E3 2014: How Much Assassin's Creed is too Much Assassin's Creed?

E3 2014: How Much Assassin's Creed is too Much Assassin's Creed?

Ubisoft's adventures in historical murder bring us to places few games go -- but does the series' annualization speak to next-gen's lack of ambition?

Bob Mackey Senior Writer

Another year, another Assassin's Creed. Though Ubisoft's flagship series has barely been on this planet for a decade, we've already seen five installments -- sixteen if you count all of its related projects. As game development grows increasingly risky, Ubisoft clearly sees the value of conservatism.

It wasn't always like that, though. While the first Assassin's Creed showed the potential of (then) next-gen gaming, the sequel delivered on the original's promises by filling its lovingly detailed world with a nearly endless amount of things to do. I played the hell out of AC2 after picking it up on a whim, and ended up loving every second of it -- but its two follow-ups, Brotherhood and Revelations, didn't hold the same appeal. Brotherhood only stole a few hours of my time before I thought, "You know what? I've played this already." Revelations didn't even register a blip on my radar, and though the premise of AC3 had me excited, the execution and subsequent critical lambasting kept me far away (Kirk Hamilton wrote an excellent article for Kotaku about the game's many faults).

As for Assassin's Creed IV -- wait, there was an Assassin's Creed IV? I guess I can see why Ubisoft quit numbering these things.

Jumping off of tall things, murdering authority figures in funny hats... everything you've come to expect from Assassin's Creed.

At the risk of sounding like a sour crank, my immediate reaction to Ubisoft's showing was one of abject apathy. As I watched a live demo where an Ubi rep snuck their assassin around the clamorous streets of revolutionary France, I couldn't help but think of my experience with Assassin's Creed II. I had done all of these things before -- the setting was different, as were the throngs of passersby surrounding AC's newest hero, but the actions were the same. Even if the backdrop stands out as an excellent (though a bit on-the-nose for a French developer) choice, I've already had that experience, and don't feel the need to have it again.

As my time grows more valuable, I've become very selective in the games I choose to play. Sure, I played Dark Souls 2 after sinking countless hours into the first Dark Souls, but only because From Software allows me to approach it from a different way each time I play, and the game encourages experimentation above all else. Even if the jump between Dark Souls 1 and 2 wasn't all that drastic, I still feel that each game provides a unique experience. Watching the Assassin's Creed Unity trailer, however, brought me back to those distant days of 2009, where I spent dozens of hours finding glyphs and stabbing popes.

Assassin's Creed isn't the only victim of industry stagnation, but it makes a fine poster child for this unfortunate trend. As I sat through several press conferences, one depressing question popped into my head: "Haven't I seen all of these games before?" Sure, some of them may look a little better, but so many are offering the same kinds of experiences I burned myself on during our last console generation. And, fittingly enough, the sheer scope of the first Assassin's Creed showed us how different games of that generation would be from what had come before. Who could have guessed it would become so symbolic of the industry's bad habit of running every good idea into the ground?

Ah, 2007: When the prospect of stabbing dudes in a historically accurate open world still felt fresh.

But it isn't all gloom and doom. Microsoft's conference showed off several games that appeared to be trying something new, but these stand-outs found themselves ghettoed into an indie sizzle real. I had to sit through every imaginable war FPS cliche during Call of Duty's time in the spotlight, yet the insanely imaginative Cuphead had only a few seconds of visibility. I understand that these conferences are designed for mass-market appeal, but the message these publishers are giving doesn't seem to inspire much interest: the future of video games are the video games you've already played. But, uh, in 1080p!

I expect the show floor to hold many more surprises than the conferences, which put their biggest, costliest, and safest productions in the spotlight. It's just a shame publishers are so gun-shy about the games that go beyond everything we've done before.

Jeremy Parish Editor-in-Chief

You know, I don't necessarily disagree with anything you've said — Ubisoft really has released a ridiculous number of Assassin's Creed games in a fairly short amount of time, which has made for some seriously uneven quality — but I actually found the Assassin's Creed: Unity demo pretty enticing. Well, at least until that awful, gratuitous final shot of the living head on a pike. Come on, games industry, grow up a little.

Unity looks like it could be the first meaningful addition to the Assassin's Creed family since the excellent Assassin's Creed II, five years ago. It adds a lot of interesting new elements to the franchise sandbox, not least of which is cooperative multiplayer. I've heard a lot of people complaining about the emphasis on multiplayer this year, and I could take or leave death match, but I can't think of a single game I've ever played that wasn't made more entertaining by coop play.

The second meaningful addition? Genuinely large crowds. The worlds of Assassin's Creed to date have always felt disappointingly anemic, with little knots of people spread about to create an illusion of density. What Ubisoft showed of Unity today, however, felt far more vital — like you could actually lose yourself in these crowds without straining disbelief. The throngs really added something to the setting, the French Revolution. I'm sure the mob storming the mansion of an effete bourgeois nobleman was totally scripted, but it lent substance to the historical premise on which the entire franchise is predicated.

Will Unity live up to this showing? Maybe not. But the things that bug me about the franchise — the limited expression of a supposedly open world, the sloppy mission design — stand to be massively improved with the addition of coop play in larger, more dynamic crowds. I'm willing to give the game a fair shake, despite my poor experience with the past few titles in the franchise, because it looks genuinely promising.

I think the real problem with Assassin's Creed: Unity isn't what Ubisoft showed on stage today, but rather the constant churn of games that have come between ACII and Unity. Which I suppose was to your point, Bob — there's been too much Assassin's Creed over the past few years. But ultimately, a great game is a great game. I've burned out on series before only to be pulled in by a chapter that brought the games a new sense of vitality. There's a germ of greatness beneath Assassin's Creed's repetition, and I'd be happy if this latest entry is the one to help foster that seed into something more fully realized, like ACII did a few years back.

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