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
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.
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 “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.
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…
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 feels 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 that 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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;
Open world, check.
Collectables that are pretty meaningless, check.
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, juststuff, 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.
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.
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 Assassin’s 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;