Back to Assassin’s Creed
I like a lot of different stealth games; I’m probably more forgiving of various “flaws” than many who identify themselves as hardcore stealth fans. Dishonored was one of my favourite games of the last few years, and that has quite a skill-based, unforgiving stealth system, but I also really enjoy stealth in Skyrim, and guys, let’s face it – it’s pretty much broken.
In general, if I’m playing a game that’s all about stealth – as opposed to one of multiple options – I want that stealth to be “realistic”. I want detection to have gradients, and I want mistakes to be consequential. I definitely don’t want to press a stealth button and turn invisible. So when I first read that comment about how Assassin’s Creed: Unity introduces a crouch button to go into “stealth mode” my eyes rolled so hard I gave myself a small headache. Assassin’s Creed is a game all about stealth – surely you’re in stealth mode all the time!
At first, introducing a stealth button seemed to me an admission that stealth is not Ubisoft’s priority any more, but something to be tacked onto the game as an optional extra. But then I gave it a bit of thought and realised that that’s kind of how stealth has felt for several releases now.
In my recent feature on the ups and downs of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, I noted that Ubisoft has made significant changes to the formula over the years. These changes have had deeply consequential effects on stealth gameplay. In the first Assassin’s Creed, guards were always capable of spotting you. To run around, climb, or even just walk too close to them would put you in danger. There were very few ways to hide while moving around, which made exploring the city a tense affair.
I really enjoyed that shizzle but I understand that for many players it wasn’t fun. Who – besides me – wants to walk slowly around a city doing nothing to attract attention? You can do that in real life! That’s why Assassin’s Creed 2 introduced a scaling notoriety system, meaning you could get away with a lot more as long as you kept your reputation under control, and later games did away with it altogether, having the guards ignore many instances of weird behaviour and forget you exist as soon as you escape – except during alert situations or in clearly defined high security zones.
As such, the core experience of Assassin’s Creed shifted away from pure stealth with side activities to a hybrid gameplay style foregrounding lots of excellent things, like the ever-improving parkour and combat systems. And that’s fine. Not every game has to be pure stealth and the success of the Assassin’s Creed series shows that gamers like whatever it is that the game is now.
However, I feel pretty comfortable saying that stealth has taken a backseat over the past few Assassin’s Creed releases, and it hasn’t done the series any favours. Although Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag fixed several of the stealth problems introduced in Assassin’s Creed 3, in general, being super stealthy has become less rewarding and enjoyable. Missions that are purely about stealth, such as eavesdropping, have been poorly implemented and are among the least popular. Most missions can be finished without making any effort to be stealthy. The few missions that do insist on you going undetected are just frustrating.
As such, Assassin’s Creed has lost a little bit of its heart – of what originally made it stand out from other open world action games. It does still stand out, of course, but new differentiators – like Black Flag’s excellent sailing – only serve to highlight the fact that stealth is no longer one of its selling points.
It’s time for a shake up
As I said above, but will repeat, it’s fine that the series has grown and changed to background stealth a bit. It doesn’t make Assassin’s Creed any less good; it just makes it different, and that can be disappointing for fans like myself who were so attracted to that core premise.
Reading that Unity will introduce a “stealth button”, take out the day-night cycles that made timing an important factor in missions and include a UI to show detection initially disgusted me. I felt like we were finally seeing the end of the process by which the franchise’s stealth systems have been watered down into near non-existence.
“Ubisoft has lost the plot,” I said. “This isn’t Assassin’s Creed.”
I stand by the latter half of that observation, but I’m rethinking my opinion of Ubisoft’s decision making. I feel confident saying that this new stealth system Amancio has championed isn’t the Assassin’s Creed we know. But as I’ve argued in the section above, the Assassin’s Creed we know isn’t a very good stealth game.
For years now, any chance of a genuinely satisfying stealth system has been crushed under Ubisoft’s other design goals. The stealth system has not evolved in line with other aspects of the game, and Ubisoft has not introduced additions to compensate for the features that have been removed for being too inaccessible or frustrating. It’s all just been gradually stripped away.
So maybe a further evolution, and a more drastic, considered one at that, is precisely the right thing. With the changes Amancio is introducing, Assassin’s Creed’s stealth systems will finally get the shake up they’ve needed pretty much since Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I might not like the sound of a stealth button and a UI, but I do like the sound of that.
The new stealth systems of Assassin’s Creed: Unity might not be of the kind that I generally prefer, but if this overhaul brings stealth back to the forefront of the series and makes it rewarding and worthwhile, then I’m on board. I’m ready for major change, Ubisoft. Make it so.