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Assassin’s Creed: how Ubisoft built the ultimate gaming franchise

Monday, 23 June 2014 08:53 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Assassin’s Creed is indisputably one of the biggest properties in gaming. We chart the franchise from its humble beginnings to annual blockbuster.

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Assassin’s Creed

The first Assassin’s Creed has been retrospectively described as a “tech demo” for the franchise, but although it lacked the features that made Assassin’s Creed 2 such a widely-hailed success, it is the most unique of the series to date, and has plenty of fans less fond of the kitchen sink approach of later titles. It was the seed that grew into one of gaming’s biggest franchises, which is not bad for a series that began as a cancelled Prince of Persia game.

It’s easy to forget now how important the first Assassin’s Creed really was, but it was one of the first new open-world experiences to come along since GTA kicked off the genre. Ubisoft’s ambitious crowd AI tech was like nothing we’d ever seen before, although we now take it for granted, and while the idea of leaping about historical periods seems natural now, at the time it was a risk – nobody was sure whether boring old history would appeal to the average action gamer, more used to world wars, sci-fi and fantasy settings. Building on the fluid and beautiful platforming of the Prince of Persia series, the parkour-style free movement at the heart of the action, which now seems so obvious and essential to games, was something we’d never really seen before.

“The ‘puppeteer’ control system, whereby each face button represented a different part of the body and the shoulder buttons modified the actions you performed with them, is barely recognisable now.”

The first game also had a few little quirks which were gradually abandoned altogether over the course of several successive releases. The “puppeteer” control system, whereby each face button represented a different part of the body and the shoulder buttons modified the actions you performed with them, is barely recognisable now. The insistence on constant stealth, which made the first Assassin’s Creed controversially challenging, is mostly gone, replaced by a notoriety system which has itself been significantly watered down.

Both of these systems were interesting bits of design and I personally regret their departure, although their replacement has certainly made the games more streamlined and accessible. That seems to have been the aim of many of Ubisoft’s tweaks over successive releases, and you can’t blame the publisher for working to make the game enjoyable by more people – especially when it has had such success.

While Assassin’s Creed sold well enough to be considered a hit, setting records for new IP sales, it didn’t reach the dizzying heights set by later sequels. Nevertheless, it proved that there’s a place in our hearts for a parkour-and-stealth murder-’em-up wrapped in a weird double sci-fi and historical narrative of long-running conspiracy and corporate greed.

An imperfect but boldly innovative and hugely influential release, Assassin’s Creed remains one of the classics of the past generation of gaming, and the Ubisoft of – oh, it must have been about 2003, after Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time wrapped – is to be applauded for its grand commitment to such a strange new IP. Patrice Désilets, Jade Raymond and the team at Ubisoft Montreal laid the foundation for a blockbuster.

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Assassin’s Creed 2

With the second entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Ubisoft was again very bold. It could have played it safe and stuck by Altair, its beloved protagonist, picking up where the story left off and working only to increase mainstream appeal. Instead, it did something amazing – gave its hero, and its setting, the boot.

” The womanising, playful Ezio proved just as popular as his surly precursor, if not more so.”

The over-arching story of Desmond Miles continued, but since Desmond takes a backseat through most of the business of actually playing the game, it was, again, a gamble – but it paid off. The womanising, playful Ezio proved just as popular as his surly precursor, if not more so, and despite a few rough patches Assassin’s Creed 2 was the real breakaway smash hit that put the franchise on its path to standing alongside Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto as one of the most important in the industry.

The key to this mainstream success was the smoothing down of a few of Assassin’s Creed’s rough edges. As I mentioned above, the constant need for stealth was removed, replace by a notoriety system that allowed players to spend time freely exploring, which did wonders to show off the gorgeous city design. Ezio can swim, which is actually a slightly unnecessary addition as the free-running system got a slight overhaul making you significantly less likely to dive off at an unexpected angle and drown.

New additions helped too. Guards came in several varieties, requiring different tactics, which gave players a reason to learn the new combat system and take advantage of a new arsenal of tricks, such as the hidden gun. Building up Ezio’s villa was a fun little diversion incentivised by the way it unlocks better gear. Blending was extended to any small group of people rather than just the wandering monks of the first game, making the “hide in crowds” idea of the original truly come to life – although it was a few more games before Ubi really ironed the kinks out.

Not that Assassin’s Creed 2 was without its critics, and in particular its slower opening hours, when Ezio is not yet an assassin, were a cause for complaint. Ubisoft changed its approach in later titles which is actually something of a shame; this is the last Assassin’s Creed game where the story feels cut from whole cloth, and not just hastily tacked on to explain a series of disconnected action set-pieces.

A far more polished product than its prequel, Assassin’s Creed 2 is really where the series broke into mainstream gaming consciousness. It’s an interesting example of iteration within a franchise, in that it courageously both departs from and builds on the strengths of the original without losing its heart.

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15 Comments

  1. Haydar

    Although the writer said first game is seen as a tech demo, she/he never mentioned the real reason of its success.

    It was Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, one of the greatest characters created in gaming. In my opinion no other game in the series had strong characters like Altair and Al Muallim.

    Do other games have better gameplay mechanics? Sure.

    But the atmosphere, characters, mysticism etc. were much better in the first game.

    #1 10 months ago
  2. Brenna Hillier

    @Haydar I agree, actually! The first game is my personal favourite. I think Brotherhood is technically the better game in terms of execution, but the original setting really captured me.

    #2 10 months ago
  3. YoungZer0

    @Brenna Hillier

    Agree about the setting. It’s a pity Ubisoft never went back and did something proper with it. Can’t agree about the character though, he had even less of a personality than Aiden. That’s hard to top.

    #3 10 months ago
  4. Gekidami

    Altair was your standard, generic strong-silent type “badass” in the first game. YoungZer0 is right, Aiden is boring yet he’s still more interesting than Altair in the first game. He was more interesting in Revelations in the flashbacks, he was more human, actually had issues he couldnt solve by just stabbing everyone.

    As for Connor, no one liked him because was a annoying. Always whining, moaning, complaining and disobeying his orders, he’s the franchises MGS2 Raiden, even worst. He pretty much ruined the idea of the Assassins being an actual order, he just got the training, got the weapons then did whatever the fuck he wanted as long as it was vaguely about templars. Adeline was like the anti-Connor in that she had discipline to the order by was also clever & level-headed enough to called the shots when it was needed.

    Edward was probably the best character, he was witty and funny but had loads of flaws. The guy wasnt an actual assassins so it had sense he didnt abide by their rules (though the game was really lazy when it just gave you the assassin abilities from the get-go without any valid reason). He also had a story ark, he was only in the search for the observatory for personal gain at the start but as the story went on he learned that sometimes you have to do things for others and the greater good. It ended with him taking responsibility and settling down with his daughter.

    Just goes to show that unlike what some people want us to believe, having a character who isnt some white guy wont automatically make them interesting. Its all about how the character is written and the story they’re involved in.

    #4 10 months ago
  5. Haydar

    @Gekidami I’m not your typical white guy that will be amazed by simple eastern stories. I’m an old Muslim now an atheist who was living in lands where Altair’s story was told. So Altair is not something different for me like it’s for you.

    “Just goes to show that unlike what some people want us to believe, having a character who isnt some white guy wont automatically make them interesting. Its all about how the character is written and the story they’re involved in.”

    Yes. It’s about the story they’re involved in but because that you probably know nothing about that real story of Rashid ad-Din Sinan – Al Muallim, Hassan-i Sabbah, vizier Nizam al-Mulk, castle of Alamut and real assassins, you think these are some fancy setup to create a mystic atmosphere to trick people in the west.

    Sorry but the first game has an amazing story deep story behind it and good luck with your generalizations that are based on ignorance.

    #5 10 months ago
  6. TheWulf

    I just wish that it had not only stayed more close to how the first game handled things, but you could avoid the whole assassination thing and gone for capture instead. I know, I know, it’s the name of the game, but it’s just how I feel about it. I came close to liking the original Assassin’s Creed, before it became increasingly more dumb and violence-focused with each and every instalment.

    But, I don’t know, the supposed ‘assassin’ is all ready a super hero, and I would have found being a Spider-Man-ish character throughout history rather than a murderer to be a more engaging idea. Essentially, you’re working for some form of police, perhaps even an organisation of time police considering Assassin’s Creed usual storylines, maybe something like the Temporal Prime Directive cops. You’re out to keep the timeline correct by arresting people who go back to tamper with it.

    So you use sneakiness and stealth to get close to people, then you drug and tag them for arrest in order to be time-shifted.

    I don’t know why, but my mind leans more towards “I WANNA BE A COP!” in fantasies, rather than “I WANNA BE A MASS MURDERER OR SERIAL KILLER!” because… well, I don’t exactly know. Perhaps because of my own preferences for pacifism over violence. And I just don’t find that there are many games that sate my more pacifistic urges, and I end up left feeling somewhat awful by most games.

    Cartoon silliness I can handle as violence, when it’s ridiculous, bloodless, and over-the-top. It’s the same if it’s actually some kind of simulation in-game and no one is being harmed within that Universe, I can handle that, too (Saints Row IV et al). But I get squeamish about games set in a reality close to ours, using our murderous and bloody tools, to glorify violence. Worse, to turn violence into instant gratification.

    It’s nice for those that want it, and I can understand the appeal for other people. It’s just that coming from an era where there were so many pacifistic games (the ’80s, and especially the ’90s), I just feel like a fish out of water. I remember spending a lot of time playing games like Myst, the LucasArts games, the Sierra ones, and the ones from all those publishers that I’ve long since forgotten about.

    From Simon the Sorcerer to even at least two of the Discworld games, I loved that period. I also enjoyed the PS2 era, where everything was represented simply, in colourful graphics, and that all felt so harmless by comparison.

    I also liked stealth games, especially the kind where you don’t have to kill anyone. I went through DX:HR without killing a single person! And you know what? I loved that. I didn’t bother playing Dishonored though because, unlike DX:HR, it felt balanced against the pacifists. I mean, DX:HR even incentivised being a pacifist to the point where the balance rewarded pacifists more, but Dishonored was on the other side of the spectrum, so I didn’t enjoy it. In Dishonored, I felt that it was made deliberately hard (even impossible) in some places to play that way, and it just so easily rewarded violence. I feel that a lot of games that offer ‘non-violent options’ do this.

    It’s a very half-hearted, half-arsed thing. I guess the reason I loved DX:HR so much was because of that. The black mark against DX:HR, of course, was the bosses that you had to kill. That puts it behind the prior Deus Ex games, but it’s still good. It’s as good as the original Assassin’s Creed. See, this comes to why I dislike Assassin’s Creed.

    With each game, they added more stuff where you HAD to kill people, you had no choice. Each and every Assassin’s Creed has had more enforced deaths built in, and they’ve also become increasingly more low-brow, too. The stories are generally more stupid, poorly told, and groan inducing. We’ve gone from something that was moderately high-brow in the original Assassin’s Creed, to something that feels like it’s designed for right-wing Die Hard fans.

    If you’re curious, that’s my beef against Assassin’s Creed, right there. The first game felt like it was a more intellectual endeavour because you could avoid killing so many people. Sure, there was still one button movement, but you could actually FAIL with your jumps and stuff if you weren’t paying attention, whereas the later games got ever more hand-holdy with that. And they actually rewarded sneaking around and not killing anyone other than your designated target.

    But it just got more and more low brow, to the point where they actually jumped the shark and included super powers. But you weren’t allowed to laugh at it and point out how utterly stupid and low brow it had become, no, no no, because low brow Assassin’s Creed fans absolutely loved it, and took it all very seriously.

    So… I did like the first Assassin’s Creed, you know? I did. Okay, so that’s that. I did. But from the second and on… it just lost something.

    Or maybe someone.

    At least, as is my understanding.

    #6 10 months ago
  7. YoungZer0

    The character of Connor made me sad. I really wanted to love him. He’s the only Assassin that actually looks badass, without the Assassin’s suit. But Ubisoft did nothing with him. He was bland, disinterested, had no real ambition or motivation. He felt like a dumb pawn. Someone tells him to do something, he will do it. Someone tells him the truth, he’ll ignore it. Never asking any questions. If you combine all this, you’ll realize that he really didn’t care about the murderer of his mother.

    All he was talking about was freedom, etc. But it didn’t sound like he actually understood it himself. It sounded more like he was quoting someone else instead. There was no passion behind him, nothing that made him actually angry.

    I only played the Adeline through a DLC, but I actually liked her much more than any of the other Assassin’s. She’s not fucking around. I remember the scene where she was supposed to chase someone. She did it once. Then had to do it twice. After the second time, she pulled her gun, aimed at the person that was supposed to help her and told her to never make her run after her again.

    That was fucking badass. It was actually something I felt as well. “Oh damn it. This asshole is making me run after her again? I’d love to just shoot her in the back.”

    Connor never had that. He was too busy not giving a fuck.

    #7 10 months ago
  8. Legendaryboss

    *Assassin’s Creed: how Ubisoft built the ultimate, annual, milked gaming franchise* Fixed!

    #8 10 months ago
  9. TheWulf

    @1

    I concur. I actually do. It’s not just that, though? It’s that the experience was higher brow in general. It’s as though they assumed that the standard extroverted culprits would be alienated by it, so they might as well go all the way and tell a more intellectual story while they were at it. Because they knew how the extroverts would deal with it, they’d just buy the game for killing shit.

    But at the same time, they provided equal paths for not killing shit. And it even rewarded you for doing so, it felt like it was trying to hide a game for intelligent people under the guise of a ‘killing shit game for extroverts,’ it almost felt like the ‘killing shit game for extroverts’ part was ironic. In most cases, the ‘killing shit game for extroverts’ is what most games are, today, and unironically at that.

    That was back when I had some respect for Ubisoft, before they jumped the shark and just began cranking out flavourless paste to appease the extroverted masses. No longer could they write interesting stories or characters with genuine depth, because they were worried they’d lose their audiences. I mean, the first Assassin’s Creed couldn’t have done that well for them, because there was a lot of turmoil in the company over that, and they even really screwed one guy over.

    I think the aforementioned one guy was the one who wanted to keep it high brow, because after he left, it became more and more dumb, and the characters became more and more shallow. It also became more and more geared towards a Western audience, it was stuff they could understand.

    Renaissance, Colonial America, British Empire guy — Westerners, and all made as generically bad arse as possible. Oh, sure, one of them was supposed to have Native American blood, but they forgot about that not long after the intro, and to claim that that did anything to make him anything other than ‘generic American dude’ is laughable, frankly.

    They went with the setting in the first game because it was about something that wasn’t familiar with Westerners, so they felt they could go more deep with that. After that, it was all familiar settings, familiar characters, and just… hey, let’s appease the normal, extroverted, healthy, straight, cis-gendered white guy, because that’s where the all that lovely money is.

    The first Assassin’s Creed almost, ALMOST, ALMOST felt like a passion project. Every Assassin’s Creed after that felt like it was pissing and shitting on the legacy, for the sake of extroverts. So… I think a lot of people believe I hate Assassin’s Creed. But if I did, why do I keep buying them? No, I don’t hate it. I hate that it became a series made by stupid people, for stupid people, when the first game decidedly wasn’t that.

    Furthermore, you’re one of the marginalised and minority influences I’ve spoken of in the past. Hi, I’m one too. We’re not a part of the normal, healthy, extroverted, straight, white, cis-gendered male coalescence, we’re not part of the Great Herd, so we’re interested in seeing stories told of people other than the Great Herd, especially when the aforementioned herd is staffed by some of the most bloody boring and shallow people imaginable.

    But for me it doesn’t end there, because I also felt that Jade from Beyond Good & Evil was a great character, I felt that Abe from Abe’s Oddyssee was a great character, I felt that the doctors from To the Moon were equally great (as it featured a pair of the most genuinely dorky, introverted characters I’ve seen in some time, and I loved them and their dorkiness).

    I guess what I’m saying is that when people write about marginalised or minority concerns, they generally do tend to write deeper characters. I don’t know why that is, but it’s definitely a thing.

    @2

    Yay Brenna! I like you, Bren.

    @3

    People often believe that about characters like vulcans, too, and it’s generally because they’re incapable of gauging subtlety. Altair was a more introspective character, yes, in that he spent a lot of time in his own head (which is why he figured things out so quickly), but he wasn’t flat. If you want flat and superficial, just look at Ezio.

    I hated Ezio with a passion. What a smarmy, entirely aesthetic and narcissistic prick with absolutely no depth whatsoever. I just wanted to smack him with a fish. But I can see why he’d appeal to extroverts, though.

    I see mentions of him being ‘badass,’ too, and I really have to contest that. He was a sneaky, incredibly suspicious waif of a man, and in my game he didn’t do anything even remotely ‘badass.’ He was always hanging around rooftops and quietly listening to people, he wasn’t the sort to dive into battle. But then, that’s because the first game actually allowed you to handle the character that way, whereas later games… didn’t.

    Further, he had none of that toned musculature, no stubble, and no body hair. All he had was that ridiculous little moustache, which amused me no end. Nor was he a very dirty looking character, looking at everyone with killer’s eyes.

    Now, the main character of the Thief reboot I could apply that to, because he always looked incredibly pissed. All the time. Like he was about to murder everyone about him. That’s a five year old’s take on ‘badass,’ and it’s what we generally see in videogames. He’s also much more toned and muscular (even in the face) than Altair.

    I suspect that if you were forcing Altair to kill everyone, he’d seem like a ‘badass,’ but frankly, Altair doesn’t have the credentials for it. He was strong and silent, yes, but definitely not a ‘badass.’

    Comparison time!

    Here’s the character from THI4F.

    Here’s Altair.

    Altair looks like a cosplaying dork. I liked that. I’m sorry, but he’s not ‘badass.’

    But more than that, it was in Altair’s body language, as well, which conveyed a certain… submissiveness? It’s hard to describe. Whereas a lot of ‘badass’ characters carry themselves with a strut, with their shoulders held high (THI4FMAN also does this), Altair held his shoulders low, and just sort of drifted around. He really felt more like a dorky emo kid than anything else.

    So… Altair, ‘badass?’ Ha. Hahaha. No.

    #9 10 months ago
  10. TheWulf

    This reminds me of why extroverts hated Chakotay from Voyager. Chakotay was a more subdued, submissive character, he had a certain degree of machismo, but it was carried in an (as aforementioned) submissive way. I think this confused people. He was yet another introspective character, too, and extroverts don’t understand introspection. Asking the to is worse than asking them to try and learn the D’ni and Klingon languages overnight.

    So he wasn’t all CENTRE-STAGE MAN like Riker was, he wasn’t a dominant character, he was submissive to Janeway, and only occasionally did he vocally disagree with her. Usually, he’d listen, quietly, and think about what people said. When he spoke, it was usually something genuinely wise and insightful, to help them understand different perspectives. He also allowed other people to have the last word, because he knew that this was important to dominant personalities. Instead of replying with an affirmative, he’d just nod.

    He was a very compassionate, caring character, and very considerate.

    But people felt he was flat because he wasn’t always arguing, shouting, fighting, screaming, and being super emotional. They were completely unable to sense the more subtle contexts of his personality, and thus they were unable to appreciate them. So I always felt bad for Robert Beltran, whom I felt played the role really well. The extroverted masses were absolute pricks to him, so I can understand why he got upset about his treatment, frankly.

    That’s another problem — just as extroverts often fail to understand irony, they frequently don’t get subtlety, either. Their personality is more heavy-handed and raw, and unless everything is worn externally, they don’t know how to cope. They can’t understand a person who wears their personality internally, rather than externally, and it just baffles them. Instead of looking for different cues, they just (incorrectly) assume that there’s no personality there.

    So people tried just about everything they could to damn the Chakotay character. They attacked the representation of his beliefs (even though they had a native american advisor on board, I forget which tribe, but that was a thing), they tried to go after him on grounds of bad acting, whatever they could, really…

    This is why extroverts like reality TV and soap operas, because a person doesn’t have a personality unless they’re laughing obnoxiously loudly, shouting, LIVIN’ IT UP AS THE LOIF OF THE PARTY, LOIK, or crying, or throwing things, or just generally being mentally unstable. I mean, if I were a psychiatrist, I’d classify extroverts as having Social Annoyance Disorder, because that’s what it is. :P

    An extrovert has absolutely no understanding of depth, only what’s on the surface, they have no appreciation for it, they don’t even perceive that anything beyond the surface can exist. The first Assassin’s Creed went beyond the surface, in a lot of ways, in that it wasn’t a superficial game. (Like the ones following that, were. With that utter prat Ezio and his pals.)

    But extroverts just… don’t get that.

    Gotta be RAW. Gotta be ON THE SLEEVE. Otherwise you don’t have emotions. To the contrary, characters like that to us introverts tend to come over as socially challenged and very annoying. You can have charisma without feeling the need to wear a ten mile smile whilst shouting at the top of your lungs.

    I’m sorry, but I’m not a ‘used car salesman for prime minister’ kind of guy. I don’t like ‘folksy’ people. I like smart, introspective people.

    #10 10 months ago
  11. bradk825

    I actually enjoyed the ending of Brotherhood quite a bit. Even as a placeholder it was a really good game, and they managed to make the story very interesting, and the ending meant closure on a character we love.

    #11 10 months ago
  12. Game Hunter

    Now that’s what I’m taking about.this is the Brenna I want to see.glad we agree about Brotherhood. Rome was the most beautiful city in the whole franchise.just being able to climb the Colosseum was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.seriously, we should have more articles like this.the best writing I’ve seen in this site since Dave’s journals of Dark Souls II.

    #12 10 months ago
  13. Game Hunter

    @YoungZer0 her name was Aveline,sir,not Adeline.

    #13 10 months ago
  14. FlyBoogy

    The title should be:
    Assassin’s Creed: how Ubisoft built the ultimate gaming franchise and fucked it up after Revelations

    #14 10 months ago
  15. fearmonkey

    I enjoyed AC2 and AC:BF the most, the other games didn’t keep me like those two did.
    I admit I am tired of the typical AC tropes, the follow the conversation around articles and chase the guy stuff. That gets boring and old to me, I hope the new game has less of it.

    #15 10 months ago

Comments are now closed on this article.

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