2021 marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tomb Raider franchise.
While there is no new game on the horizon, Crystal Dynamics, the main studio that has been creating Tomb Raider since 2006, did announce something big, something to change the landscape of the franchise.
Up until now there have been three separate timelines of Lara Croft; the original Core Design era, the first reboot by Crystal Dynamics (often referred to as LAU, the letters of the three games of said reboot), and most recently the trilogy known as the Survivor timeline, starting with TR: 2013.
While these separate timelines have had crossover characters and reimagined scenes, they are mostly thought of as three interpretations of the character…until now.
In a video celebrating the anniversary, it was revealed that whenever the new game will be revealed, it will incorporate every single Tomb Raider game before it, creating the newly-dubbed Unified timeline.
While the Unified timeline has been announced, there have been zero hints as the chronology or where the series will pick up afterwards. But as someone has more than a passing interest in last twenty-five years of Tomb Raider, I thought I would give a go at laying out a possible timeline, trying to knit it all together in one continuous line with as little breaks as possible.
Tempus Fugit – Tomb Raider’s Unified Timeline (in what I have to admit amounts to fan-fiction)
We start with the plane crash over the Himalayas. This was the backstory for Lara in both Classic and LAU timelines, with the only differences being age of Lara (21 in the original, 8 in LAU) and Lara’s mother, Amelia being present in the latter.
I think the new series will keep the LAU ideas but age Lara up, maybe into her early teens. This allows them to neatly tie up the mother/father storylines of the new games into the Classic games.
Trekking through the snow after the disappearance of her mother, Lara finds a need to be on the edge of life (as laid out in the Classic timeline), and she starts to head to all sorts of places with her father, Richard Croft, alongside his friends Conrad Roth, Werner Von Croy and Charles Kane.
One of the expeditions is a fateful trip to the Angkor Wat in Cambodia with only Werner and Lara present (as seen in Tomb Raider IV). Werner is injured by a trap Lara told him about but he dismissed as ‘hocus-pocus’, and as the tomb starts to collapse, Lara escapes, leaving Werner behind.
A search and rescue is ordered (maybe even led by Roth and Papa Croft) but they find Werner has already escaped using the magical artefact, the Iris (that Werner was searching for in Cambodia in TR4, and which it is shown has teleportation powers in Tomb Raider: Chronicles). Despite escaping, Werner now has a permanent limp (even being wheelchair bound for a while) and has a grudge against Lara for leaving him.
Richard Croft is unsure of putting his daughter in danger and tries to stamp out her need to experience the wild, sending her to Ireland with the butler Winston. Lara still manages to get into scrapes as she explores the haunted Black Isle (as seen by the Ireland levels in Tomb Raider: Chronicles).
Richard Croft is now invested in the mysterious and magical, inspired by Werner’s experience with the Iris. He starts neglecting Lara to do more search into immortality and items to bring back the dead, or finding where his wife vanished. This leads Lara to become increasingly reliant on Conrad Roth.
Roth, seeing that Lara will continue to travel the world, starts to train her in some skills like trekking, rock climbing, and even archery.
At around this time, Richard Croft exits the story. In the Survivor timeline he is murdered in his office, but I believe they will have him disappear while working in the field (as seen in the LAU timeline).
This leads into…
There’s no getting around it, the Survivor games are seen as Lara’s introduction to being the ‘Tomb Raider’ so this bit has to go first.
Everything in the 2013 reboot, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Shadow of the Tomb Raider, as well as little bit of the comics happens in the Unified timeline. Roth goes with Lara, hoping to mentor her better than Werner all of those years ago.
The only caveat I will make is that by the end of Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Trinity, the nefarious organisation that Lara has been battling with since the reboot began (and was instrumental in the death of her father) are wiped out, or are brought down enough that they will never return.
With the death of many of their high-ranking operatives at her hands, Trinity goes away, and Lara starts to enjoy life again, even starting to do some archeology (ya know, the thing she got a degree in).
She leads an archeological dig to Paraiso in Peru, but soon tragedy strikes when the dig site is attacked by a monstrous shadow being (as seen in TR: Legend, the first of the LAU games) and kills nearly everyone else on the dig.
After all these expeditions and seeing the countless deaths of her friends and colleagues, Lara decides it is time to head out into the world alone. She also vows to keep as many powerful artefacts in her possession, lest Trinity or another similar force gets their hands on them first.
As time has gone on, Lara has encountered many treasure hunters and explorers, searching for the same artefacts as she does.
Some notable ones are Pierre Dupont and Larson Conway (from the Classic series) and Carter Bell (from the side game Temple of Osiris and the comic books) as well as her old mentor Werner Von Croy.
As seen in Tomb Raider: Chronicles (and the first expedition of Lara being alone) she battles against Pierre and Larson for the Philospher’s Stone. She meets them again later when Lara is hired by Jacqueline Natla to find the pieces of the mythical Scion and uncovers the remains of Atlantis (as seen in TR1/Anniversary).
Next, Tomb Raider II, sending Lara all the way from Venice, to the Indian Ocean, Tibet and finally China.
Soon after she heads to Russia after hearing about an underwater reconnaissance for a mysterious artefact. She calls one of her father’s old friends, Charles Kane, for assistance, due to his knowledge of countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain (as seen in Chronicles and referenced in Anniversary).
When Kane tells her she will be going up against the Russia mob, Lara replies, “Dealt with mafiaoso before, unpleasant memories,” showing that this section happens after TR2.
After Russia, Lara learns that Werner Von Croy has been doing tests on the Iris that he escaped with in Cambodia.
From the cutscene at the beginning of TR4, Lara knows that this artefact is dangerous, so breaks into Von Croy’s HQ in New York (as seen in Chronicles) and steals the Iris (as the Iris can be seen in Lara’s treasure vault in TR3, showing she came into possession before the events of TR3).
Lara stealing the Iris widens the rift between Werner and Lara, but also ends Lara’s insistence on being alone during her expeditions. To break into Von Croy’s building, she needs help from a man called Zip, a former employee of Von Croy’s.
Using his knowledge of the building was instrumental for Lara, and so she hires him as a general tech advisor and aide. While she is out in the field, he stays behind at Croft Manor.
Before fully hiring him though, she has one last trip by herself in the form of Tomb Raider III. It is here though where she realises that she’ll need some extra help.
The amount of high-tech security she had to bypass in TRIII, not to mention the many hours of research to find her next destination have obviously taken a toll on Lara. She wants to be out in the world, not be in her manor doing thousands of hours of research.
So, alongside hiring Zip as her tech expert, she also hires Alistair, an old history colleague who helps research the places she needs to go to find her next artefact.
This leads into the Legend storyline, which then leads into Underworld (part of the LAU timeline). In Underworld Croft Manor is destroyed, Alistair is killed, and Lara does battle with Natla for the final time.
Lara once again is reminded that everyone around her is unsafe because of her, and so she severs ties with Zip, with only Winston staying with her.
Final Years (Death and Resurrection)
Leaving Winston to manage the rebuilding of Croft Manor, Lara heads back out into the world, alone, and into the story of The Last Revelation.
Learning that Von Croy is doing an excavation in Egypt for the fabled Tomb of Set, Lara sets out to beat him to the punch and steal whatever artefacts are buried in the tomb.
She does so, and inadvertently unlocks the Egyptian god of chaos from his prison. So begins a race against time between her and Von Croy, with him unaware of the larger implications of Set coming to destroy the world.
Von Croy is possessed by Set, but Lara manages to seal the evil god away beneath the Pyramids of Giza. As she exits the tomb, she sees Von Croy standing before her. The tomb starts to collapse and Von Croy offers his hand, seeing Lara in the same position as he was all those years ago.
Lara is still unsure whether Von Croy is under the influence of Set though, and so sadly falls into the tomb, presumed to be dead (all seen in TR4).
A memorial service is held for her (as seen at the beginning of Chronicles) at the recently rebuilt Croft Manor. While everyone else left her for dead, Von Croy is busy digging through the pyramid, eventually finding her.
It’s never actually explained how long Lara is buried underneath the pyramid for, but for the Unified Timeline, I’m going to say it was anywhere from a couple of weeks to a full month, with Lara barely surviving.
Having been buried alive, Lara is no longer the seasoned raider she once was. This can be seen in the next and final game in the Unified Timeline, Angel of Darkness. She does not have the strength, stamina, or reserve she was once known for, now she is cold, ruthless, and angry.
At the end of the game, where she once again saves the world but at the cost of Von Croy and her new friend Kurtis, she walks off into the darkness…
Where to go now?
Let’s do a bit of a time scale. TR 2013 to Shadow is approximately five years. That puts Lara at 26 years old.
After a few more years of archeology with groups, ending with the massacre at Paraiso, Lara is now into her thirties.
Everything from Paraiso to the destruction of Croft Manor is would estimate to be another five to six years, meaning Lara starts her trip in Egypt at around 35 years old.
After the events of The Last Revelation, she takes a few years before Angel of Darkness starts. So in my approximation of the Unified timeline, Lara is nearing her forties.
I think this is where the Unified timeline will pick up. Keeley Hawes (voice actress for Lara during the LAU reboot and the ‘Lara Croft’ spin offs games) is returning to the series for the new Tomb Raider: Reloaded mobile game.
Could this mean she is coming back for the mainline series? It would fit age-wise, with Lara and Keeley Hawes being within the same range.
I also think the Angel of Darkness ending leaves the door open to a new game. I don’t think Crystal Dynamics will make a sequel to Angel of Darkness (two were planned, but when AoD was a commercial and critical failure, all future sequels were scrapped), but they might take aspects of the Lara we last saw in that game.
Lara was a lot colder in AoD than she had been before, jaded by her experiences and not being able to climb and jump as well as she used to. I’m not saying the next game has to be about building Lara up again into the Tomb Raider, but maybe showing a harder, colder edge.
But then we also have all the returning characters from all the timelines; Jonah, Zip, Charles Kane maybe, Winston obviously. These character will allow our heroine to take a breather, to smile, to be happy. That would be the best compromise between Core and Crystal’s two sides of Lara.
Fans should rejoice. Everyone is getting their Lara back. And I for one can’t wait to she where she takes us next.
Banner Photo Source: “Evolution of Tomb Raider (Lara Croft) 1996 – 2014” by blazeofmind.
Death and mourning aren’t explored much in gaming.
Sure, every now and again you’ll get some big budget, AAA video game where the main hero or heroine will lose someone close to them. The main character will shout, scream, maybe even cry, before they steel themselves and return to their gameplay activities.
You may get a little scene at the end of the game where they look longingly into the sunset and think of their lost friend or companion, but for the majority of games, the grief is tied solely to the moment.
It just so happens that I played a game earlier this year, When The Past Was Around, a point-and-click puzzle game, that tackles the issues around grief and death; the empty space, the silence now they are gone…and succeeds in perfectly evoking those feelings.
I wanted to share this game with you, its beautiful hand-drawn art, its excellent musical score, and small yet powerful story, and how it manages to capture the idea of grief into a way only games could do.
Mild spoilers ahead.
When The Past Was Around & Dealing with Love, Loss, and Death
When The Past Was Around follows a young girl called Eda. She’s in her mid-twenties, recently moved into her own place, and is in a bit of a funk. We learn through her photos that she was once a violinist, but gave up when she was younger, and is now trying to get back into it.
It’s a simple scene, with only four photos chronicling Eda’s childhood, yet gives us so much on her mental state and her personality; talented, passionate, yet prone to criticism and overwhelming anxiety, all conveyed through through single snapshots of her previous performances.
Eda keeps a music box with an owl as the centre piece. One afternoon she hears the same tune the music box used to play (the one that inspired her to learn violin) being played on the street. She follows the sound, almost floating towards the music, and finds the violinist playing to patients in the child hospital.
The she sneezes, interrupting the performance, but coming face-to-face with Owl.
Yes, a man-sized owl, named, well…Owl. The game follows Eda and Owl’s time as a couple, until tragedy strikes, with Owl dying, and Eda being heartbroken.
Many stories that deal with grief usually personify it; a shadow, an item of clothing, something that ties the present to the past. So here, Eda’s lost love is an owl, and ties well into concept of grief and loss.
Throughout the game, the concept of fallen feathers stretches from starts to finish. The end of every chapter is signalled with a feather, such as in Eda’s finding one in a cardboard box when she’s unpacking, or when she is wearing Owl’s old scarf. Collecting these feathers are what unlock the next memory as she gets closer to Owl’s departure from the story, and that’s their real meaning.
The feathers are tokens of the memories that Eda and Owl have together, and as she collects them, more are taken away from him, until there can be none left. It’s and excellent metaphor for the passage of time, and yet cruelly bittersweet.
The game switches between the memories of Eda and Owl together, and Eda at the graveyard at the ‘end’ of their story. During her time at the graveyard she is seemingly haunted by a shadowy silhouette of a man, enclosed in a giant bird cage.
When Eda finally reaches the silhouette after reliving all of her memories and collecting Owl’s feathers, the feathers attach themselves to the shadow man, revealing that he is Owl. It’s a great moment, showing how Eda’s memory of Owl had changed over time, and how he effectively became ‘entombed’ inside her head, only being set free once she looked back over her time with him.
There is zero dialogue in the game, which I think is to its benefit. While it would have been easy to add voices to the characters, the silence of the protagonists allows the story to reach a broader audience and speak to more people. It’s that old adage of actions speaking louder than words, as Owl and Eda mentally and physically get closer (literally, they move closer to each other as the game progresses).
Some people may not be able to relate to Eda and Owl’s if they had talked about their love of the violin or the name of the stars in the night sky, but they can relate much more to a feeling or an emotion that the characters are going through, which the game captures perfectly.
Part of that excellent communication of emotion comes from the fantastic artwork by Indonesian artist Brigitta Rena. The character models have a stunningly simplicity to them, yet are incredibly expressive. The animations are through a standard fade effect between each character stance, bringing a dream-like quality to most scenes, but also capturing incredible immediate snapshots as there will be many moments of stillness, highlighting the emotion of the scene.
While the characters are simple, the backgrounds are incredibly detailed, and given the feeling of being ‘lived-in’.
Those backgrounds are a key part of the game’s core loop, as the player must find hidden objects to progress in the story by moving objects around. The game presents it as being constructive or destructive, clean vs. cluttered.
The cleaning and constructive might task you with tidying up Eda’s bedroom, putting posters on her walls, or hanging the washing up.
Construction is the main engagement when Eda and Owl are dating, including coffee and tea at Owl’s home, going to the beach together, or camping out overnight and looking at the stars.
In each of these scenarios the player has to ‘build’ the setting around them; collecting seaweed and shells to go in a glass bottle (which the couple keep in their apartment), setting up the campsite and building paper windmills, or even fixing Owl and Eda’s drink of choice at his house.
These little constructions exaggerate the fact that we are essentially going through Eda’s memories of Owl, and so she would focus on all the small things that she remembers from those times, the things that make it ‘her’ memory.
When the gameplay switches to destruction, you might find yourself smashing countless plant pots, throwing books off shelves, or pulling down curtains.
These aspects perfectly match up in the order of the story, with Eda being tidier when she is with Owl, but messier both before she met him and after he is gone, for different yet obvious reasons. Her final scene with Owl where Eda searches for his pills uses the clean vs. cluttered to great effect, as players have to frantically search the apartment, pulling books off shelves and knocking over chairs in a desperate bid to find them.
Music also plays a strong part of the story, with both Owl and Eda playing the violin, and music being the thing that brings them closer together. There is a leitmotif that runs through the entire game (the same one played by Eda’s music box), which subtly changes with each chapter.
At the start when Eda has given up on playing the violin, the stringed instrument is removed from the soundtrack, instead a mournful piano plays in the background. As soon as Owl enters the story, the violin features again, playing a much more cheerful tone. As their relationship grows more instruments and accents are added.
By the final scene when Eda is alone once again, the piano has returned, but her memory of Owl is so strong that the violin jumps in, with the entire song picking up speed as it reaches the climax.
Even the title references music, with a stylised repeat sign incorporated into it. This sign in sheet music indicates a section to be played more than once, referencing Eda’s journey back through her life.
When The Past Was Around is a whole package of a game wrapped up in around an hour, maybe little over if you are intent on finding all the hidden clues that inform more about Eda and Owl’s relationship.
For anyone looking for a short game with fantastic visuals, a great sense of gameplay as narrative, or just something a little different than anything else on the market, When The Past Was Around is heartily recommended.
One of the first games I ever played was Star Wars Episode I: Racer. As a defender and fan of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, having a racing game based on the high-octane drag racing sequence was a formative gaming experience, and one of the main reason I play games today.
While the original game was on the Nintendo 64, the game recently got an re-release for the PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch. The update was a simple polish and shine, updating the graphics and the frame rate so the game would run smoothly (sometimes the N64 would play like a powerpoint) and that was it.
It was kind of refreshing to see a game of a very particular time be brought to a modern console. The early 3D graphics where every shape needs a right angle, the stripped-down story, and sometimes odd animations, it has a retro charm that goes a long way to papering over its failings. Being a Star Wars game it would have been so easy for the Game Overlords that run the SW brand to force micro-transactions or some daft online ranking to the game, but it’s thankfully been kept as pure to its original form.
So, as a defining game of my childhood, I decided to pick it up and blasted through it over a lazy weekend. Despite the rather short lifespan of the game, I loved every moment, so I wanted to list a few reasons why it is one of my favourite games of all time.
Start Your Engines! – Why I Love Star Wars Episode I: Racer
1. The Universe
While we’ve only seen pod racing once in the entire cinematic Star Wars canon (in one of the best sequences of the entire saga) the game builds upon the work the film did with new tracks and worlds that are not even seen in the other movies.
I think a lot of SW films are kind of boring when it comes to their landscapes, mainly just reusing the same sand/snow/forest landscapes, but in Racer we have a whole host of planets and racetracks.
While the game has the sands of Tatooine and the snowy mountains of Ando Prime, it also has the methane lakes and geysers of Malastare, the smoky quarries of Mon Gazza, and the modern architecture and rocky cliffs of Aquilaris. Those are just the tame ones.
The game also features some standout tracks such as the abandoned gas stations of Ord Ibanna, suspended in low orbit, just like Cloud City from The Empire Strikes Back. Another is Oovo IV, which is a space prison situated on an asteroid belt, complete with cells and airlocks. My favourite tracks are on Baroonda, a planet of tropical jungles, swamps, and beaches, complete with Moai-inspired statues as well as the odd volcano.
While the locations are a high point, the are pushed even further by their individual quirks that helps bring them to life. Ando Prime is inhabited by monk-like aliens, with statues and flags reminiscent of temples in Nepal and Tibet. The race course on the asteroid Oovo IV has several sections without gravity and rogue asteroids. The spice mines of Mon Gazza feature everything from massive diggers to transports that litter the courses. The machines slowly move backwards and forwards so that they are not in the same place as each tracks progresses.
Each planet has its own look and feel, which leads onto…
2. The Tracks
While the game only has eight planets, it manages to keep each one rather fresh, even while refusing certain sections of a map. When attempting a new course it’s a fun mixture of certainty and fear, knowing how to tackle some corners and sections, while at the same time having to pick up on the fly how to navigate other sections of the map.
While the earlier tracks are definitely the easier and less interesting with wide open spaces and flat plains, there are always a few little extras to spice up runs, be they secret areas obscured by vines or waterfalls as well as branching paths that take you to completely different areas of the track than your competitors, or just really big jumps that let you glide effortlessly above the other racers.
Later tracks becoming increasingly difficult with sequential hairpin bends (with nothing to stop you flying of the side of the rocky cliff face that you’re racing on) or erupting volcanos that change the layout of the course.
Even in some of the earlier tracks there are hazards. Pod racers are good on solid terrain, but when going across the ice lakes of Ando Prime, the swamps of Baroonda, or the methane rivers of Malastare, pods can start to drift, sending them careening off course, usually to an explosive end.
The Boonta Classic, the track that is featured in The Phantom Menace and the last track of the game, also features sharpshooting Tusken Raiders and moisture pockets, both are severe dangers to weave through. These little features are great, as it throws a curveball into racing so even if you’re ahead of the pack, one wrong move could have them catching up to you.
3. The Podracers
Podracing to me is so cool. Taking the high speed of Formula 1/drag racing, place them on dangerous terrain, and just boost everything to as much as it could be. The idea of a small pod that by the sheer speed and force of the massive engines makes it float is such a novel and interesting concept, and Racer replicates that dangerous sense of speed perfectly.
While we only saw a fraction of the racers in the film, the game goes all out, adding all the racers that were included in the deleted scenes, each with different strengths and weaknesses. And while some racing games’ vehicles would be simple re-skins or little tweaks, here every pod racer is unique. You have the monster truck equivalents of Sebulba and Mars Guo, to the dainty butterflies like Anakin Skywalker and ‘Bullseye’ Navoir. My favourite is Neva Kee, who is unique in the fact that his pod has no cables (that purple energy bar that connects the engines), and is essentially just a tiny cockpit glued to two giant rockets.
As you complete each race you usually unlock a new pod racer which can be useful considering the different tracks layouts as you aren’t stuck with one machine. If you’re on a course that has a lot of tight corners, you can choose a racer that is more suited to turning. On a course with long straights, you can pick someone with a fast boost and high acceleration. Size and weight also plays a factor in choosing a podracer. Smaller pods are generally faster, but can’t take as much damage as the larger, slower, pods.
The pods do everything they do in the film, which is something unique in the racing genre. While they have the standard boost, the pods can also flip sideways to fit through narrow gaps and have air brakes that allow you to float over jumps and gaps. It’s thrilling on tracks like Ando Prime where you can boost off the top of a mountain peak and then just gently float across ice gorges and alien monasteries of that planet.
Each pod can be customised, either through buying from Watto’s Shop or by exploring for parts in the junkyard. While these custom options are more for building stats than changing the look of your pod, it’s still great fun to max out your speed and boost stats, leaving you on the edge between ‘in control’ and ‘totally lost it’.
The sounds design helps sell the illusion of the pods with every single engine having a beautiful hum and rev. Even the small things like shutting down an engine to repair it or put out a fire, to the whistling air as you fly across a gap, to the hiss of the air brakes, each one is solid, sounding exactly like what would you think these gigantic machines would sound like, and mixing perfectly with the ‘vroom’ of the pods around you.
And it doesn’t hurt to having the excellent John Williams score layered over the top. Nothing beats hearing the boost of a pod over the pulsing strings of ‘Duel Of The Fates’ our soaring through the air to the blaring trumpets of ‘Battle of Naboo’, and making you want to shout, “NOW THIS IS PODRACING!”
Despite being over twenty years old, I had a so much fun with Episode I: Racer. And while there was a sequel by the same studio for the PlayStation 2 called Racer Revenge, it was met with mixed reviews.
Episode I: Racer is still fondly remembered by many, featuring highly on several ‘Best Star Wars’ game lists, and was happily received with its re-release. It took a sequence that was only about fifteen minutes of the first film, and delivered all the promise that it offered.
I was partly raised on racers, with things like Gran Turismo, Forza, and Mario Kart being pretty much constants throughout my gaming life. And while each of those is fun in their own right…there is just something better about Racer.
I could be biased, but there is just something about the sense of speed, trying to control two full force engines, flying through impressive vistas and winding corridors that no other game has replicated.
The only other game that really worked in the same way is Split/Second: Velocity, a beautifully daft arcade racer, also published by Disney.Split/Second is filled to the brim with powerful looking and sounding cars, interesting and unique locations, and explosive gameplay. It too, like Racer, has been left behind by Disney, a one-and-done game that deserved a sequel.
Despite Disney breathing life back into the Star Wars property, the games have been few and far between, with only two controversial Battlefront games, one action adventure (Jedi: Fallen Order) and one flight sim (Squadrons) being released. With the new trilogy finished, now would be the time for games to fill the space between new films and television shows being created.
If we were to ever get more Star Wars games, I hope that one is based on pod racing. With today machines, Disney could push it further and farther than before. New tracks from planets across the saga, new racers, more customisable options, a strong story, and even the option to build your own pod racer from scratch.
There is so much that could be created and improved…and with a name like Star Wars, it’s all but guaranteed to make money.
I’ve recently been playing Mafia: Definitive Edition and been having a blast. I love the Mafia series, even dusting off the old Playstation 2 a few years ago to experience the original game for the first time. The first Mafia came out nearly twenty years ago, but still has a charm and identity not found in more modern games.
It feels odd and comforting to play the remake so soon after the original game. Despite the remake built from the ground-up, developer Hangar 13 did a spectacular job of bringing the essence and locations of the first game to life. Their craftsmanship is so good that I can use my half-remembered map knowledge of the first game and it translates perfectly to the remake.
I was really excited to play the remake partly due to the story. The original Mafia is a collage of old gangster movie and literary tropes, but always tried to put a unique spin or add a thoughtful aspect into the narrative. This extends to the characters. While most of the cast are Godfather or Soprano’s stock types, lead character Tommy Angelo is an interesting reflection and critique of not just characters in gangster films, but also gangster-based video games like Grand Theft Auto.
One mission that reflects Tommy’s personality and uniqueness in the original game is the chapter called “The Whore”. Don Salieri, Tommy’s boss, learns that a woman in a brothel, Michelle, has been spilling secrets to a rival gang who have taken over said establishment. Tommy is tasked with killing the manager of the brothel and Michelle, before blowing the building up to send a message to any else wanting to switch to protection to the rival gang.
Tommy carries out his task dutifully, killing the manager in front of the paying customers before heading towards the Michelle’s room, but as he enters he realises he knows her; she is one of the friends of Tommy’s girlfriend, Sarah. Tommy feels sorry for Michelle and tells her to run and to never come back.
The definitive edition changes the scene…and in my opinion, for the worse.
In the remake, Tommy is asked by one of his friends, Sam, to spare Michelle. It turns out Sam is one of Michelle’s regulars, and he was the one that accidentally told her secrets that she inadvertently spilled to the rival gang. This completely changes the scene and takes away a large part of Tommy’s personality, I’ll explain why.
Here are the two clips from both games. Here’s the first from the original game (start at 5:04).
And here is the second from the remake.
With that set-up, let’s dive in.
Booze, Bullets, Broads & Bums – How Michelle Gives Tommy Angelo Character
I previously said that nearly all the characters are stock types. This can easily be seen with Tommy and his two friends, Paulie and Sam.
Paulie is a bruiser with not much going on between his ears. When doing a first shake-down with the gang, Paulie enters a shop alone, and Tommy can hear the crashing and banging from outside in his car. Frank, the consigliere of the Saleri family remarks about Paulie, “Paulie has hit his ceiling…he’s not smart enough to run anything.” (1:32:03).
Sam is the more serious of the two, always stony-faced and not a big talker. When Tommy escorts Paulie back from the race track in Chapter 6, Paulie talks about all the ‘bad shit’ he’s done, and says that Sam is able to blank out all the crime in his head. Frank also says, “Sam is loyal, but has no vision.” (see above link). In the end, it is Sam wanting to move up in the crime world that sees him betray Tommy to the Don.
Tommy in the original is very quiet and unassuming. While many game protagonists are like this because they fall prey of Tabula Rasa Syndrome (a blank slate so anyone can project what they want onto them), Tommy’s personality is hammered home by the game script from the start. Even after saving Paulie and Sam from a rival gang and being offered a place in the mob at the start of the game, Tommy initially refuses, saying, “I didn’t want to join some criminals, even if they had all the money in the world. It’s better to be poor and alive than rich and dead…I was going to get my cab repaired and try to forget it as soon as possible.” (11:06).
When Tommy heads back to the Salieri Family for protection after he is jumped by a rival gang for helping Paulie and Sam, the Don points him the direction for the people who attacked him and sends Tommy and Paulie to exact revenge. Frank muses to the Don, “I wouldn’t trust him so much. He seemed hesitant. He’s just accepted now because he has no choice.” (15:49).
Up until the chapter with Michelle, Tommy hasn’t done anything too crazy. He’s been in a few chases, some fistfights and shootouts, but he could always moralise killing other people by thinking it’s the other person or himself on the line.
When he breaks into Michelle’s room and she tries to make excuses, saying she didn’t mean to hurt anyone, Tommy starts thinking, “I knew it. This could only happen to me, a total screw-up. I can’t just kill a young girl. A young naive fool…on the other hand, is it worth getting killed over it?” Tommy decides to risk the Don not finding out and tells Michelle to leave and never come back It’s a perfect example of Tommy’s worldview. He isn’t blinded by faith to the Don, only really becoming a gangster out of fear for his life, rather than any ambition. It adds so much personality to him and reflects in later character moments such as sparing Frank’s life and attempting a botched bank robbery with Paulie.
It also helps that Michael Sorvino, the original voice of Tommy, has a very soft voice. He isn’t a gravely or baritone voice like Sam or Paulie, and he rarely if ever raises his voice in the story. He always sounds like an average joe, rather than a hardened criminal.
In the remake, it’s the complete opposite. While the new actor for Tommy, Andrew Bongiorno, is tremendous throughout, in the Michelle scene, he is very aggressive, pushing the barrel of his gun right up against her head and shouting at her. Overall in the remake, Tommy warms to the gangster life much more than he did at this story point in the original game.
The fact Tommy comes to the decision to let Michelle go because of Sam cuts away at that great character he had in the original game, and in doing so makes him seem more like a general goon rather than someone who was inadvertently roped into the gangster life.
It’s obvious that the Michelle’s connection with Sam was to give Sam some extra spark. In the original game, Sam essentially becomes a tertiary character, with Paulie taking centre stage with Tommy for most of the game. But everyone gets more to play in the remake. Tommy’s wife, Sarah, gets one chapter appearance and then a handful of mentions in the original, but gets upgraded to a main cast member in the game. Paulie gets more shades with his drinking issue and loose mouth, and Sam gets Michelle as a love interest. I would have been happier for them to just add a completely new narrative arc for Sam, rather than fall back on this one story thread.
At the end of the original game, Sam tells Tommy the Don has ordered Tommy’s execution partly because of letting Michelle live. It’s the same in the remake, with only a passing remark about Sam being sweet on Michelle. I guess it makes Sam even more snake-like than he was in the original, that he’s willing to throw a girl he was very much infatuated with under the bus to get ahead in the mob, but it’s at the detriment of the main character.
In conclusion, I still love Mafia: Defintive Edition. And on its own, I actually really love the Michelle section. The emotions are raw, the dialogue is believable, and the actor sell the hell out of the scene. But as part of a story, I think it undermines Tommy so much. It’s amazing how one scene, with just a small tweak, can totally change how we look at a character and their arc.
I knew Tommy Angelo would change in the remake, but I didn’t know that I wouldn’t find him as compelling as I once did.
James Bond games used to be a major force in the licensed game industry.
Starting with Goldeneye in 1997, players were blessed with a fantastic new game every other year, featuring different play styles and genres as the years went on.
We had the excellent first-person shooter Nightfire, the superb third-person shooters Everything or Nothing and From Russia With Love, and even a remake of the classic Goldeneye, which updated the 1995 film to the modern day, complete with Daniel Craig instead of Pierce Brosnan as the iconic superspy.
But after a few years in the 2010s, with only the poor Quantum of Solace adaptation in 2008, the okay Blood Stone in 2010, and the abysmal 007: Legends in 2012, the series has been dark for nearly a decade. That all changed in the tail end of 2020.
The trailer, which is just under one minute in length, shows someone loading a bullet into a gun, before the camera sweeps around to show the iconic gunbarrel, accompanied by the James Bond theme. IO also posted a press release on their website, saying the that the story will be a “…wholly original Bond story…” where players will “…earn their 00 status in the very first James Bond origin story.”
While it is still early days, as a James Bond fan, I’m already hooked on a new game being on the horizon.
With nothing less known about the project, let’s do a bit of speculating, and create a wishlist of things that I would like to see in the game.
For Your Eyes Only – What Would I Like To See In Project 007
A New Bond
With IO’s phrase, a “wholly original Bond story” in their press release, and Daniel Craig stepping away from the role after the film No Time To Die, it seems like IO’s 007 will have nothing in connection with the most recent incarnation of Bond films.
I think this is a good thing. While the mid-2000s were the peak of licensed games, with Spiderman 2, The Chronicles of Riddick, and The Simpsons: Hit and Run, nowadays the market has shrunk to a mere fraction of what it once was.
Sure, every now and again you’ll get an Insomniac Spiderman, Telltale Walking Dead, or WB Shadow Of Mordor, but these are few and far between. However, these games smartly take their setting and characters, and create an alternate universe that stands apart from the more famous media. Project 007 should work on the same factor.
But with no cinematic Bond to base the main character on, what would he look like? In IO’s press release, it says “…players with earn THEIR 00 status”, could we take this to mean that some character customisation could be involved? To take the customisation point further, players could be awarded experience points to make Bond quicker, stealthier, tougher, better with gadgets or weapons, in essence, making their Bond entirely unique to them. I think this would be a fun angle for players, and would be cool to see the different variations that we could make.
However, even though the game is named Project 007, the name James Bond comes up many times in the press release, so sadly I don’t think we’ll be seeing any playable female agents in the main story.
A New (Old) Era
IO’s main series, Hitman, is a thoroughly modern game, always full of hi-tech gadgets and settings. While it would be easy for IO to slip in 007 to these locales, I think it might be fun for the developers to leap back in time. It would be something not just interesting and original for IO by setting it apart from the Hitman series, but would also be new for the Bond license. The majority of the games have been set around the Pierce Brosnan/Daniel Craig era, with one outlier, From Russia With Love, an adaptation of the 1963 film, complete with Sean Connery voicing 007.
Setting the game in the 1950s and 60s means the game would be full of tense East vs. West standoffs, with Bond going against his KGB contemporaries. Being hunted and hunting enemy spies or double agents is a perfect scenario for any spy media, and I hope Project 007 has at least one mission based on this idea.
The 1960s also gives us new weapons, unique architecture, and snazzy suits (we know how much IO likes their suits). Being set in the past, the game also deals with the ‘smart phone’ problem. In more recent 007 games, especially ones based on Daniel Craig’s interpretation of Bond, 007’s smartphone is his primary gadget. It’s a camera, a tracker, a communication device, a codebreaker, it does EVERYTHING. Having the setting be the early 60s means the game can be creative with a range of gadgets, like a laser watch, sonic cufflinks, and coins as grenades to name a few.
A Mash Of Genres
Many James Bond games are straight-up shooters, but I think that loses a lot of their character. It’s less 007 and more CoD. To alleviate this, I think a 007 game should have a mix of styles.
Just like the new Hitman games, 007 should be able to shoot his way through to his objectives, but stealth should also be a viable option. It would also be quite refreshing to have a few levels where killing is forbidden or highly discouraged, and we have to focus more on a simple Judo chop or our gadgets than our trusty silenced pistol.
It might also be good to take some inspiration from what previous games got right. The great granddaddy of James Bond games is Goldeneye for the Nintendo 64. While it is chock-full of baddies to blast away, Goldeneye tasks Bond with sending messages, escorting Soviet defectors, installing gadgets, and photographing evidence. These simple tasks made the game more ‘alive’ than some modern 007 games, as we are doing actual spy work.
Another staple from previous games that was always a joy were the driving sections. IO have never done a driving game, but they could take the same approach to vehicular gameplay as they did for Hitman, using the 2001 game Agent Under Fire as a reference.
In many James Bond games, the driving sections are little more than linear or even on-rails affairs, where players just have to maintain speed and not crash to continue. In Agent Under Fire, Bond is given an open world to drive around in and complete his tasks. These are everything from tracing a suspect vehicle, delivering codes to MI6, to shooting down enemy helicopters. The open approach gives the player so much freedom, where even if they crash or go a different way, they aren’t immediately thrown to the ‘Game Over’ screen. IO should really take inspiration from the past 007 games and recreate what made them fun.
Multiplayer deathmatches have become a staple of James Bond games ever since Goldeneye, with players being able to choose from a rogues gallery of prior Bond characters, in iconic locations, and blow each other to pieces.
While IO could implement a fun third-person shootout, I think they could also reuse their multiplayer aspect from Hitman, having two agents (say, MI6 and KGB) race to complete their missions, all the while trying to stop the other from completing theirs.
If we added the customisation aspect I mentioned previously, I think this could be a really fun way to see how different players work with their unique versions of Bond.
IO also have little modes in Hitman such as Contracts (players select a target and test others to kill them in a specific way) and the Sniper Challenge (players have to eliminate certain targets but only with their sniper) that with a little tweak could easily slot into the world of 007. These mini games don’t even have to be connected to the main game, but can be a fun offshoot for players to mess with.
As I said in the opening, it’s been nearly a decade since we last had a James Bond game. Games have moved on, not just in terms of trends and graphics, but with new gameplay modes and interactivity.
Back in the day, James Bond used to help push the games industry forward, from experienced and lauded developers such as Rare, Eurocom, EA Redwood Shores (later known as Visceral) and Bizarre Creations.
With Goldeneye in 1997, it showed that an FPS could work on home consoles. Everything or Nothing and From Russia With Love are still marvels of artistry and design, with insanely detailed models of Sean Connery and Pierce Brosnan. With its new Hitman trilogy, IO have built upon their previous success and made something that is completely unique in the market.
If they can bring the same level of craftsmanship and detail that they bring to Agent 47, I think Project 007 would be well on its way to being not just one of the best games of its year, but the best James Bond game ever.
I recently began playing Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition, an updated version of the 2013 reboot. It has been well over half a decade since I have played the original game, so there was a cool balance of rediscovering a gem of the past generation, now in crystal-clear HD.
While the new games brought a different gameplay experience and a fresh-faced Lara Croft to the players, it reused a critical element of the previous reboot games story; Lara Croft’s parents are dead, and they are her motivation for her tomb raiding journey.
The dead parent trope is nothing new in pop culture, used in everything from Batman to Star Wars, Harry Potter and yes, Tomb Raider. This was seen as a contentious choice by Crystal Dynamics and narrative writer Rhianna Pratchett (alongside Jill Murray and Jason Dozois for Shadow), with the majority of the audience saying that it took away Lara’s agency, removing a strong part of her character.
And…I don’t agree. Now that we’ve had three years to see the entire trilogy, I believe the dead parents trope was a fantastic stroke of creative work.
Papa Can You Hear Me? – The Tomb Raider Reboot & Lara’s Dead Parents; A Defence
The original Tomb Raider games rarely acknowledged Lara Croft’s parents. We learn a little bit from her biography in the game manual for the first TR; how they arranged a marriage for her, but when she found a love of exploring and grave robbing, they disowned her, cutting her off from their lives.
It’s an interesting quirk of the original character; rather than running around tombs because of her parents legacy, she is breaking out for herself, being whoever she wants to be and rejecting the life that was laid out for her.
The only time her parents are ever seen in-game is at the start of Tomb Raider: Chronicles, where they attend the memorial service of their daughter, who is presumed dead in Egypt.
This all changed with the Tomb Raider movie in 2001, where Lara’s dead father was an archeologist, leaving clues for Lara to follow in his footsteps when he died searching for a powerful artefact. This carried over into the initial reboot series in 2006, with Lara looking for clues about her mother’s disappearance in Legend and Underworld, and following her father’s clues to an artefact in Anniversary.
This continued into the second reboot, with the few differences. Instead of disappearing, Lara’s mother died during a plane crash. In the first reboot, Lara’s father was killed by one of his enemies, but in the new reboot, her father was suspected of committing suicide, until it was proven it was staged.
When Lara’s parents are mentioned for the first time in TR 2013, Lara is notably dismissive of her father. At this point in her journey she has seen her father waste away, leaving her to essentially grow up on her own. He then commits suicide, with Lara discovering his body in his office. She’s not angry at him, but there is a bitterness and a feeling of wanting to separate herself from the Croft name and legacy.
Near the start of the game, Lara and the head archeologist Dr. Whitman start talking about the legendary Queen Himiko. Lara is playful but dismissive about Whitman’s theories, jokingly comparing him to their air-headed documentarian Sam. When Whitman continues talking about mystical and shamanistic powers Himiko was believed to have, Lara replies,
“You sound like my father.”
Unlike her previous jokey comments, in which comical sighs, suppressed chuckles and sarcasm can be heard, Lara’s remark about her father is cold, devoid of the previous infections of humour.
It’s not only when she is with others that her disdain for her father can be heard. After she flees the Stormguard Monastery and the monstrous Oni, Lara reprimands herself in her journal entry, saying,
“Shit, just listen to yourself, Lara. You sounds like dad.”
She continues, but her tone becomes softer.
“It’s like they’re the remnants of some lost civilisation. Okay, now you really sound like dad.”
For the first time she is starting to believe her father’s crazy theories, the ones that drove him away from her. She has lost her father to these ideas, and only now she realises that they might be true. Despite seeing that he might have been right, Lara doesn’t want to be like her father. This can be seen when Lara’s mentor, Roth, tells her he sees her father in her, and Lara replies that she,
…[isn’t] that type of Croft.”
But now she finds herself drawn to the space where her father used to be, finally seeing things from his point of view. As seen in the final scene of TR 2013, Lara says,
“For years I resented my father, doubted him like the rest. But he was right about so much. I just wish I could tell him that now.”
She is finally coming around to being in line with her father. She continues,
“There are so many mysteries that I once dismissed as mere stories. But the line between our myths and truth is fragile and blurry. I need to find answers…I must understand.”
It’s this last line that forms the crux of the entire trilogy. She’s doubted her father for so long, but now has evidence that he was right. She wants to fix the space between them, even though it would do nothing, essentially repairing the bond with a ghost.
The rest of the series continues with this in mind. Lara is following her father’s footsteps, following his clues and his research, but the emotion behind it gives it added weight, giving it more layers, with Lara adding her own spin on it.
In Rise it is mentioned during her therapy sessions that she’s been reading through her dad’s research. Lara responds,
“There’s so much in my head, but I don’t have the connections…”
Later on during one of the campfire sequences she says,
“I think about Dad every day. For years I was so angry with him. For losing himself in his work, for chasing what I thought were fairytales. I keep telling myself that I was young…that I couldn’t understand. But I still lost him. And now…for some reason, I feel more connected to him than I ever did when he was alive. He never got this far, but I know he’s with me…but he’s gone now. I’m the only one who knew he was right.”
She’s actively trying to repair the bond they had. It’s a broken connection between father and daughter, first of hatred, now of fascination. It makes sense after the first adventure that Lara would throw herself into his work, his research, in order to better understand him and feel close to him, having so long ago tried to separate herself from his legacy.
That’s not to say that Lara is totally forgiving of her father. Throughout Rise Lara listens to tapes that her father made for her. One of these is a tape that he made for her when she was at school. She’s angry that he left her alone, saying,
“I know your work was important, but it didn’t feel like it at the time.”
She falls back on humour and sarcasm to deflect the dark thoughts in her mind, saying,
“Still, it taught me independence, how to look after myself. Important lessons as it turns out.”
The parents storyline culminates at the end of Shadow Of The Tomb Raider. Lara has the power to reshape the world however she wants, using the artefact of the game. Despite the myriad of problems in the world that she could fix, she stops for a moment and thinks of one selfish act. She travels back in time, possibly thinking of rectifying the past, of saving her parents and having a normal childhood.
She travels to a half-remembered memory when she was young, when her mother and father were still alive, when they were having a picnic in the Croft Manor gardens. For the past two games she has been angry at her father, for burying himself away in his research, for neglecting Lara. She understands his reasoning, but does not agree that it was the right thing to do. This is why this memory is important.
This memory heals Lara, showing her that her father did in fact care for her and wasn’t the unloving neglectful monster that she thought him to be. It was obvious that her father loved her, as can be heard in the tapes that she listens to during Rise. But that love was only one-way; Lara was still dismissive of him during the time of Rise. It is only during this last moment when the bond is finally connected.
It is a beautiful melancholic arc that only hits when Lara is at the end of her journey. With the bond repaired she returns to the present, but holds that memory close at heart, filling her room at Croft Manor with items to remind herself of her parents.
So while detractors may sniff at Lara’s dead parents being used as a motivating factor instead of giving the heroine her own reasons to gallivant around the world, I maintain that this was an interesting inversion of the idea. It was cool to see Lara’s initial anger change over the course of three games, subtly morphing as Lara finds more and more ways to connect with the memory of her parents.
It was a great trilogy, backed by a powerful and personal story of growth and change, of Lara learning about herself and her family, seeing with fresh eyes someone she had previously written off.
It’s a nice arc, one that ends with Lara finally putting the demons of her past to rest, giving her a clear canvas to move onto.
I love Splinter Cell. I am a massive fan of James Bond and spy stories in general, so the main crux of Splinter Cell, being a super secret stealthy agent, greatly appeals to me.
I’ve loved every game in the series, from the hard-as-nails original game to the modern and fluid games like Blacklist. Every game brings something new to the table, with ethical tales of the horrors of war, torture, war profiteering and the US government spying on its own people, with the series rarely dropping into po-faced American jingoism.
There have been recent rumours of a new Splinter Cell game coming in the near future. Indeed, it has been seven years since the last full game, Splinter Cell: Blacklist hit our shelves, with nearly every other game in the Tom Clancy pantheon getting regular updates.
Talking of those other games, Splinter Cell has been keen to get involved, with leading man Sam Fisher featured as a special guest in the most recent Ghost Recon games (Wildlands and Breakpoint), as well as a leaked Splinter Cell-inspired operator for Rainbow Six: Siege. Why would there be all this push for the series if no new game was to be announced?
Well, as a fan who has waited a very long time for a new game, I thought I would have a go at what I would want to see in a new Splinter Cell game.
Play It Again Sam – What I Would Like To See In The Next Splinter Cell Game
An easy one to start with, Sam Fisher needs to be in Splinter Cell. He is the face of the franchise and cannot be allowed to be absent from the game.
There was a big row during the release of the last game, Blacklist, as Michael Ironside, the iconic voice of Sam Fisher, was recast with Eric Johnson. Lots of fans were angry over the change, seeing Sam losing a big part of his character with Ironside being replaced.
Ironside however has voiced Sam during his last two cameos in the Ghost Recon games, so it seems as if Ironside is returning to the role.
This puts Sam in a precarious place though. Sam is fifty-five years old in Blacklist, and in his most recent appearances sees him going grey and wrinkled. Sam is a superman, but his is still only human. I think it would break the laws of physics to see a pensioner taking on heavily-armed militias all around the world.
So there are two compromises; Eric Johnson (or another actor) returns to give us a younger Sam, essentially rebooting the series, or Sam moves into a support role with Ironside voicing him and a new Splinter Cell agent steps into the frame. It looked like in Blacklist they were going to do that with the character of Briggs, but it is unclear what they will do now.
2. No Open World
The company in charge of Splinter Cell, Ubisoft, are known for their open worlds. Everything from Assassin’s Creed, The Crew, Far Cry, and other Tom Clancy properties The Division and recently Ghost Recon have all been set in expansive environments, ranging from cities to entire countries.
While Ubisoft would want to get another open world extravaganza out of their properties, it would not work for Splinter Cell.
Splinter Cell is all about sneaking and stealth, unseen and unheard. High-security buildings and compounds are Splinter Cell’s bread and butter, it doesn’t need a whole country to explore.
This quite nicely leads onto my third point…
3. Level Design and Locations
What I also love about Splinter Cell is the…mundanity of the locations. Let me explain. Most spy thrillers and games take place in exotic locations, partly inspired by the ‘travelogue’ aspect of James Bond films. Splinter Cell rejects those ideas.
Locations from the games are noticeably different and much more lifelike. Sure, every now and again you’ll get a standout level such as an oil tanker stuck in frozen waters off the coast of Japan, a high-security bank in Panama, a terrorist-owned villa-turned-fortress in Malta, or the 88-floored Jin Mao Hotel in Shanghai.
But for every mind-blowing location, the others are nice and tame in comparison; office buildings and embassies across the world, a police station in T’blisi , abandoned factories and dockyards in London, a shopping mall in Chicago, and an overnight train heading from Paris to Nice. This is the essence of Splinter Cell, the normal and drab turned into the battleground for tense spy vs. spy standoffs, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.
When Splinter Cell decides to come out of the shadows, it needs to stick to single levels.
4. A Blend Of Stealth And Combat (and Player Freedom)
Splinter Cell has always been about sneaking around in the shadows, slipping unnoticed by the guards and enemies, or silently taking them out when nobody is looking.
The fifth game in the series, Conviction, turned this on its head and made aggression a core tenant. The next in the series, Blacklist, alsofollowed this push towards combat, but adding back the stealth experience.
While I sometimes like the ability to go full Rambo on enemies, it doesn’t scream Splinter Cell to me. The majority of the game should be stealth, sneaking around in the dark with your night-vision goggles, being a ghost.
However, giving Sam every single ability under the sun is a great way to let players play how they want. Lethal and non-lethal hand-to-hand combat, gadgets to distract, incapacitate and complete objectives, aggressive ways to move forward like breaking open doors, and if needs be, some combat in there as well.
Conviction and Blacklist both implemented an upgrade system where players could choose to customise their equipment. While Conviction was limited to just combat, this made the upgrades skew towards that. In Blacklist, players could choose between stealth-focused and combat-focused upgrades. This would work…until mandatory stealth or combat sections would start, leading to many level restarts on my end.
If players are going to be given freedom of choice, then every situation and level has to be built for it. A great example would be the modern Deus Ex games, where nearly every situation and scenario can be tackled from any and every angle.
5. The Story (And The World Of Spies)
I won’t write a summary or synopsis, but rather a few things that might be cool to see.
The games are set in the modern day, focussing on what could be the next big threat to come along. These have included North Korea, former Soviet states, Indonesian rebels, Iranian hit squads, war profiteers, and traitorous United States officials, as well as the identikit Middle Eastern terrorists that littered shooters for the better part of a decade. While Blacklist was an interesting proposition (former spies becoming turncoats), I wouldn’t mind going in a different direction, namely the Cold War in the 1980s.
The Cold War gives Sam the greatest of stages as a spy. The setting gives the all-American spook some beautiful Communist-controlled nations to visit such as Cuba, Russia, and the best setting for any Cold War spy, Berlin, complete with Wall. The time period also allows Sam to face off against his Soviet counterparts. In Conviction and Blacklist players were introduced to Agent Kestrel of Voron, the Russian equivalent to Sam’s Third Echelon. Having East vs. West as the backdrop allows for tense spy battles as each tries to outwit the other. The 1980s also allows the game to have ‘prototype’ gadgets like the iconic trifocal goggles, OPSAT computer and trusty SC20k rifle. It doesn’t need to be an origin story or Sam’s first mission as a Splinter Cell, but just a retro-fitted adventure.
The stories have always been the usual Clancy fare about rogue nations and terrorist cells, hoping to cause damage to America. Sam works for the NSA, who are specifically based on protecting the United States, whereas the CIA focus their tasks on foreign interests. This has always led Sam and the NSA into morally dark territory, where they are spying on the CIA, FBI, the government, US citizens, and carrying out illegal assassinations (known as the ‘Fifth Freedom’ in-game). That darker edge is always an interesting angle, with Sam not always agreeing with his superiors. Add the murky ethical questions with all the declassified defections, false nuclear alerts and NATO/Warsaw Pact war games from the entire history of the Cold War, it is a great canvas for the game to build on.
Another note to mention, during his excursion in Wildlands, Sam was shipping out on a mission due to an “empty quiver” (codeword for a missing, lost, or stolen nuclear weapon). Could this be the plot of the next SC game? It wouldn’t be first time for a Tom Clancy property; the book The Sum Of All Fears also focuses on a similar premise. Aside from the original Rainbow Six, the games have strayed further from Clancy’s original text. Is this a sign they’ll be making their way back?
In the final cutscene during his mission in Wildlands, Sam remarks that “they don’t make ’em [spies like him] anymore.” It’s a sad remark on the nature of stealth games. Metal Gear Solid has gone the way of the dodo. Thief has slipped back into the shadows.
Hitman is still going strong, but had to go through a whole heap of publisher interference, a radical change of release, and finally developer IO Interactive going independent, all while Hitman 2 was still in development.
Aside from these games, there isn’t a true stealth game left in the market. Sure there are games like Alien: Isolation and Deus Ex which have stealth elements, but they are both influenced by other genres, namely survival and RPG respectively.
With Rainbow Six Siege now entering its fifth year, alongside the release of The Division 2 and Ghost Recon: Breakpoint in 2019, Ubisoft look set on bringing back their Clancy properties.
It took eight years between Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 and Siege. It took five between Ghost Recon: Future Soldier and Wildlands. It has been seven years since Splinter Cell: Blacklist. With all the Clancy properties on the rise (not mention Sam’s appearance), along with no true stealth competitor left in the market, the time is now for Splinter Cell to come back.
He is undoubtedly the face of a franchise, a mascot of the seventh generation, the most famous fictional assassin to come across a computer screen…and yet only the second-most-famous Italian in gaming.
Ten years after his debut, Ezio Auditore da Firenze is still held in high regard at the best protagonist of the Assassin’s Creed series. He’s many people’s introduction to the series, appearing in three of the top-selling games of the time, reinvigorating the series and pushing it in new directions.
His connection over three games allows us as players to see new dimensions and sides to Ezio as he begins to age and his body begins to fail him. We see Ezio grow in stature, from noble child to Master, then Mentor and eventually Assassin General.
We grew up with Ezio, just as main character and descendant Desmond grew as well. It’s a fascinating character, both from what he brought to gaming and to real life.
So let’s dive in, here is why Ezio Auditore is such a great character.
“You are the man I long to meet…” – (Yusuf Tazimto Ezio, AC: Revelations), What Makes Ezio Auditore A Great Character
There are three major factors when looking at not just Ezio, but any AC character, that need to be addressed. Firstly, the game is not just the story of Ezio Auditore. The player actually controls Desmond Miles, Ezio’s descendant, and through Desmond we play Ezio.
As seen in the first Assassin’s Creed, not all memories flow in a sequential order. At many points the Animus, the machine that allows Desmond to relive Ezio’s memories, skips forward to a more recent one.
In AC1 this time-hopping is to facilitate story flow, but in the Ezio Trilogythis cuts significant story points out of the game. We see more than the vague snapshots of Altair in AC1, but we miss out on important points and character turns that Ezio has.
Concurrently, in comparison to Altair, Ezio is a new Assassin. Altair knows most of the acrobatic and combat skills to be an Assassin, while Ezio learns them as he goes. While this is mainly a gameplay loop, it undoubtedly affects the story and character.
Finally, the Animus adapts speech for Desmond and therefore the player to aid understanding. In the first game it was 12th Century Arabic and English into modern vernacular, and in the Ezio Trilogyit is 15th-16th Century Italian, Turkish and Greek. Words don’t always have exact translations, not just through different languages but also time periods. These are factors to keep in mind when thinking about the game.
But with those arguments out of the way, let’s begin.
We are introduced to Ezio twice within the first five minutes of AC2, with both scenes shedding light on his character. The first is his literal birth. Yet when he is born he is not moving, not breathing. His father urges him to hang on to life,
“You are an Auditore. You are a fighter. So fight!” (1:09).
It was only on a recent play through of this game that I caught this character moment. The scene is taken over by the player making Ezio kicks his legs, punch his fists, and scream the roof down, but for a moment we nearly lost him. This is such a small scene but reverberates through to the end of the trilogy.
After his birth the game jumps seventeen years into the future. We get a build-up of shots, teenage nobles congregating on a bridge, one steps out of the crowd, his back to the camera. It tracks up this mysterious man’s back before he turns and is revealed as Ezio, giving off the first of his trademark smiles.
It’s instantly iconic, a real character defining moment, distilling all we know into him from his mannerisms, to his tone of voice, his friendships and infamy. We don’t need the previous seventeen years, as we can get everything from these opening moments.
In a developer diary of the first game, Project Manager Jean-Francois Boivin described Ezio’s personality,
“…he’s a carefree guy, he does what he has to do, he’s got lots of money, he’s got lots of friends and in regards to the women he is very charming…he always says the right thing to surprise them, to make him stand out from the crowd.” (1:17).
It’s an easy and almost archetypal creation, evoking pop culture staples like the Three Musketeers. We get a basis of the character and from there it helps create a really good portrait when he moves from that basis.
In a retrospective when the Ezio Trilogy was re-released, Producer Sebastien Puel said in an interview,
“Ezio grows as a warrior, he’s an Assassin, he has that in his blood. He is very gifted and along the game he learns to become a better warrior. But what is really important for us as a development team is he becomes a better human.” (0:31).
Puel continues saying that at the start of AC2, Ezio is a very ‘callous’ young man. As seen during the first sequence he believes in the social hierarchy. Ezio looks down on the thieves and courtesans (such as when he delivers a message in “Special Delivery (1:09)), and putting faith in the nobles that betray his family. Over time he begins to respect and find family in these outcasts, leading them to take over not just Florence and Venice, but Rome and then Constantinople, liberating the districts from the Templar’s control.
The change in his character is also thrust upon him by circumstance. After the death of his father and brothers Ezio is the head of the Auditore household, trying to care for his mother and sister. As seen when the family flees Florence in Sequence 2, Ezio tries to keep his voice low and commanding, but is noticeably agitated and worried (2:50).
Once they are safe in Monteriggioni, Ezio returns a little to his old carefree self, with only one major break in Sequence 3 when he kills Vieri De Pazzi. Ezio tries to pull a confession from Vieri, but he dies before Ezio can learn anything from him. Ezio begins to berate Vieri’s corpse until his Uncle Mario tells him to not disrespect the dead, saying, “You are not Vieri, do not become him.” (2:15). Ezio takes this to heart, and for the rest of the series gives all his targets their last rites.
Another significant moment is in Sequence 13 of AC2, the Bonfire of the Vanities. The city has been taken over by a puritanical friar named Savonarola, aided by the Apple of Eden. Ezio takes out the friar’s lieutenants to cause havoc in the city and the giving last rites his manner changes from the emotionless blessings he gives the main Templars.
The first target is an artist that was bewitched by the Apple (4:08) and Ezio feel remorse at felling a man in the prime of his life. There is a similar feeling when Ezio kills a street preacher, who when bewitched led his flock astray. Yet when Ezio kills those who would have profited from the rioting or starved the innocent, he is noticeably angry (13:20).
By the end of the sequence, Savonarola is tied to a stake and left to burn by the enraged citizens. Ezio believes that it is too cruel a death and leaps onto the pyre and killing the monk with his Hidden Blade. He turns to crowd and delivers a speech,
“Twenty-two years ago, I stood where I stand now and watched my loved ones die, betrayed by those I called friends. Vengeance clouded my mind. It would have consumed me, were it not for the wisdom of a few strangers, who taught me to look past my instincts. They never preached answers, but guided me to learn from myself…there is no book or teacher to give you the answers, to show you the path! Choose your own way. Do not follow me. Or anyone else.”
It’s a special moment in AC2 that shows Ezio’s growth as he enters the final sequence, only let down by the fact this wasn’t in the original product. Sequences 12 and 13 were DLC, yet hold vital clues as to see Ezio’s growth as a character.
With the death of his Uncle Mario at the beginning of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Ezio takes on the mantle of Mentor Assassin. While he is light and humorous in AC2,he is stoic and commanding when interacting with his new recruits in ACB. His voice booms, telling them that the liberation of Roma has begun.
Every person he saves swears allegiance to him and the Assassins, offering their life in debt (for example, 18:54). It’s an odd contradiction to Ezio’s speech in the Bonfire of the Vanities, but could be said that Ezio is giving these people the option to follow him rather than forcing them into servitude.
Scriptwriter of the series, Jeffery Yohalem says in the Developer Diary for Brotherhood that one of the aspects of Ezio’s journey is whether he “…truly can lead [the Assassin Order].” (3:09). In the final act of ACB, Ezio finally realises his purpose as the leader of the Assassins, telling Cesare Borgia that,
“A true leader empowers the people he rules.” (9:57).
Ezio continues to bolster the ranks of the Brotherhood in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but his marketing tactic changes when talking to new recruits. His voice is softer, as if he is only imparting words for their ears to catch. Instead of declaring war on the city and its rulers, Ezio focuses on the internal struggles of the person, telling them they need not be afraid or that they should better themselves, telling them the Assassins will welcome any and all (3:12, 7:47, 9:14, 10:18).
It’s an indication that with age, Ezio has seen past the black vs. white morality shown in AC2 and ACB and if people do not want to follow him then they can leave, but are always welcome back.
The shift into old age and the change to Ezio’s outlook on life is a great theme for the series. While we’ve seen characters change over games, I find the span over an entire trilogy helps aid that change from naive teen to world-weary man.
“I did not choose this path. It was chosen for me.”
In Sequence 11 of AC2, it is revealed that all the Thieves, Courtesans and Mercenaries that Ezio has met along the way have been guiding Ezio into becoming a true Assassin. Under the guidance of Niccolo Machiavelli, the Order believes Ezio is the Prophet, the Chosen One to open the vault beneath the Vatican and bring peace to the world.
The burden of godhood doesn’t mesh well with Ezio though. Much like Desmond at the end of AC3, Ezio rejects anything that is special about him. His speech in Sequence 13 explicitly states that he is not the leader they seek, but he still enters the vault. Once Minerva has used him to deliver her message to Desmond she leaves, leaving Ezio literally and metaphorically in the dark with him calling out to her saying he has, “so many questions.”
It is a cruel and curt drop for Ezio, at that moment he believes for a second he may be the Chosen One, but he is shown to be nothing but a conduit, an anchor for his descendants.
Ezio only confides to a handful of his most trusted confidantes about what happened between him and Rodrigo Borgia down in the vault, knowing that others would not understand and would try to rediscover the power. Even his mentor Machiavelli is doubtful over Ezio’s story.
So Ezio relegates the image of the Chosen One to the back of his mind, instead taking up the mantle of Mentor and putting the Brotherhood before all else. When he sees his oldest friend Leonardo Da Vinci for the final time in ACB, he tells him,
“I built this Brotherhood to last, with or without me.” (3:40).
He’s had the idea of his destiny, the thing he was made for, the thing he fought to stay alive for when he had just been born, completed as soon as he stepped into the Vatican. He was given a glimpse at a world beyond the one he knew, but he has no claim to it.
This could be why he throws himself into the Brotherhood, into building the systems, dismantling the Templars in an effect to be remembered, to be forgiven for not achieving what everyone believed he could. By the beginning of Revelations he is resigned to meet his maker, stating in the launch trailer,
“Fate may command I die before the answers are discovered.” (1:22).
He is hardly a member of the Brotherhood anymore, only establishing connections with the Ottoman Assassins as more of a courtesy. Ezio finds purpose outside of the Brotherhood, directing the teenage Prince Sueliman into adulthood, settling down with the Venetian merchant Sofia Sartor, and discussing his disillusionment of the Creed with the Assassin contact Piri Reis.
It feels like the game and story were meant as a deconstruction of what had come before. Indeed, the final scenes of Ezio and Sofia at Masyaf are punctuated with Ezio breaking down the famous Creed, identifying its faults and compromises. When he finally makes it Altair’s Library, Ezio is greeted by another Piece of Eden, but leaves it, now content with not knowing what lays beyond, saying,
“I have seen enough for one life.”
But just before he leaves Masyaf and the Assassins behind, he calls out to Desmond again. Throughout the series Ezio has been a pragmatist, finding realistic solutions to the problems of the Brotherhood and creating guidelines for his followers to live by. This is the first time he has had to take a metaphorical ‘Leap of Faith’, unsure of what or how the message will be received, but just that it will.
I’m trying to think of another character we get to see change over such a span of games. The only other character that comes to mind is Solid Snake from the Metal Gear series, with character duties swapping to other protagonists after his death in Metal Gear Solid 4. Even then, MGS is a pretty niche series in comparison, and we learnt of Snake’s eventual demise in the first Metal Gear Solid, so it was always on the cards. The same cannot be said for Ezio.
The closest I can think is possibly Vito Scaletta in the Mafia series, but he is only a playable character in one game. Ezio is playable across his entire life, from his birth to him leaving the Brotherhood, with his death featured in the animated film Assassin’s Creed: Embers. The sequence and change that is noticeable in gaming is something new and remarkable for a mainstream AAA series.
Ezio came to the series when it was hitting its stride. The seventh console cycle inducted a whole new generation to gaming, with Assassin’s Creed being one of the tentpole games every Holiday Season. It was possible that he was one of the first characters that a lot of people were introduced to on their new console.
Being the most recognisable face of a new series, having three games to himself, and being the lead of a solely single-player, narrative heavy story would endear him to a willing and waiting audience.
What did I see in him? The story and character is definitely there, playing as a noble in 1500s Italy, scaling rooftops and getting embroiled in conspiracies is a fun product. But I think it comes down to that I was a part of that generation that grew up with him.
I had played games all my life and already had a favourite character, Lara Croft. But I think the seventh generation is when I really became a ‘gamer’, for want of a better word. Yet I played the original AC, and while I like Altair…there is just something else about Ezio, that mystical ideal of ‘people want to be him or people want to be with him’.
He is still undoubtedly the mascot of the franchise and he deserves it. It has been a pleasure to play through his life, to see him rise, fall, and rise again, to continue on even after his time in the limelight has long faded.
I love Splinter Cell and its lead Sam Fisher. I am a Tom Clancy fan and love playing the games bearing his endorsement filled with his pulpy action and ultra-competent badasses.
While Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon have the fun of being a member of an elite squad, Splinter Cell always held more of a draw for me. Perhaps it was because a fan of James Bond, being a lone operative and relying only on your wits and tactics to survive seemed much more thrilling.
While I did enjoy the first four games in thefranchise, with Chaos Theory being the best of that set, I am only truly a mega-fan due to the fifth entry, Conviction. This may raise some eyebrows among other SC fans as Conviction is seen as a lesser game for its shift towards action and linearity, but I love Conviction for its story and presentation.
While the narrative is the usual Clancy stuff about secret government conspiracies, industrial espionage, and spy vs. spy standoffs, the story of Conviction is a good deconstruction of the entire series to that point. However, the deconstruction only works if you pick the non-canon ending.
Everybody Walks – How Splinter Cell: Conviction’s Ending Deconstructs The Entire Series
All games have messages. There has been debate recently with games like Modern Warfare (2019) and The Division 2(another Clancy game), over messages and political leanings in games. Splinter Cell, along with other games in the same stealth genre, are not immune to adding messages and themes in their games.
The Metal Gear Solid series was famously anti-war and dealt with themes of marginalised servicemen and women, the military-industrial complex, and the repercussions of Mutually Assured Destruction.
The earlier Hitman games had subtle hints on the dogmas and doctrines of Catholicism such as original sin, the capacity for God, and absolution (so much that they subtitled the fifth Hitman game Absolution).
Splinter Cell’s overarching theme is family and friendship. From the beginning of the series there has always been a sense of camaraderie, of not just co-workers, but of intimate connections. These can be seen both in the larger frame of the story as well as in individual scenes.
During the first three games Sam has a tendency to crack some jokes and have some light-hearted banter with his handlers over the radio. He argues with Grim over whether lasers or a 90s spy thing or 70s spy thing in Chaos Theory, discusses relationships and religion with Frances in Pandora Tomorrow, or asks a guard he has taken hostage if the coffee machine in the room uses ground or dried beans, again in Chaos Theory.
In terms of the story as a whole, friends and connections to Sam appear in every game. His daughter, Sarah, has been a major figure from the start. Her inclusion gives Sam something to focus on outside of work. In the ending cutscene of the first game when Sam laughs at the news covering up all the spy intrigue, Sarah says she hasn’t heard him laugh like that, “…since the Reagan administration!”
Sarah is also the focal point of the Conviction storyline. Sarah is supposedly killed by a drunk driver at the start of the previous game, Double Agent, but it is revealed her death was faked so an enemy agent couldn’t use her as leverage over Sam. Upon hearing his daughter’s voice for the first time in three years, Sam audibly clams up, stuttering over his words. His reunion with her later in the game has no dialogue, just a look between the two before they embrace.
During the events of Pandora Tomorrow, the second game, Sam saves an old army buddy, Douglas Shetland, from a guerrilla camp. In the sequel, Chaos Theory, Shetland is a valuable asset to Sam, helping with logistics and even offering him a job at his mercenary company if Sam wanted to leave the spy work behind. However, Shetland had been using his contacts to fuel a war between the United States, Japan, Korea, and China, and Sam confronts him at the end of the game. Sam and Shetland level their weapons at each other as Shetland starts to monologue about his reasoning. He ends with, “You wouldn’t shoot an old friend…” Sam can either shoot him, or if Shetland goes to shoot, Sam ducks and stabs Shetland with his knife, before pushing him off the roof they were on. Sam replies, “You’re right Doug, I wouldn’t shoot an old friend.”
During Double Agent, Sam has conflicting allegiances between the NSA and the terrorist group John Brown’s Army (JBA). He obviously doesn’t align with the JBA, but does emotionally connect with Enrica, the weapons expert of the JBA. The two become romantically involved and plan to run away together by the end of the game. Enrica is killed by another Splinter Cell just before the finale. Sam murders the Splinter Cell in a fit of rage before fleeing.
Another major event that happens in Double Agent is the death of Irving Lambert, Sam’s boss and friend. Lambert is taken hostage by the JBA, and Sam is forced to either shoot him or blow his cover. It is confirmed in Conviction that Sam did in fact shoot Lambert. When the scene is referenced in Conviction, the narrator, Victor Coste, says, “Lambert died that day by Sam’s hand. And so did Sam.”
Victor Coste is another of Sam’s army buddies and tells the story of Conviction via flashbacks. During the Gulf War Coste saved Sam after enemy forces captured the latter. Upon saving Sam, Coste chuckles, “You don’t leave a brother behind Sam. You don’t leave family.” Another theme present in Conviction is paranoia, with the voice of Sam, Michael Ironside stating in an interview, “Sam doesn’t trust anyone…” (1:31). His former handler, Grim, has seemingly become a turncoat, both helping and hindering Sam. It is seen through flash-forwards that she shoots Sam and captures him for the bad guy, Tom Reed.
Grim holds Sarah hostage and forces Sam back into duty if he wants to see her again. During the climax of the game Grim reveals that it was Lambert who faked Sarah’s death to make sure Sam couldn’t be compromised. She plays Sam a recording Lambert made before he died, explaining his motives and saying how he, “…lied to his [my] best friend.” Grim follows up by saying that she never held Sarah hostage, “That was just a bluff to get you in the game and for whatever it’s worth…I’m sorry.”
And we finally get to the ending of Conviction. After killing all the remaining Splinter Cells and saving the President, Sam has the traitorous head of the NSA, Tom Reed, at gunpoint. There are two options; kill him dead or spare him. Killing him is the canonical ending. Sam has been ‘activated’ again by the events of the game and is back to being a spy. In the final custscene of the game he breaks Coste out of the prison cell that he has been telling his story from (with Coste repeating his line about being ‘brothers’).
In the non-canon ending, Grim shoots Reed. The game ends with the following conversation.
Sam: You didn’t have to do that.
Grim: I disagree.
Sam: There was a time where you wouldn’t have said that.
Grim: Things change Sam.
Sam: Yeah, things change. Remember what you told me Anna, when this was over? Everybody walks. I’m walking.
Grim: You can’t. There is too much left to do.
Sam: Ask Lambert. I’ve done too much already.
Grim: Sam, please. I don’t know who else I can trust.
Sam: Trust? Funny you should say that. Goodbye Grim.
Throughout the entire series of Splinter Cell, Sam has always had his morals. Even when friends have become enemies, such as Shetland, he has always rationalised killing them, seeing them as bad guys.
After all that he has seen over the narrative of Conviction and the revelations of Grim and Lambert, he is an old and broken man. He may have got his daughter back, but he has lost everything else. And when Grim tries to reconcile and make it just like the ‘good old days’ Sam snubs her. It makes total sense that he would walk just like he did after Lambert’s death.
While I enjoy the sequel, Blacklist, I feel that the original run of Splinter Cell should have ended here with Sam coming to terms with his former allies and retiring into the sunset. Blacklist could have been a reboot as they changed the entire principal cast, with a new voice for Sam and Grim (as well as not having Sam Fisher, who is pushing fifty-four in Conviction, still be a spy).
By the time of Conviction we see those friends and relationships finally break down and rot, held together by only lies and deceit. It is a beautiful melancholic arc that punctuates the end of not just Michael Ironside’s last performance as Sam Fisher, but the last performances of the original voices of Grim and Lambert, Claudia Besso and Don Jordan respectively.
So while it was good to see Sam back in action both in Blacklist and more recently in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, it is here where Sam’s story came to a fitting end. When Sam leaves the Oval Office, he has nothing but Sarah. After years of field work where he would never get the recognition for his sacrifices, losing friends and lovers, until he can longer trust those he never thought would betray him, he still has a reason to go on.
It is the best ending the man could hope for despite the circumstances and one of my favourite narrative conclusions.
The first Assassin’s Creed broke all sorts of records. What started as a spin-off of the then still popular Prince Of Persia series sold over eight million copies in 2007-2008, an impressive feat for a new IP even at a major AAA studio.
According to MCV, it debuted at No.1 in the UK charts, snatching the position from under probably the most influential game of the 2000s, Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
With Assassin’s Creed being one of the biggest-selling new IPs in history (it is currently 18th of all time), Ubisoft knew they needed to have a sure-fire hit follow-up. This seems to have been the intention from the beginning, with AC1’s producer Jade Raymond stating in an interview,
“We did ask ourselves the question, you know if we do create a game that is successful, how do we make sure there is a structure, an overarching kind of meta-story that can continue to play out…that was one of our aspirations…” (2:03)
Tripling the size of the team in Ubisoft Montreal, with 75% of the original creators working on the sequel, Ubisoft sure had the pedigree. And with so many features that were missing in AC1 due to development times, the team now had the ability to implement them. Raymond mentioned this in the same interview,
“…we didn’t succeed on all of the fronts and we realised some of the things some of the ideas we tried turned out great and some of the ideas we tried didn’t turn out, and because we were trying to innovate so much we kind of ran out of time to do some of the things we wanted to do.” (4:16)
You have to remember, Assassin’s Creed 1 was built with an entirely new engine, and Raymond said Ubisoft were looking to, “…redefine gameplay…” (1:43). Possibly overly ambitious, but that’s why a sequel seems perfect. Ubisoft wanted a sequel soon, with only two years of development time given compared to the four that the original had got. The first major change would be started with Assassin’s Creed 3, whose production ran concurrently with a second team in Montreal.
But the developers didn’t need a grand vision. They had the perfect base, and now the time and the resources to nail the formula down.
Gameplay and Missions
Even though I just said Ubisoft had the perfect base to create a sequel from, all of it pretty much went out the window from the start. Creative Director Patrice Désilets said in an interview that,
“…we got rid of the entire structure of the first one where we had the investigation part and then the assassination parts. That’s gone.” (0:57).
What the team kept were the missions. The five or six different missions types in AC1 were taken and expanded upon, with Désilets saying there would be around sixteen different mission types for the sequel (0:39). He expanded upon this by saying that missions would be knitted together to create unique scenarios, such as starting with an escort, then a chase, followed by an assassination.
What helped was that in theory they were working from scratch again. Ezio at the start is not an Assassin. Desmond is the exact same. When Lucy breaks him out of Abstergo and takes him to the Assassin hideout, she says,
“We’re going to train you. Turn you into one of us…if you can follow in [Ezio’s] footsteps, you’ll learn everything he did…years of training absorbed in a matter of days. (8:30).
Instead of starting with a Master Assassin like with AC1 before having all your powers taken away, this time the gameplay and the story would work in tandem. The missions evolve as the game goes on.
In Sequence 1 we have a bit of fighting, a bit of chasing, hiding, and climbing. Each mission is self-contained, focusing on a single aspect of gameplay, maybe two. Most of the missions in Sequence 1 are also in service to the narrative. The gameplay is wrapped around either setting up the wider narrative or adding something to the supporting cast e.g. delivering a letter to disguised Assassin spies, or beating up your sister’s unfaithful fiancée.
The first three sequences follow this learning template, only opening up until Sequence 4. The world is shrunk, but not distilled. Sequence 2 (the first sequence with an assassination mission) gives you everything you would need; weapons training, social stealth, traversal, and lets you play. Even if you muck up your inaugural assassination the target does not flee or fight back, allowing you to take the kill without being overwhelmed like if you messed up the first assassination in AC1.
As the game goes on we find more and more intricate missions, just like Désilets mentioned, with several styles of play weaving between each other.
Along with these new mission types, AC2 has added several new moves to the assassin’s repertoire. I believed that AC1’s gameplay state was one of flow, using timing and precision to effectively play the game. AC2’s mission statement has changed to one of speed.
Most of the new moves are directed at making Ezio as nimble as possible. In low profile mode, the previous ‘blend’ button became a fast walk, allowing Ezio to gain ground without sacrificing exposure. In a similar vein, the crowd systems were overhauled, allowing Ezio to blend with any gathering of NPCs and not just specific groups.
Climbing and traversal were also beefed up with Ezio now able to sprint across beams and scale walls quicker with a jump grab ability.
During combat, the A button, previously the dodge button, now allows Ezio to pirouette around his adversaries, allowing him to stab them in the back for a one-hit kill.
The biggest change was to combat, speaking of which…
AC1 had five weapons, four of which were of any use (what was the point of using fists aside from the occasional interrogation?). AC2 expanded with not just new weapons but new fighting styles.
Using the R1/RB button would bring up the weapon wheel, with the four directions of the D-Pad allowing for quick selection. The throwing knives, previously a sub category of the dagger, were given their own slots, as well as new additions of smoke bombs (useful for escaping sticky situations) and a moneybag (for drawing crowds and stalling enemies).
The fists became useful during earlier missions, where Ezio was without a sword or blade. Using a similar counter to the first game, Ezio could now disarm enemies, using their own weapons against them. This extended out to all weapons, allowing Ezio to pick up battleaxes, lances, and, err…sweeping brooms. Any of these larger weapons could be bought from stores across the land, each one with stats making them quicker or more deadly.
The former battleaxes and lances could also be upgraded, allowing Ezio to throw the axe or sweep enemy legs with the lances. Throwing knives were also given a boost, allowing three knives to be thrown simultaneously to disperse crowds of enemies. In a similar vein the fists can be upgraded to throw sand.
More ranged options were developed, with one of the later sequences giving Ezio a hidden gun. While a little preposterous, the dev team balanced it well. It takes a long time to aim a shot, with a long reload time and loud gunshot. This meant it could only be used at the most important moments, rather than a squad-devouring machine like it became in ACB.
The signature Hidden Blades were buffed for the sequel (the most noticeable being that they are now plural). Gone was the counter-only method, allowing the blades to counter, parry and combo into gruesome kills. A poison blade was also added as a distraction method.
But the greatest change were the opportunities now offered to the player. Air assassinations (now helpfully explained in a tutorial), haystack drags, bench reversals, they gave players a large opportunity to experiment and play stealthily.
But with the Hidden Blades becoming top dog, everything else felt like an afterthought. Swords and daggers, so important in the first game, became useless. Hidden Blades could counter kill in one hit whereas other weapons could take two or three counter hits to kill an enemy.
There were times in AC1 where you had to run. In certain sections of the city such as Acre’s Arsenal, it was nearly impossible to clear all enemies from your sight (that’s why the Sibrand assassination mission in the Arsenal was great). AC2 has the opposite issue; it is easier to kill everyone before moving on. Even in the only mission where it is encouraged to flee (Sequence 1, Memory 12), when you are disarmed and cornered after your family have been murdered, you can still fight back using your fists and actually win.
With new weapons came new enemies. While AC1 had different rankings and skills (such as Captains being able to grab the player and throw them), AC2 made these changes more distinct. Agile guards who could out-run Ezio, Brutes with heavy weapons and would not retreat, seekers with the lances and checked haystacks for Ezio hiding in them, these would throw some x-factor into the sequence, making a carefully laid plan have to adapt.
In response to the enemies, Ezio had helpers in the cities he visited. Courtesans who could act as mobile cover and distract guards, thieves that could follow him across roofs and distract guards, and mercenaries that could remove unwanted guards, these became valuable assets that could aid in granting greater access to a target. In the sequel the factions were added to with the Brotherhood coming to assist Ezio in battle, but it is cool to see the germ of an idea here in only the second game.
Overall, the combat was buffed enough to make combat a little more forward. It would be for another game, the next one, where combat went from an advantage to an absurdity.
The setting of Renaissance Italy was a stroke of genius.
Similar to AC1, the game takes place in several cities the player can travel between. These include big cities like Florence and Venice, smaller outposts like Forli and Monteriggioni, and the countryside such as Tuscany, San Gimignano and the Apennine Mountains.
I have previously written about how each place in AC1 has a different tone to them, such as Damascus being bright and cheerful and Acre being grey and depressing. A few of the cities do have this feeling, with Florence (the opening city of the game) having a sense of warmth to it, and Forli looking like Acre 2.0. But I think the cities have moved beyond tone and focus more on player traversal.
While each city in AC1 was distinct, their traversal was very similar. In AC2, each city feels unique in how the player works their way through it. Venice has many tight-knit alleyways. Tuscany and San Gimignano focus on extreme verticality. Forli is flat and low. Florence is the only one that seems so generic, but in a good way. It has a bit of everything, teaching us the mechanics before sending us out into the world.
“Unsurprisingly, the design team talk of long field trips to each location, with artists taking thousands of photos and hours of video footage.”
The designers were so dedicated to representing the cities that they hired Maria Elisa Navarro, a Professor of Architectural History and Theory, as a historical consultant. In a great interview with architect Manuel Saga, Navarro explains how she was brought on board to help not only with architectural inaccuracies, but also with wardrobe and hair styling.
In AC1 the narrative had Altair heading between the three cities and his base in Masyaf, with new parts of the city unlocked as the game progressed. This was to aid non-mini-map design (read the ‘Visual Signifiers and the Mini Map’ section in the AC1 retrospective for more details). From the start of the game, the entire map of the city is open to the player.
While AC2 still included the mini map, the want for accuracy feeds back into the original idea for AC1 to be played without the need for a mini-map. Now with recognisible landmarks such as St. Mark’s Square in Venice or the Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo) and Giotto’s Campanile in Florence (along with the brilliant database that lists buildings, people and documents), players were able to guide themselves around the city without needing a map.
One of the odd map’s inclusions of AC1 was the Kingdom, a crossroad between the four main cities. AC2 has some countryside, but it is linked with the main cities. It becomes an integral part of the locations (such as the assassination mission of Jacapo De’ Pazzi at the isolated Anitco Teatro Romano, a Roman theatre in the Tuscan countryside), rather than feeling like a timewasting slog during the previous game.
Monteriggioni would take the place of Masyaf, owned by Ezio’s uncle Mario, (yes, they did make a “It’s-a me, Mario!” joke). A safe place outside of Florence, the villa and surrounding town has a few nooks and crannies for curious players, whereas ones who just want to get back to the stabbing can spend as little time there as possible.
The cities were magnificent, each with their own unique quirks and feels. But one thing made them feel extra special…Jepser Kyd. And so it is probably time to turn to his contribution to Assassin’s Creed.
Eight minim notes in 4/4 time in F Major. D, F, G, A, D, F, G, F.
That sequence is imprinted on thousands of gamer’s minds.
Jesper Kyd had worked on quite a few games, notably the Hitman series by IO Interactive. He worked on the soundtrack for first Assassin’s Creed, creating music that evoked the location, using Middle Eastern instruments, percussion, and singing styles, with a hint of synthesizers and reverb to hint at the modern aspect of the game.
With Assassin’s Creed II, he emboldened the score with sweeping strings and operatic style vocals, meshed in with electric guitars and remixes…and in the process created one of the most iconic (real iconic, not Ubisoft iconic) musical scores in gaming.
Just like with the architectural styles are different, each city has its own soundtrack. Florence’s soundtrack is usually light and melodic (reflecting the warm notes in the level design). Even with tracks such as ‘Darkness Falls in Florence,’ it still uses richer instruments that the rest of the OST.
Tuscany is stripped back, with fewer instruments and focusing on small bursts of melody, which feels reminiscent of how the location is wide-open spaces with a few noteworthy constructions dotted in between. Forli is heavy on percussion and deeper notes, evoking the drab and grey surroundings of the wetlands and industry.
And Venice likes to focus on minor keys, starting small in stature before building up with more instruments and higher notes, very much like starting a climb in the city. And ‘Venice Rooftops’ is a kicker of a track, effortlessly rising and falling, feeling almost like the ups and downs of parkour.
But there is one track that stands above them all.
Even now, ten years after AC2 came out, ‘Ezio’s Family’, the track I alluded to at the beginning of the section, is the de-facto theme for the entire series. It is continually referenced in later games in the series, such as Rogue’s ‘Main Theme’, Unity’s ‘Le Roi Est Mort’, Syndicate’s “Frye’s Family” or Origins’ aptly titled ‘Ezio’s Family (Origins Version)’. It’s a beautiful canon style track, effortlessly building, adding anachronistic instruments, getting higher and louder until it quietly returns to the opening notes, simultaneously changing and unchanging at the same time.
Just…if you have never heard this piece before, here it is. Have a listen. And if you are an AC fan, prepare to fall in love again.
This piece opened up the game. Ezio and his brother Frederico admiring the night-sky of Florence from the top of a church, then the camera pulls back, the music swells and the logo indents itself. I think this also started the trend of the series indenting the title with the characters perched somewhere high. Seriously, every game up until Syndicate had the characters looking out over the landscape as the logo popped up.
Anyway, back to ‘Ezio’s Family’…it’s perfect. And while AC1 had some good tracks, none of them have stuck with me like AC2. Every subsequent game’s OST, created by talented composers like Lorne Balfe, Elitsa Alexandrova, Brian Tyler, Austin Wintory, Sarah Schachner, and most recently the composing duo The Flight, is compared to Kyd and his revolutionary work.
I realise writing this section, it is pretty short, but I feel it doesn’t need any more discussion. This is one of the greatest soundtracks that gaming has ever and will ever produce and Jesper Kyd is such a talent.
The Story & The Characters
The story of AC2 is still considered one of the best narratives of the seventh generation and of the series as a whole. Part of that comes down to the main character, Ezio Auditore.
Where previous main character Altair was sour and serious, Ezio was fun and playful. Where we were thrown straight into Altair’s story, we followed Ezio from birth to middle age, filled with both victories and losses. And while Altair’s motives were understandable, Ezio’s connected on a deeper emotional channel.
Aside from an odd birth scene where we control Ezio as he is brought naked and screaming into the world, the narrative really starts on the Ponte Vecchio, with a now 17-year old Ezio before he becomes an Assassin. He is a privileged noble kid, getting into fistfights, boasting of nights spent with wine and women. It’s been thirty seconds and we have learnt the basics of the character; he is charming, he likes a laugh, and when it gets violent he can hold his own.
He is a pastiche of classical literature, part Zorro, part Casanova, and part Monte Cristo, containing all the endearing qualities why we love those characters without any of the downsides.
The narrative drives like a bullet, none of the fluff or side-quests of a latter day Ubisoft game, and I think that’s another reason why the game is loved. Even with fourteen sequences (two as DLC), Ezio only takes until the finale of Sequence 1 to get his hood and Hidden Blade, and is driven to make the men who killed his father and brothers pay. Even though Ezio starts the narrative worried and alone, facing off against a threat too big to comprehend, he gains friends and allies; mercenaries, thieves, and courtesans, who all believe the same creed. The scene at the end of Sequence 11 where all previous allies come to Ezio’s aid and fight alongside him is one of the high points for the level of fan service.
Another of Ezio’s friends is Leonardo Da Vinci. While later games would sometimes bash the player of the head with historical figures here it feels restrained, using the name but not having Ezio comment on the Mona Lisa or reference certain codes involving Jesus’ descendants. Leonardo starts as a lowly painter who Ezio’s mother is patroning, but eventually he turns into something like a quartermaster by supplying our hero with weapons and equipment. He even takes Ezio in when the Auditores are fugitives, seeing it as a sense of duty to help out the lost and scared Ezio. His ever-jovial nature and wide-eyed wonder is always endearing, giving a lot of the early story points levity, and many of the late-game plot points a sense of satisfied contentment.
With Ezio doing most of the heavy lifting narratively, the modern day plot and Desmond got to grow a litter more. Gone are the sterile hallways of Abstergo and monologues of bad guy Warren Vidic, here Desmond is supported by a relatively warm cast of Abstergo turncoat Lucy, tech support Rebecca, and historical consultant and professional sarcasm champion Shaun Hastings, the latter voiced impeccably by Danny Wallace. Apart from one scene halfway through the game showing that Desmond has started to learn the skills passed through the Animus, we don’t really get much else on the main man. Yet the moments where he gets to interact with his Mystery Machine assortment of chums, either in person or through voicemail in the Animus, never fail to bring a smile to my face.
Another modern day addition were the Glyphs. Hidden around the architecture of Italy were symbols (much like those on Desmond’s floor in Abstergo), left in the Animus by a previous Abstergo test subject, #16. Finding all of these Glyphs and deciphering their codes focusing on everything from Tesla to Milton, unlocked a hidden video featuring the Apple and the Ones That Came Before, adding more to the modern day plot line before it became a main thread in the sequel Brotherhood.
While the baddies of AC1 are varied and well-acted during their scenes on screen, many are simple outlines, with stories hinted at in their mannerisms and through half-told whispers in the investigation leading up to the assassination. Most are kept to their occupations; a Slave Trader, a Doctor, a Scribe, a Merchant King. In AC2 we get to spend time with the new bad guys, both in cutscenes well before their assassinations and through the database entries voiced by Danny Wallace. It helps keep us involved by knowing who we are killing and why, a problem that I feel has plagued my enjoyment of other AC games. Here you learn about these characters, how they conduct themselves, how they got to their positions of power, which makes it all the more satisfying to finally take them down.
Speaking of the assassinations, I previously praised the first game’s assassination sequences and said AC2’s are as linear as possible. Nearly every major assassination up until Sequence 7 (when Ezio arrives in Venice) has Ezio chasing his target rather than waiting for the right moment. Even later missions like Sequence 9, set during Carnevale, has only one way to complete it. But I forgive the game because of its uniqueness; having you kill a target during Carnevale using a handcannon, throwing a monk from the tallest tower in San Gimignano, jumping onto a bonfire to ease a target’s suffering, using a hang-glider to enter a target’s palace, these are all completely original ideas that help make the sometimes standard and linear assassinations feel grand in scope and spectacle.
Ezio has had the longest run of all AC series leads, fronting two/three major release (Revelations is different in that he shares it with Altair) as well as featuring in smaller titles like Discovery on Nintendo DS and Rebellion for mobile devices. His legacy spans not just across games, but books and animated short films. As Associate Producer Julien Laferrière said in an interview with Eurogamer,
“We made three games with Ezio because people loved Ezio.”
It was nice to see the Renaissance hunk return after AC2 to stalk his way around Rome and then Constantinople, and during that time see a marked change on the man. We’ve had characters get older as games have gone on, Joel from The Last Of Us and Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid are two that come to mind, but I think AC was different in showing Ezio before and after the change into the hooded killer. He starts as simple spoilt noble kid having to mature beyond his years before becoming an Assassin, then graduating to Master and Mentor, and achieving the rank of Assassin General in Revelations.
Looking back at AC2’s ending, before we knew if we would ever see Ezio again, the final moments in the Vatican Vault are oddly chilling. The Assassins have told Ezio that he is the Prophet, the Chosen One, yet when he enters the First Civilization Vault the goddess Minerva greets him then dismisses him, talking instead to Desmond. Here is a man who has spent his whole life dismantling corruption and evil in the name of a higher cause, finding out that he is merely a pawn, with no greater significance.
Imagine if Ezio’s story stopped here, and the next entry was Connor in AC3. We’ve spent 20+ hours with this character, only to find at the end that he isn’t destined for greatness. At the same time this realisation dawns on him we are pulled away, leaving him in the dark. He has spent over twenty years with one goal in mind and now at what should be the apotheosis of his life, he is scared and alone, just as he was in Sequence 1. That image is haunting.
Altair’s ending in AC1 was much the same, realising there was a world and a story greater than his own. This can be seen by reading in his Codex, unlockable text files hidden throughout AC2. Yet Altair understood his ending, Ezio does not, literally saying to Minerva that he has “so many questions.”
I hated this ending when I first played it, only seeing it as a cliffhanger, rather than the gut-punch existential dread I now see it as ten years on. Many of the games in the series follow this thread, with Connor and the Temple, Edward and the Observatory, Arno and the Sage and the Fryes with the Shroud. These men and women, spanning centuries, who glimpse a story bigger than heaven itself, only to realise that their goal in the grand scheme is to procreate enough so that hopefully one of their descendants becomes the mythical ‘Desmond’. It is only by Revelations, when Ezio is into his fifties that he finally understands that he is nothing but a conduit, a lightning rod that allows Minerva to speak to Desmond.
The last media appearance of Ezio is in Assassin’s Creed: Embers, a short animated film detailing the last days of Ezio’s life. In the film it shows a man withered by old age, trying to aid both his family and Chinese Assassin Shao Jun, who has come to speak with the famous Italian Batman. The ending reinforces Ezio’s final words in Revelations, showing that with time he has settled as a man who knows too much but can never do enough.
One other aspect must be mentioned when it comes to the legacy of AC2, one that still lives to this day. The original run on PC is ‘protected’ by DRM software (digital rights management), an attempt to stop people pirating the game. In an effort to stop this, AC2 was only playable when connected online. No internet connection…you won’t be able to play the product you bought (leading to many frustrated consumers when the company servers go down). Ubisoft still uses these practices today, with AC: Origins doubling-up with two different DRM products. I thankfully never came across these with the console version, but it still needs to be mentioned as it is a very important point of the game’s history.
I will admit, coming back to this game was hard. I had fallen in love with game series before, most notably Timesplitters and the early Lego games. Assassin’s Creed was one of the first major series I played on the seventh generation, and I saw the remarkable jump from AC1 to AC2 in the span of switching out one disc for the other. When I returned after ten years to the first game there was an odd feeling of comfort, settling back in with ease.
I was a little worried that with AC2 I was going to have the reverse. Several games I loved when I was younger have not got better with time. And while I noticed a lot more hand-holding and linearity with the recent playthrough, it still has that charm almost ten years later.
Ezio is one of the biggest draws to replay. I think he is one of the best examples of “people want be him, or people want to be with him”, an all-round top lad whose sense of honour and personal drive keeps us engaged. Another highlight to returning are the locations. The cities are also so much fun to move through and completely different to the Holy Land Of AC1, or the other big-budget open world games like GTAIV‘s Liberty City the previous year, or war-torn Paris in The Saboteur the same year.
The villains are fun, the soundtrack is awe-inspiring, and even poor old Desmond gets to flex his protagonist muscles both in and outside of the Animus. Most of my grumbles are nitpicks; DLC disrupting narrative flow, overpowered attacks, and only a few instances of linear design. None of these spoil the game to any large degree, they can even be a benefit for those more casually inclined, with DLC only being an issue for those that played it in chronological order (I’ve written more about that here).
When I played AC1 for a retrospective I said it felt a lot like a blueprint of games to come. AC2 could almost be the opposite side of the coin, refinement while also laying foundations for later games. While we still have the upgrades and items available for purchase, they don’t swamp out the gameplay.
Assassin’s Creed II took what worked in the first, added its own flavours and tone, and became one of the most adored games of the seventh generation and the series as a whole. It’s a beautiful game and still deserves to be played today.