Assassin’s Creed Origins isn’t a full reboot of the long-running series, but because it’s set before the Assassins and Templars, it’s about as close as you can get without wiping the slate clean. Thing is, that’s exactly what Ubisoft should’ve done. It's all dead weight.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/bjy74z/assassins-creed-would-be-a-better-series-without-the-sci-fi-garbage
There were some interesting ideas for the sci-fi aspects of the series but when it ended with 3 with pretty flat explanation it started to loss it impact.
I think it’s unfair to judge the entire framing story of the modern-day narrative based on the complete trainwreck that was Assassin’s Creed 3 – a game where large chunks were made in isolation from other parts of the dev team with no intercommunication, leading to an incoherent mess of mechanics and not just story. They were right to go back to the drawing board after 3 and I’m not surprised it’s taken them this long to revisit the harder-to-rebuild parts of the worldbuilding in favor of working to get the gameplay back together.
It’s really not like the “sci-fi garbage” has never been good: the Ezio games had some great moments that drew directly from the framing (the ending to AC2 still makes me grin on a replay), and even the more recent games wouldn’t have been able to pull some things off without the conceit of reliving memories – the war segment in Unity being a standout example.
I don’t think it should be junked altogether, and I think what they’ve done so far to get away from the mess that was 3 has definitely been in the right direction.
I’m seeing a lot of impassioned responses to this on Twitter, but tbh I think it’s more a reaction to the somewhat-cruel wording of the title than anything having to do with the premise of the article.
That being said, I really liked the direction they were taking the metaplot in Black Flag. As a pivot from the trainwreck of AC3, it actually brought me back to the franchise. I was into the pseudo adventure game setup. The new plot from Abstergo to get those darn assassins using Desmond Miles’s archived DNA was a solid idea, if executed clumsily, and the resurrected ancient alien weirdo. From what I’ve read of the following games (I have not played them because I love myself) they pretty much squander that potential by shifting the focus from the nameless character you played in Black Flag. The reason those games don’t engage new players in the “sci-fi garbage” anymore is because there isn’t a central character dealing with all the high-concept stuff. Desmond’s story is what kept me coming back to the games, not Ezio or Altair or Conner or whoever else.
Black Flag giving you a goddamn pirate ship and opening the Caribbean for exploration and then immediately making you go through employee orientation at Ubisoft is one of the worst of a long line of stupid moments that broke immersion and got in the way of the usually pretty interesting story they were telling. I can’t think of a single time I was excited to go to the present day. I never wanted to watch cutscenes with characters I didn’t care about or run through watered down jumping puzzle while being talked at by characters I still didn’t care about. I’m a big history nerd so the sci-fi framing was an obstacle to spending more time wandering through 15th century Constantinople. I was always unsure if anyone actually liked the modern day stuff.
My theory is that the Animus conceit came from Ubisoft Montreal’s Patrice Désilets slightly odd need to justify UI and other game mechanics within the game. Before directing Assassin’s Creed I, II, and IIb Désilets made Prince of Persia: The Sands of time. The dagger of time’s served as an ingame reason for the limited rewind powers, health was regained by drinking from fountains, and the save system was framed as the Prince telling his story with each reload accompanied by a “no, no it didn’t happen that way.” The desynchronization conceit in AC feels like a direct successor of that idea. I’ve always believed that the Animus started a similar minor conceit to justify the setting and UI and then metastasized into this weird secondary plot.
Side note, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time fucking ruled and doesn’t get talked about enough. It was a really great feeling puzzle platformer with a great setting and narrative hook. It was a shame the sequels got a little out of hand and the Prince turned into an edgelord. Also why is it’s limited rewind mechanic so rarely used? It allowed you to experiment a little without sacrificing tension.
The “modern day” story of AC absolutely got away from itself and became laughable as time went on, but I think it was essential in framing the series in a way that makes some semblance of sense. The Desmond stuff explains why you’re suddenly leaping from Altair to Ezio to Connor and so on. It gives you a reason to care beyond nothing more than kind of ok murder simulators set in historic times.
It’s easy to forget just how incomplete the original AC game felt. You were given a target, for which you had to gather intel to assassinate. This meant you repeated three chores over and over and over again for every single target, one of which was just sitting on a bench next to some people to listen to them talk. No combat, no stealth, no blending, just sit your ass down to progress. Then you would unlock the actual assassination, and the way the world was designed rarely ever let you approach things with actual stealth. You repeated this exact same process a dozen times until the credits rolled. What you did in minute five was no different than hour five.
If that was the entire game, and there was no other intrigue or plot but Altair being a boring arrogant tool while I repeated the same mundane tasks and hearing the “Thief! You dare to steal before me?” line at every intersection, I never would have been curious about the second game. When AC2 rolled around, I was still extremely skeptical about whether or not they fixed those problems, but I was at least curious to see what they did with the sci-fi stuff. Without that curiosity, I’d probably have ignored it entirely.
For awhile now, I’ve wondered what the first Assassin’s Creed game would have been like if it was strictly followed Altair with no modern twist. That certainly wouldn’t have allowed for as many sequels in as many different periods of history, but I think the story could have been constrained for the better.
Counterpoint: A completely scifi Assassin’s Creed game set in the First Civilisitiation.
It’s hard to picture all of it in a vacuum, but I honestly wonder how someone would justify it narratively without the sci-fi animus layer to things.
Putting aside that Altair wasn’t that interesting a character, I just don’t know how you tell that compelling a story arc for him when it’s focused around him being a pawn in a bigger game of chess. Is he going to become the head of the Assassins? Is he going to destroy the Templars? Without the larger scope and meaning added with all the sci-fi crap, it basically just becomes a story of two really powerful gangs trying to take each other out. The sci-fi layer gives you a reason to want a bunch of murderers for hire to succeed because while their methods are horrifying, they’re at least fighting a much more terrifying foe who wants to mind control humanity entirely.
The Assassin’s Creed struggle only works because the awful people you side with are not horrifyingly terrible on a global scale compared to their foes. If it was just one vaguely plausible secret society versus another, then frankly who cares? I’m wantonly murdering my enemies because I want to be the brutal shadow government instead?
I think the modern/sci-fi stuff was good, if a bit schlocky, when it was actually progressing. Then 3 happened and it’s been on the back burner ever since. It makes the entire plot device that the series was founded on feel vestigial when you’ve got a world conquering AI god just kinda…hanging out?
It’s no surprise why this is happening though. After 3 I get why Ubi would be hesitant to build up to another crescendo and would much rather keep the drama to a minimum. The problem is they set up Juno as so powerful that they backed themselves into a corner. I don’t think there’s a way to resolve that plot in a single game, at least not in a way that doesn’t feel rushed. This means that for Assassin’s Creed to properly address it it would need to:
- Reintroduce Juno - Only diehard fans know who she is at this point
- Heavy emphasis on modern day - Possible, but a risky departure
- A new multi-game character like Desmond - Possible, but risky after it went so bad last time
- Way to stop Juno - Introduce another macguffin that we only just found out about?
- Move the plot towards a climax - Takes away from the more interesting, small scale, stories.
- Have the climax - You saved the world! Again.
And then what? Introduce another big bad? We’re right back where we started. As much as I would love to see a conclusion to everything that was setup through 3 it could only end in disaster. Assassin’s Creed works best as (bi)annual one-offs, and now that the series is established it doesn’t need an overarching plot to justify itself. There’s no reason for Ubi to upset that formula for a long shot chance at a resolution for a series they have no intention of ending.
Every time i consider playing a new Assassin’s Creed i remember that they will definitely stop me playing the game to make me wander around a house or an office or some shit and listen to boring-ass exposition that has nothing to do with what’s actually happening in that game, and i decide perhaps i should play a good game instead.
I mean they do farther the scifi plot in Origins.
I haven’t played Origins yet! Looking forward to it though. Hope it doesn’t invalidate my entire comment.
I consider myself a fan of the series but I can’t make any excuses for how annoying and exhausting the modern day animus stuff has always been. Like I may be alone on this but I would have been completely 100% ok if Ubisoft just wanted to make their games disconnected vignettes including their own characters and stories with no real narrative through line at all. Just here you go, here’s this year’s historical murder simulator.
The strength of those games has always been in giving the player a real sense of place and letting them soak up the sights of periods rarely covered in other games, let alone with the level of AAA polish Ubisoft can offer. And say what you want about some of the AC protagonist’s questionable likeability (looking at you Connor) but Desmond was always the worst and having to get warped forward in time to listen to him whine is nothing short of excruciating in spots.
Side note, Edward Kenway is also the best, most underrated protagonist that series has had, better than Ezio. There, I said it.
My main beef with Kenway is that he’s kind of just a terrible human being who happens to be really charming. His whole thing is that he’s going around killing tons of people so he can be super rich and the establishment of some weird pirate utopia which again only really works because they’re robbing people blind. The fact that a lot of the people you’re killing and stealing from ultimately work for bad people kind of makes it a little better, but up until the end of the game Kenway really has no skin in that larger conflict and just wants to get his. Doesn’t help that he totally abandons his wife to go gallivanting and to the best of my knowledge sends absolutely nothing to her the whole time.
I identified with him because he, like me, did not give a shit about the whole Templar-Assassin thing and just wanted to have fun being a pirate.
See this is what actually makes it for me.
Edward’s arc over the course of that game is surprisingly well done. He starts out (and for most of the game still is) a piece of shit. A murderer, a snake, completely shameless. He’s in it for the money and he never says anything different for a moment. Unlike Ezio, who buys into the whole Assassins thing pretty quickly, Edward still couldn’t give less of a fuck about what they stand for, and it just felt super believable to me after playing so many characters who couldn’t wait to galavant as a professional assassin
It’s the end of that game where Edward has a chance to reflect on the absolute mayhem he’s brought upon the world that he realizes he should have stood for something greater, made a real difference. All of his friends are dead or imprisoned, his wife is dead, he’s rich and has his own island but it was all for nothing. On top of all this he now has a daughter he’s never truly known that he has to raise, alone and unprepared. It’s all pretty heartbreaking and made way more of an impact than most of Ezio’s storyline for me.
Counterpoint: The historical stuff started getting more and more formulaic and them (mostly) abandoning the continuing sci-fi bullshit plot after 4 has clearly matched the downturn of the series and the idea that you actually have to play any given one of them.
I feel like Ubi keeps hearing notes from people like Patrick and their response is to make the sci-fi bullshit shittier making no one happy.
ETA: Origins has been on my unplayed pile for a while now mostly because I know it won’t actually do anything meaningful with the frame story, which has now been sitting in limbo since 2013.
I guess all of that just fell totally flat for me and I never once for a second bought into the concept of his remorse or having learned anything. It also doesn’t help that the game never really plays it off as him being awful, they actively celebrate the terrible things he does. You’re supposed to find him to be a charming, affable rogue as opposed to a money crazed mass murderer with no philosophical or emotional rudder.
Maybe it was the change in scope, but it just really seemed odd playing Black Flag. I had skipped 3, so maybe that’s where this all started, but at least in the past the assassins you played basically kept to themselves. They would off the occasional guard, but your goal was to cause as little chaos as possible. With Kenway, I’m just trolling the high seas, murdering entire ships full of people who probably have no actual relationship to the Templars, all so I can get some crafting materials.
Define frame story? Because I have some crazy scifi First Civ spoilers if you want them.