2014 Recap: Why Won't You Let Me Love You, Assassin's Creed?

2014 Recap: Why Won't You Let Me Love You, Assassin's Creed?

Jeremy contemplates the uneven AC: Unity and why he almost, but not quite, loves the series.

Throughout December, the USgamer team will be looking back at the most interesting games they played this year. Not necessarily the best, though, as today's entry demonstrates...

My relationship with the Assassin's Creed has always been one where you need to tick the "It's Complicated" status checkbox on Facebook, a real love/hate kind of affair. That hasn't changed with this year's entry, Assassin's Creed: Unity. If anything, Unity has simply pushed my already polarized feelings to even greater extremes.

Consider the original Assassin's Creed. Released in 2007, the game really was like nothing else at the time. Sure, you could tell that they'd filed off the Prince of Persia serial numbers somewhere along the course of development, but the final product felt very different from the series that served as its roots.

I remember marveling at the audacity of the thing. Not so much the free-running — parkour was already feeling a bit dated as a trend by 2007, having been in a James Bond movie by that point — but rather the way the story dared to challenge conventions, especially for Americans. Here was a game revolving around a Muslim protagonist, one whose central task was to kill Christian soldiers and leaders in order to arrest the progress of the Crusades into Jerusalem. This, from a game released into the bitter thick of America's post-9/11 Islamophobia. Assassin's Creed may well have been the ballsiest major game release of the decade.

And not only that, but the setting! How many video games have ever let you tour the 12th-century Holy Land at your leisure? Damascus, Jerusalem, Acre — all beautifully rendered and realized, with a fascinating setup (your highly skilled assassin, Altaïr, must work his way back up through the ranks after being demoted for behavior unbecoming of a proper assassin) and an even more unusual framing device (your time with Altaïr is actually a virtual simulation being experienced by one of his descendants more than 900 years later).

These high points of excellence helped smooth over the fact that the rest of Assassin's Creed was, to put it charitably, a rough ride. Within that glorious recreation of ancient Palestine you quickly found you had very little to do. Sure, the game itself ran for 20-30 hours, but you had about four tasks that you had to repeat ad nauseum: Climb a building to survey the land, stake out a target, kill said target, run around and collect flags. Oh, and you could also shank any wandering Crusader knights you came across. But that was really about it, and it didn't take long for tedium to set in.

Part of the problem came from the fact that the brave "social camouflage" concept that served as one of the game's underpinnings never quite worked out the way Ubisoft intended. The idea was certainly sound, a welcome attempt to freshen up the concept of stealth action and make it more about hiding in plain sight than about crawling tediously through the underbrush as guards went about their robotic search routines. In practice, though, slipping into the crowd didn't really work like it was promised; Altaïr could only blend with certain conspicuous groups of monks wearing hoods similar to his own, and never when under direct surveillance.

More annoyingly, the city streets were full of beggars who inexplicably would make a beeline for Altaïr, never bothering anyone else, and create a ruckus that almost always drew the ire of guards. And the further you ventured into the story, the more difficult it was to make use of that free-traversal system to travel by rooftop, as guards began to patrol above the city in ever-greater numbers. All of these factors conspired to make the game's later assassination missions even harder to complete quietly, and they'd invariably degenerate into massive skirmishes in which a dozen soldiers would take turns attacking Altaïr... and while they were easily dispatched, the parry-and-counter combat design insured doing so would take forever.

In short, Assassin's Creed began as a promising concept bogged down by a lack of substance and a preposterous amount of padding to help compensate for the game's fundamental emptiness. A premise bursting with potential — potential realized in large part by its sequel, 2009's Assassin's Creed II. The second game did nearly everything right; it added far more variety and content to the action, told a story that didn't feel like a simple rehash of the first game, and sanded over the most annoying parts of the original. For example, you now had ranged attacks to help deal with rooftop patrols, and the beggars became wandering minstrels who could be diverted by tossing coins into the street. It really felt like Ubisoft Montreal listened to criticisms of the original game and worked hard to address Assassin's Creed's shortcomings.

So how have we come to Unity, a game being pilloried in forums and social media? A game whose shortcomings have been so severe that the company's president had to make a public apology and offer upcoming paid DLC releases for free as a make-good? Unity's technical issues have something to do with it, but the blowback against the game's glitches (of which I myself saw only a few instances of severe slowdown and a single hard lock-up during my extensive review sessions) feels more like a symptom of deeper disgruntlement.

While the technical issues in Unity posed an occasional annoyance at most, I found myself constantly plagued by the larger issues that have practically come to define Assassin's Creed. The series suffers from long-running flaws that Ubisoft seems unwilling or uninterested in correcting. Like a lot of big franchises, Assassin's Creed has become something of a victim of its own success. In designing the original sequel, Ubisoft went to great lengths to address complaints about the first game; but once ACII became a massive success, the design of Assassin's Creed became trapped in amber. It's locked in place by the fact that it's a proven formula and the prospect that changing something might upset the balance of elements that draws players to the series by the millions. Ubisoft tweaks minor details — sometimes for the better, as with the up/down differentiation in Unity's free-running mechanic, sometimes for the worse, as with Assassin's Creed III's god-awful menu interface — but as the series marches forward at an annual pace, it's become increasingly clear that the underlying features of the franchise remain immutable. Even the ones in dire need of change.

The new free-running interface in Unity offers a case-in-point example. They almost got it right! They came so close! Press one button to scramble up as you free-run, press another to drop down freely — a great idea. But they missed the goal. The "run up" button is essentially moot, because simply holding down the run trigger causes you to do very nearly the exact same thing... which is to say, simply running causes protagonist Arno to fling himself at any vertical surface that enters his cone of vision, whether you want him to climb or not.

It would have been so easy to make this new mechanic a home run. All they needed to do was set the basic run function to make you run. Not jump. Not climb. Just run. Then, if you want to climb or jump, you hold the appropriate modifier — up or down. Suddenly, Assassin's Creed's AI-driven interface would work more effectively under the player's control; you'd be able to determine from moment to moment how Arno would behave. You, not the AI. But instead, the new directional modifiers have very little impact; Arno does his own thing, which may or may not be what the player has in mind, same as every other protagonist in the series to date.

It seems like such a minor thing, such a trivial complaint. But it's really not. You spend the entire game guiding Arno around, and as I said in my review, I spent the entire game struggling to make him do what I want. Most of the time, we got along fine. But then I'd be forced into a chase sequence or some sort of high-tension, high-speed action, and my attempts to outwit or outmaneuver the bad guys would be thwarted by Arno's decision to go off and do something totally different from what I had in mind... yet there is no real way to prevent him from taking a running leap at a wall besides either (1) not running or (2) giving all walls a wide berth.

And this experience is hardly unique to Unity; I tried playing Assassin's Creed: Rogue immediately after completing Unity and had to turn off the game in annoyance when the second mission involved chasing some guy through the trees... and, inevitably, being chastised when the sometimes-it-works-sometimes-it-doesn't pathfinding sent me sailing into open air rather than toward a tree branch. Rogue got off to such a promising start, too; the game opens with the player sneaking into a military encampment, stealing a ship, and taking out an enemy fleet. But eventually it all comes back to crummy chase missions undermined by controls that complicate play by overly simplifying it.

Even so, I could still swallow this ongoing irritation more easily if not for the fact that the series still feels empty. Oh, there's more to do in Unity than in the original Assassin's Creed; mission have more variety, and there are a ton of side quests ranging from mundane chores to riddle-based searches for hidden secrets. Still, the majority of Unity, as with the first game in the series, boils down to moving from point to point and killing things.

Unity offers heartbreakingly little real interaction. I love that the missions are so much more open-ended and flexible than in previous games; it's the first entry in the entire series whose core assassination assignments truly make good on the promise inherent in the original game. I love the fact that you can complete your assassinations with such variety (driving guards into a berserker rage from a distance and then walking casually into a now guard-free area never gets old), and sneaking into a heavily watched area to kill a target and escape unscathed from an army of soldiers can be truly thrilling.

But aside from stabbing bad guys and holding a button to open a chest, Arno doesn't really exist in Unity's world. He glides through it, ghost-like. He's presence who can do little to fit in with his surroundings. Ubisoft focused on creating massive throngs of citizens with which to populate 18th-century Paris, creating a sensation of revolution, but the dense crowds of figures going through their simple scripted motions simply highlights the uncanniness of the world and how poorly Arno occupies it.

Compare that to Grand Theft Auto V, another open-world game where the bulk of the action revolves around killing people and committing heinous deeds. I may not be in love with the game's story, but I love that Rockstar went to tremendous lengths to make Los Santos feel like a real place. More importantly, they made a painstaking effort to make the game's protagonists feel like a part of that world. The ability to peep at the lives of inactive characters isn't simply a gimmick; it goes a long way toward creating the illusion that you're looking into a living, breathing world.

More importantly, though, Los Santos gives you things to do besides your latest mission of crime. You can more or less blow off the main game and simply go exploring, and you'll always find surprises. The new "remastered" releases of the game threw in an entire sub-game that sends your protagonists out into the wilderness beyond the city in order to take photographs of wildlife, just because they could. Half the fun of GTA V is simply driving at random to see what happens; recently, I accidentally drove my car into the ocean and bailed out, only to find I'd surfaced near a yacht, which I promptly swiped and took on a tour around the perimeter of the island. There was no real purpose or bonus to this beyond sight-seeing (and the occasional shark scare after I traded the boat for a jetski midway through the trip); it was just something I could do. And something I wanted to do, simply because it happened, and I couldn't have predicted it. I wandered into it on my own and let the game experience unfold.

Maybe that's the fundamental problem with Assassin's Creed. Despite being an open-world game, the creators leave very little opportunity for the chips to fall as they may. Assassin's Creed lacks fundamental opportunities for player discovery, something that became painfully clear to me when I recently revisited Skyrim. Much of what has addicted me to the latest chapter of The Elder Scrolls has been the way its world unfolds before players, gently, a piece at a time. You begin with a blank world map and a vague directive, and it falls on you to figure out where to go from there. As you begin to wander, the map in turn begins to reveal its secrets — points of interest appear as icons, announcing their presence but never demanding your attention until such a time as they might have a role to play in a story quest. You can acquire dozens of overlapping missions to complete at your leisure, potentially even blowing them off altogether in favor of simply exploring the world.

Compare that to Assassin's Creed, which begins with a blank map... until you climb a viewpoint and survey the area below, at which point every possible point of interest in a given district populates the map. From missions to potential retail purchases to trivial treasure chests that yield a pittance of cash, it all comes flooding in at once. There's no sense of discovery beyond figuring out how to scramble up the next viewpoint. And while that can create an interesting puzzle or challenge (working my way through the heavily guarded Bastille long before Arno had the proper equipment or techniques for such a feat was probably the hardest thing I did in a video game all year), once you've scouted out the dozen or so viewpoints in the game the rest of the experience amounts to clearing off a checklist.

Assassin's Creed has become the king of checklist gaming. Your map creates an icon-based checklist of things to do, or collect, or kill. When you tackle a mission, you're given a neat little checklist of objectives and side tasks to take care of. Everything is tidily quantified, arranged so that you don't miss a thing, with each checkpoint counting toward a negligible bit of completion for the total tally of game content.

This approach to presentation isn't unique to Assassin's Creed; it seems to have become Ubisoft's stock in trade. Watch_Dogs took exactly the same approach earlier this year, and it too felt equally empty; I hated things like the way you could choose to steal from people but, if you were moved by a brief and tragic description that accompanied an NPC's profile, you couldn't put money into their accounts. And based on Bob's review of Far Cry 4, the checklist phenomenon has spread to that franchise, too.

I want more from Assassin's Creed. There's so much to love about the series; it kills me that it's simply stagnated since ACII. Unity dropped us into revolutionary-era France, a vibrant and violent time in history, and it was just gorgeous. Intoxicating. But everything about the game felt as though it had been designed to whisk us through the experience as painlessly and antiseptically as possible. It seems such a waste to create such elaborate environments that will be discarded in short order. Unity's is not a world you live in or take the time to savor, because there's no reason to. And beneath its gorgeous surface, it offers little substance; reskin the city with fewer top hats and duller colors, shuffle around the copy-and-paste buildings, and it could be any post-Renaissance European city. Notre Dame could just as easily be the St. Salvator Cathedral in Prague for all it really matters.

Next year's Assassin's Creed — because of course there's going to be another one next year, if not more than one — will reportedly take place in Victorian London. And I'm sure that vision of London will be every bit as vibrant and lively as Unity's Paris. And I'm sure that we'll slide right through that world, too, as Assassin's Creed once again fails to give us the means to do anything meaningful or the opportunity to pause and reflect on our surroundings.

Assassin's Creed comes so close to being a series I could love. With a few fundamental tweaks — revised controls, more discovery, more things to do besides mark off the duty checklist — it could go from being good-but-troubled to genuinely brilliant. I suspect, however, that Assassin's Creed has too much inertia to change without undergoing a fundamental overhaul of the entire premise. Mike is convinced that Unity was meant to be a soft reboot of the series, but I just don't see it; it made some minor tweaks to the formula, but that's true of every Assassin's Creed. It was still business as usual.

The series' first and last major revolution, ACII, also marked the beginning of the series' move to an annual schedule. Therein lies the trouble, I suspect. Looking at the current AAA gaming landscape, "annual franchise" appears in nearly every case to have become shorthand for "too big to fail" — which is to say, creatively hamstrung by success. Change is risk. Risk can cost profits. Ergo, best to avoid change.

And yet, I suspect I'll keep playing Assassin's Creed. The series' best moments really can be great. And there's that small, possibly vain hope that one of these years, it'll cast off its shackles and realize the masterpiece lurking in potentia inside its premise.

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