Assassin's Creed has been around for seven years now. This makes it ancient in video game years. I doubt it's going anywhere anytime soon either. This is a problem because the relentless pace at which Ubisoft churns these games out can make it hard to take a step back and evaluate what's not working about them.
The series' inauspicious debut on (exclusively) new-gen consoles this week with Assassin's Creed: Unity therefore strikes me as a warning sign for the future of the franchise. I should admit that I'm more on the casual side of Assassin's Creed fandom (my favourite story arch in the games so far was the one centered around Ezio that began in 2009 with the classic Assassin's Creed 2, and since he disappeared I've invested much less time in games like ACIII and the pirate-themed ACIV — though I enjoyed both of those games as well). But regardless of one's feelings for one particular Assassin's Creed story or another, the dramatic changes that Ubisoft has brought to the series over the last two years stands out as an admission of some shortcoming.
Something about Assassin's Creed just isn't working anymore, in other words. Other open world games like Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto series and, much more recently, Monolith's excellent Shadow of Mordor are commanding more attention because they're bringing provocative ideas and fun new types of gameplay to the table. Cracks are starting to appear in the foundations of this ongoing historical adventure, which makes me wonder how solid Assassin's Creed's foundation was in the first place.
I found a compelling critique of the Assassin's Creed formula in a recent segment of Conan O'Brien's Clueless Gamer routine, of all places. This was the one from earlier this week where he played Unity. I know, I know — this is yet another video of Conan doing his "I don't know anything about video games but I'm going to play one anyways!" routine.
Whether or not you're a fan of the comedian's usual takes on games, however, I think this one is worth watching, because it gets at the heart of the problems Assassin's Creed has a series in a refreshingly clear way. Whereas often times O'Brien's naive approach to playing video games can feel more than a little overdone, the sheer arbitrariness of his virginal perspective on Assassin's Creed pretty much forces us to reckon with fundamental questions about the essence of this game. It's particularly useful to do this for Unity, because as Stephen noted in his review, this new game "feels like an attempt for the Assassin's Creed series to start over."
You can watch the full eight-minute clip here. Warning: it contains some minor spoilers about the beginning of the game. O'Brien is a comedian and not a game critic, of course. But what I love about this episode of Clueless Gamer is how he uses his traditional silly approach to playing video games to show that while Assassin's Creed: Unity is a beautiful game in many ways, it also doesn't make a whole lot of sense in many others.
Jokes aside, here are the key critiques I pulled from his routine:
- The story is convoluted and unnecessarily confusing, thanks in no small part to its use of time travel.
- Why do so many characters have British accents if the game is set in France?
- The map is overloaded with information to an insane degree.
- A lot of the game's filler material, like side-quests and loot, seems extraneous and silly.
Some of these might be minor nitpicks (i.e. the French-British accents), other major problems with the story or staging of an open-world game like Assassin's Creed. Taken together, however, they probably make Unity's shortcomings sound gamebreaking. So what keeps Conan hooked to the extent that he sounds like he could actually be enjoying himself? Well, then we get to the main strengths of Unity — both of which are, again, factors that have carried many an Assassin's Creed game through to its finish:
- The game is visually stunning.
- You get to dress up in cool assassin gear — this time in lots of different colours!
- Combat offers good, occasionally mindless, gory fun.
That sums up the tension I've felt playing Assassin's Creed games for a long time now. The stories — especially the present-day, science-fiction-y segments — can get pretty muddled. The games come packed to the brim with so much stuff in the form of random challenges, side-missions and collectibles that are often little more than thinly veiled, repetitive fetch quests. Look at this map from Unity:
Just looking at this starts to stir up some content-induced panic attack in my completionist gamer brain.
These annoyances only become glaring problems when they mesh imperfectly with the gravity of a fiction that's meant to deliver some sense of historical authenticity — say, when you're encouraged to race around the map gathering loose pages from Benjamin Franklin's almanac in Assassin's Creed III.
And yet, at the end of the day, romping around a historical setting rendered in beautifully reverential detail and stabbing people with a bunch of nifty bladed weapons is still a blast. That's the thing — it is a blast. But the weight of Assassin's Creed's realistic historical settings lends these games a pretense that makes having a blast stabbing random people seem a bit...off to me, at least to a degree that wanton acts of destruction don't in other open world games like Grand Theft Auto or Shadow of Mordor.
I could be reading too much into a popular comedian's routine here. But there was one moment in Clueless Gamer's Unity video that embodied the tension I just described. It starts shortly after the six-minute mark, as O'Brien is wandering around Unity's world assassinating random victims.
Aaron Bleyaert: You can also loot the bodies. Stand over the body…
Conan O'Brien: Oh, I can loot the body?
Aaron: Yeah, hold "B."
Conan: That's fantastic.
Aaron: You just got an invoice.
Conan: He got an invoice? What good is an invoice. Oh, let's loot the body again...see if we can find another receipt. Exciting game! "Excuse me, I'm just gonna molest these bodies."
Aaron: You wanna do a mission?
Conan: Yeah, let's accomplish something. That's our mission: we're gonna "stop the public censors from suppressing theatrical productions." Do we get to kill them, or is it just talking to them?
Aaron: I'm not exactly sure. And then there's also a huge assassination mission we can do as well.
Conan: Yeah, well, why do that when we can collect receipts and get involved in theatrical labour disputes?
(Pause as audience laughs)
Let's kill somebody. Let's kill a lot of people and take their fruit.
I'm guessing that a lot of gamers sort out their feelings towards Assassin's Creed the same way Conan did here — they realised that certain parts of the game were silly or straight up nonsensical, but kept playing because it's fun to kill people and steal things from them. But the thing is, Assassin's Creed isn't just a game about killing people and stealing their stuff. It's also a far-reaching, epic story complete with some intriguing characters. They like to hurt each other oftentimes, but they also know how to love each other as well. And as Stephen so astutely observed yesterday, the experience of genuine human intimacy looks better in Assassin's Creed: Unity than it ever has before. Just look at this:
Shadow of Mordor might have some great ideas that Unity lacks. But it can not accomplish anything like a believable human kiss. The closest it comes is in moments like this:
And that's just a passing moment at the very beginning of a game that can be played for upwards of 40 hours. The bits of Mordor that actually begin to resemble genuine human intimacy look more like this:
Mordor and Assassin's Creed are similar games in many ways. Not in regards to the tenderness of the relationships they engender. The orcs in the former game don't actually kiss you. The best they can do is try and take a bite of you. But that's a story for another day.
The point here is that the fiction behind Assassin's Creed is a surprisingly humane one in comparison to its closest peers. Its worlds invite you to do more than stab things. But then, as Conan O'Brien's reaction shows, they don't make non-stabbing activities seem all that appealing. Assassin's Creed needs to find a way to help its gameplay catch up to everything else it's created.