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

By Brenna Hillier
23 June 2014 08:53 GMT

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


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.

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“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.


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.

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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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