With its reputation in tatters, Assassin’s Creed needs to regain its identity before it returns.
Assassin’s Creed has been flogged to death.
“Assassin’s Creed has lost its identity. The rough edges of exacting stealth and player constraint that made it so unique have been filed off.”
But Syndicate had one of the weakest UK launch weeks in the franchise’s history, and for the past two years Assassin’s Creed has not appeared in the NPD’s top ten annual bestsellers list. So not quite dead, but definitely reduced; what was once one of the industry’s juggernaut blockbusters has dropped down into the ranks of second tier properties.
That’s still a very enviable position, but it’s not what Ubisoft wants from a franchise it throws literally hundreds of people at across a dozen studios. Assassin’s Creed is supposed to be Ubisoft’s tentpole franchise, its industry-leading IP, its guaranteed big money.
It’s not supposed to be a joke.
Assassin’s Creed’s reputation is in tatters after a couple of disastrous launches (Assassin’s Creed 3 and Unity), but the rumblings go back much further than that. The franchise’s fall from grace began with the announcement of Brotherhood, when a surprise success story took a sudden left turn into everyday, humdrum exploitation.
The first Assassin’s Creed game was an absolute treasure; it innovated, it took risks, it showed us open world gaming could be more than an excuse for a lot of driving around. Plus, Altair was so cool, and the parkour was like nothing we’d seen before; suddenly history was in.
Having struck a chord with audiences, Ubisoft set out very deliberately and cynically to turn this success into a blockbuster IP. It started off very well, too – Assassin’s Creed 2 was a wonderful game with an appealing setting. The original’s teeth were pulled a little to broaden the basic appeal, and a number of additional systems transformed the non-linear mission sequences into open world checklist affairs, the core element – stealth sandbox assassination in open arenas – still managed to shine.
Things started to go downhill the following year, with Brotherhood – the first of the annual releases.
It doesn’t matter that Brotherhood was a good game, and that the features it added – a squad of recruits, multiplayer, social network integration – were extremely good. What mattered was that Ubisoft was doing what had been done before – embracing rapid-fire sequels, recycling assets, putting the storyline on pause, throwing new features into the mix in droves. Core gamers had seen this before, and they knew where it was likely to end.
The next year’s entry, Revelations, cemented this reputation; it’s one of the least necessary entries and includes dead-ends like rubbish tower defence sequences. Again, it doesn’t much matter that Brotherhood and Revelations almost certainly existed because Ubisoft wanted filler to allow for more production time on the third numbered entry; nobody wants to feel they’re buying filler material.
In any case, Assassin’s Creed 3 launched in a disgusting state, bollocksing Ubisoft’s chances of getting away with the filler narrative. It also launched within months of Far Cry 3, at which point the entire gaming world started to look a little side-eyed at Ubisoft’s triple-A catalogue. The arrival of Watch Dogs two years later really drove home how familiar and tired the repetitive open-world formula had become. Assassin’s Creed 4 was extremely jolly, but its emphasis on ships did it no favours; many players wanted to be assassins, not pirates.
Meanwhile, Unity has become a byword for terrible launches.
That brings us to Syndicate, which – well. It was very good, actually, in so much as an Assassin’s Creed game can be good now they’re creaking at the seams with busywork, patched together from the work of dozens of separate teams, and flattened so thoroughly that you can go the whole game without stealth, if you like. But it didn’t matter that it was very good, and that some lapsed players were lured back by the fresh offerings Ubisoft Quebec brought to the table.
It doesn’t matter how good Assassin’s Creed is; Assassin’s Creed is tired. We’ve seen it all before, and worst still we’ve seen it in dozens of other games – many of which are doing it better.
You can’t blame Ubisoft for wanting to annualise Assassin’s Creed. When the financial crunch slammed into the games industry it met the rising costs of triple-A development coming from the other direction, and developers dropped like flies. Publishers weren’t much better off, and we’ve gone from having dozens of big name brands to just a handful of really major contenders.
All of them have or aspire to annual franchises. EA leans on FIFA and Madden. Take Two does obscenely well out of NBA 2K. Activision Blizzard fronts Call of Duty, the king of annual franchises to which all other non-sport annual franchises aspire. Bandai Namco and Koei Tecmo have releases schedules you can almost copy paste from year to year. Even Warner Bros. seems to be working up to a licensed or superhero game every year, and poor old Square Enix would probably give anything for a reliable earner if any of its studios could be convinced to play along. (Instead, it’s experimenting with episodic content, churning out ports and committing egregious DLC sins with games like Theatrhythm.)
“For all its early talk of husbanding the IP through a transmedia revolution, the extended canon’s got more holes in it than a sponge after a blast of buckshot.”
We can blame Ubisoft for ruining Assassin’s Creed, though. For all its early talk of husbanding the IP through a transmedia revolution, the extended canon’s got more holes in it than a sponge after a blast of buckshot. The overarching meta-narrative has largely been on pause since Assassin’s Creed 3, meaning all the games and spin-offs and comics and books since then might as well have belonged to any franchise. There’s little compensation for the bullshit fans are expected to swallow in terms of connected features, microtransactions and DLC.
It doesn’t have to be like this. Grand Theft Auto is an example of an IP that has been properly shepherded, and Rockstar’s efforts to protect it from of sequelitis have paid off hugely. Take Two made an enormous investment by allowing Rockstar to spend the time and money needed to make the kind of game that hangs about top ten charts for literal years.
A canny, staggered release schedule over the generational divide and life-eating multiplayer have certainly helped keep the sales tail strong, and there’s no denying the microtransactions seem to be minting it, but stripped of its online component GTA 5 is an absolute triumph everyone should experience. That’s not the kind of recommendation people give for Assassin’s Creed games any more.
Assassin’s Creed has lost its identity. The rough edges of exacting stealth and player constraint that made it so unique have been filed off. The once-innovative open-world features that remain have been exploited so ruthlessly – both within in the series and beyond it – as to become mindless. The intriguing science-fiction story has taken a backseat, and somehow or other Ubisoft has only just started to remember it could use the historical gameplay to tell decent stories instead of stringing together nonsense plots from missions designed by dozens of different teams.
When rumours first broke that the franchise would be taking a year off, I argued that Ubisoft needs to go back to the drawing board on Assassin’s Creed. I’m very glad to see it come true, and I’d like to think that whenever Assassin’s Creed returns – be it in 2017 or sometime thereafter – Ubisoft knows what in the hell to do with it.