Assassin’s Creed: Liberation – Discovering A Classic

I’ve just finished playing Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, originally a PlayStation Vita exclusive, now bundled with the recent Assassin’s Creed III remaster.

It feels refreshing and fun to go back to a game that uses the old AC formula, but with a new location, story and character.

And even after a short time playing it, Liberation is probably one of my favourite AC games, easily passing III and Black Flag in my ranking of the series.

So I thought a little breakdown of what I loved about it, and hoped to spread the good word to some AC fans that may want to return to something with a classic feel.

Ragin’ Cajun: Why I love Assassin’s Creed: Liberation

  1. Scope

As mentioned previously, AC: Liberation was originally released on the PS Vita in 2012, to tie-in with the mainline entry ACIII. With the smaller hardware, reductions were needed to be made, but every change seems to benefit the game.

Instead of an intensely expansive world, Ubiosft Sofia (creators of the Prince of Persia HD release as well as the AC spinoff, Rogue) decided to keep things small and contained.

New Orleans and the Bayou, the two main areas of the game, are comparable to AC2’s Florence or Venice than the sprawling maps in ACIII (here is a forum thread of players calculating the size of the cities).

Smaller design leads to more intimate and detailed sections of the map, and allows players to get quickly attuned to their surroundings.

The churches of New Orleans, with their towering spires, become waypoints, allowing players to orient themselves to the location without having to pull the map out every few seconds.

It’s similar to the original Assassin’s Creed in that regard; a small contained map, with distinct areas, and easy, identifiable landmarks. It helps the city feel rich and unique, directly because it is smaller.

This direction of scope is even found in the story and characters. While ACIII spends almost five whole sequences setting up the tragic backstory and family dynamic of its lead, Liberation does it in less than thirty seconds, with only around ten lines of dialogue.

It’s a masterstroke of character and lore-building and gets you right into the story. So let’s talk about that next.

Despite its smaller scale, New Orleans feels as detailed, polished, and alive as later games in the series. (Source: ign.com)

2. The Story

Written by veteran narrative designers Richard Faresee (who worked on Revelations and III) and Jill Murray (who worked on Black Flag, its expansion Freedom Cry, and recently Shadow of the Tomb Raider), Liberation is one of the more unique narratives of the AC franchise, with it winning the Writer’s Guild of America Award for game writing for 2012.

After the Ezio Trilogy, Assassin’s Creed started to play with the formula for its stories. During AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations, the Templar’s were moustache-twirling bad guys worthy of a Saturday morning cartoon.

From ACIII to Unity, the mood shifted to portraying the Templars and Assassins as two side of the same coin, with more in common than what separates them.

Liberation follows this theme, but takes it even further, having a fun meta narrative within the story.  Liberation is in fact a game created by Abstergo Entertainment, a video game branch of the Templar company, wanting to push their propaganda onto the public.

Your game signal is ‘hacked’ by an Assassin, who tells you the Templar’s are hiding the truth. The Templars doctor the events to suit their purposes, so you have to hunt down a ‘glitch’ known as ‘Citizen E’, who then reveals the truth behind each edited scene.

It’s a cool idea, echoing the interrogations and glitches from the first Assassin’s Creed, of a world beyond the one we are perceiving, of secrets and subterfuge that some of the other games have lacked (looking at you, Unity, where nearly every NPC knew who the Assassins were).

The ‘Citizen E’ missions add an air of mystery and suspicion to the narrative, making the player question Aveline, her allies, and her enemies. (Source: assassinscreedwiki.com)

The “Full Synchronisation” elements (where players can complete extra challenges during missions) are well thought out and aren’t just added difficulty. Ever since the concept was introduced in Brotherhood, I’ve felt that this was the most ‘game-y’ aspect of the series and didn’t  fit either with the mission or the previous freedom of gameplay choice.

Here the Full Syncs add to the narrative, giving hints to the main character, Aveline’s, backstory. For example, the first assassination of the game (and possibly Aveline’s first assassination) isn’t with a hidden blade but with a musket stolen from an enemy.

It’s such a small detail but adds a ton of information to Aveline’s first recorded kill just by what weapon was used.

The story, like all ACs, twists and turns, threading the role of women, race, and indigenous people, something powerful and note-worthy in a major franchise like AC.

Another franchise staple, the First Civilisation, is present, but it isn’t treated with the same world-shattering aspects like previous games.

It’s a small thing in the grand scheme of the game (and has a nice twist at the end), so I’m happy that this series thread is kept to the background.

Liberation takes short detours to Chitzen Itza and Mexico, adding First Civilization temples and items, and uses them as standout platforming sequences (Source: assassinscreed.fandom.com)

But the high point of the story is it never loses sight of its lead. The story is squarely on the Assassin, Aveline de Grandpré. We see her triumphs and defeats, and turning from naive freedom fighter, into stalwart Assassin, and finally someone who can see from all sides, and carves out a path of her own. 

Speaking of which…

3. Aveline

Aveline is such a cool character. While it would take another three years until a female protagonist became a lead character (Evie Frye sharing with her brother Jacob in Syndicate), Aveline is no slouch when it comes to characterisation.

Aveline is constantly torn between two worlds, playing all sides, creating an interesting dynamic not only in story but also gameplay.

The most on-the-nose is her status in New Orleans. Born to a white wealthy merchant and a slave mother, Aveline has known both the stuffy aristocratic life afforded to her by her father, but also the hardships of slave life, even having nightmares of being snatched with her mother by traders right off the street.

Throughout the game Aveline switches outfits, from her Assassin ‘robes’ to ball gowns to slave attire, each one with their own abilities and quirks.

Her Assassin outfit is the one suited for combat, allowing for all her weapons and tactics, and also shows some cool details on her personality. For instance, instead of the trademark hood, Aveline uses a tricorn hat, allowing her braided hair to flow freely.

It’s a small detail but something that gives her an edge, of defining herself by her own skills and attire, not standing by the tradition of the Assassins.

When in her ‘lady’ outfit, Aveline can ‘charm’ guards away from their post and has lower notoriety, but is only limited to her hidden blade and can’t freerun.

When dressed as a slave, Aveline also only has her hidden blade, but can blend with other slaves and free-run, while gaining higher notoriety when doing ‘high profile’ actions.

While incredibly gendered, it adds a small layer of choice and tactics to the game, using Aveline’s duality as part of gameplay, with Aveline even altering her speech when wearing different outfits. It’s a great mechanical example of one of the tenets of the creed, “hide in plain sight”.

Aveline uses a variety of disguises to achieve her goals. I love this aspect and wish it would make a return in the series. (Source: siliconera.com)

Storywise, Aveline’s status as an Assassin also rides the dual aspect. Neither her father or mother are Assassins, a far cry from the rest of the series where it is usually a family tradition.

She may be inexperienced, but Aveline has already earned her hidden blades, allowing the narrative to skip the ‘origin’ story and get right into the main events without showing us her discovering the Brotherhood.

The only person who ‘knows’ about her rooftop exploits is Gérald, an employee of Aveline’s father, who holds down Aveline’s base of operations in New Orleans. Gérald gives Aveline information and equipment and knows of the Assassin/Templar conflict, but he is not immersed in the Assassin life.

Aveline is alone in her pursuit, not chasing down her family’s murderers or looking to gain back her family’s honour like other AC leads, but just watching over New Orleans, leaving only when needs must.

She helps free slaves and guides them to the bayou, she disrupts over-zealous colonial rulers and greedy merchants, and kills any Templar that sets foot in her town.

Late in the game Aveline leaves New Orleans for Boston to hunt down a spy and enlists Connor Kenway’s aid. They fight side-by-side in a knockout cameo sequence (Source: assassinscreed.wikia.com)

Aveline’s actions sometimes bring her into conflict with her mentor as she goes against Assassin dogma, not in a ‘trying-to-be-edgy/I-don’t-play-by-the-rules’ way, but as Aveline’s internal struggle with the tenets of the Creed and wanting to act.

It’s such a departure from the rest of the series, but every other attempt at ideas like this in later games has come across as being contrarian for the sake of it (mostly in AC: Unity).

While Aveline is cool and calm under pressure, smart and resourceful, she isn’t afraid to lose her temper or her composure.

There are several stand-out scenes near the end of the game which top any other moment in the series with their levels of emotion, pathos, and engagement.

One other major section that helps build Aveline’s character is…

4. The Combat

Liberation uses the same combat as ACIII and Black Flag, but has its own quirks that for me add to Aveline’s characterisation and to the game as a whole.

Aveline has the regular assortment of swords, daggers, hidden blades, and accessories, but the animations and their usage are so powerful.

Take the sword for instance. While other Assassins are usually hacking and slashing (such as Connor), Aveline’s sword-work is based more on cut and thrusts, disengages and parries.

It’s more intricate and indicates some formal training, indicative of her childhood in one of the more affluent families of New Orleans.

Her short blade is at the complete opposite end of the social scale. In the first mission of the game Aveline frees and slave and then fights off the enraged owner with his own sugarcane machete.

In another slave encampment, she wrestles away a slaver’s whip before turning it on him, and uses it to hang her enemies from tree branches.

It’s a powerful image of a young black woman using the tools of her oppressors against them, similar to Lincoln Clay’s rampages in Mafia III, a game which similarly stars a bi-racial main character fighting against the systemic racial prejudice of the time, also set in Louisiana.

Aveline strangling an enemy with her whip, getting ready to equip her machete to deliver the killing blow (Source: gamerstemple.net)

In the same camp where Aveline gains the whip, she builds her own hidden blades. Pickpocketing materials from around the camp; a small plank of wood here, a kitchen knife there, and finally a few soldier’s belts, Aveline lashes them all together to re-arm herself.

It’s a cool moment after a long section of having to work around enemies rather than face them head-on, now being able to break free and take on the rulers of the camp.

For many missions Aveline has to use her fists, which adds another layer to her characterisation. It’s mentioned in dialogue and appears in-game when she wears the slave disguise, Aveline is attacked by thugs that roam New Orleans.

In direct opposition to her bladework, Aveline’s hand-to-hand combat is brutal and lacks formal training. She swings wide haymakers, incorporates stomps and flying knees, it is the exact type of combat I would expect someone who had to fend for themselves on the street would have. 

And since the game is based off the updated ACIII engine, there is less of the stop/start counter combat from the earlier AC games.

Aveline has all the tools of the trade at her disposal and can easily go toe-to-toe with any Templar that gets in her way. (Source: spieltipps.de)

Conclusion

I did’t have much hope for Liberation when I first booted it up.

I wasn’t a major fan of either ACIII or Black Flag when I first played them, only really feeling the series had won me back when I played Syndicate.

And as the game was a PlayStation Vita exclusive when it first came out, it gave the impression Liberation was an also-ran, a stop-gap that played safe and didn’t offer anything of value.

But I gave it a chance and found myself relaxing into it, feeling comfortable in my controls and abilities, challenged by new locales and events and spirited away by an unspoiled story, but having a sense of familiarity, old yet new.

It’s been almost five years since AC has leapt from action-adventure to the RPG crowd, and I don’t fault it. Sale numbers and audience reception to Origins, Odyssey and Valhalla have been phenomenal.

But if you a looking for a change of pace, a palette cleanser between the big, bombastic games, something that tells a small story in a larger frame, or is just a nice reminder of a time and gameplay styling that has been absent, then AC Liberation might just be right for you.

It’s been a pleasure to play as Aveline, and my only wish is that I wanted more.

Banner Photo Source: gamestar.de

Assassin’s Creed (2007)…A Decade Later

Introduction

When players of the future will look back on games that could be part of the ludo-canon there will be a whole host of different styles and genres, from indie games to AAA releases. Some games, such as Grand Theft Auto III, won’t be the best in their series, but will indicate the start of something bigger. Some, like Bioshock, show a more thoughtful, provocative, and literate attempt at the art form. And some, like Minecraft, are, well…revolutionary.

The list will go on and on as more games and platforms are released, but today I want to focus on one game. This game, much like GTAIII before it, was the start of not just a best-selling franchise, but managed to blend genres, brought a completely revolutionary idea of multiplayer to our screens, and kick-started a whole slew of imitators. Today, I’ll be talking about Assassin’s Creed, all the way back from 2007.

At the time of writing the series has been going for eleven years with nine games so far. Its most recent release, Origins, came out in late 2017, ten years after the first game. So, with over a decade of gaming to look back over let’s dive in.

This isn’t going to be a simple re-review of the game, but more a sort of breakdown and rethinking of the game. Enjoy!

Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted – A Look Back At Assassin’s Creed (2007)

Origins (no, not that Origins)

At the tale end of 2003, Ubisoft Montreal had just released Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time. Sands Of Time was the reboot of the series and would go on to spawn two sequels, Warrior Within in 2004, and Two Thrones in 2005. It was from this creative team that Assassin’s Creed would be born.

In a surprisingly detailed feature in Edge Magazine (Note: This is a second-hand account of the work, as all links to the original revert back to GamesRadar’s homepage), Creative Director Patrice Désilets talked about how the idea grew from the PoP series, where the player would be an assassin bodyguard protecting the child version of the Prince. Long after the game was released, this test footage of the game was leaked. (Source: Felipe Orion).

You can see the building blocks of the series; the crowd mechanics, the ominous white hoods, and hidden blades. There is a lot of stuff in that trailer that would take several games to be brought back into the series, with the main ones being co-op and bows and arrows being used.

You can easily see how PoP was the precursor. The free-running mechanics are obviously the key influence, but in a much larger way. The fun of a PoP game, even the more open ended-style like the 2008 reboot, the free running is in more of a linear sequence. The game world is an assault course; you see the path and you have to hit the buttons at the correct time to move through the land. It’s not experimental or improvisational; the path forward is set. Assassin’s Creed is more open with a world full of opportunities and pathways. In the feature Désilets remarks the freerunning was meant to be similar to the use of vehicles in GTA, “The pleasure of driving a car in Liberty City should be the same as a main character in Assassin’s Creed.” (para. 19).

The Arabian aesthetic would be another key factor. While PoP would feature expansive areas, the game is limited mostly to palaces and corridors to feature the prince’s wall-hopping acrobatics. Assassin’s Creed builds on that by opening up the world, not just into outdoor areas, but three different cities and a huge countryside to explore.

So with the building blocks of the game set let’s look into how Assassin’s Creed actually works.

“The World Is A Stage” – The City and Lands of Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed is set in the Holy Land and the bulk of gameplay is divided between three cities in the region; Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre. Despite all being in relative proximity to each other they all have different design and artwork.

Damascus is bright and tan, with minarets and spires stretching high into the sky. Jerusalem is has muted shades of brown, with mosques sitting beside churches and synagogues. And Acre, well, Acre is a warzone; cold, dark, and grey, with most houses reduced to smouldering ash and rubble.

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The three cities are distinct and each tell a different facet of the Crusades. For example, the Teutonic Crusaders were the invaders of Acre, so while they want to be seen as the saviours of the city’s Christian inhabitants, the scars of war show them to also be invaders and destroyers. The cities are split between three districts; poor, middle and rich. While this helps design variety, it’s also meant to be a visual signifier for player interaction and gameplay (which we will talk about later in this retrospective).

The only part of the world that seems a bit pointless is the Kingdom. It boils down to a really big set of crossroads with a single path leading to each city and to the Assassin’s mountain top castle, Masyaf. There is nothing to do here, apart from collect flags (for no benefit besides 100% completion) and annoy roaming Saracens and Templars (although according to Désilets, this was an effort for an “improv” sense of gameplay, where each player’s story is different (para. 24-26)).

Masyaf is, again, different to any of the other cities. Having the game unceremoniously start there in a weird dream sequence and also end there with the fight against the shape-shifting Al Mualim has a nice cyclical nature to it. Again, like the Kingdom, there isn’t really a need to explore aside from flag collecting, so they majority of the gameplay will be spent in the targets hometowns.

I mentioned that visual significance of the districts allowing for greater player clarity in traversing the city, so let’s explore that idea. The problem of the city comes down to the inclusion of the mini map.

“In The Kingdom Of The Blind, The Man With Eagle Vision Is King” – Visual Signifiers and the Mini Map (and also the side missions)

One of the biggest faults many people find with Assassin’s Creed is its repetitive nature. Receive a target, go to the city, talk to the Assassin Bureau, do three tasks such as eavesdrop, pickpocket, or beat up a public speaker, return to the Bureau and then assassinate your target. Rinse and repeat nine times, game over. But that is a shallow experience of the game, and I would expect 98% of that comes from the mini-map.

Back in May 2017 on Twitter I got into a conversation with Stanislav Costiuc, a developer at Ubisoft, who wrote a fantastic essay on how Assassin’s Creed was designed for HUD-less gameplay and no mini-map. Costiuc explains that the levels and districts were designed in such a way to aid player exploration but also player interaction with the world.

Going back and playing Assassin’s Creed without the HUD makes playing the game a much different experience. You have to be in tune with your surroundings and recognise patterns. Costiuc shows this with a running commentary of how he played through one of the assassinations without the HUD.

Without the map telling him where to go, Costiuc had to find markers in the world that would help him find the Bureau and his targets. Each Bureau leader tells the player where to start their investigations; the north markets, the west gardens, the south gates, each one filling in the world. All these dialogues are meant to help the player rather than just fill for time. That’s why the different sections of the maps and specific locations are needed in AC1 because they were originally used for player education, without the mini-map as a crutch.

This is one thing I wish had been carried over to the rest of the games. With the more detailed world and the inclusion of a database helping identify actual buildings, this type of landmark guidance would have worked wonders. For example, after getting back one holiday from Florence I booted up AC2 and was able to find my hotel just by going to the buildings I recognised.

This makes me think the original game was meant to be much slower paced, almost similar to IO-Interactive’s Hitman, with the player finding pieces of information that could help or hinder them with their assassination attempt.

For those assassination attempts the player needs to get close to the target and then attack them with a weapon. So, let’s talk about traversal and combat.

“He’s Going To Hurt Himself” – Freerunning, Movement, and Killing Targets

I previously talked about the freerunning aspect in comparison with Prince Of Persia, but Assassin’s Creed has a more dynamic movement system than its ancestor. Each of the face buttons is a part of the body; A/X is legs, B/Circle is empty hand, X/Square is weapon hand, and Y/Triangle is for the head. All of these are then modified with the use of RT/R2 into high-profile moves. In the Edge feature Désilets mentioned how it was based on puppets (para. 21), and the system is simple enough that you don’t have to spend several hours getting to grips with the control layout.

Again, AC1 is slower than its sequels; there is no jump climb ability and you can’t sprint across beams, but the central mechanics are solid. Swimming is also absent (there is a debate over whether it’s historical accuracy since we are covered in armour, or a technical feat since swimming mechanics were still in their infancy, only appearing a few years prior in Rockstar’s GTA: San Andreas), but this is offset by only having a few water sections in the game. This does come to the fore during the assassination of Sibrand in Acre, where the stealthiest way to his ship is via jumping precariously around the harbour.

Altair_free-run.jpg
Still from Jerusalem of Altair in “flight”. Source: AC Wikia

Freerunning is especially well defined for such an early game. Apart from PoP I can’t think of many games before the first Assassin’s Creed that had a smooth freerunning mechanic. It also feels like there is small amount of auto-guiding in terms of chasing targets. Many times in AC sequels I would find myself chasing a target and instead of following them through an archway, Ezio or Connor would instead get stuck to the doorframe or run up a wall. I’ve never had that problem during my playthroughs with Altair.

The combat of AC1 is my favourite of the entire series. I’ve written previously about the feeling of the combat, how the sword has weight behind it, but there is so much more than that. It feels like a multi-tiered system with different moves for skill levels and play-styles. For those just wanting to kill enemies with brute strength there is the charge up sword. For those with patience there is the counter mechanic. And for those with good timing there is the combo kill and the break defence, which are rewarding for being the quickest kills.

None of the skill-based attacks have the same depth as in later games and merely reduced to a single button presses (AC2 was concered more on movement, but because the Hidden Blades were perfect counters and the sword/short blade took two or three counters and are slower in general, there is no reason to use them).

The revamped combat in the sequels was due to the supposed stalling enemies, crowding around you and staring you down for several seconds before attacking. But that is simply not true in AC1. Sure, if all you are using are counters then yes there is a lot of dead air when it comes to battles. But using the break defence and combo kills, or the Short Blade and Throwing Knives, and again, recognising the visual signifiers of scared/taunting soldiers (which leaves them open to a quick hidden blade or throwing knife kill) the combat is far from static.

You get these moves through the game so you are meant to up your strategy. The problem is that the counter is way too powerful leading to players defaulting to that, making the battles seems stilted. These was “rectified” in later games by having enemies that could stop counters (here is a video by Extra Credits talking about this problem, calling them FOO strategies), but made combat even more stilted by having to perform these actions several times to defeat one enemy.

The weapons feed into the aspect of upping strategy alongside the moveset. The sword is good for defence and strong attacks but is slow. The short blade/knives are faster, and the hidden blade (which we will get onto next) is a one-hit kill. They allow for a sense of personalisation when it comes to combat.

The Hidden Blade is the best weapon in the game. The blade only kills in low profile situations (or as a counter), otherwise the target can block your attack and force you into open combat. Knowing this feeds back into the world and those visual signifiers, trying to find a way to get close to your target without raising the alarm.

For example, the assassination of Majd Addin in Jerusalem has the target on a platform surrounded by guards. There is no way to break through the guards and get a clean kill with the hidden blade. You have to look at your surroundings; should you take the ladder to the side of you to climb up and around to the platform, or should you hide among the scholars to try and pass through the crowds? The limits of the blade make you work for the best kills, but then the sequels turned them into insta-kill spree-delivering devices.

The only problems with combat in Assassin’s Creed are in hindsight of the sequels. Things like Air Assassinations and Haystack Drags that debuted in AC2 are sorely missing. And while the throwing knives are a good ranged weapon, certain guards seem invincible to them which breaks immersion. AC1 also has the odd habit of making you a wanted man just for locking onto a guard.

Edit: Thank you to Stanislav Costiuc, again on Twitter, explaining there is an Air Assassination mechanic in AC1, but there isn’t a tutorial for it.

Now that I’ve talked about most of the design and gameplay aspects that I wanted to mention, let’s move onto the story and narrative.

“Sit Down And I Will Tell You A Tale Like None You Have Ever Heard!” – The Dual Narrative

I remember when I first played Assassin’s Creed I thought, “This is so cool, I get to run around fighting medieval knights, run across rooftops like a high-wire trapeze artist, and there is even some conspiracies and intrigue. I love this!” Then the game would wrench me out the experience, taking me away from the badass Altair and replacing him with bland bartender Desmond Miles.

AC1Des
The “very special boy” Desmond Miles, who seems to be a descendant of EVERY single Assassin ever. Source: giantbomb.com.

I think the overarching, modern day narrative was the part that lost a lot of players. Because we don’t spend enough time with dear old Desmond we have no reason to care about him or his trials. Even when the games tried to jazz up his role such as learning the skills of the Assassin’s in Brotherhood, learning about his past in Revelations, or making him the most super special person in the world in III, Desmond still felt like an afterthought. Even next to Connor “What-Would-You-Have-Me-Do” Kenway (honestly the worst protagonist I’ve ever played as), Desmond was a poorly defined character. Another problem with the wider narrative is that it never got a satisfying ending. Every game would end with Desmond and his posse running from the Templars to another safe haven, meaning we would have to buy the next instalment to get a follow up.

I’m not sure how I feel about Desmond’s departure after III and Abstergo basically turning into Ubisoft and selling genetic memories as games, but it seems a rather silly hold over. The modern aspect is only in there for the game to have overt gamey-aspects not break narrative cohesion by saying “we’re in the Animus”. It should just be ditched; I think gamers would understand that their game has to have some anachronisms. The fact that both Subject 16 and Desmond both started hallucinating outside of Animus shows that humans can experience genetic memories without a wacky machine. Why not focus on that; a character that has learnt to go into a zen-like trance to relive their memories?

The reveals of the wider story, especially the surprise ending where the Apple Of Eden presents us with several Precursor Temple sites, would have worked a lot better without the pre-knowledge of technology and conspiracy. That reveal of a story much wider than the one being presented to you would have been a gut-punch of a reveal, possibly similar to the world of Columbia and “swimming in different oceans but landing on the same shores”. It still sets up the possibility of other Assassins around the globe and without Desmond’s genes limiting the range of Assassins for sequels to mostly European white guys.

One thing I do like about the Holy Land story of Assassin’s Creed is that it takes some risks. It brings ideas about religion, secularism, hypocrisy, and violence to the table, and explores them with each target during the confessions sequences. It’s interesting and I can’t think of another game bar the AC sequels that tries to shine a torch on some of the not-too-pleasant aspects of mankind. While the splash screen at the front of the game, with the now infamous “various different religions and cultures” was meant to be a failsafe against typecasting most of the Arab characters as cutthroat murderers, I think the Templars are portrayed much worse. They are already the invaders, destroying Acre pre-game, and just from my own play sessions, they are always seem more aggressive.

Legacy (no, not that Legacy)

The first Assassin’s Creed is seen as an important stepping-stone in the way open-world games are developed nowadays. While more people find AC2 to be the high point of the series (including me until this final play session, where I think AC1 just pips it), AC1 is remarkable in how if you updated the graphics it could still stand somewhat with its contemporaries.

Let’s count them off;

  1. Open world, check.
  2. Collectables that are pretty meaningless, check.
  3. Map that opens up when you scale towers, even Ubisoft made a joke about how much of a trope it had become in their games.

This idea of AC1 as being more of a proof-of-concept is so ingrained that it has become shorthand for other similarly repetitive games. Mafia 3 was unfavourably compared to AC1 by it being a mostly empty map with the same few side missions.

Looking at Assassin’s Creed nowadays, you can see how it influenced the later games. Characters like Ezio, Edward, and the Frye twins were obviously created in response to Altair and his other sour brothers, Connor and Arno. The setting influenced later games locations, with Revelations obviously taking inspiration from AC1 with its Eastern location and design after having two games of classical European architecture in the form of AC2 and Brotherhood.

In my experience though I feel the later games fall prey to trying to compensate for the somewhat spartan presentation of AC1. This came to the forefront when I recently played AC: Unity. When I first brought the map up I said to myself, “What is this?!” The map was full of stuff, just stuff, that had very little bearing on the main narrative; chests, cockades, underground systems, side quests, murder mysteries, cryptic puzzles, hours upon hours of nebulous content. For the longest time I didn’t synchronise viewpoints and turned all the collectables off, because I knew the game was screwing with my completionist tendencies.

ACUnityMap
This is a picture from a forum post called “Is Assassin’s Creed Unity Just A Bit Too Much?” Seems that a lot of people have been thinking the same idea. Source: gamespot.com

Altair is also a major factor in AC2. Thinking back to 2009 before we knew that he would come back in Revelations, Altair does share brief moments with us again. First and most notably, Altair returns in the Codex pages. As we read his notes we see an older and more cynical Altair, testing out the Apple of Eden, creating new mechanics for the Assassins such as the Poison Blade, and writing about the upcoming Mongol threat. Then we see him in a flashback getting busy with Maria Thorpe, with the player staying with Maria and entering her womb once Altair has deposited his seed. While the descendant aspect of the series had been explained at this point in the series this was the first time it was “shown” to an extent.

And just talking numbers, Assassin’s Creed was a hit. In Ubisoft’s own words it, “greatly outstripped” their expectations. It became the fastest-selling new IP at the time, projected to sell five million copies for 2007-2008. This was enough to send what was originally a spinoff of Ubisoft’s popular wall-crawler into a multi-million dollar franchising spanning books, comics, and even films.

Conclusion

After going back to the first Assassin’s Creed my views on it have changed quite a bit. I played AC1 and AC2 back-to-back, with only a few hours between finishing AC1 and starting AC2. And now having played all the way up until AC: Unity, what I used to see as a nice blueprint feels much more like a refined experience.

The brilliant open-ended assassinations are obviously a high point especially as soon as AC2, the assassinations were distilled and streamlined (mainly for narrative sense). For reference even now in Unity I play the “levantine” approach to combat; sneak until within a few metres, high-profile assassination, then flee into the crowds. It’s a classic set of moves that AC1 instilled into me, highlighted with its “Chase Cam”.

The repetitive grinding of missions is the takeaway most people get from the gameplay with the assassinations only being a sliver of the content on offer. That obviously wasn’t the intention, with the side quests meaning to be information on how to approach your target, but the mini-map turns them into chores.

The combat suffers from the same aspect of having good intentions, but it not being found when first playing. The combat arena where you learn new moves doesn’t do a great job at telling you how to fight and so we revert to what we know; hold RT/R2, pressing X/Square when hit.

The open world, especially the Kingdom, feels like needless padding and is only really there for the first feeling of odyssey-like wonder at riding off into unknown lands. The cities though are a fantastic if not realistic portrayal, having rooftops close enough that endless running is a delight. This is where the freerunning in III didn’t work, with cities that might be historically accurate but aren’t fun to parkour around due to the wide gaps between buildings.

Looking at it eleven years later, it’s obvious that Assassin’s Creed grabbed people because it was fresh and exciting. We had seen open-worlds before and we had seen historical action combat before. But together they were a match made in heaven, a license to go to whatever historical setting Ubisoft wanted and print money to set up new IPs with.

That same sense of freshness is why I think we all got on board for the modern day aspect. While Desmond’s story did get little payoff in the grand scheme of things, that new blend for gaming was novel. While we had seen the same beats in media such as The Matrix or Ghost In The Shell, in gaming it hadn’t really been explored before apart from maybe David Cage’s debut, Omnikron: The Nomad Soul.

With the new game AC: Origins, the series seemed to be travelling back to its roots. With a revamped modern day aspect that is moving away from the memories-as-games plot thread as well as bringing back a more branching style to combat, Origins was seen as a return to form to what many thought to be a dying and withered franchise.

Many have been quick to dismiss the new Assassins Creeds as not true AC experiences. I understand their criticisms, but don’t necessarily agree with them. Assassin’s Creed 1 shows us that you can pretty much take a whole new spin on a well known trope and make it its own thing, and that’s pretty much the defining theme of the series;

“Nothing is true, everything is permitted”.

Banner Photo Source: digitalspy.com.

How Hitman Challenged My Attitude About Violence

I’ve recently been replaying Hitman: Blood Money in an effort to gear up for my eventual play through of Hitman 2016. I hadn’t played a Hitman game in some time, so I took a little while to get a feel for the controls again.

I spent around half an hour learning the recoil and range of the trademark Silverballer pistols, perfecting a few of the timing “hacks” to speed up killing/sneaking animations and just generally remembering placements of guards and patrol routes that I could exploit. Once I had re-calibrated my console controls I jumped into the game proper and went merrily on my way, sticking clowns in wood chippers and feeding circus performers to their pet sharks.

As well as replaying the game for a recap of the series, I had wanted to talk about violence for a third and final time in games. I had already looked at Assassin’s Creed and L.A. Noire, for their displays at violence and I thought Hitman might be a good game to finish the mini-series on. And the idea to write about Hitman hit me on this playthrough.

On this playthrough I had decided to ramp up the difficulty to the highest setting, Professional. I had yet to complete the achievement “5 Professional Silent Assassins” awarded for completing five levels with the “Silent Assassin” rating on the Professional difficulty (kind of self-explantory) and so I aimed to complete the achievement this time around. “Silent Assassin” is the best rating in the game. To fulfill it you have a set of guidelines including things like; not having your cover blown, no witnesses, only killing your targets, and many, many more rules.

I had completed a few levels on Rookie and Normal difficulties and achieved the “Silent Assassin” rating, so I decided to use similar strategies on the higher difficulty setting. I jumped into the mission “A New Life” since I knew the perfect way to achieve “Silent Assassin” and played through the level. And this is the level that inspired this post.

Hitman: Blood Money And The Death Of Innocents

The mission “A New Life” has player character Agent 47 heading to sunny California to kill a former Cuban mob boss, Vinny “Slugger” Sinistra, who has “turned” and entered the witness protection program. The hit takes place in Sinistra’s gated community while his house is being monitored and patrolled by at least twenty FBI agents. It is a piece of cake.

Alongside killing Vinnie, 47 must retrieve a piece of microfilm hidden in Mrs. Sinistra’s necklace. However, Mrs. Sinistra counts as an innocent, so if we are to harm her it must be accidental therefore leaving no connection between the crime and us.

The most straightforward and infamous way to do this is to obtain some lighter fluid from the Sinistra’s garden shed and douse the barbeque set and sit back and watch Mrs. Sinistra prepare lunch. After she is burnt to a crisp we can simply walk up to her corpse and retrieve the film.

So I dutifully did my job; blew Vinnie’s brains out and set his spouse on fire. I finished the mission only to realise that I had not achieved “Silent Assassin” instead getting “Professional”, the rank below. So I went back in and took a more methodical, slower approach.

On the second approach I decided to play dress up. One of the more humorous aspects of the Hitman series is that although 47 is a towering bald assassin with a barcode tattoo on the back of his head, he can pretty much throw on any disguise and get away with it. So, as I got back into the Sinistra’s home I stealthily “acquired” the Pool Boy’s uniform and equipped it. The Pool Boy is having an affair with Mrs. Sinistra and after I had donned the outfit the wife told me to follow her upstairs. Since Mrs Sinistra had been day-drinking, she promptly threw up in her bathroom and then fell asleep and leaving me to take the microfilm necklace as she peacefully rested.

Then I proceeded to blow Vinnie’s brains out and complete the mission, earning “Silent Assassin”.

On all my playthroughs of “A New Life”, I had never taken the Pool Boy approach. I had never thought to open up my creative mind and critical thinking and think about how to acquire the necklace differently. I had always gone for the more “fun” barbeque approach. And it started to horrify me at how nonchalantly I had killed someone because it was “fun” and “easy”.

Another mission later on, “You Better Watch Out…”, had a similar sobering affect. One of the targets is in a pool with a glass bottom overhanging a mountain outcrop. If you mange to get below the pool and shoot the floor then the target falls through…along with the five or so party revellers with him. Again, it had been “fun” and “easy”, but after passing by the innocent victims that had fallen through the pool, my brain started to question it.

So let’s think about it…

As mentioned previously, it wasn’t the brutality or the bloodshed that affected me (like it did in L.A. Noire). It was that it look little to no effort on my part…and without much coercion. The game gave me the tools and sat back as I played a violent fantasy.

A similar event happened in Spec Ops: The Line with the infamous white phosphorus scene. In his analysis of the game, Lucas Raycevick states a similar feeling,

“What unnerved to the core me was how casually I did it [used white phosphorous (an outlawed weapon)]. How routine it was to fart a laptop screen and play polka dots with missiles, exterminating white blips that may as well have been zombies.” (17:20).

Another comparable gameplay event, the AC130 gunship level “Death From Above” in Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was critiqued for this similar ease of dispatching of life. Journalist Quintin Smith, talking about the mission on Charlie Brooker’s How Videogames Changed The World, says this,

“It is tremendously disturbing because you can’t make out what these figures are. It could almost be a statement, but it is not. It is just there so you can have fun and that’s very dark.” (1:26:10).

But with the white phosphorous and the AC130 gunship, there isn’t any choice. The lack of alternative gameplay can undermine any statement that might be trying to be addressed, they were forced into that situation with no way out, other than turning off the console (which is an interesting thought but counter-intuitive because…you made the game, so why would you want people to turn it off?). But with Hitman: Blood Money I could have taken many different non-violent routes, but valued the easiest route rather than the less violent.

Conclusion

Thinking of the game as a whole, Hitman: Blood Money has a continual theme of unnecessary violence against innocents. Throughout the game a rival firm is mentioned in the end mission newspapers (the newspapers are how you find your score/how good of an assassin you were). In these margin stories it seems the rival assassins have no care for innocent life and will murder anyone who gets in their way.

Even the first assassination of the game is meant to spark the realisation that murder and assassination is not meant to be nice and “fun”. The first hit, Mr. “Swing King”, is not fully guilty for the crime that he has been targeted for and begs for his life after you confront him.

Warning: the following dialogue could be very disturbing with themes of murder. Reader discretion is advised.

“Please, haven’t I suffered enough? Don’t you think I know how much suffering I’m responsible for? I can’t sleep. I haven’t slept in…the guilt I feel. I’m so sorry, I know I can never…I’ll pay you. Twice what your client is paying, triple, please, I’m a [inaudible, I think he says broke or good] man. All I want is a second chance. Everything I ever did I did for love…please…I see it in your eyes. You’re not a bald man, uh, a bad man. You can’t just kill me…please…ah, no, don’t…please, please, I beg you, I haven’t done anything. Please, I don’t wanna die.”

Note: I recorded that scene on my phone and play it back a few times to get the full quote and I’m not going to lie, the dialogue and delivery messed me up. I had to take half an hour after writing the quote just to compose myself.

Yet we kill him anyway because it is what we do. We continually bringing destruction and death to subroutines and AIs until the job is done. Like 47 we are “born” into the game world to kill; we have no morality system to shape us, only a number with seven zeros after it and two words signalling if we have done a “good job”.

So while I love the Hitman series I have to admit that it has broken me. And all it took was the absence of violence. The lack of a kill made me realise how much it is pushed within the games I enjoy and how much I’ve been conditioned to go for it.

And that is very dark indeed.

 

Photo Banner Source: portalprogramas.com