Assassin’s Creed is a somewhat difficult series to properly discuss as it has often contradictorally embodied both sides of the spectrum of what players ultimately want, and what they despise. With its nearly annual releases, countless other spinoff games and other bits of merchandising, Ubisoft has rather blatantly been milking the property for all its worth. And yet it has still managed to maintain a certain high standard of quality and consistency across their major releases, of which have become widely beloved by a massive fanbase.
However the series has noticeably been on a downward decline, one of which is looking rather bleak with the recent blunder of Assassin’s Creed: Unity which has been universally panned by players and garnered a lukewarm reception from critics. While much of the furor surrounding its release is specifically due to its technical issues, it is far from the only problem with the game.
But for the sake of full disclosure and to quickly get the technical aspect of the game out of the way, I ran Assassin’s Creed: Unity off an i5-2500k at stock speeds, a HD 7950, with 8GB of RAM at anywhere from 20 to low 40s in FPS (frames per second). In other words it was playable but barely ranging from being sluggish to a glorified flip-book. And while my setup is by no means top of the line, my HD 7950 has been able to handle everything I’ve thrown at it until this release with ease running other titles at 1080p at higher settings. However it does bear mentioning that according to the official requirements even a HD 7950 falls short of the minimum listing.
And popular Youtube commentator TotalBiscuit even reported that running the game on two SLI’ed GTX 980s wasn’t even enough to get consistently stable performance even with lowered settings. For those less technically inclined, two GTX 980s will run over a thousand dollars alone and are basically the best single-GPU cards currently on the market. That said, it seems a bit ridiculous that it has been apparently so difficult to run the game in a stable manner on PC when the same title is apparently suppose to run without any issues on the Xbox One and PS4, both of which have considerably inferior hardware to most mid-tier rigs. And surely enough, in the case of Assassin’s Creed: Unity even the console releases have reported poor playback with recorded FPS rates averaging in the low 20s.
And with Ubisoft’s announcement of console versions being locked at 30 FPS for a more cinematic experience, players were already skeptical before release. But what is sort of pitifully ironic is that the console versions haven’t even managed to deliver on those claims falling short of their stated limit.
What is ultimately clear is that technically something went wrong. While Assassin’s Creed: Unity is a wonderfully beautiful game that is visibly more sophisticated then its predecessors, the visual fidelity is ultimately nothing to write home about. Other recent titles with similarly high hardware demands like Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor looked nearly as good if not better in many areas such as texture quality, yet ran perfectly fine on a multitude of platforms and PC setups. I was personally able to run it with settings maxed out despite the game claiming the need for a GPU with 6GB of VRAM.
And while I don’t want to dwell too much on the technical aspects of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, it does bear mentioning that the unexpected delayed review embargo which didn’t lift until 12 hours after the game released serves as final proof that Ubisoft themselves were not confident in their product and the reception it would receive.
Having personally played through the game on PC, the performance and technical issues were a definite hindrance. But ultimately none of that was what made Assassin’s Creed: Unity so utterly disappointing. And while the game had countless issues, the primary one is something that isn’t entirely a result of this most current entry solely, rather stems from the overall direction the series has taken.
Framing the series with a metanarrative and player surrogate.
In order to properly discuss Assassin’s Creed as a whole and understand what I feel went wrong with Assassin’s Creed: Unity specifically, I have to take a step back and examine the very premise that started the series.
For those unfamiliar with the franchise, Assassin’s Creed is a series that actually takes place within our contemporary time frame. It does not as most of its promotional material suggest, take place within various historical periods of the past. It has roughly been described as a game within a game, but I feel this is a vast mischaracterization.
In the world of Assassin’s Creed, DNA does not only hold genetic instructions but also retains the memories of our ancestors. I won’t really speak for the actual scientific validity of such a claim, but it definitely isn’t anything new being closely similar to the ideas of morphic resonance put forth by Rupert Sheldrake where memories can be shared by a species or past onto future generations. In the context of Assassin’s Creed, because DNA stores past memories one can quite literally relive the lives of their ancestors through the use of a device called the Animus. And this is where the bulk of the games take place, within this simulated space within a simulated medium.
From the first Assassin’s Creed to Assassin’s Creed III players actually played as one single character, that of Desmond Miles a descendent of these various Assassins. Without delving to far into the intricacies of the various conflicts and narratives, the war between Assassins and Templars that players explore within these various historical periods, rages in the current day. Desmond begins his journey being kidnapped by the Templar-controlled Abstergo, where they forcibly send him into the Animus to retrieve vital information that they can use to gain more footing in the ongoing war.
What is ultimately significant here is that the series relied upon this contemporary parallel narrative to actually provide a reason for players to care about these largely standalone ventures into history. Through experiencing the lives of these various Assassins, both Desmond and the player learned more about the mysterious origins of both organizations and of humanity itself. The primary conflict wasn’t resolving the various personal struggles of Desmond’s descendants, rather using information learned from these past lives in order to prevent a greater cataclysm in our near future.
For better or worse Desmond’s narrative reached its conclusion at the end of Assassin’s Creed III with both his death and the prevention of this cataclysm in turn. While the ending was fairly disappointing, the larger issue was where the series should go from there in the absence of its previously centralizing force.
While it’s not majorly relevant, the primary issues with how Desmond’s story ended was in its rather abrupt close but also the late introduction of endgame players and conflicts instead of tying together what was already long established. In other words, it suffered from the same sort of incoherence that Mass Effect had at the end of its trilogy.
But with Desmond’s death it did seem that the primary conflict came to a close although there were various other concerns left unresolved. The reasons for the existence and use of the Animus essentially disappeared once Desmond exited the narrative and world destruction was thwarted. This isn’t in itself a bad thing, but does suggest that the series had to either explore past unresolved threads, unanswered questions or establish a new conflict to frame the usage of the Animus.
And in the absence of Desmond’s death, it’s debatable whether or not the series needed a new player surrogate, one who could serve as a middleman between player and simulated avatar. But more importantly, a character that could bring substance to an otherwise pointless venture into fictionalized history.
With Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Ubisoft took a noticeable shift away from the series’ core characteristics both mechanically and in narrative. For the first time, players experienced the life of someone who wasn’t in fact an Assassin at all, and had little stake in the ongoing battle with the Templars. As pirate Edward Kenway, players largely experienced a more personal tale about a man coming to terms with himself outside the scope of becoming an Assassin. And while Kenway plays a significant role in the ongoing battle, it merely serves as a backdrop.
Kenway has absolutely no moral or ethical stake in either side and while mechanically the game still retains its core mechanics, it also shifts away from it drastically. The world space instead of taking place within a sprawling city, is moved to the open seas where navigation is done through sailing as opposed to parkour. Much of the combat is in fact centered on this new simulated plane where players engage in naval combat and exploration, as opposed to moving around on foot.
And while Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag retains a contemporary framing narrative, it seems largely secondary to Kenway’s tale. Instead of contextualizing the action giving it a higher purpose as in previous titles, the narrative outside the Animus feels jarring and altogether pointless.
When not in the Animus, players switch to a locked first-person view almost suggesting the desire to do away with the previous injection of a surrogate seen in Desmond Miles. In a way, it seems the series is attempting to create a stronger bond between the player and the Animus simulations. This external character is left nameless and without a face so for all intents is likely meant to be the player themselves.
However what is most troubling is the absence of any larger conflict or framework to suggest a purpose to having players live through Kenway’s life. On its own, Kenway was simply a pirate who after seizing a sizable fortune, returned back home to civilized society. His only significance in the grand scheme of Assassin’s Creed lore is his familial relationship to the protagonist of the previous game. But there is no mysterious piece of history or artifact that needs to be discovered in order to prevent a larger plot. In other words, regardless of the individual merits of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, it bears little relevance to the series as a whole thus comes off more as a spinoff title then a fully fledged main series entry.
Kenway’s narrative is simply meant to stand by itself and this is fundamentally strange for a series that has done the exact opposite. But with that said, this isn’t to suggest that the games cannot stand on these historical narratives solely, because in fact they can and have done so to an incredible degree. I’d argue that the titles that featured Ezio Auditore largely worked because he was such a complex memorable character with his own compelling narrative. But in the case of Ezio, he also had the span of three titles as opposed to a single game in order to detail his story.
The segments of gameplay where players explore the offices of Abstergo in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag do however introduce one important shift in the game world. Abstergo has repurposed the Animus from being a weapon of war to a commercialized piece of interactive recreation. In this manner, Abstergo is no longer defined as a sinister paramilitary corporation, rather as a more mundane video game publisher. And through various cameo appearances, it is revealed that the fight between the two orders is still going on despite the finality that Desmond’s sacrifice should have brought forth.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity is the first game in the series to not include playable segments outside the Animus. And while it isn’t entirely clear, it doesn’t appear as if the one entering the Animus in this most current iteration is the same nameless character from Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag exploring the Abstergo offices which is further troubling.
While Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag might have felt pointless holistically speaking, it was still an arguably strong title based upon its refreshing mechanics and somewhat intriguing exploration of piracy and life in the Caribbean. Assassin’s Creed: Unity feels entirely irrelevant but also completely fails to stand on its own under the absence of any strong narratives or interesting characters. Much like Ubisoft’s other major release this year Watch Dogs, the game simply felt hollow and lifeless.
The mechanical core was still intact, there simply wasn’t any sort of riveting narrative or developments to fully cloth the game properly. It seems that Ubisoft unsure what to do with its previous contemporary narratives is largely attempting to do away with its existence entirely. Refocusing Assassin’s Creed not as a series of speculative science fiction, rather one that forgets the whole notion of a narrative within a narrative, instead showcasing various interesting spots of history as a sort of interactive tourist spectacle. Wherein Assassin’s Creed no longer embodies the rather epic existential creationist mystery it originally posited with its meticulous care into exploring past cultures, instead opting to now turn these same cultures into fantastical spectacles that have no purpose aside from serving as a glorified and rather substance-less sandbox.
On isolating personalized narratives and avatars.
Past the importance of Assassin’s Creed properly addressing and resolving its own main narrative in the present day, the series has largely been able to stand on the merits of its more personalized narratives centered on those featured within the Animus.
Primarily considering the games with lead Ezio Auditore, players experience the life of this key Assassin from being a rather innocent youth to a wizened old man. And it’s no surprise at all to find that the three titles that had Ezio as its point of focus are often the ones cited as the series strongest to date. However while it might be difficult to properly or at least easily quantify the value of a narrative or character above others, comparatively speaking it is somewhat manageable to see how Ezio’s tale differs from the likes of Kenway or more recently, Arno Dorian.
For example, for a series named “Assassin’s Creed,” the expectation should be that the game should focus on the notion of actually being an Assassin and ultimately what that entails morally and philosophically to the character in question.
So taking a look at Assassin’s Creed II, players see exactly why Ezio goes from a carefree youth to actually becoming an Assassin. His various motivations whether personal or of a higher calling are continuously explored, as is Ezio himself who dramatically changes over the course of the games.
In comparison Arno Dorian in Assassin’s Creed: Unity essentially becomes an Assassin over night and players never really get a sense for the “why” of it past simply desires to get revenge on De LaSerre’s killer. The whole notion of who and what the Assassins and Templars are is never explored nor touched upon. Both the player and Arno are seemingly expected to know about these secret organizations as if they are common knowledge.
In other words, while Assassin’s Creed II had a proper lengthy origin story that detailed the why and how of Ezio becoming an Assassin, Dorian simply goes through his transition by means of a time jump preventing players from really connecting or sympathizing with him on any sort of deeper level.
Possibly the most telling absence however, is the manner in which Assassin’s Creed: Unity dealt with its romantic developments which arguably play the central role in how Dorian chooses to act or proceed within the narrative. And jumping back to Ezio Auditore who also had his fair share of romance, there is a clear disparity especially when considering that Ezio didn’t rely on the presence of romance as his driving character motivation. And both of these largely optional romantic threads for Ezio are quantifiably more depthful then what players experience between Arno and Elise.
While she plays a minor role in Assassin’s Creed II, in its followup Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood a fictionalized version of Caterina Sforza is depicted as the on/off love interest of Ezio. While the Caterina narrative is largely outside the scope of the main game, the developers felt the need to include it with its own string of multiple in-game missions. Through these segments of gameplay, players empathize with Ezio and his connection to Caterina by actually seeing them interact together and slowly develop a lengthy semi-romantic relationship.
And this mechanical reinforcement of providing missions or interactions around a relationship continues into Assassin’s Creed: Revelations and to other characters like Leonardo Da Vinci who Ezio develops a deep friendship with. In much the same manner as his interactions with Caterina, players as Ezio engage in a somewhat introverted but charming attempt to gain the attention of bookworm Sofia Sartor. Instead of the litany of assassination or tailing missions that Ezio typically finds himself on, players instead find themselves trying to track down tulips, having a picnic, and bonding over a shared love of books.
In comparison to the relationship between Arno and Elize, players never get to witness any sort of relationship building or depthful interaction past an introductory meeting when the two were adolescents. Their next encounter occurs after a lengthy time-jump where they are already romantically coupled, albeit secretly.
What is immediately problematic was how the writers assumed that the inclusion of interest between two children was somehow indicative of a complex romantic adult relationship to come. This isn’t to say that the development is unbelievable, rather that there is a need for further development to actually showcase how these distinctly unique characters became close. But what is even more perplexing is how Elize immediately seems to exit the game after her father’s death only to come back towards the tail end of the narrative.
And while the game does provide some interactions between the two such as the hot-air balloon sequence, one never really gets the sense of how the two feel about each other past the mere presence of some sort of romantic entanglement.
What is ultimately most telling is when Elize finally dies in her relentless pursuit for revenge, there is a complete lack of empathy both for her and Arno’s loss. As a player and spectator the expectation should be that the events unfolding are tragic, yet it was personally difficult to rouse any sort of emotional response to this particular loss of character. And strangely within the game, Arno isn’t really seen to be devastated by the loss as much as one would expect. The game seemingly comes to a close with most of the events seeming altogether meaningless.
And that leads to the larger issue with Assassin’s Creed: Unity and where its narrative seemed largely uninspired and shoddily thought through. In past games, missions and gameplay typically had a distinct role to play within the narrative. Ezio or Connor had to accomplish a certain goal or task to learn a vital piece of information or further their goals to progress the narrative.
But on the other hand, the interactions within the main narrative of Arno feel like what used to be relegated to side missions. I found myself largely spacing out during exposition or explanations on why Arno was going to do whatever he was going to do. So admittedly the issue could be a degree of bias but I also never found myself having difficulty following the story in past games.
Within Assassin’s Creed: Unity, it often felt as if the narrative was shaped around the gameplay instead of the other way around resulting in missions that were largely uninteresting consisting of fetch or tailing quests that didn’t clearly seem relevant to anything larger. Quite possibly the only positive remark I could make would be in the manner in which Assassin’s Creed: Unity handled its assassination missions, but even here I found that the game’s need to tell me exactly where to go as more of a nuisance then actually offering up more avenues of how to complete the objective.
Ultimately Assassin’s Creed: Unity seems entirely disappointing when its primary narrative fails to deliver any sort of compelling emotional experience and lacks the ability to fall back on the previous framework of the contemporary conflict. It suggests that the developers planned for an increased focus upon the events of the French Revolution itself detailed within Assassin’s Creed: Unity as opposed to relying on framing it within an ongoing serial narrative.
And while this might not directly be cause for concern, it does seem to lead to a lack of proper incentives to care about the events of Assassin’s Creed: Unity on a larger scale. Arno’s story might be interesting itself (although it isn’t), but most players of the series have stuck around because of the strength of the whole series, not to merely venture into disconnected segments of glorified historical happenstance.
As a fan of the series myself, I wanted to learn more about the ongoing questions surrounding the First Civilization and the origin of humanity but also of the fate of previously abandoned secondary characters such as Desmond’s father and the rest of Lucy Stillman’s team especially in reaction to Desmond’s passing.
And subsequently while Desmond Miles himself has often been criticized in the past for his one-dimensionality, his absence has been far more jarring leaving players feeling ultimately disconnected from the events of the games. While I wouldn’t go so far as to argue the necessity of having some sort of player surrogate in place, it does seem fair to assume that his inclusion already within the series, has in its own way established a precedent for there to be one.
Without the presence of a strong character between the player and the avatars of the Animus, there is a loss of purpose for actually playing the game past its core mechanical appeal. Whether this can be called roleplaying behavior, I typically found Assassin’s Creed to largely be about the player exploring the Animus in order to aid in a higher cause, in the case of the game’s narrative that was to save the present-day world from destruction but also resolve Desmond’s own personal demons.
Without this framework and a surrogate to relate to, the whole notion of playing a game within a game seems entirely redundant and unnecessary. And honestly the past two games have done nothing to remedy these concerns where Abstergo is still seemingly in power now utilizing the commercial potential of the Animus to generate a massive fortune.
It would seem somewhat justifiable or at least expected that the events of both Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Unity would in some way still be about the Assassins fighting against the Templars but from within. And while the script and certain dialogue seems to suggest this is exactly what is going on, as players we never see or even hear about the effect we might be having on the shadowy corporation in the present day.
And ultimately with the lack of a direct or visible conflict between the two orders and the complete absence of the Assassins from the modern narratives, it’s hard to even see Abstergo as the sinister group we are suppose to know it as. For newcomers, I imagine it would be entirely confusing as to why Abstergo or the Animus from a narrative standpoint even exists in the first place.
Creators as the villains, Ubisoft is Abstergo.
With the conclusion of Assassin’s Creed III, the primary motivation for both sides of the battle to use the Animus disappeared. Previously it had been utilized in order to learn more about the First Civilization and their artifacts. But with Desmond more or less resolving that conflict and also dying himself, he was entirely absent to be exploited or used by either party.
With the release of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag the Animus was repurposed as a recreational device that allowed users to live through the action-packed lives of various historical figures sort of like the Oculus Rift on acid. Whether intentional satire or not, this shift caused Abstergo to markedly appear as a stand-in for Ubisoft themselves. With various figures like Connor or Ezio advertised within the game like the various video games in its real world franchise, Abstergo by all appearances looked like the fictional publisher of an Assassin’s Creed-like series of interactive experiences within its own fictional world.
This largely resulted in two things, Ubisoft cast themselves as the villains both in the fictional game world itself, but also externally when taken allegorically. And sure enough outside the scope of just Assassin’s Creed, Ubisoft has in recent years become the new corporate game publisher to hate toppling the once unrivaled EA. And whether pure coincidence, EA’s own recently published Dragon Age: Inquisition unlike Assassin’s Creed: Unity has been incredibly well received especially in light of lifting their embargo weeks before the game was scheduled to launch in a show of good faith and confidence.
And coincidental or not, it seems that once Ubisoft established Abstergo’s new role that their own games seemed to be rebranded as standalone historical ventures like the manner in which the Animus is promoted within the games themselves, more so then chapters of a larger cohesive whole. In a sense, both Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Unity were similarly more product then artistic work. This isn’t to suggest any sort of grand statement about games being art or not, rather that Ubisoft let go of any attempts at masking their willingness to simply generate money as opposed to developing a product of some sort of critical merit.
There aren’t yearly Assassin’s Creed releases because of its artistic or critical worth, rather that it has simply become a guaranteed pre-order regardless of the presence of innovation or quality, much like Call of Duty, Madden, or Battlefield. In the old adage, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
And if further proof is needed, one only needs to look at the rather offensive and blatant injection of micro-transactions all over Assassin’s Creed: Unity that has taken elements of gameplay once part of the core mechanics, and converted them into upgrades that now need to be purchased. And while those in defense of the game will state that purchases can be made with in-game currency instead, the presence of a real money transfer has definitely made many items difficult to obtain unless players spend hours upon hours grinding simply to be able to allow Arno to color his robes black.
The argument can even be made that most of these upgrades and purchasable items are largely outside the scope of what is required for the core experience, but this wouldn’t be entirely correct. Simple abilities that have been corner stones of the series to this point like the mere ability to sit on a bench to hide have to now be purchased.
Ultimately, while there is plenty to hate about Assassin’s Creed: Unity, I’m less inclined to name-call or criticize Ubisoft for practices that are largely logical from a business perspective. There hasn’t been any attempt on their part to mask their behavior or hide behind any illusions of “artistic integrity” or other buzzword terms that seemingly derail any sort of criticism in the past. If anything, they’ve been fairly honest and open in their monetization strategies whether they are the best choices or not, and that has been somewhat refreshing for an industry that has continually become overly sensitive and quick to defend. This behavior also isn’t anything new and for the most part, the Assassin’s Creed series has produced some excellent games despite their fast turn-around rate.
That basically leaves the question of whether Ubisoft could have avoided the direction the series has taken, or whether or not they in fact made a critical error by rather abruptly ending Desmond’s narrative back in Assassin’s Creed III. And the answer might actually be that Ubisoft were fully aware of the situation they had been placed in.
For all intents and purposes, the original developers of the first Assassin’s Creed had no idea whether or not their initial project would become the flagship of a major publisher. And if early reception was any indicator, predictions were somewhat bleak given the first game’s less then stellar critical response.
And for a series that has been deeply rooted in a centralized narrative, the dilemma quickly became how to ultimately pace new revelations and narrative developments without coming off as artificially stretching its length in order to produce more titles. And surely enough with Assassin’s Creed III being the fifth main game in the series, players had already begun to get frustrated with the seemingly ever more distant answers to series-long questions of who the Ancients were, and how they fit into the visions of a world-ending event and its relevance into the fight between the two orders.
Under that context, it seems like the right choice was to actually end Desmond’s story as opposed to dragging it on longer. But the resulting issue then became how to recontextualize the series in its aftermath in order to provide some sort of centralizing significance to players interacting with proceeding game worlds. And this is something that has yet to be resolved and honestly is something that is extremely difficult to rectify. While it’s somewhat frustrating as a fan of the series myself, it’s hard to fault the writers to any significant degree as it’s not a solution that is easily obtainable and will require a great degree of creative finagling.
But lastly and from a mechanical context, Assassin’s Creed and I’d argue open world titles as a whole might have simply reached a saturation point where they have become largely passé. This isn’t to say that open world titles are now a thing of the past, rather that their initial appeal has finally worn off and in the absence of any sort of technical leaps since the notion became popularized, players have begun to largely be unimpressed by simple being placed in a large space with an abundance of activities to perform.
The problem that I’ve been seeing with this model is that the expansive space while by casual appearances seems to simulate a lively world at an impressive scale with its multitude of interactions, objects and characters, is at the end of a day a fragile facade. On the surface, a player may encounter large crowds of people and can run down city streets populated with vendors and plenty of ambient noise or conversations, but the illusion is easily broken.
In the case of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, draw distances are problematic with characters popping in out of thin air constantly. Ambient dialogue quickly becomes recycled and repeated, and overall players quickly get thrown out of any sort of immersion they might have felt.
With that said it’s unfair to single out Assassin’s Creed specifically for this, as this is an issue that is simply unavoidable given current technical limitations and expands to the whole genre. But that said, there might be a reversal of sorts that sees more major release games favoring a more linear approach. One where open-ness and player agency is sacrificed in order to deliver a more depthful experience with stronger direction.