Assassin's Creed Syndicate is here, the latest game in Ubisoft's annual run-and-stab franchise. The development of this year's entry was lead by Ubisoft Quebec, who took the reins of the huge eight-studio machine that feeds into Assassin's Creed. That - over 1,000 developers - is what's required to get Ubisoft's cash cow out the door every year around the same time.
In the past few years, every new Assassin's Creed title is met with calls of "franchise fatigue". Gamers telling Ubisoft to shelve the series for a year to get it back on track. Lamenting that if the game came out every two years, the Ubisoft machine could fix whatever issues were in the last title. This is borne of the idea that Assassin's Creed would become something else if Ubisoft just waited a bit.
I disagree with most of these contentions.
I'm sure some people are are tuning out of Assassin's Creed. If they tire of the game's core gameplay - the building scaling, the running and jumping, the air assassinations, and the leap of faith - then moving on makes sense. That core play is probably not going to change anytime soon, that's what Assassin's Creed is. The game's take on stealth has always been far lighter than its older sibling, Splinter Cell, which is where Ubisoft's real stealth gameplay lives. It's a game built on animation-priority, not input-priority like a Bayonetta or Devil May Cry. It's an open-world title, so you're probably going to have items to collect and a mission structure that allow devs to easily populate that world with things to do. (The Witcher III had amazing quest design, but even fell prey to this for time to time.)
Assuming Ubisoft takes two years or three years between games, what you'll probably get at the end of line is still going to be Assassin's Creed. It will contain that same core. If you want to argue that you don't like that style of game, I can jam with that. If you're got tired of that specific gameplay, I can understand that too. I enjoyed Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but I had little desire to play further entries until I saw Call of Duty: Black Ops III earlier this year.
All About Those Numbers
Our monthly sales charts from the NPD Group are probably the biggest argument against franchise fatigue as a concept. Top-selling games for 2014 in the US? Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Madden NFL 15, Destiny, Grand Theft Auto V, Minecraft, Super Smash Bros., NBA 2K15, Watch Dogs, FIFA 15, and Call of Duty: Ghosts. What about 2013? Grand Theft Auto V, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Madden NFL 25, Battlefield 4, Assassin's Creed: Black Flag, NBA 2K14, Call of Duty: Black Ops II, Just Dance 2014, Minecraft, and Disney Infinity. 2012. 2011. 2010. 2009. There are losses year-to-year overall - Call of Duty is a ways away from its heyday and revenue was mostly falt 2013 to 2014, meaning others are taking a larger slice of the pie - but it's clear those are industry-wide, not tied to any specific franchise.
People dutifully buy Call of Duty, Just Dance, Madden, and NBA2K. For clarification, Assassin's Creed only charted top 10 for Brotherhood, Assassin's Creed III, and Black Flag. From the currently available information, ACIII is best-selling game in the franchise. That's not say AC sales are dire though. Assassin's Creed III shipped 12 million copies and Black Flag ultimately had a long tail and went on to ship 11 million copies. Ubisoft even said Assassin's Creed Unity had "better than expected performance" in their last earnings release.
I do think Syndicate will probably take a hit in sales though. Black Flag, considered one of the best games in the series, had a rough start after some players were dissatisfied with Assassin's Creed III. Sales were down 60 percent year-over-year compared to Assassin's Creed III in the UK and it came in third behind Call of Duty: Ghosts and Battlefield 4. Past performance can both help and harm your next release; if you lose the trust of the fans, they're less likely to turn out on day-one to buy your game. (Which I honestly think is a good thing, but I digress.) I think Unity has people taking a wait-and-see approach to Syndicate if they haven't already tired of the franchise.
And that's before you get into the competition. Other developers are now doing open-world as well as Ubisoft. Shadow of Mordor was legitimately amazing for Monolith's first open-world title. Metal Gear Solid V does hard stealth better. The Witcher III has better quest design. Rocksteady killed it with Batman: Arkham Knight. Assassin's Creed is still great, but everyone else got much better.
We're All a Little Broken Inside
All told, Assassin's Creed is a series that stretches from good to awesome. Counting just the major releases, I find even its missteps - Revelations, III, and Unity - to be pretty good games.
If you want to argue that Unity could've spent more time in quality control, here I'd agree with you. I tend to think the same of most open-world games. I didn't run into any more glitches in Unity than I have in any other open-world title I've played in the past two years. I tend to record most of my games, so I have footage of various glitches in Grand Theft Auto V, Shadow of Mordor, Mad Max, Dragon Age Inquisition, and The Witcher III. I have no clue what it is about open-world games, probably the immense size and the large number of random NPCs leading to far more chances for bugs than linear titles.
The last game I played prior to Syndicate, Tales of Zestiria, straight crashed to the PS4 Home screen three times. I chalked it up to playing debug review code of the title, as I tend to only remark on bugs like that if they affect my game in a major way, like the mid-game crash in Battlefield 4 that corrupted my game save. (Honestly, I've pondered adding an aside to my reviews of all the various crashes and major bugs I've experienced while playing each game.) We should demand less buggy games across the board.
For a series that's apparently lost its way, we're only two years out from the amazing Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. For all intents and purposes, the real core of what we call Assassin's Creed began with Assassin's Creed II, as the first game was far slower and more methodical. That's two great entries, with Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood. Revelations and III were workmanlike at best. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was great. Unity had launch issues, but was still decent. Syndicate is pretty damn good. It's uneven, but I'd be hard pressed to say it's lost its way anymore than any other major franchise.
Not All the Same at All
For Ubisoft, steering the huge ship that is Assassin's Creed is hard. Once the company shipped Assassin's Creed: Revelations, the overall gameplay stopped flowing from one title to the next. Yes, the core is as I detailed above, but the mechanics surrounding that core are different. For all the derision, if you actually look at the game systems, Assassin's Creed III, Black Flag, Unity, and Syndicate aren't the same game.
Assassin's Creed III is heavily focused on the frontier, with expanded hunting systems, more tree traversal, and the extensive Homestead. Black Flag's home base is relatively sparse in comparison, sticking closer to the villa found in Assassin's Creed II. Seamless ship combat in Black Flag is a huge change to how the game plays, given that for most of the early game, the ship is your primary source of movement around the world. Half of your combat is ship-bound. Remember managing your notoriety level in ACIII? That's sea-only in Black Flag, meaning land murder is a-okay! In addition, both Kenway boys are nothing short of a monsters in combat.
Arno on that other hand is a glass cannon, he can dish it out, but he can't take it until you've built him up a bit. Unity pre-disposes the player to running away from combat and Ubisoft even stole the last known position indicator from Splinter Cell. Cover is handled via a dedicated Stealth button, snapping Arno into hiding spots. There's no hiding of bodies, or whistling. Notoriety is completely gone. Parkour Up and Down are introduced, giving players more control over downward movement and improving the overall movement flow around the city. Want to customize Arno? Here's a wide variety of weapons and armor to use, including spears and maces. Co-op multiplayer joined up, which ultimately lead to the larger, open-ended assassination missions.
In Syndicate, you're back to being an unstoppable monster in combat. Cover is soft-snap once again. Carriages were added, being the preferred method of moving long distances. The rope launcher drastically changes scaling buildings and exiting from bad situations. (The difference between a smoke bomb and trying to scale a building and a smoke bomb then ziplining away is huge.) Ubisoft actually lessened the animation priority in combat - counters and dodges go off instantly now - making the game play closer to the Batman: Arkham titles.
Hell, the modern day play is completely different in all four games.
Hand Me Down
No, my problem with Assassin's Creed is there's little permanence and continuity in the design. Each Assassin's Creed title is usually in development for around 2+ years. Syndicate began production in early 2013, according to statements from Syndicate level design director Hugo Giard to GameSpot. A quick look at LinkedIn shows that Assassin's Creed Unity creative director Alex Amancio started on the project in June 2012. Assassin's Creed Black Flag creative director Ashraf Ismail told PCGamer that production began sometime two years prior to the October 2013 interview. To put this in context, if Ismail jumped back onto the Assassin's Creed franchise right after releasing Black Flag in 2013, his next AC game would be scheduled for 2016.
The development schedule of each game precludes learning from and building upon the successes and mistakes of recently-released entry. Sure, part of that development is done by fluid teams that flow from game-to-game, but the leads are mostly head down and by time their game is a year out, they've had to lock in some systems. So when Syndicate hits and fans decide they hate the new Kidnap mechanic, that's not really actionable information until one to two games down the line. I think that's why the AC games really haven't been the same from title-to-title since Assassin's Creed III, as I pointed out above.
There's seemingly little chance to say "This worked this year, do that again next year." The Assassin's Creed machine is like the ships in Black Flag; once you've decided where you're going, it's still going to be awhile before you head in that new direction. I enjoy the experiments, but certain ideas should be carried from game to game. I'm dreading going back into another era without the rope launcher, for example, and as a stealth tool kidnapping is pretty fun. I'd like those mechanics to move forward into next year's entry, but I doubt that'll happen.
Yeah, I'm arguing that Assassin's Creed might be changing too much.
I think the series could be helped by a smoother transition between titles. There's a bits of pieces of each title that are worth carrying forward. The older notoriety systems felt like busy work, but I feel like there's a way to make rampant killing have more of a consequence to the player. I personally wouldn't bring back ship combat; it was fun, but it limits Ubisoft in the eras and places the series can occupy.
The compact modern day experience from Syndicate is a keeper. Combat is in a good place, but the timing of a counter could be tighter and vary more depending on what weapon you're using. More clothing options is always a plus and allowing clothing choices to appear in cutscenes is great, but there should be a way to separate stats from visual look. Storytelling could improve; I admit I am getting a bit tired of the rogueish assassin archetype. I realize adding a bit more permanence between games could only accelerate the call of the series becoming stale, but I still think it's a worthwhile shift.
The point is Assassin's Creed isn't dead yet, anymore than Call of Duty or Battlefield are dead. There's still life left in the series, even if it's hard for Ubisoft to change course if it heads in the wrong direction. So far though, the publisher has only deviated slightly from the right path.