A Lack of Assassinations

I’m sure everyone has, by now, heard of the wildly popular Prince of Persia reformatting that brings in a large portion of Ubisoft’s annual profits; Assassin’s Creed. It has long been a favored series for me. It is a rare experience that allows you the gore-filled ecstasy of wiping out a room of guards with nothing but two wrist mounted blades.

However, as the years have passed, the name of the series has lost its snug fit. The most recent release; Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is a prime example of this. The game is brilliant, don’t get me wrong. The combat is visceral and satisfying, the ships are genuinely fun to sail around the Caribbean, and the whole experience captures that swashbuckling feel masterfully. When you play the latest addition to the Assassin’s Creed series, you truly feel like a pirate.

Which is the crux of the problem.

Let me just put it out there for all you TL:DRs. Assassin’s Creed isn’t about Assassinations anymore.

When the series launched with the first Assassin’s Creed, you were a guy with a blade up your wrist. You slogged through repetitive information gathering quests to assassinate your target which earned you a new weapon to use to gather more information and kill another target. Everything that happened contributed to the next kill. The character had a clear goal and purpose. Killing. It had its flaws, certainly, but the first game held the heart of the series. But, it also foreshadowed the eventual shift in the Assassin’s Creed games from guy with a blade to pirate bristling with weapons.

Let me explain.

To start with, let’s talk about assassinations. In life, these highly controversial acts are plotted out to a T. Infiltration, timing, staying unseen, exfiltration, etc. They spend more time planning and gathering intelligence then they do assassinating, by and far. The idea is to kill the target in a manner befitting the situation; whether that be quietly, loudly, or framing another group. I won’t pretend to be an expert here, but I’m sure I’ve covered the basics nicely.

This is not a good gameplay mechanic. Rare is the person that is willing to spend their game time casing a location, or sifting through thousands of dull conversations to find the one relevant bit of information. It’s dull, boring work. And games should never make you work. Look at the first Assassin’s Creed. It included an information gathering mechanic which was critiqued by nearly everyone who picked up the game.

So, Ubisoft shifted things up with their second entry to the series, offering up faster gameplay and a more character driven experience. It worked wonderfully, making Assassin’s Creed II one of the, if not the, best entry to the series thus far. However, it also shifted the focus from assassinating. Don’t get me wrong, it was still very much about killing people in Ezio’s hunt for revenge. But it wasn’t about assassinating. Everything you did was growing Ezio as a character, represented through the slow regrowth of the villa. Ezio lost everything at the start of the game, and the rest of the game serves to mature him symbolically through the restoration of his home and the growth of his arsenal.

But it was about murder.

There is a fine line, yes, but they crossed it. The act of assassination is impersonal. It is a task, and there is often never a connection between the two. The original consisted of mostly, and almost all assassinations. The sequel was about revenge, and therefore qualified as murder; rage-fueled, premeditated murder. It worked well plot wise, yes, giving a villain that you had a reason to kill. By all accounts it was the better choice, and I agree with it. But the shift to a character focused revenge tale stepped away from the base concept of assassination that existed in the original game. It was this step away that enabled Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to happen.

Once they crossed that line and murder became a viable concept, other steps were taken to turn the slow paced original game into the fast paced pirate simulator that is Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

  1. “Assassinations” were now less about the silent killing. Murder is, in it of itself, a violent and drawn out act. Ezio exemplifies this, often jumping up to confront an enemy, promptly putting you in a position to fight your way out. Not escape.
  2. As a recourse of the above; developers had to give players more tools to deal with the threat of group combat. The challenging guards of the first game became fodder under twin hidden blades, bombs, pistols, rope darts, and some cleverly placed smoke your character can magically see through.
  3. With these new tools, it was easy to kill. Due to the concept created early on in the series; that every enemy is vulnerable, no matter how powerful, the developers couldn’t simple make harder enemies. So, to make encounters more difficult, they had to increase the number to increase the challenge.
  4. Once that was done, we have the game we have today. One man taking out dozens with a plethora of useful and deadly weapons.

There it is, plain and simple. The progression of how the games shifted so drastically from the original. But, I am not one to offer critique without compromise. There are ways to draw the series away from the flamboyant killing it indulges in and bring it back to its roots, without losing any of the enhancements that have made it an annual money-maker.

A talk that will be the topic of my next entry. See you then.

-J.F.