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With the release of Assassin’s Creed Origins in 2017, Assassin’s Creed changed forever.
Gone were the tight, structured missions that had defined the past decade of releases, and introduced was the flexible, interchangeable style of open world game design. The parkour system was totally overhauled, changed from the days of looking ahead to find the next ledge or window to launch onto, replaced by a slick movement and climbing style that took a lot less effort for more visually impressive results. The worlds turned vast, and contained whole countries, rather than the single cities previous Assassin’s Creed games had revolved around.
There are some undeniable perks of the open world design of Assassin’s Creed. More manoeuvrable space for making missions your own, and giving you the freedom to carve out your own stories. More side missions to fully flesh out the world and introduce more side characters. More collectible opportunities and upgrades available to fully make use of the new RPG mechanics.
One word stands out in these positives however, and that word is more. Sometimes, more can actually amount to less. And there have been several occasions in which I’ve been reminded of this, after playing through the Ezio Collection, Black Flag, and Syndicate recently, as well as Odyssey and a fair chunk of Valhalla.
One thing that instantly strikes me as I reflect on my time spent on all the games above, is how little of the worlds of Odyssey and Valhalla I remember. Now, I’m not talking about any of the map, as there are several sections I remember really well, such as Sparta and Athens in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Ravensthorpe and my little Norwegian village in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I’m talking about the maps as a whole. I can barely remember the journeys I made between places, only the mercenaries I fought along the way.
This is a total juxtaposition for how I remember the maps from the older games. I remember a lot of Monterigioni from Assassin’s Creeds 2 and Brotherhood, I remember almost the entirety of Constantinople from Revelations, I can recall a significant number of places from Black Flag, such as Havana and Nassau, and I can remember almost every inch of the Tower Of London from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. In game design we’ve seen it happen time and time again. Open world design is a great and wonderful thing, but I just feel like it’s a little out of place in the Assassin’s Creed IP. Odyssey and Valhalla are fantastic games in their own rights, but I’ve never felt less like an Assassin than I did in either of those games.
One sacrifice that’s been made for the sheer breadth of the new Assassin’s Creed games is the number of truly memorable characters. From the old games, there were a dedicated few characters that you encountered time and time again. Obviously for the new games, this isn’t possible for the size of the map, so the game fills the story with dozens of unmemorable characters that you only meet for a very short period of time.
The stories may seem more epic at first glance, but the more curated, detailed tales of characters players met in the old games just feel more meaningful. So compare the characters of Herodotos and Deimos, as the main assist characters and antagonists of Odyssey, to Leonardo Da Vinci and Rodrigo Borgia of Assassin’s Creed 2. Herodotos and Deimos are well written, detailed characters, but since the game is so huge, we barely get any meaningful time to spend with them. The characters of Da Vinci and Borgia are so much more compelling, as we get to know them through repeat encounters over hours and hours of gameplay where we repeatedly encounter and interact with them.
And talking of gameplay, that changed too, and not necessarily for the better.
To clear things up, the RPG mechanics found in especially Odyssey (Valhalla bafflingly dialled them back) suit Assassin’s Creed perfectly. It would only make sense that, as your Assassin gained more experience, they grew and learned and acquired more gear and abilities. The problem here is with the parkour systems. In the olden days of Assassin’s Creed, the parkour was much slower. Players had to find the areas on buildings that were possible to scale, such as window ledges and gutters etc, and take advantage of those to climb up and across a building. In the new games, the player character can literally scale anything. By simply holding a button, the player can climb across any surface, whether it looks climbable or not. This system is much more fluid and agile than in past games.
While this system does make the player feel more like a silent, stealthy Assassin, it really does affect the game design in what I believe to be a negative way. There’s no need to remember where to go in a busy city street if the player can simply climb the nearest sheer wall and disappear onto the rooftops. This has the conclusion of a player not really needing to know or memorise the map, as they can just clamber over it rather than moving through it. Look at a game such as Dying Light, or Dying Light 2: Stay Human. Those games are examples of a fluid parkour system that incorporates looking for climbable surfaces and requires the player to think in order to fully utilise its potential. I think a return of the old parkour system, combined with the fluidity and speed of the new system, is needed in the next Assassin’s Creed games.
Remember the old days of Assassin’s Creed? The phrases, “a blade in the crowd”, and “nothing is true, everything is permitted” spring to light instantly. The assassination mechanic, combined with the unique parkour system, was what made Assassin’s Creed games special. With the RPG systems came, bafflingly, the removal of the traditional assassination ability that had defined the mission structure of many a game that came before. In the newer games, it’s almost impossible to assassinate the higher level enemies, and while this may bolster the levelling system that comes with an RPG game, it adds nothing to the feel of being a lethal assassin, and instead makes being an assassin feel like being a footsoldier.
Being an Assassin should never feel like simply being a brawler, or a streetfighter. Being an Assassin should feel calculating, tactical, silent, and lethal at all times. On almost no occasion do you feel almost any of these things in the newer games. It’s a great shame, as in the older games, no matter the skill level of the player, it always felt like you were like some sort of lethal cat, stealthily and sneakily eliminating every guard with a single strike, before striking and killing the boss enemy, catching them completely on the back foot.
The recent Assassin’s Creed games have much to offer. They are vast, expansive epics that include many a historical reference, and a deep and meaningful combat system, as well as speedy, simple parkour mechanics. But the things that once defined the Assassin’s Creed experience have now either been altered to unrecognisable levels or have simply been removed.
Now, this is Ubisoft’s game. They have the right to change their game how they feel is necessary. But I propose a new idea. I think that the new version of Assassin’s Creed should be rebranded, and a new IP should be formed. If Ubisoft did this and created a new IP, it would be looked upon entirely differently. Gone would be the comparisons to old games, and praise for an original, inventive new story and IP entirely set in historical context would arrive. Ubisoft could then reintroduce the Assassin’s Creed series set in more relevant, recent, history, where they would have the full ability to focus on the Assassin story.
There’s a reason Ezio was so beloved as a character, and it wasn’t because he was dragged into an enormous world and forced to interact with hundreds of unmemorable characters. It was because he was interacting with the same, equally memorable characters, and through this we truly got to know him. Please Ubisoft, bring back the Assassin’s Creed systems we know and love, and give us games that aren’t filled with the endless forced side quests and lacking of Assassin lore.
Enough of a break from the Assassin Order has been had. It’s time to get back to feeling like a blade in the crowd, not just being told that’s what we are.