There’s a new Assassin’s Creed game being released on consoles today and, for the first time ever, I actually care about it. You see, since the first title’s release back in 2007, I’ve always kind of resented its existence for a number of reasons…well, one reason.
Two of my favorite series’ from the previous generation were Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia, each consisting of excellent titles (yes, even Warrior Within — I’ll set you straight on that one another time though). At the beginning of this soon-to-be-ending cycle however, the first Assassin’s Creed was released. It combined the parkour platforming of Prince of Persia with the stealth and pseudo-historical/political intrigue of Splinter Cell. While it wasn’t the best executed game out there (more on that in a bit), it did impress with its vivid recreations of actual medieval cities and gorgeous presentation. It became a hit, spawned a massive franchise, and pushed my two favorite series’ into development hell. One made a comeback, and the other didn’t.
So you can see where I was coming from. I wasn’t going to give this upstart the satisfaction of my time and money. I sneered when critics who loved the original grudgingly admitted later that they had overrated it. I laughed when Destructoid gave the sequel a 4.5/10. I howled when the PS4 gameplay demo for Assassin’s Creed IV had technical issues at E3.
But then recently I stopped and asked myself whether I had given it a fair shake. The truth is, I hadn’t; I was basing my judgement largely on the opinions of others, coupled with my blind loyalty to my two friends who had been kicked out of the cool club. As penance, I restarted Assassin’s Creed II, a game I’d picked up on a Steam sale years ago, and the unthinkable happened; I started really enjoying it. I stopped playing about halfway through because I decided it was time to go back and see what the fuss was all about for the original game. I picked it up on Steam, and started making up for lost time.
Playing through Assassin’s Creed, it has become clear to me that when the smoke clears and everybody has soon moved onto the next round of consoles, I really do believe it is in many ways the game of this generation. No, it’s not the best game of this generation (not even close), but it is the one that most encapsulates what the past six years has been all about.
The jump from the previous generation to this one was punctuated by the rise of HD. This meant that visuals were a huge selling feature for new intellectual properties, and Assassin’s Creed was one of the biggest beneficiaries of this focus. Even six years later the original game still looks absolutely gorgeous with its panoramic views of lovingly recreated cities, incredibly detailed movement animations, and large interactive crowds of NPCs.
As impressive as this game looks however, it quickly becomes apparent that sacrifices were made in the design and gameplay department. It teases you with the thrill of being an assassin who can plan ambushes, execute targets however you want, and escape using improvisation and skill. What it actually does however is make you carry out a number of assassination missions in exactly the same way; effectively showing off the shiny surface but not allowing you to look under the hood and see that it’s all held together with duct tape because the technology is all brand new.
Assassin’s Creed is also emblematic of this generation in terms of how it handles stealth and combat. Gone were the days of slowly creeping through the shadows, only to be found out by a sharp-eared guard and killed instantly. This was the era where stealth became fluid rather than methodical, and it all started with this game. Altair uses crowds and public benches to hide in plain sight, climbs structures of all kinds with ease, and has the option of standing his ground if discovered. While Batman: Arkham Asylum is miles better than this game, it does owe a debt to it for pioneering modern stealth mechanics.
Combat is another way in which Assassin’s Creed is similar to Arkham Asylum (the latter again being far superior in execution), with Altair taking on multiple enemies at the same time and using counterattack as a primary mechanic. The concept is that discovery and combat can be as satisfying as sneaking, and that it can provide memorable moments for players. Making it simple for you to dispatch multiple enemies lends itself to the power fantasy while also maintaining the facade of needing to be discreet. For all its flaws, it does appeal to a wider range of players by making combat easier.
Assassin’s Creed is a significant game of its generation with the quality of its story and voice acting. The PS2/Gamecube/XBox era had some games with high production values, but it wasn’t until this era where it really jumped up in quality. This is the generation of the professional voice actor who became a star in his/her own right. Jennifer Hale, Troy Baker, and of course Nolan North have become household names, amongst video game enthusiasts anyway, through their talent and versatility. North is best known for Uncharted (his most famous performance), Spec Ops: The Line (his best performance), and just about any other game you can imagine from the last half-decade. He plays series protagonist Desmond Miles and anchors a story that strives to be mature and bold by incorporating historical figures, global conspiracies, and a serious tone towards the material. In recent years, the standard for what a narrative-focused game should provide in story and performance is much higher on average and Assassin’s Creed is one big reason why that’s the case.
There is another game from this generation which fits many of the criteria described above: BioShock. While it does have many strengths and weaknesses characteristic of games of the seventh generation (and is a much better game), I would argue that Assassin’s Creed tips the scales because of the wider level of commercial success and its evolution into a yearly franchise — another notable characteristic of this generation. BioShock and its sequels remain much more in the realm of art than product, while the other series has grown into a money-in-the-bank flagship as dependable to Ubisoft as Madden is to EA and Call of Duty is to Activision.
For all its faults (and it has many), I can’t help but appreciate Assassin’s Creed for being a bold step into a new generation. As we are on the cusp of a new title in the series, as well as a new generation, it will be very interesting whether it can make the jump or whether it stands to suffer the same fate as Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia.