Why Assassin's Creed Makes No Sense To Me

Why Assassin's Creed Makes No Sense To Me

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:

Why Assassin's Creed Makes No Sense To Me

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:

Why Assassin's Creed Makes No Sense To Me

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.


    I still love the series. Even after all the criticisms, it's just so much fun. and I actually like the story.

      With you here. I get a lot of entertainment from every AC game, and I hope the franchise is far from over!

    You know what, I don't really care about the story anymore. Ever since the death of a particular character the MAIN character I just stopped caring because I don't know where it's going or what they're trying to achieve aside from milking the franchise

    Isn't that the real problem with AC though? They fired the original creator who was planning on ending the franchise at AC3 in order to keep milking it? Someone clarify this for me.

    What they need to do is to stop caring about the story and focus on individual stories rather then the overall doomsday story that's already ended. I was way more interested in Kenways story to the point that I kept forgetting I was even in the future (and I was way more interested in the future story in AC1 and AC3 too). It's why I'm looking forward to Rogue, because apparently it's a self contained story that has nothing to do with the main story (also Unity is broken).

    If they really want to blow some fresh air into the series they should make non-canon stories for people to have fun with. Like a steampunk or cyberpunk themed AC game.

    At this point I don't care about the story. Besides, the plot twist at the end of the series will probably be revealing that all this time you were playing someone in the year 2100 going back through the Animus to all these people going back into the Animus.

      Patrice Désilets was let go after AC2. Poor bugger had his new game neutered by Ubisoft after they acquired THQ Montreal, and then he was let go, again.

    I was never invested in the series. I found the story way too convoluted -especially the all white ancient all powerful race part- but AC3 utterly killed the franchise for me (didn't play AC2.5 or 2.75) because of how broken it felt, in terms of both story & gameplay.
    What people are saying about AC: Unity pretty much justifies what I've felt about the series as a whole. More so since the first game was god awful, they improved it in 2 but haven't done anything to fix it since, only broken it more & more.

    I liked Black Flag. It's the only AC game I've enjoyed. The gameplay suits being a pirate over being an assassin. For a series based around being an assassin, it sure doesn't play like I would imagine. I was hoping for Splinter Cell type gameplay in ancient times but instead you're in hand to hand combat with guards more often than not

      Yeah, the only time I enjoyed the combat in AC was in AC 1 where I limited myself to the hidden blades. When you do you lose the ability to block attacks and have to rely on parrying. Makes combat feel more like a struggle that makes you wonder when you should run instead.

      ...then they added blocking for all weapons including fists.

        They also added a whole heap of ranged weapons, some of which provide for interesting tactical opportunities, but which mostly serve to make the combat easier than in AC 1, when you had to be right up on whoever you wanted to kill.

          I thought they got ranged combat somewhat right in AC4. They gave those weapons long reload times so you would only be able to use 1-4 (via upgrades) during combat since you didn't really have that much time to reload during.

    The story is convoluted and unnecessarily confusing, thanks in no small part to its use of time travel.

    Alright bro, stay a while and listen.

    So there's these Templars and they wan't to take over the world and enslave people and shit. Because choice and free will sucks. They're basically reptilian Illuminati or some shit.

    Anyways. They've been raging a battle for centuries against these Assassin dudes who are trying to stop them. A battle to control technology that was left behind from an ancient civilization that was wiped out by solar flares. Remember to recycle bro.

    So in the present time, there's these machines that let peeps use human DNA to recall memories from dead ancestors. They then create this virtual reality simulation thingo where they're reliving the memories of these dead ancestors. Why? Because they want to find out what happened to all the lost technology from those ancient sun flare dudes so they can harness the power to control everyone.

    There's no actual time travel, just people experiencing memories of their ancestors from the past. But this is happening in our future, not the present...

    ...actually I get why that could be a bit confusing.

    I am not sure why I read this article. I played the first game for a few hours, then put it away. Given that I suck at stealth I don't know why I even purchased it.

    I hope those who do buy it have fun.

    PS - that cravat and hood combo is one of the sillier things in a world of silly things.

    I am trying not to be noticed because I am stealth guy - this lovely cravat and hood is sure to render me entirely unremarkable. Yep. you cant see me, I am wearing a hood. But I can't see you either because my peripheral vision is severely compromised.

      I played AC1 to the end because it came for free with my PS3. I really hated it. It had too many repetitive missions and the game designers were completely in love with their character's voices - bosses would ramble on in unskippable dialogue before the fight and before their dying breath.

      I still think it's a ridiculous idea that reenacting events in a virtual world in the past can gain such precise information for use in the future.

    I like the series, but you’re nuts if you’re still pre-ordering Ubisoft crap before you see the reviews.

    After AC III it became pretty clear that they’d well and truly jumped the shark in regards to what the game was looking to achieve within the timeframes Ubisoft were giving themselves to pump out sequels.

    Here’s an idea, how about they release 1-2 Assassins Creed games this generation instead of six and make them well constructed, polished AND evolutionary? I think if anything is telling that Ubisoft don’t ACTUALLY give a shit about this game it’s that it in no way advances the games main canon. This game exists because it was the best they could do to have TWO AC games out before Christmas.

    I don’t think the issues with the game have anything to do with the overarching story (which I quite liked for the first 4 or so games) or the interaction between the historical worlds and the silly violence, it’s simply a case of poor direction and tight timeframes.
    They need to hire somebody good to oversee production of the game from within ONE studio, they need a refocused view of what they want out of the next game and most importantly, they need to set achievable but ambitious goals and then give themselves a reasonable timeframe to make the game.

    Story wise I really wish the series would move away from both the Templar stuff and the future stuff. Have one game set entirely in the future that closes the whole Assassin x Templar/Ancient Aliens story for good, and then in future games have the stories self contained to whatever time period they're set.

    Gameplay wise I agree with @cufcfan616
    The games are much more suited to being a Pirate than an Assassin. In Black Flag I forwent stealth entirely (except for the missions that forced it) and just jumped in and started killing people and had a lot of fun doing it. I'd like to see some Assassin's Creed games where you don't actually play an Assassin so that sort of brawling type gameplay is better suited, and then some Assassin's Creed games where you are an Assassin and the focus is much more on stealth. Maybe a game with two protagonists? One an Assassin, one something else.

    I bought the original game when it was first released, and never ended up finishing it because it felt so freaking repetitive (yet im still playing Destiny? lolwut).

    But god dayum, set one game in feudal Japan and I'd be all over dat shit!

      I think if you base the franchise on AC1 your cheating yourself. AC2 was brilliant and a big step up from the first; highly recommend you give it a go.

    In regards to resolving theatrical disputes ... isn't that one of the things that makes Assassin's Creed games a breath of fresh air?

    Isn't it nice for a change to loot a body and find something other than a health potion or shotgun ammo? Sure we can kill Nazis and Orcs, that's fun, but I enjoy the change of pace of resolving a fued between censors and the theatre every now and then. I love my Lord of the Rings lore, and I enjoy reading codex entries about the history or The Shire, but I like that I actually learn about real historical events and people with the AC games too.

    It might seem boring I suppose, but in a sea of killer cyborgs, high fantasy landscapes and aiming down sights, I feel like the flavour of AC games is a welcome change.

    Again, the whole problem with the AC franchise is that it was originally envisioned as a trilogy, but then they realised they had a hit, drew out the arc of the second character into its own trilogy, and then made a tedious history lesson out of AC3 and basically shot their "main" story to death for the sake of be able to continue to milk the franchise.

    If Ubisoft had *really* wanted to turn AC into an ongoing franchise, they should have done what they initially SET OUT TO DO, and closed the loop on their original story arc. From that point, they could have THEN branched out into other aspects of the same setting instead of stringing everyone along with a convoluted story that I'm not convinced they even know where they're going with the story.

    At the moment it's just a stale piece of rubbish that seems to wander aimlessly just in an attempt to get more sales - it's the stabby sandbox equivalent of CoD.

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