin’s Creed III is a centre of controversy for gamers. As far as I can tell a lot of gamers don’t like it and find it slow and dull but most hardcore AC fans, me included, love the game. The game is slow but that is no bad thing. AC3’s narrative is my second favourite of the franchise and begins with a hefty three-hour prologue in which we play as primary antagonist Haytham Kenway as he arrives in North America and sets up a cell of the Templar Order. The villains of AC are often little more than undefined faceless masses of polygons and introducing them this way makes them seem like real characters. The rest of the campaign sees us play as Connor Kenway as he unravels the Templar plot with the backdrop of the American War of Independence in which Connor becomes involved in many of the major events like an Assassin Forrest Gump. The game feels like an old-school historical epic complete with huge war scenes and character drama told over many years culminating in a low-key and well executed finale confrontation between hero and villain.

Assassins are good guys and Templars are the baddies was the status quo of the previous games but AC3 takes a more jaded look at the shades of grey between them and changes our perceptions of the two organisations which following games will continue, making it a turning point of the series. The location feels unique in the AC canon and the changes to combat and new gameplay such as hunting and the introduction of naval combat define AC3 as a much more important game in the series than people realise. The present-day storyline comes to a head as we see Desmond finally become an Assassin and go on missions including returning to the Abstergo facility where it all began in the first game. The ending, which sees Desmond sacrifice himself to save the world, is poorly handled and rushed, probably because the developers are aware some people don’t care for the modern-day segments which become increasingly and frustratingly rushed and convoluted in the following games. Assassin’s Creed 3 feels like the end of chapter 1 of the gaming franchise as the story and gameplay develop into something truly special and conclude the opening tale centering on Desmond which introduced us to the gargantuan mythology of the series. It’s a shame then that the following five years have such sporadic jumps of quality between each game as we see the best and worst of what the franchise has to offer.

Have any thoughts on 10 years of Assassin’s Creed? What’s your favourite game of the series? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and videogames on Twitter @kylebrrtt.


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