Let me start this by saying that I love Assassin’s Creed. I have played every release, from the very first to the latest (including the handheld versions, with the exception of mobile games) and despite the criticisms leveled here I still enjoy playing AC: Unity on occasion. Assassin’s Creed is unique among action adventure games as it uses history as platform for creating complex fictional narratives. As a student of history, I appreciate the ability to interact with historical periods in ways that are not possible in other mediums and while the narratives of Assassin’s Creed certainly take creative license with historical characters, it is obvious that many hours of research go into developing worlds that reflect an historical realism. So, first: Thank you to the teams of people that put in hard work to create these games.
Now, the crux of the issue; this franchise is losing me. I have defended it as an annual release for a long time, citing the new settings and changes in game mechanics as a counter argument to those who would claim that the game simply gets a new topical gloss and is released again for full retail. While I can marginally understand the argument that there is very little separating the installations, the game will never suddenly change from assassin simulator to shooter or driver; the player will always be stabbing people with hidden blades. As a yearly franchise, it’s simple to tell from game to game what changes and I believe that the current issues I have with Unity began in Assassin’s Creed III. Let’s explore some of the shortcomings the latest installment and how they relate to older iterations in the franchise. I forgave the brutally slow start to the story to ACIII. The new engine looked amazing and it was hard to believe that it was running on PS3/XB360. Many of the games technical flaws were masked by a great setting and diverse new interactions the player could make with the world: Moving from the colonial cities of New York and Boston to the untamed wilderness, with the option to now climb trees and explore the woods with added hunting and stalk zones. It was awesome to see AC move from urban environments to the wilderness. Something, however, felt off about the free running. It felt like Connor was on a rail and out of the hands of the user. Generally speaking, ACIII streamlined many of the previously existing systems with varied success and while some things had changed from the previous years release it didn’t feel wildly different. Mostly, paired down systems and buffed up graphics. This streamlining, however, culminates in the most awkward feeling assassin yet, Arno.
Arno feels like a Cirque du Soleil acrobat more than he does a free runner, or a climber. I understand that the increase in scale that Paris gave the franchise required a different kind of movement mechanic. The problem is that all of the subtlety of previous games is lost. The previous iterations of Assassin’s Creed seemed more careful in the possible lines constructed for free-running. I point to the Ezio trilogy as a primary example of a climbing/free-running system that balances realism with fantasy. Sure, the player could scale a four or five story building in a matter of seconds and leap off of giant pillars to a tiny hay bale, but the animations that propelled him to the top made it feel as if he actually had to climb there. It also gave the player time to make subtle adjustments to a line or pull off directionally based wall jumps to create their own lines and string together runs. Many times when free running with Arno, he completes actions that the player did not want to do simply because the free running has essentially been reduced to one button. Previous AC games gave the player the ability to walk/fast walk/run/sprint; now we have two options: Walk and run. The problem is, as soon as you press the run button, you are also in climbing mode. This is far too simplified: Hold R2 and you will probably run it, climb it, jump it, flip it…bop it, twist it…never mind. Stop moving sideways in history and go back in time to go forwards with the franchise.
We need a new time period. The 1700’s are boring at this point, despite the diversity of locations. Go back to the middle ages; we haven’t been there since the original Assassin’s Creed. Feudal Japan has been bandied about by fans for years. Could this setting and time period be anymore suited to the telling of an Assassin’s Creed story? Beyond that, the timespan that the story could tackle could be any part of a 500 yearish timeline. Or, better yet, go further back in history. The kind of height required to construct buildings of the past is more conducive toward the end of creating rich and dense worlds built for climbing, hiding and killing. Freemason/Templar mythology could easily stretch back into history as far as Dynastic Egypt. The benefit of doing something like this as well could be a drastic change to the current formula and a reinvention of the basic systems of movement, stealth and combat. Sounds scary right? INNOVATE! It’s gotten to the point where sprinting around these massive maps is done without purpose and requires a complete break in the suspension of disbelief. I would be more impressed with a smaller city where movement was harder and hiding had to be more carefully thought out than I am with revolutionary Paris—which feels dead and empty, like a backdrop. To this end, STOP CRAMMING CHARACTERS ON THE SCREEN.
Ok, we get it. The new technology allows you to place hoards of NPC’s on the screen at the same time. So, what? If those characters are constantly popping into the world and moon-walking across the heads of large crowds, what is the point? For every time I walk down a narrow alleyway and the number of NPC’s makes the game feel nicely populated, I walk out of the alleyway into glitchy mobs of NPC’s that inspire more laughter than awe. None of these characters have real meaning. Half of them end up floating in the air, or wearing the same clothes, or doing the same animations. It’s just comical really. Ubisoft should focus on creating cities that feel truly populated with people, rather than just throwing numbers at us. The cities in Skyrim never came anywhere close to showing 5,000 people on the screen at once, however, those cities feel vastly more populated and living than Unity’s Paris. This is because game systems would open and close shops, people had names and occupations and they felt to the player as if they were more than decoration. Furthermore, why are there even shops in AC: Unity? For the purpose of purchasing consumables that a player can loot from bodies? I can just upgrade, customize and purchase things from the touch pad menu; I hardly visit shops.
Rather than give the player the ability to just buy whatever weapons or armor colors they want to, tie it to the relationships you build with local shop owners and blacksmiths. No more generic shops. Give these owners names and personalities; connect them to the location. Sections of cities could have colors associated with local groups or gangs and to wear these specific colors one must complete objectives within the district; there could be particular blacksmiths whose trust must be gained to have access to certain weapons or upgrades. This is an opportunity to create deeper stories. For example, after doing a few missions for the local store owner and learning about the part of the city they are located in, establishing that portion of the city as a real place—the player could get access to unique items, armors, weapons and dyes. Use the opportunity to implement content by building stronger characters, narratives and relationships in the game. Make it so the player feels grounded in certain areas of the city, rather than just sprinting through. The worst part about the aforementioned idea is that it is not a new one. In older Assassin’s Creed games, for example, each art shop owner would have different art to sell you. Why was this idea abandoned?
The combat in Assassin’s Creed Unity also feels as if it is lacking in some way. The traditional counter-based system is there and the upgrades to enemy deadliness are welcome additions. I think, however, that they need to look to older systems to improve the combat. Emphasize movement in combat again. Rather than a basic dodge mechanic, give the player the ability to double tap a direction and move swiftly to gain an advantage against opponents. It was exaggerated and jumpy, but I would like to see an emphasis put back on controlling position in combat with the left stick like it was in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. I also think we need to bring back the ability to chain kills. Perhaps not the unrealistic chains possible in previous games where Ezio would lay waste to 40 enemies at a time; But, when I entered the cinematic camera and moved from guard to guard, pinpointing deathblows with ease, I felt most like an Assassin. The idea that 3-4 enemies would be overwhelming for a fighter is something that they should retain, just make it more difficult to enter chain-kill mode and I believe there could exist a good balance between enemy and assassin deadliness.
The combat system also needs dedicated combo input. With a timing based combo system, there is no real way to know what moves you are going to pull off and so it always feels like you are just mashing the attack button. Give the player the ability to learn combinations and use them in various combat situations to achieve objectives. Perhaps certain combos or weapon types make dealing with a larger group of enemies easier, or other combos can put the player in a position to disengage with the enemies and make an escape. The statistical balance of weapons is not enough; we need a deeper combat system that actually reflects a players knowledge of the assassin because right now fighting doesn’t require much more than ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK/COUNTER/ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK. In older games we used to be able to counter with throws, counter with ballistic or thrown weapons, and even counter an enemy and take their money….Why was this eliminated?! It seems like the Assassin’s Creed franchise is taking steps backwards in this regard and limiting the actions a player can do. Subsequently, combat feels empty and meaningless.
It seems that for Ubisoft money is real and nothing is permitted, insofar as innovation is concerned. Cooperative Assassin’s Creed should not be a feature that sells the game. It’s something that games have been incorporating for a long time and should not be touted as some kind of new feature: ESPECIALLY WHEN IT DOESN’T EVEN WORK. Adding RPG elements does not a make it a new game either. Customizing avatars is, again, nothing new and has been a fairly standard feature of games for a long time. There was nothing stopping them from allowing us to customize Edward, Ratohnhaketon, or Ezio. When I look at what 13 people at Ninja Theory are achieving with their action/adventure game, Hellblade, it’s mind numbing to me that it requires teams of hundreds of people to create Assassin’s Creed games. In fact, it’s absolute absurdity. Ninja Theory is creating a brand new intellectual property with 13 people, from the ground up. Assassin’s Creed has infinitely more resources but relies on a formula to produce what is essentially the same product over and over. This is the first time that I have felt that Assassin’s Creed got a topical gloss and it’s only because the game systems that used to hold the franchise down from year to year are no longer familiar but clunky, cumbersome and awkward. Sometimes you have to destroy something in order to truly create, take a leap of faith and completely deviate from what has come before. It’s time for Assassin’s Creed to leap to the hay bale and come back to the ground, look up, find a new line and ascend again.