Ezio Auditore: A Character Study

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 Tazim to 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 Trilogy this 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 Trilogy it 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.

AC2 Ezio
The ‘Ezio Smile’. Cheeky yet subdued. Even the box art for the first two games in the trilogy incorporate it. (Source: theshortgamer.wordpress.com).

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.

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ACB started the trend of liberating districts from the Templars, something which carried on throughout the entire series. (Source: playstationlifestyle.net.)

The change in his character is also thrust upon him by circumstance. After the death of his father and brothers Ezio is the head of the Auditore household, trying to care for his mother and sister. As seen when the family flees Florence in Sequence 2, Ezio tries to keep his voice low and commanding, but is noticeably agitated and worried (2:50).

Once they are safe in Monteriggioni, Ezio returns a little to his old carefree self, with only one major break in Sequence 3 when he kills Vieri De Pazzi. Ezio tries to pull a confession from Vieri, but he dies before Ezio can learn anything from him. Ezio begins to berate Vieri’s corpse until his Uncle Mario tells him to not disrespect the dead, saying, “You are not Vieri, do not become him.” (2:15). Ezio takes this to heart, and for the rest of the series gives all his targets their last rites.

Another significant moment is in Sequence 13 of AC2, the Bonfire of the Vanities. The city has been taken over by a puritanical friar named Savonarola, aided by the Apple of Eden. Ezio takes out the friar’s lieutenants to cause havoc in the city and the giving last rites his manner changes from the emotionless blessings he gives the main Templars.

The first target is an artist that was bewitched by the Apple (4:08) and Ezio feel remorse at felling a man in the prime of his life. There is a similar feeling when Ezio kills a street preacher, who when bewitched led his flock astray. Yet when Ezio kills those who would have profited from the rioting or starved the innocent, he is noticeably angry (13:20).

By the end of the sequence, Savonarola is tied to a stake and left to burn by the enraged citizens. Ezio believes that it is too cruel a death and leaps onto the pyre and killing the monk with his Hidden Blade. He turns to crowd and delivers a speech,

“Twenty-two years ago, I stood where I stand now and watched my loved ones die, betrayed by those I called friends. Vengeance clouded my mind. It would have consumed me, were it not for the wisdom of a few strangers, who taught me to look past my instincts. They never preached answers, but guided me to learn from myself…there is no book or teacher to give you the answers, to show you the path! Choose your own way. Do not follow me. Or anyone else.”

It’s a special moment in AC2 that shows Ezio’s growth as he enters the final sequence, only let down by the fact this wasn’t in the original product. Sequences 12 and 13 were DLC, yet hold vital clues as to see Ezio’s growth as a character.

With the death of his Uncle Mario at the beginning of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, Ezio takes on the mantle of Mentor Assassin. While he is light and humorous in AC2, he is stoic and commanding when interacting with his new recruits in ACB. His voice booms, telling them that the liberation of Roma has begun.

Every person he saves swears allegiance to him and the Assassins, offering their life in debt (for example, 18:54). It’s an odd contradiction to Ezio’s speech in the Bonfire of the Vanities, but could be said that Ezio is giving these people the option to follow him rather than forcing them into servitude.

Scriptwriter of the series, Jeffery Yohalem says in the Developer Diary for Brotherhood that one of the aspects of Ezio’s journey is 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.

In the launch trailer of Assassin’s Creed II, Ezio is heard narrating,

“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 has 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.

AC2 Minerva
Ezio’s discovery of the Ones Who Came Before only raises more questions for him. (Source: eskipaper.com).

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Banner Photo Source: microsoft.com.

Assassin’s Creed II…A Decade Later

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.

In November 2008, CEO of Ubisoft, Yves Guillemot, announced as part of Ubisoft’s financial report that the sequel was in development.

Five months later on April 16th, Assassin’s Creed II was officially announced.

Pre-Production

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).

AC1 Missions
The missions were scrapped and revamped for the sequel (Source: mobygames.com).

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.

Assassins-Creed-in-Venice
One of Venice’s memorable missions; flying into the Doge’s Palace, followed by an assassination, then having to flee. Three unique structures to create a greater whole. (Source: wandering free.co.za).

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…

Combat

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.

Assassin,s-creed-II-Screenshots
The lance and battle-axe came with their now unique finishers (Source: wikinut.com).

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.

AC2 Combat 2

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.

AC2 Combat
Ezio could even call upon some mercenaries, thieves, or courtesans to assist him in combat or stealth, obviously gearing up for Brotherhood. (Source: true achievements.com)

The Cities

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.

AC2 Venice Dive
Venice’s verticality and abundance of canals was something unique in the open-world genre. (Source: archdaily.com).

In a piece written for The Guardian, journalist Keith Stuart highlighted Ubisoft’s dedication to recreating the locations,

“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.

AC2 Monteriggioni.png
Monteriggioni started the series mini-game of buying and upgrading property, creating a unique outpost for the player (Source: assassins creed.fandom.com).

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.

The Music

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’sLe 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.

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Ezio giving one of his trademark smirks (Source: theshortgamer.wordpress.com).

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 there sequel Brotherhood.

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From L to R: Rebecca, Desmond, Shaun, and Lucy. Rebecca and Shaun have almost become secondary mascots for the series, turning up in subsequent titles. (Source: cityboygeekiness.com)

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.

Legacy

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.

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The finale follows AC1‘s formula, reinforcing Demond’s story to the detriment of the historical assassin (Source: definition.co.uk).

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.

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Minerva’s introduction was a new direction for the series, bringing the Ones Who Came Before a major part of the canon after AC1 (Source: eskipaper.com).

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

Banner Photo Source: youtube.com

Thoughts On The Assassins Creed Film/Trailer

The first teaser trailer for the Assassins Creed film came out last night morning and as both a connoisseur of film and a fan of the games (up until Assassins Creed III, because that’s when it went too far into stupid territory) I thought I would give my thoughts on the trailer and then general ideas about the film and casting.

First, roll call of the men and women involved in bringing Assassins Creed to the cinema. Kurzel, Fassbender, Cotiallard, Kurzel (again?), Arkapaw and finally Kyd. To most people, they are just a load of names, so let’s break it down.

  1. Justin Kurzel. The director of Assassins Creed. Director of 2015’s Macbeth (prepare to see that film pop up a lot in the following paragraph) my number one film of 2015.
  2. Michael Fassbender. The main star. To see his best work, I recommend Hunger, Shame (if you’re feeling up for it) and 12 Years A Slave (all by Steve McQueen). Also Macbeth.
  3. Marion Cotillard. The first female role in the trailer. To see more of her work, look for the Edith Piaf musical biopic La Vie En Rose or if that ain’t your thing watch her work in Public Enemies. Also Macbeth.
  4. Jed Kurzel. The composer. Brother to director Justin. His best work includes Kodi Smit-Pchee and Fassbender’s Slow West last year. Also Macbeth.
  5. Adam Arkapaw. The cinematographer (aka the guy who makes the film look like it does). Responsible for the camera work in season one of True Detective and THAT six-minute long take (WARNING: Contains strong language and violence). Also Macbeth.
  6. Jesper Kyd. The other composer (although for Assassins Creed he’s in the “music department”). Composer of the AC games from the first through to Revelations and the superb Hitman game scores. Sadly no ties to Macbeth.

I could stop writing there. Six names. Damn good pedigree and an exciting intellectual property. Let’s look at the trailer.

 

Done? Okay. Let’s talk.

The Assassins Creed trailer is how you do a trailer. Oh yeah, there are problems with it, but what a trailer should do is tell you the story, not the plot. To see of a film that does the reverse, look at the trailer for The Double. It gave away its twist long before it was ever in theatres. What does Assassins Creed do? We learn about the Animus, Michael Fassbender’s double lead role, his abilities as an Assassin and our setting, but what have we learnt about the plot? Nothing.

The trailer is giving us the nice blend of the things that made Assassins Creed the series it now is. Hack-and-slash combat, free-running across exotic rooftops, a brooding misery-guts under the hood and some bonkers modern day stuff involving sinister corporations. It’s got the iconography down; the eagle, the colourful rooftop base-jumping (Spain here is represented by Malta), the mantras of the Assassins and the signature Leap of Faith at the end. According to Fassbender, that move is a real guy and a real stunt, “We’ve got [stuntman] Damien Walters doing a 120-foot leap of faith, without any rope, into a bag.” If the rest of the parkour-infused set pieces are practical as well then this will definitely be one to watch just for the stunts alone. Malta is also a good choice of location/filming. While big films like Captain Phillips and World War Z were filmed there, no film has shown off the architecture of the small island or it’s capital Valetta.

From the clips, the film looks great. Arkapaw is earning his name as one of the greatest cinematographers alive today with the compositions. The fights look to be wide-angle shots with good choreography, so hopefully the rest of the film doesn’t mirror something akin to the fights in Quantum of Solace. There will obviously be handheld camerawork for some fights (ever since Paul Greengrass popularised it in The Bourne Supremacy it will feature in every film with a fight scene) but hopefully most will keep their distance from the actors.

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Still from the trailer showing Fassbender in combat. Source: Games Radar.

The Animus was a sticking point for me. To any who don’t know, the Animus is a machine that when you are plugged in, you can jump back into the memories of your ancestors (Michael Fassbender will be playing two roles, one as Callum Lynch in the present and Aguilar the Assassin during the 1500s.) I thought this might throw a film audience. Gamers can suspend their disbelief while I think films need a bit more coercing. To anyone a bit confused, think of the Animus as similar to The Matrix. It’s a fake world that you can play around in to your hearts content. It might have been better to drop all present day stuff though. The games tried a similar double narrative and it only served to highlight how bland the present day character was in comparison to his ancestors. Eventually they did drop all pretence about a future-based war and got on with the free-running across European cities, but if the film handles it, again, like The Matrix did in the first film, it might just work.

The film moves away from the storylines of the game, which I think is for the best. The ability of the Animus is that we can have several unconnected films but they are all under the banner of Assassins Creed. I’m curious however on the choice of the Spanish Inquisition as a setting. Sure, it’s a great setting, mirroring the settings of the American War Of Independence in AC3 and the French Revolution in AC: Unity. But the choice of the Inquisition, the 1500s, mirrors the timeline of the “Ezio Auditore trilogy” three games following Italian Assassin Ezio Auditore during the Italian Renaissance. There is also a rumour of a Caribbean Assassin featuring in the film, which ties in with the Kenway Saga (which follows a grandfather to grandson storyline of the Golden Age of Piracy to the American War of Independence). If they do want to include these references to the games, I hope they keep them to a cameo at best. As a fan I want Assassins Creed to draw in more people than the games ever could and I think these titbits might detract from the story at play here.

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Will the other Assassins appear in the film? From L to R, Altair Ibn-La’ahad, Ezio Auditore, Connor Kenway, Edward Kenway, Aveline De Grandpre and Nikolai Orelov. Source: Google Images.

Lastly, that trailer music. Ugh. The AC series is known for it’s rather excellent musical choices for it’s trailers (Justice for AC2, Imagine Dragons for AC3 and Nils Frahm for Unity) but here we have Kanye West. Remember this is a teaser to start with and it’s more a marketing decision rather than a reflection of the film. Let’s wait until the next one, it can only get better.

And to end, I’ll rank my list of Assassins Creed games. Note: I have only played up until AC3, so everyone shouting “B-but Black Flag…”, I haven’t had a game system for a while, so calm down.

  1. Assassins Creed 2
  2. Assassins Creed Revelations (mainly for the city and multiplayer)
  3. Assassins Creed (best combat of the entire series and the Arabian setting was interesting. Also you actually assassinated people)
  4. Assassins Creed Brotherhood (felt like a step back after AC2 and a terrible story. This is where is became less about the assassinating and more about faffing about)
  5. Assassins Creed III (the only redeeming thing about it was the tomahawk combat)

 

Cover photo source: Google Images.