This article contains spoilers for the Assassin’s Creed franchise
If there’s one franchise that’s defined Ubisoft over the past decade, it’s Assassin’s Creed.
The first came out back in 2007 and, since then, we’ve had 11 games that have taken us from Renaissance Italy to ancient Greece via revolutionary Paris, Victorian London and Civil War North America to name just a few. For a long time, these games were based on a formula that was set in Assassin’s Creed 2 (2009) and followed, with minor tweaks, until 2017’s Assassin’s Creed Origins.
In that span, almost all Assassin’s Creed games pretty much played the same; they were polished urban open worlds where you’d leap from rooftop to rooftop and take on missions that emphasised the importance of stealth over open combat. They’d also be full of historical detail, with famous faces like Leonardo da Vinci or Napoleon being creatively incorporated into game plots as foes or allies. The major exception was Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag in 2013 which cast you as a pirate/assassin and therefore involved a lot of sailing the seven seas and a bit less running across rooftops.
Personally, I loved the old formula. Assassin’s Creed II is still one of my favourite games of all time, and there was something seductive about every subsequent Assassin’s Creed game. As I ran, jumped and killed my way through beautifully detailed historical worlds, previous civilisations and iconic historical characters were beautifully brought to life. The plotting, however, has never been a strong point; Assassin’s Creed games are often well-written and well-acted but the plots themselves are endless retellings of the same story. You’re some ordinary bloke going about his business when, bam, your wife/child/close family/all of the above are killed/kidnapped by mysterious figures. You dig into it, find out the Templars are behind it, join the Assassins, get revenge and usually stop the Templars getting their hands on some devastating weapon. The conspiracy is also usually revealed piece by piece – first you’ll decide that five people were behind the familial death/kidnapping and they should die. Achieve this and you’ll find out that those five were controlled by three more powerful Templars and, no doubt, there’s a few above them too in some endless organisational flow chart of death.
This is all interwoven with modern-day sequences that generally range from mildly intriguing to utterly tedious – you’ll work on behalf of the modern-day assassins to battle contemporary templars in between entering the Animus (a sort of genetic time travel machine) and living out the lives of distant members of your family tree.
By 2015, the novelty had well and truly worn off. That wasn’t helped, of course, by the fact that 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Unity was a bug-riddled mess upon release, full of creepy floating eyes and revolutionary Parisians disappearing into walls. The series staggered on with Assassin’s Creed Syndicate in 2016, which transposed the standard formula onto Victorian London with a few minor tweaks (the grappling hook was arguably the biggest thing it brought to the series).
However, the higher-ups at Ubisoft had already twigged that gamers were getting sick of the standard Assassin’s Creed formula and, presumably, developers were getting a bit sick of making what was fundamentally the same game over and over again. Even while Unity and Syndicate were being developed, Ubisoft teams were already working on the next evolution of the series, Assassin’s Creed Origins.
Released in 2017, it radically reinterpreted the series’ fundamental design principles and was a quite literal game-changer. With Origins, Ubisoft produced an Assassin’s Creed game on a scale that dwarfed even the vast maritime environs of Black Flag, creating a massive chunk of ancient Egypt that included cities, deserts, pyramids, swamps and a whole host of animals to both kill and be killed by.
As well as increasing in size and scope, Origins also ramped up the RPG elements that were previously somewhat in the background. In the classic formula, you could buy new weapons and unlock skills, but the former wasn’t particularly important and the latter was done on a linear basis. Now though, there was a branching skill tree and an inventory full of weapons with different levels and stats, with hitpoints even popping up as you attacked enemies. All this played into the new combat system. Stealth seemed less important than ever, with protagonist Bayek battling his enemies with a light attack/heavy attack/roll out of the way routine that seemed to be inspired by Dark Souls. This was a significant upgrade on the combat of the classic Assassin’s Creed games, which mainly consisted of holding block and then doing magic one-kill counters, and always felt like an afterthought.
Oh, and the modern day stuff was now completely tedious.
None of this is really intended as a criticism, however. Origins is a fantastic game but it’s debatable whether it’s really an Assassin’s Creed game. Does having that famous name slapped on the box actually add anything to the game? The classic elements of the series are there, but they feel shoehorned in. Bayek has a hidden blade, sure, but it’s initially underpowered and feels like an option rather than a defining part of his identity. In some ways that makes sense; the game goes right back to the start of the order of assassins (hence Origins), so he wouldn’t be shaped and defined by the Creed in the same way as the series’ other protagonists. The new sense of scale also impacts on the game’s traversal; ancient Egypt simply had limited opportunities for parkour, and so you spend a lot more time on your horse rather than sprinting from rooftop to rooftop.
Arguably, the only thing Origins kept from the classic Assassin’s Creed formula is probably its worst element: the plotting. Yes, this may be a new start for the series but no one told the writers. Bayek’s wife and son are killed, he goes for revenge and, by killing up the chain of influence, uncovers a big conspiracy among a bunch of nefarious pre-Templars called the Order of the Ancients. Having been through years and years of this, you can even play Assassin’s Creed bingo with lines like “there is so much you are yet to understand” and “you really don’t know what is going on, do you?”.
And now, we have Assassin’s Creed Odyssey which follows Origins’ formula so closely that it occasionally feels like an extension of the same game. We’ve got a massive world, skill trees, a big emphasis on melee fighting and the same combat system. It’s clear, then, that this is Creed’s new formula: massive historical open-world RPGs full of combat and navigation. In fact, Odyssey takes the RPG influence even further than Origins as you now have the choice of male and female protagonists, branching dialogue options and multiple endings. However, whether it’s because Ubisoft can’t cut the apron strings or because it feels like there are some things that have to be included if you put “Assassin’s Creed” on the box, everything that was shoehorned into Origins is also shoehorned into Odyssey. There’s an initially ineffectual hidden blade, tedious modern-day sequences, little free running and, most problematically, another plot that revolves around the personal impacts of a far-reaching conspiracy.
It’s clear that the games Ubisoft now wants to make have no place for the elements that defined the classic Assassin’s Creed formula. That’s not a problem in itself, but it seems like the storied name on the box has become a millstone around the necks of developers. To me, it feels like they’re being forced to insert hidden blades, conspiracies and modern-day stuff in games where they really don’t fit. Both Origins and Odyssey may be fantastic games, but they never really feel like Assassin’s Creed games, and any attempts for continuity with the classic titles just feel awkward and jarring. Having them be part of the same series seems to be inhibiting developers rather than inspiring them; not only forcing them to include gameplay elements that don’t fit anymore but encouraging them to stick to conspiracy plots like a security blanket. For true evolution, we need to end Assassin’s Creed.
Dropping the “Assassin’s Creed” brand would merely formalise a process that’s already been going on for years – and by this point, it’s really hard to imagine it would have much of an impact on sales. If, for example, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey was just called Odyssey, it may have even been more popular, attracting gamers who aren’t into Assassin’s Creed games and haven’t realised just how much the series has changed. It would allow Ubisoft developers to focus on what they’re good at – making historical RPGs, without needing to worry about including anything that people used to expect from Assassin’s Creed games.
And, most importantly, it would allow developers to move away from dreadfully clichéd conspiracy plots whose discovery shocks and appals the protagonist. It’s been proven numerous times, notably in this year’s God of War, that the most affecting plots are those based around the personal motivations and imperfect humanity of a few central characters. This has always been there as a sub-plot in Assassin’s Creed, but buried under lots of bluster about changing the world and achieving great power. Finally ending the series would mark a clean break with all this and a move to a new, more personal (and more effective) style of storytelling.