One of the keys to Assassin's Creed's appeal are the various settings. There's a solid stealth and combat experience, various charismatic characters, and a sprawling backstory that dives into outright nonsense at times, but part of what put Assassin's Creed on the map was its open-world. Emphasis on "world".
Ubisoft works quite hard to provide a playable space that still works as a window into history. They employ historians to offering up detail and depth that most players honestly never pay attention to. The publisher is so cognizant of the amount of effort that goes into populating each era that the latest title, Assassin's Creed: Origins, will offer a non-combat educational mode to teach students about ancient Egypt.
"It was always a dream of ours to bring Ancient Egypt to life, as a developer. But also, it's something that's always in the top three settings that fans want. Having said that, bringing Ancient Egypt to life, the country that is Egypt, the sheer scope and size and variety of this world, making sure this world was contiguous and represented properly ... there are many technical hurdles and challenges there," Assassin's Creed Origins creative director Ashraf Ismail told Digital Trends.
What makes an Assassin's Creed setting work is novelty and variety. It has to offer a place and culture players have little knowledge of and it has to be more than just one note all the way through. So here's a look at the Assassin's Creed eras from best to worst. I'm skipping the eras involved in side-scrolling projects like the Chronicles games and handheld only spin-offs like Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines, as the comparison just wouldn't be fair.
10. The Holy Land, 1191-1191 (Assassin's Creed)
The first Assassin's Creed feels at times more like a proof-of-concept rather than a fully-fledged game. While not the chronologically first tale, the adventures of Altair Ibn-La'Ahad sketched out the framework for everything that Assassin's Creed became.
The three key cities in the game—Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus—provide a good deal of novelty, as many players were (and are) completely in the dark about that area during the Third Crusade. Unfortunately, since it's the opening entry, Assassin's Creed's setting is also lacking in variety. The whole world is presented in this very muted, subdued color tone, and differentiation between regions isn't as strong as it could've been.
9. New Orleans 1765-1777 (Assassin's Creed III: Liberation)
Liberation sits on the gulf between the bigger entries in the series and the handheld versions I've left off this list. The city of New Orleans and the surrounding Bayou had some care and effort put into it, but it's clear that the limitations of the PlayStation Vita held the game back from trying anything more ambitious. (Other than the sheer ambition of fitting a proper Assassin's Creed on a portable.)
It's clear that Liberation drew its assets from those made for Assassin's Creed III, tweaked to fit the new setting. It's a new layer of paint on ideas done better elsewhere. AC III's Boston and Wilderness are changed and skewed to make New Orleans and the Bayou. I can't fault the team behind the game though, because they did amazing work with what they did have.
8. New York and the North Atlantic, 1754-1763 (Assassin's Creed Rogue)
Assassin's Creed Rogue was a release for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, giving players a slight evolution of Black Flag's mechanics and a different view on Assassin-Templar conflict. AC Rogue was sort of a companion piece to the larger games in the series, launching alongside Assassin's Creed: Unity, but also bridging the gap from Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag to Assassin's Creed III.
Rogue has the opposite problem of the original Assassin's Creed. The game goes from Lisbon, Portugal, to wilds of Boston, New York City, the North Atlantic, the Arctic, and even Versailles briefly. While the game's story connects these areas, they otherwise feel like separate linear vignettes in the life of Templar Shay Patrick Cormac. Most of the locations, especially New York City, feel like retreads of regions from previous titles, mostly AC III's colonial cities and wilderness. The innovation here was in the mechanics, not the setting itself.
7. Constantinople and Cappadocia, 1510-1512 (Assassin's Creed Revelations)
The massive city of Constantinople stands as the place where Ezio has his last adventure. It's the end of the Assassin's Creed II trilogy, moving an older Ezio from Rome. Constantinople was a nice divergence from the Italian architecture and styles players had gotten used to during AC II and Brotherhood, with new landmarks like the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapı Palace. It also offered a scope that was much bigger than the previous entries in this list.
Unfortunately, the city as a whole lacked variety, moving from one area of the city to the next didn't feel like a major change. Ubisoft tried to rectify this a bit with the underground region of Cappadocia, but that was clearly a second thought to the main city.
6. Boston and New York, 1760-1783 (Assassin's Creed III)
Boston is one of the stronger cities in the Assassin's Creed canon, with a strong sense of history presented during such an important time in the American Revolution. Overall though, Assassin's Creed III's setting lacks impact.
Everything looks good, from Boston, to the wilderness, New York, and the Eastern Seaboard, but given the subject matter, Ubisoft skimped on the vibrancy. It's also a very flat game, as the cities of Colonial America weren't up the the heights of many of the old world buildings you could climb on. Assassin's Creed III overall is it's solid, but it lacks the peaks and valleys of some of the series' best.
5. Havana, Nassau, Kingston, and the Caribbean, 1715-1722 (Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag)
Once again, we have two contrasting entries back to back. Frankly put, the cities of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag aren't great. AC III's Boston and New York lacked the highs I feel a good Assassin's Creed needs, but Black Flag's cities generally have the same problem and lack strong landmarks. None of the cities feel meaningful in the same way that earlier entries in this list do.
So it helps that the Caribbean itself has such a strong sense of place and purpose. Exploring the open seas and islands of Black Flag feels amazing, and the color that Assassin's Creed III was missing seems to have found its way into the sequel. The cities are lacking, so it's impressive how much ground Ubisoft was able to make up in the world itself.
4. Paris, 1789-1799 (Assassin's Creed Unity)
Assassin's Creed Unity is one of the most technically impressive cities Ubisoft has ever created. If you have a PC that can run it, Unity's Paris will put it through its paces with some amazing vistas. It also helped that Ubisoft crafted some magnificent interiors for many of the more notable buildings in the game. Digital Paris bleeds history, art, and culture. It's also a dense city, full of crowds and bustle.
Most of the game takes place within this meticulously crafted recreation of Paris, with only a few journeys outside. Despite that, Ubisoft worked hard on the gradient; the affluent districts of the city seem worlds away from the slums. Given the focus of Unity—the class-based French Revolution—that's key. I don't have many problems with Unity's Paris; other games just do what it does better.
3. Rome, 1499-1507 (Assassin's Creed Brotherhood)
This is considered one of the best Assassin's Creed games of all time. I'll agree with that, but to be honest, Rome could've been better. It offered in scope, allowing players to traipse across the rooftops of Renaissance Rome in all its glory. It offered history, with buildings like the Colosseum and the Pantheon.
But playing through it again for the Ezio Collection, I found myself struck by the lack of visual variety in the city. Climbing the Colosseum stands as one of the high points, but it's not enough to carry the entire setting. It just wasn't as grand and majestic as I remembered it, despite carrying forward many of AC II's strengths. I love Brotherhood, but Rome needs something a little extra to sit at the top of the list.
2. London, 1868-1868 (Assassin's Creed Syndicate)
If you look at the details, Unity's Paris is the more technically-impressive city. But pound for pound, London in Assassin's Creed Syndicate outdoes it. The city is as dense as Paris was, but the contrast between the different areas of the city is even greater. There's the barges passing noisily over the Thames, the smokestacks of industry spilling soot over the skyline. The pastoral charm and aristocracy of Westminster, versus the squalor of Whitechapel. The train stations stand as monuments to the future, all metal and glass, with people passing through them on their way to other places.
You want history? Syndicate has it. Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England. Even the Tower of London makes an appearance. London is a city teeming with historical significance and Syndicate does its best to present much of it to the player. I'd say it has the most recognizable landmarks of any Assassin's Creed game period. It's just such an amazing setting and I feel that most folks didn't give Syndicate a fair shake. The novelty is a bit lower here, but the rest more than makes up for it.
1. Venice and Florence, 1476-1499 (Assassin's Creed II)
Yep. Assassin's Creed II still sits at the top. Some folks may like Rome, the Caribbean, Paris, or London more. I admit, the scale of those regions can put Assassin's Creed II's environments to shame. But Assassin's Creed offers a bit of everything. Between Florence and Venice, you have to very different styles of city: one with the city streets full of life and mercantile expression, the other with slow, rolling canals and the lively Carnival.
AC II left behind the single-toned cities of the first game for a pair filled with varying colors. It didn't lean as heavily into the red, white, and black that would be the signature of Brotherhood either. AC II allowed for a greater contrast in its environments.
The history was still apparent here, offering the occasional grand heights to scale. There was the Florence Cathedral, St. Mark's Basilica, Mercato Vecchio, and the New Basilica of Saint Mary. From a historical standpoint, Syndicate still beats it, but there's nothing to scoff at here.
Any of the last few could be at the top of this list, but for my money, Assassin's Creed II's setting was just right.