Twelve years ago I took a leap of faith from the top of a tower somewhere in the middle of a bustling square in Jerusalem. As the wind whistled past me, and the music rushed over me, I was in love. Assassin’s Creed has always held a special place in my heart ever since. I remember riding my horse from Jerusalem to Acra and being blown away by the fact that there was more than one city – in a video game!
Massive locations and gorgeous vistas may have become the norm now, but they were a novelty back in 2007. Historically accurate locations were even more of a rarity, and stepping into 12th century Jerusalem feels almost magical.
Two years later, it’s the Renaissance in Italy and you’re hanging out with Da Vinci. The magic hasn’t worn away, and the gameplay is even better. As the series continues to evolve and improve, new protagonists, locations and mechanics are introduced. It’s 2018, and we’re in Ancient Greece, in a time preceding the first game in the franchise, even before the Brotherhood is even formed. And in 2019 we get a remastered version of Assassin’s Creed 3 – a stark reminder of how far the series has come from its origins. Today we take a look at how the game has changed over the years – what’s improved and what’s taken a few steps back.
Tighter Combat Vs Clunky Stealth
Looking at AC 3 with rose tinted glasses, it’s easy to forget how clunky the combat was in that game, or even in older AC games. The combat is definitely a lot smoother and streamlined with more moves available to you, and an improved overall feel of being a ruthless killer.
However, gone are the stronger stealth mechanics and strategic depth of tracking your prey, gathering clues and swooping in for the kill. You really felt like an Assassin back then while you are more encouraged to pick an open fight in the recent iterations of the franchise.
RPG Mechanics & Progression
One of the biggest changes that Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey introduced were the RPG mechanics and progression. While they do add longevity to the game, they broke the more grounded historic elements of the combat encounters.
Stealth attacks now longer count as instant kills against high level enemies, and the leveling system acts as a means of gating progression (and selling micro-transactions, if conspiracies are to be believed).
On the flip side, the RPG system makes way for incremental challenges and rewards. Better weapons and loot drops keeps the player more engaged, while cosmetics offer more monetization option for the developers. Unlocking new moves also encourages the player to keep playing and adds variety as the player levels up.
Narrative – Building Mysteries Vs Meaningless Side Quests
The narrative is where the Assassin’s Creed franchise has taken the biggest hit. Mysteries and intrigue developed over the first few games were almost entirely dropped by the time we got to Black Flag. While the reboot, Odyssey, did have a decent narrative, it came in spits and bursts. A lot of the side quests were throwaway fetch quests or involved collectible hunting.
To be fair, some of the past Assassin’s Creed games before the reboot did venture into some questionable collectible hunting (Viva la Unity). However, the narrative focus was much tighter, building mysteries both grounded and otherworldly. The introduction of Juno was a powerful moment during the original Trilogy, but is now mostly sidelined or almost never referenced.
The modern day narrative has probably been the biggest victim of this tonal shift. It has been pushed to the side to such a degree that it’s easy to forget that it ever existed. Remember when Abstergo was as much an antagonist as the Templars? Now it’s just a mere entry file in a dusty codex.
Protagonists have been mostly watered down, and lack the personality or charisma of character from the previous entries. Gone are the Ezios, Desmonds and Altairs, to be replaced by much shallower personas. Don’t take me wrong, Bayek is fairly likeable and Cassandra (we don’t talk about Alexios) had a few good quips, but neither of them get the character development or deep backstory as the previous protagonists.
Linear Design Vs Open World
Ubisoft have proven to be the masters of creating (re-creating?) great open worlds, and the evolution of their design formula is undeniable. I do miss the more tighter lively spaces of Acra, the rooftops of Jerusalem, the canals of Venice… While the world was smaller, it felt more full of life and detail.
That’s not to say that the past two entries aren’t full of detail, infact, it is packed. However, you’re never needed to actually stay in a place and take it all in. You move through everything so fast, everything just blurs together and becomes background noise. And a lot of it is just lifeless, with some enemies scattered around for you to grind through.
Also, after playing Origins, a lot of Odyssey starts looking overly familiar. Strange how Greek and Egyptian architecture have so much in common. Maybe they were sharing assets back in the day too. I did enjoy exploring the pyramids in Egypt and sailing the seas in Greece. And it won’t be easy going back to the older locations with the same graphics and traversal mechanics.
Looking back at almost 12 years of Assassin’s Creed games, it’s fascinating to see how the series has evolved. It has seen some incredible highs and fallen to some sad lows. It’s almost not the same game that it started off as. Apart from a few threads holding the narrative together, Ubisoft can just as well put out the next game as a fresh new game in a new IP and no one would blink an eye.
At this point, I go to the Assassin’s Creed games for the setting. The Discovery Tour (a virtual educational guided tour of Egypt ) was the best thing they did with Origins, making it easy for the player to explore without baggage. I am eager to see where they go next, and Ubisoft has shown that they can stick with their games and keep making improvements.
So what do you think of the direction the series has taken since it first started in 2007? Do you look back in fond memory at the “glory days” of Altair and Ezio, or are you having a better time with the newer entries and are excited to see where the series goes next?
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