The Identity Battle of Assassin's Creed – Old Versus New
Sorrosyss, February 05, 2021

Warning: Spoilers from across the franchise.

What is Assassin's Creed to you? Take your time. The answer can be different for us all.

Back in 2007, the eponymous first title was quite a unique title. Originally developed as a spinoff for Ubisoft's Prince of Persia franchise, the game was a different take on the newly emerging open world genre. Coined as action-adventure stealth, fans were plunged into a world of mystery and conspiracy, as the two factions of the Assassin Brotherhood and the Templar Order were first introduced to us in this new fictional universe. Even amidst the fascinating recreation of the Middle East countries, the Sci-Fi elements were present from the very start, with the Animus essentially giving us a time machine and insights to a mysterious ancestral race who we would later know as the First Civilization – or Isu. Desmond Miles was our main protagonist within the Modern Day, and his position as the eyes and ears of the proceedings attracted many fans to wanting to explore this universe further, with the critical success of the title leading to the even more prolific sequel Assassin's Creed II.

For fans that have stuck with the series since its humble beginnings, it was a golden period. The “Desmond Era” ran for five games, but even as the last of these titles released – Assassin's Creed III – there already were divisions within the fan base. We touched upon this on a previous article, but there were portions of the fans that simply did not like Desmond or the Modern Day for that matter. We immediately saw changes by the time the next title rolled around, with Desmond's death necessitating a fresh take. This involved us playing as a voiceless, nameless Abstergo employee in first person, as they explored and worked on the Animus project. Suffice to say, this again was not liked by many fans, to the point that by the time Assassin's Creed Unity appeared, the Modern Day had been cut down to little more than short video cutscenes. This angered traditionalists yet further, and it was not until Assassin's Creed Origins in 2017 that we had a Modern Day protagonist again in the form of Layla Hassan.

Of course, many of you reading know all this. The point I am trying to make is that Ubisoft does in fact take on the feedback, and to a degree tries to adjust the course of the franchise in kind. Nowhere is this more evident than when the aforementioned Origins was released. Whilst the games had always maintained some degree of RPG mechanics, it was here that Assassin's Creed actually took the full step to a larger open world, and introduced a full questing system. With big open world RPG hits like Witcher 3 and Fallout 4 having released in the few years prior, it was clear that Ubisoft had elected to mould the model to try and take advantage of the direction of the market. This was doubly seen as the right move commercially, as Assassin's Creed Syndicate was widely reported as having sold less than half of the hugely successful Assassin's Creed III (5.5 million Versus 13 million units sold), and to many observers was a form of vindication that the traditional game model needed to be changed. Origins and its two sequels, Odyssey and Valhalla, continued down the new RPG structure, and added more features such as interactive dialogue options and gender choice for the main character. By all accounts, sales have continued on an upward trend since, with Valhalla even initially tracking close to Assassin's Creed III in sales. As things stand now, the commercial success of the more recent titles has left many pleased – most notably of course Ubisoft's shareholders. But as always with the fanbase, there still remain many fans that are not happy. Each title has always brought iteration, but equally features are often simply removed or brought back in a version that is sometimes improved, or sometimes less enjoyable.

Take parkour for example. This freerunning mechanic was always a navigation aid that allowed players to navigate the sprawling urban areas, as our protagonist climbed, jumped and swung across the various edges across the cities. This was never more prevalent than in Unity, where the acrobatics you could perform were often a wonder to behold. And yet, still there were portions of the fanbase that were not pleased. Complaints had continued since the original games that the parkour was too stiff, that you could often run up surroundings you had not intended, or plain that the controls simply did not do what was instructed. By the time Unity introduced two parkour buttons, the added complexity was considered too much for some. When Origins came along with the new RPG structure, the general responsiveness of Bayek was much improved, but the parkour itself had changed a great deal. It felt more sluggish, and in the end had become merely a means of traversal rather than a form of expression. Valhalla tried to offer a bit more of a closer system to the originals, but for many long term fans it still feels a far cry from the fluid motion of times past. It cannot be helped though that the earlier time periods of history of the latest games have had far less urban areas to navigate, as such when the series returns to more modern cities some day, we may yet see another complete parkour overhaul again.

A common complaint of the newer games is about the protagonists themselves. For the last three games, we have essentially played as “proto-assassins”. This is mainly due to Origins upheaving previous lore, thereby evidently removing the Assassin Brotherhood by name from anything prior to the time of Altaďr. This has led to calls from fans to return to playing as “Assassins”. When you look back, it is actually quite rare that we have started and finished a mainline game as a true formalised Assassin – this only occurred in AC1, Brotherhood, Revelations, and Syndicate. The rest all have varying degrees of trainees, or protagonists who simply never join the Brotherhood. Fans also cite the move away from the traditional hooded look, which was quite iconic for the series from the very beginning. Odyssey was actually the first official game cover not to feature a hooded protagonist, and this continued with Valhalla. If ever there was a more prime example of Assassin's Creed challenging its identity and discarding the past, this would be it.

Another high profile victim of the changes to the franchise was multiplayer. Originally introduced in Brotherhood, it appeared in five titles with its last outing in the co-op orientated Unity. It has sadly not yet returned to the franchise in the six years that followed. The competitive multiplayer mode certainly had a unique take, and it emphasised the use of all of the mechanics of the series. To achieve a high score required patience, the use of social stealth, and the adoption of first-strike success from the shadows. It embodied everything an Assassin holds true to, and in its absence has helped spawn similar titles into the games market that have taken from its cues. That being said, modern multiplayer in gaming has gotten much larger in scale in recent years, with the likes of the Battle Royale genre dominating with hundreds of players on the same battlefield. If Assassin's Creed is to step back into this arena, then it will need to consider the interests of current gamers, and build a mode that would sustain them for the longer term. As more and more titles allow people to play with their friends, it is certainly something Ubisoft is going to need to consider for its flagship franchise, when so many of its other IPs still maintain long term engagement through multiplayer. Assassin's Creed could even spawn a spinoff standalone multiplayer title some day, and judging by the interest levels of online polls on the matter, it would likely be a success.

I should probably advise though that it is never easy for a games company to react to feedback quickly. We saw this with the aforementioned changes to the Modern Day, and this is dictated primarily by the long development cycle of most video games. Assassin's Creed titles typically start pre-production three years prior to their release, and a lot of the design decisions are taken very early on. It is why when we look at other releases in the open world genre, you can often see the DNA of Assassin's Creed within them too, as the industry takes each other’s ideas forward to add to their own. Equally, we also see Ubisoft learning from other titles and adding elements into their franchise. For example, Shadow of Mordor heavily influenced Odyssey, with some stylistically similar abilities, as well as introducing the mercenary feature that was deeply inspired by Mordor's Nemesis system. When we look at the likes of the beloved Ghost of Tsushima (a game that has been widely branded as “Assassin's Creed Japan”), we see a number of features that Ubisoft is most likely eyeing with envy – the most prominent of which is a swift and satisfying combat system that has been critically lauded. The next Assassin's Creed game may well absorb some influence in this area.

Ghost of Tsushima
Which brings us to today. What is Assassin's Creed to you? In 2021, it is a franchise that has been running for over 13 years now, and in its current form continues to meet financial success. It has spawned many titles, spinoffs, comics, novels, a movie, and soon a Netflix TV series. It has become a name with a multi-million revenue behind it. But what is your identity? Are you the original fan that reveres what came before? Are you a newer fan that enjoys the RPG model? The fact of the matter is there is still a franchise there for the both of you. You can enjoy the old, and indeed the new. Valhalla tried to inject a few of the more traditional elements into the latest game, with varying levels of success. But I genuinely believe Ubisoft is taking on board the feedback, and change will come - in time. With such a long history now, there are so many different fans with different elements that they love, that one could argue that Ubisoft simply cannot
truly satisfy them all.

If they hold dear to what came before, respect the elements that iconized the “Assassin”, and embrace the advances in the open world as a whole – the next generation Assassin's Creed title may well push onto new heights. The old and the new can co-exist, and so can their fans. What is Assassin's Creed to you? As the disclaimer states at the start of the game, it is created by a group of diverse views and varied beliefs, and it is a reflection of its fanbase as well. We are all different in our views, but we are still one whole. It's the reason you read this. It's the reason I wrote this. It's identity is you, it is your passion, and it is always why when the new game rolls around you will still be there with wide eyed wonder to see where it takes us next, while remembering what brought you there. Whilst we toil in the dark of Covid-19 now, we still serve the bright light of the future together – in safety and peace.

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