I love Splinter Cell and its lead Sam Fisher. I am a Tom Clancy fan and having several games bearing his endorsement, his pulpy action, and his characters are fun to experience as a player.
While Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon have the fun of being a member of an elite squad, Splinter Cell always held more of a draw for me. Perhaps it was being a fan of James Bond as well, being a lone operative and relying only on your wits and tactics to survive seemed much more thrilling.
While I did enjoy the first four games in thefranchise, with Chaos Theory being the best of that set, I am only truly a mega-fan due to the fifth entry, Conviction. This may raise some eyebrows among other SC fans as Conviction is seen as a lesser game for its shift towards action and linearity, but I love Conviction for its story and presentation.
While the narrative is the usual Clancy stuff about secret government conspiracies, industrial espionage, and spy vs. spy standoffs, the story of Conviction is a good deconstruction of the entire series to that point. However, the deconstruction only works if you pick the non-canon ending.
Everybody Walks – How Splinter Cell: Conviction’s Ending Deconstructs The Entire Series
All games have messages. There has been debate recently with games like Modern Warfare (2019) and The Division 2(another Clancy game), over messages and political leanings in games. Splinter Cell, along with other games in the same stealth genre are not immune to adding messages and themes in their games.
The Metal Gear Solid series was famously anti-war and dealt with themes of marginalised servicemen and women, the military-industrial complex, and the repercussions of Mutually Assured Destruction.
The earlier Hitman games had subtle hints on the dogmas and doctrines of Catholicism such as original sin, the capacity for God, and absolution (so much that they subtitled the fifth Hitman game Absolution).
Splinter Cell’s overarching theme is family and friendship. From the beginning of the series there has always been a sense of camaraderie, of not just co-workers, but of intimate connections. These can be seen both in the larger frame of the story as well as in individual scenes.
During the first three games Sam has a tendency to crack some jokes and have some light-hearted banter with his handlers over the radio. He argues with Grim over whether lasers or a 90s spy thing or 70s spy thing in Chaos Theory, discusses relationships and religion with Frances in Pandora Tomorrow, or asks a guard he has taken hostage if the coffee machine in the room uses ground or dried beans, again in Chaos Theory.
In terms of the story as a whole, friends and connections to Sam appear in every game. His daughter, Sarah, has been a major figure from the start. Her inclusion gives Sam something to focus on outside of work. In the ending cutscene of the first game when Sam laughs at the news covering up all the spy intrigue, Sarah says she hasn’t heard him laugh like that, “…since the Reagan administration!”
Sarah is also the focal point of the Conviction storyline. Sarah is supposed killed by a drunk driver at the start of the previous game, Double Agent, but it is revealed her death was faked so an enemy agent couldn’t use her as leverage over Sam. Upon hearing his daughter’s voice for the first time in three years, Sam audibly clams up, stuttering over his words. His reunion with her later in the game has no dialogue, just a look between the two before they embrace.
During the events of Pandora Tomorrow, the second game, Sam saves an old army buddy, Douglas Shetland, from a guerrilla camp. In the sequel, Chaos Theory, Shetland is a valuable asset to Sam, helping with logistics and even offering him a job at his mercenary company if Sam wanted to leave the spy work behind. However, Shetland had been using his contacts to fuel a war between the United States, Japan, Korea, and China, and Sam confronts him at the end of the game. Sam and Shetland level their weapons at each other as Shetland starts to monologue about his reasoning. He ends with, “You wouldn’t shoot an old friend…” Sam can either shoot him, or if Shetland goes to shoot, Sam ducks and stabs Shetland with his knife, before pushing him off the roof they were on. Sam replies, “You’re right Doug, I wouldn’t shoot an old friend.”
During Double Agent, Sam has conflicting allegiances between the NSA and the terrorist group John Brown’s Army (JBA). He obviously doesn’t align with the JBA, but does emotionally connect with Enrica, the weapons expert of the JBA. The two become romantically involved and plan to run away together by the end of the game. Enrica is killed by another Splinter Cell just before the finale. Sam murders the Splinter Cell in a fit of rage before fleeing.
Another major event that happens in Double Agent is the death of Irving Lambert, Sam’s boss and friend. Lambert is taken hostage by the JBA, and Sam is forced to either shoot him or blow his cover. It is confirmed in Conviction that Sam did in fact shoot Lambert. When the scene is referenced in Conviction, the narrator, Victor Coste, says, “Lambert died that day by Sam’s hand. And so did Sam.”
Victor Coste is another of Sam’s army buddies and tells the story of Conviction via flashbacks. During the Gulf War Coste saved Sam after enemy forces captured the latter. Upon saving Sam, Coste chuckles, “You don’t leave a brother behind Sam. You don’t leave family.” Another theme present in Conviction is paranoia, with the voice of Sam, Michael Ironside stating in an interview, “Sam doesn’t trust anyone…” (1:31). His former handler, Grim, has seemingly become a turncoat, both helping and hindering Sam. It is seen through flash-forwards that she shoots Sam and captures him for the bad guy, Tom Reed.
Grim holds Sarah hostage and forces Sam back into duty if he wants to see her again. During the climax of the game Grim reveals that it was Lambert who faked Sarah’s death to make sure Sam couldn’t be compromised. She plays Sam a recording Lambert made before he died, explaining his motives and saying how he, “…lied to his [my] best friend.” Grim follows up by saying that she never held Sarah hostage, “That was just a bluff to get you in the game and for whatever its worth…I’m sorry.”
And we finally get to the ending of Conviction. After killing all the remaining Splinter Cells and saving the President, Sam has the traitorous head of the NSA, Tom Reed, at gunpoint. There are two options; kill him dead or spare him. Killing him is the canonical ending. Sam has been ‘activated’ again by the events of the game and is back to being a spy. In the final custscene of the game he breaks Coste out of the prison cell that he has been telling his story from (with Coste repeating his line about being ‘brothers’).
In the non-canon ending, Grim shoots Reed. The game ends with the following conversation.
Sam: You didn’t have to do that.
Grim: I disagree.
Sam: There was a time where you wouldn’t have said that.
Grim: Things change Sam.
Sam: Yeah, things change. Remember what you told me Anna, when this was over? Everybody walks. I’m walking.
Grim: You can’t. There is too much left to do.
Sam: Ask Lambert. I’ve done too much already.
Grim: Sam, please. I don’t know who else I can trust.
Sam: Trust? Funny you should say that. Goodbye Grim.
Throughout the entire series of Splinter Cell, Sam has always had his morals. Even when friends have become enemies, such as Shetland, he has always rationalised killing them, seeing them as bad guys.
After all that he has seen over the narrative of Conviction and the revelations of Grim and Lambert, he is an old and broken man. He may have got his daughter back, but he has lost everything else. And when Grim tries to reconcile and make it just like the ‘good old days’ Sam snubs her. It makes total sense that he would walk just like he did after Lambert’s death.
While I enjoy the sequel, Blacklist, I feel that the original run of Splinter Cell should have ended here with Sam coming to terms with his former allies and retiring into the sunset. Blacklist could have been a reboot as they changed the entire principal cast, with a new voice for Sam and Grim (as well as not having Sam Fisher, who is pushing fifty-four in Conviction, still be a spy).
By the time of Conviction we see those friends and relationships finally break down and rot, held together by only lies and deceit. It is a beautiful melancholic arc that punctuates the end of not just Michael Ironside’s last performance as Sam Fisher, but the last performances of the original voices of Grim and Lambert, Claudia Besso and Don Jordan respectively.
So while it was good to see Sam back in action both in Blacklist and more recently in Ghost Recon: Wildlands, it is here where Sam’s story came to a fitting end. When Sam leaves the Oval Office, he has nothing but Sarah. After years of field work where he would never get the recognition for his sacrifices, losing friends and lovers, until he can longer trust those he never thought would betray him, he still has a reason to go on.
It is the best ending the man could hope for despite the circumstances and one of my favourite narrative conclusions.
Games are an outlet for our sometimes drab and dreary lives. The stories and locations that video games transport us to can give us a taste of a life different from ours.
Being able to travel across the entirety of the USA in a muscle car, keeping the gas pedal to the tarmac, while an army of pursuing police cars grows in your rear-view mirror is something that I can’t claim to have done in real life. But for nearly twenty years I’ve been doing it in several games. One stands out however, for being exactly twenty years old in 2019. That game is Driver.
And as it has been two decades since the original entry was released, I thought a deconstruction was due. Does Driver still hold up?
Reflections In The Car Mirror – A Look Back At Driver
Part I: First Gear – Pre-Production
During the late 90s, driving games had been on a string of hits. Every style was catered for; Gran Turismo was simulation, Need For Speed brought underground drag racing, and SF: Rush brought arcade physics and gameplay to home consoles.
During the latter half of the decade, two British teams were working on games with a heavy emphasis on driving, both with a distinctly criminal tone to them. One was DMA Design, who released crime simulator Grand Theft Auto in 1997. With the ability to drive and steal motor vehicles and partake in joyriding and hit-and-runs, the game was blasted by moral guardians and even debated in the House of Lords to be refused classification.
The other game, by Newcastle-based Reflections Interactive also had shades of reckless driving, but had a more cinematic angle to its freewheeling antics rather than the psychotic gameplay of GTA. Reflections were a well-known studio with several successes under their belt including Shadow Of The Beast and Destruction Derby. The latter game and its sequel were pioneers of 3D driving and in Reflections own words were, “Hailed as a significant step forward…” (1999, para. 5), with both games selling over a million copies each.
With the release of Grand Theft Auto, Reflections saw an opportunity. One of the drawbacks of the GTA series in its infancy was the top-down camera, limiting the action to the 2D plain. The team at Reflections had a thought; could the open-world of GTA be married to the 3D design and driving mechanics of Destruction Derby?
Reflections co-founder Martin Edmondson was a fan of car chase films, stating in an interview with gamesindustry.biz that,
“…one of the first movies I remember going to see at the cinema…was Walter Hill’s The Driver. And then any other car chase film that came along, I was first in line to go and see it.” (2011, Meer).
Edmondson was passionate about the idea and designed Driver to be a reflection (aha!) of his personal love of car chase movies. In the same interview, Edmondson highlighted that was the feeling that the team was aiming for,
“There are plenty of driving games and racing games, but something that really nails or attempts to nail the car chase environment, there really isn’t anything out there. I’m talking about the movie car chase style, not a videogame car chase.” (2011, Meer).
So the team got to work on developing a new title. The game would evoke the feel of the classic car chase films of the 60s and 70s while marrying it to the 3D work of their previous titles and the open-world aspect that was taking the industry by storm.
According to then Project Manager Gareth Edmondson (brother of Martin) it was a tough production cycle as,
“…we were reinventing gameplay technology in many new ways. It was the first game to; tackle the free-roaming city environment; re-create an entirely new vehicle-destruction system, and develop an entirely new in-game AI system.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 3).
But all that hard worked paid off. Two and half years after the release of Grant Theft Auto, Driver released to the public on PC and PSOne.
Part II: Five Wheels & An Engine – Controls and Gameplay
It is interesting that if you updated Driver’s graphics it could stand toe-to-toe with any open-world game with driving segments.
While the controls have some kinks (Triangle as handbrake is always a little hard to perform as it is further away than X, the accelerate button) it is a solid basis and is intuitive enough that after a few missions you have mastered it. This was Reflections intention, with the original website for Driver stating, “[Our] titles can be picked up and played instantly by a novice yet provide a tough enough challenge for experienced players.” (1999, para. 12).
X is accelerate, Square is brake/reverse, Triangle is handbrake, L2/R2 are camera controls, and the directional arrows or analog stick are for control, all pretty standard stuff. But Driver has a few unique tricks under its bonnet.
Circle is burnout, which spins your wheels to build up speed. R1 is a horn, seemingly to get cars in front of you to move lanes, although on my playthrough I didn’t see a notable difference of cars getting out of the way. But the one new button that I haven’t seen anywhere else is L1, which locks your wheels to whatever side you press the directional arrows or stick. This button is integral to many of the evasive and film-worthy moves that you can pull off such as drifting and the beautiful 180 Reverse. It is also needed as most of the cars in the game have a habit to understeer, so having a button that can flick the back wheels out helps in certain cornering situations.
And that is pretty much it.
The player car has two bars at the top of the screen, one for “Damage” and the other for “Felony”. Damage is straightforward. Every time your prang your car the bar fills up until the car is busted and you fail whatever mission you were playing.
Felony applies to any laws broken in front of a police vehicle. Burnouts, running red lights, crashing into other vehicles, being a public menace, and going over the speed limit (the latter is only available in the PC version) in view of a police officer will start to fill up your Felony bar. Luckily you can’t kill any pedestrians when driving as each one seems to be related to The Flash and can zip out of the way a second before you flatten them. It is a nice addition after the wanton rampages of Grand Theft Auto.
With more infractions the Felony bar continues to fill and more police pile in, chasing you and setting up roadblocks. They hunt you down with the ruthlessness of a tiger but the intelligence of a goldfish. With some chases having upwards of ten police cars, their AI is neutered, making them come at you like the Keystone cops (hey, film reference!). Police cars will fly right by you, ping themselves off geometry, or Austin Powers themselves against lampposts and garbage bins.
The main obstacle you’ll come across in the game is the police. Or rival mobsters. Or the FBI. Or just anyone in a car that is gunning for you. Most rival cars are faster than yours, meaning that they can easily catch you and appear constantly in your back mirror. Luckily a lot of them are weaker than your car, meaning they will get damaged quicker and can be dispatched with relative ease. This is obviously done with the intention to keep the tension high while also being able to shake off your pursuers. The game does also have a selectable difficulty level, allowing players to decide their level of challenge.
Part III: Manual or Automatic? – Game Modes
Speaking of drifting and the 180 Reverse, before you start the narrative you have to pass “The Interview”. Vaguely reminiscent of a scene from 1976’s The Driver, the player must show off their driving skills to some prospective clients in a parking garage.
This mission is infamous for being incredibly difficult; with a sixty-second time limit and only allowing four “penalties” (crashing your car into objects), many players never actually saw the rest of the game because of this “tutorial”. There is a video on the main menu that tells the player the inputs to perform the moves, but isn’t exactly intuitive.
The narrative (known as Undercover) is the meat of the game. It features several types of driving missions; pursuit, evade, rampage, every single idea you could have about driving a car around a city, Driver probably has it. That does cause a problem in that a lot of the missions have the same objectives, just starting at different ends of the map. This repetitive nature does serve a purpose though, as will be highlighted in Part IV.
Alongside the narrative are a collection of mini games. There are time trials, checkpoint hits, pursuit, getaway, and survival (a variant horde mode where the police will never stop pursuing you). While many are similar to scenarios that the player will perform in Undercover, these are bite-size gameplay modes that provide their own unique fun.
There is also the Take A Ride mode. This is essentially a free roam option, with the player dropped into the map with no restrictions. I bet a lot of memories of this game are based in this mode, featuring high-octane chases and crazy collisions without a time limit to ruin a player’s fun. The player can visit any of the locations in free roam, but must unlock them in the narrative first, with the same being true for the mini games as well. The first two cities are open from the start though, allowing for reckless fun even if you can’t beat The Interview.
Alongside the game modes was a mechanic that elevated the cinematic design that Martin Edmondson wanted from Driver. At any time during the game the player can hit pause and enter the Director Mode. Said mode plays the entirety of the gameplay up to that moment and gives the player control over a slew of camera angles and techniques, letting players create exciting short movies of their car chases. It is quietly revolutionary and predates things like Machinima and sharing/streaming options that have become a major force within the industry.
Part IV: Does Anyone Have A Map? – The Cities and Roads
Driver takes place across four cities from all corners of the United States. The cities are Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, as well as a small track in the desert (possibly outside Las Vegas?). There is also a secret city, Newcastle (where Reflections are based) that can be unlocked using cheats and also viewed on the credits. Each city has a day/night variation (except L.A.) and have several weather effects such as rain and snow.
The cities are all distinct from one another, with geography that helps set up the possibility of great movie-esque chases. Miami has wide-open roads for four lane drifts, San Francisco has steep hills to catch some air while speeding, L.A. has long straights that are perfect for police pursuits, and New York has tight-knit neighbourhoods that require excellent use of slaloming. Each city has its own car with unique traits, be it having greater speed or greater traction. While it could be annoying to not be able to choose your favourite car, limiting us to a single vehicle allows you to get to grips with its individual quirks.
Each city is rather small compared to today’s MAHOOSIVE open-worlds (due to obvious memory issues). I timed a drive from one side to the other and it took roughly two minutes to go from point to point on each map. But the smaller intimate design is an asset to the game. With a tight control over player movement, it means that the map gets imprinted on our memory, allowing for quicker recognition and a better game experience, where we know which roads link together rather than relying on the mini map. This is heightened by the fact that a lot of the back streets and alleys aren’t on the mini map. We have to use our minds and instincts rather than the handy GPS in the corner.
Just like using one car per location, the game inadvertently teaches us by dropping us in the deep end. Even just basic map knowledge and semi-competent car control allows for easier getaways and it is more rewarding when you remember which way gives you the best advantage because you know about it, rather than a shiny arrow telling you the way to go.
That’s why the greatest asset to the open-world is the Take A Ride function. Being able to free-roam the map at any point without a time limit holding you back helps novice drivers figure out the basics and lets experienced drivers search for shortcuts to aid in the missions.
Part V: Start From The Top – The Narrative & Characters
Driver does have a narrative, but to call it threadbare is almost a compliment in how non-existent the storyline is.
Inspired by the same car chase films that gave birth to the gameplay, Driver follows NYPD officer John Tanner as he is drafted to go undercover. His target is the powerful and wealthy Castaldi crime family who has set up operations in Miami. Soon the story will take Tanner to different cities all across the USA in a bid to stop the Castaldi family from carrying out a series of high-profile assassinations, culminating in an attempt on the President Of The United States’ life.
Tanner’s backstory is that before he became a police officer he was a racing champion. This is referenced through the story with criminals recognising him from his track days as well as the Police Lieutenant who recruits Tanner saying he is the best driver on the force. That’s pretty much all we get on the man.
Tanner’s dialogue doesn’t give us any hints to his personality either. I would be surprised if his dialogue passes the twenty-word mark from start to finish. It seems the cars we drive have more personality than the protagonist. Sure, he fits the mould of a silent badass (like most great car chase films) and he shows his character through his driving, but it would be nice to learn a little more about the person we are playing as.
Tanner heads to Miami and sets himself up as a wheelman for hire. The game then puts you in Tanner’s spartan apartment, with nothing but a TV and VCR, a toolbox, and an answering machine. Tanner’s apartment is the main menu with each object as a category (VCR is save, toolbox is options, door is quit, and the car keys is Take A Ride). It is a fun concept and cool that the layout changes when the game changes city.
The answering machine is the level select. You listen through messages left by prospective clients in need of your particular driving skills and accept jobs. At the start there is only one message waiting for you, but as you rise through the ranks you will get calls from other criminals in need of your expertise.
It is a limited choice system with only a few branches, but broad enough that a player can have a different experience on a second playthrough. Some missions give a deeper intrigue into the conspiracy at the heart of the story and Driver even has multiple endings depending on the missions that you’ve taken, with distinctly “good” and “bad” endings. The answering machine also houses a few Easter eggs such as repeated wrong numbers.
The game is interspersed with cutscenes. The majority of these are used to set up missions or to help us switch cities. It is apparent that the team were mastering character models, as most walk ramrod straight, with still frames being used when characters are on phones. But there is a charm to it, an obvious want rather than a need. It would have been easy to have talking cars and buildings (much like the more recent Crash Time/Cobra 11 series), but the team went and built over half an hour of cutscenes with character models and camera angles that weren’t needed in the base game.
The voices are delightfully hammy, giving off that 70s grindhouse feel of amateur filmmakers and actors producing a film. The script also has inflections of films from the era, with smooth-talking hustlers, high-pitched squealers, and smoky-voiced police chiefs. These inflections can inadvertently make it hard to understand certain mission briefings, as characters are using 70s slang that hasn’t carried over to the modern day. But since most missions resort to driving fast, we are rarely stuck as what to do.
As mentioned in Part III, the gameplay doesn’t have many variations, only having a few unique missions due to non-standard cars or scenarios. These include levels such as chasing a cable car/yacht, protecting a shipment of guns in a pick-up truck, or escaping an assassination attempt with the President Of The United States. But the team knew that the missions and storyline weren’t the best. In a Developer Diary Interview with GameSpot during the development of Driver: Parallel Lines, original Project Manager Gareth Edmondson said,
“…we were ultimately disappointed in the storyline overall, and we believed the mission design to be weak because it didn’t support the story very well.” (Edmondson, 2006, para. 4).
That narrative may have been weak, but it served its purpose. It got us out into the world that Reflections had created and from there they could only go up. And despite the sometimes ropey presentation, there is definitely an attempt at cinematic flair to some shots.
Despite releasing at the tail end of the PSOne development cycle, the game was massive, spawning a sequel in 2000 named Driver 2: Back On The Streets/The Wheelman Is Back.
Reflections spent only fourteen months on the sequel (Edmondson, 2006, para.5) using the same tech but tweaking it to add more complex road structures and curved objects. The open-ended story was dropped for a more linear structure, with a stronger narrative throughout. The player could also get out of their car and hijack other vehicles around the city, although there was still no interaction besides cars.
Reflections pushed the aging console to its breaking point, trying to squeeze every ounce of processing power into Driver 2. This proved a detriment however with numerous bugs and framerate issues plaguing the entry.
Driver 2 was released just after the release of the PlayStation 2 in 2000. A year later, DMA Design, now renamed Rockstar North, released Grand Theft Auto 3 to the public.
Taking the open world that Driver had popularised, GTAIII took things even further, with out-of-car and shooting sections, allowing player to cause havoc and play at their own pace. GTA even started poking fun at Driver, with missions in both III (GTA Series Videos, 2009) and its sequel Vice City (SebyGaming, 2016) allowing players to kill an undercover cop/driver named Tanner. In the sequel, San Andreas, a rival gangster plays a game made by “Refractions” and says, “Tanner, you suck ass.” (GTA Series Videos, 2010).
With GTA taking the spotlight, Reflections tried to step up their game. The third entry (stylised as Driv3r) tried to tell a sprawling crime tale with several cities, vehicles, and on-foot segments, but came up weak against Rockstar’s efforts. Driv3r was also mired in controversy before it launched, with exclusive access given in exchange for perfect review scores. Driver: Parallel Lines followed up in 2006, fixing many of Driv3r’s problems but feeling more and more like a Rockstar knock-off.
In late 2006, publisher Atari sold Reflections to Ubisoft. After developing a sequel to Parallel Lines, Driver 76, which was released for the fledgling PSP, the series would go dormant for a few years.
It took until 2011 for the series, and protagonist John Tanner, to come back in Driver: San Francisco. With a huge city and a new mechanic called “Shift” allowing players to move seamlessly between cars (alleviating any on-foot gameplay), the series seemed to be revived. The notorious garage tutorial of Driver was even remade in San Francisco, unlocked when a player finds a DeLorean and reaches 88mph (ha, more film references!).
Since 2011, there have been a few rumours but no official moves on the Driver series, despite a few mobile and handheld games. San Francisco was a nice return to form and if it is sadly the last we see of the series, then it means it goes out on a high.
Part VII: Park it Right Here – Conclusion
Driver was one of the first games I remember playing as a child. I didn’t play the story at all, just Take A Ride. So when I decided to pick up the game twenty years after it was published, I was essentially doing a blind playthrough.
The graphics are obviously a sore point. The draw distance isn’t the best and the environments and cars are blocky boxes. You have to look at it when it came out. This was revolutionary design in 1999, giving the small sandbox genre a much-needed shot in the arm.
The story isn’t exactly presented well, but it does the job fine. As I said previously, it gets us into the cities and into the gameplay with little fanfare. It is kind of refreshing after playing games like Detroit: Become Human and The Pillars Of The Earth (both fantastic games in their own right) that Driver gets straight into gameplay without spending minutes at a time in cutscenes.
Controls are fine. It is a strange mix of sim and arcade, but they are easy to learn. Things like the L1 button were completely new to me and it became invaluable during my playthrough. Even Triangle became intuitive after a while. It caused problems when going back to open-world games on my PS4, as most controllers nowadays use the L2/R2 configuration for accelerate and brake. It led to moments where I would accidentally throw myself out of speeding cars because I mistakenly pressed Triangle or Square.
Driver is a curio, maybe one for driving enthusiasts or for those yearning for nostalgic days of the late 90s. It even became available on the PS Now online service for a short time for less than two quid.
And there is really nothing like it. I bought my copy after watching a slew of car chase films, notably Drive, which game critic Keith Stuart highlighted as a film taking from games, “…I do not believe that film would look the way it does if it wasn’t for Grand Theft Auto…” (Ikoc Voice, 2016).
Just like Martin Edmondson said, there isn’t a game that fully captures a real movie-esque chase scene. The only one that comes close is Driver.
And that means it deserves to be remembered and to be played.
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;