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

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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Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

In a franchise less tightly guarded than Assassin's Creed, this is where everything would have started to go wrong. Instead, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood may be the peak of the series to date.

"Brotherhood was the last of the Assassin's Creed games to be produced with input from original auteur Patrice Désilets, and I think it shows; it's the masterpiece of the series."

It sounds like a cynical design-by-committee recipe for disaster: bring multiple development teams in for annualised release. Make unnumbered sequels starring the dude who was so popular in the last one. Attach a multiplayer suite. Increase the depth of and attention required for various side activities like base-building. And yet, all this worked, and worked well, presumably thanks to excellent oversight from various producers and managers within Ubisoft, juggling the international publisher's behemoth resources and demands.

Brotherhood's multiplayer is a highlight of the franchise, and of gaming in general. Although it features many of the same modes you'd expect from most action games, which usually boil down to "kill other players", it draws on the franchise's most treasured core mechanic - stealth - to do so. Leveraging the crowd AI tech at the heart of the series, players are tasked with disguising themselves as NPCs - right up until they put the knife in. It's tense, and high level play among skilled assassins is rapid and beautiful. Ubisoft's achievement should not be under-estimated.

Elsewhere, the expansion of the base building to the entire city of Rome, combined with the restriction of the gameplay to one enormous location, proved remarkably successful. The process of recruiting and training up a bunch of assassins was satisfying (and cleverly integrated with a now unsupported Facebook game, which didn't get enough positive critical attention). Improvements to combat, making it far more friendly to aggressive players, and the addition of horses to the city streets, further pushed the basic gameplay loop towards something simply joyful to explore and experiment with.

Brotherhood was the last of the Assassin's Creed games to be produced with input from original auteur Patrice Désilets, and I think it shows; I consider it the masterpiece of the series, the jewel nestled in the heart of the franchise.

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Assassin's Creed: Revelations

Revelations, on the other hand, is where the strain starts to show a little bit - but it is in no way a bad game (now that it's been thoroughly patched). In many ways this was the first series entry to fail to innovate in any significant way, but that's entirely forgivable as it is, unfortunately, something of a placeholder until Assassin's Creed 3 could come along and progress the meta-narrative and launch a new base engine.

Nevertheless, it achieved quite a lot with a bad hand. Ezio's final adventure, in the stomping grounds of Altair, is a rip-snorter, which not only nicely farewells the Italian rogue but filled us in on the later adventures of Altair, previously restricted to a few non-core games and transmedia efforts. With Desmond stuck in a coma, awaiting the events of the next game to end his storyline, Ubisoft showed great creativity in making the meta-narrative still feel meaningful, living up to the revelatory subtitle - although it did muddy the waters regarding the loyalties of a few core characters in a way that doesn't quite feel coherent following the release of Assassin's Creed 3. The first-person puzzle platforming sections are a bit of a nightmare, but optional, and rewarding for series fans who make the effort.

Ezio's bag of tricks did receive several new additions, but Revelations suffers a bit of feature-glut with its zip-lines and bombs and whatnot. The assassin recruiting system made a return, but was accompanied by a deeply unpopular series of weird tower defence sequences that everybody sort of hoped would never return - so it's a good thing they haven't. The multiplayer side of things did not hugely innovate, but nevertheless it built solidly on Brotherhood's foundations and was highly successful.

There's little more to say about what was definitely the product of an annual release plan, but not necessarily an argument against the practice. Revelations is a solid game which neither significantly added to or detracted from the series, and no doubt brought in new fans which is, of course, how we must judge success.

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Transmedia

Let's pause for a moment here and talk about all the pieces of Assassin's Creed that aren't the core series of six (soon to be seven) games, because it's really worth paying attention to. Ubisoft has been highly protective of the property, founding an entire merchandising arm to oversee its efforts in that regard, and working hard to ensure its various media endeavours don't pull apart the canon.

"Ubisoft has been highly protective of the property and works hard to ensure its various media endeavours don't pull apart the canon."

To date, the Assassin's Creed franchise has produced about a dozen social, mobile and portable games in addition to the core series; three short films; an upcoming feature film staring Michael Fassbender; several comic series; three editions of an encyclopedia; multiple novelisations; and a staggering amount of fashion items, figures and other collectibles.

This level of cross-promotion would normally dilute a property significantly, but Ubisoft's decision to bring almost all of these productions in-house, and to closely oversee all the others, has resulted in an almost unprecedented level of quality across the board.

Most of the tie-ins are significantly additive, filling in the canon and establishing new details, so that returning to the core games after perusing the comics or spin-off releases results in a rich vein of in-references that would otherwise go unnoticed. This aspect of the franchise is often overlooked and undervalued, but it's one of the cornerstones of its success.

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Assassin's Creed 3

Actually the fifth core game, Assassin's Creed 3 was blessed with a numbered title because it represented a major shift for the series. Not only did it introduce a new protagonist, Connor, but it was the first game built on the AnvilNext engine, a major iteration on the original tech (initially called Scimitar). It was to revolutionise the series, which fit in nicely with its setting.

"Connor wasn't as popular as Ubisoft might have hoped, and its laudable efforts in consulting with Native Americans in order to lend him authenticity were therefore unfortunately under-appreciated."

The project, which was in the works for years at Ubisoft Montreal while other teams took on more and more development duties for Brotherhood and Revelations, had some interesting aspects. The decision to go with an American Revolution setting was a risk, as that's a period of history that's had a lot of the joy sucked out of it by mandatory inclusion in educational systems, especially among the franchise's core North American fan base.

However, that wasn't Ubisoft's only gamble, as it really went to town on the kitchen-sink design approach. Set in multiple cities connected by a huge, multi-sectional wilderness world, it was stuffed full of new activities, including sailing and trading, as well as a significant base-building aspect. As Connor, players had a huge number of collectibles and checklists to master, and the amount of content in the game was quite staggering.

Unfortunately, on release, a lot of this content was marred by the bugs that are an inevitable side effect of such ambitious design, and fans reacted badly to changes in basic stealth systems and other mechanics, which proved both more shallow and less easily understood.

Connor, too, wasn't as popular as Ubisoft might have hoped, and its laudable efforts in consulting with Native Americans in order to lend him authenticity were therefore unfortunately under-appreciated. The plot's various twists and turns were also poorly-received, despite Ubisoft's delivery of the promised end to Desmond's story.

Despite all this, Assassin's Creed 3 sold like hotcakes, and there are a lot of great things about it. The combat is much more fluid and exciting, and although the variety of weapons and tools available to Connor is somewhat ridiculous, some of them were the absolute tits; pulling off a successful couple of kills with the rope dart and bow is intensely satisfying.

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Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

Assassin's Creed 3 wasn't the triumph anybody was expecting, failing to delight reviewers and attracting vocal fan criticism. It sold well, but Ubisoft took the criticism seriously to heart and vowed to do better. And it did.

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag was the first game to appear on next-gen consoles and as a cross-gen release it suffered from the same constraints as all major triple-A games straddling the generational divide. It shone in the face of this difficulty, with the PS4 and Xbox One versions absolutely pissing on their past-gen rivals for sheer beauty and not taking hundreds of years (alright, half a minute, whatever) to load.

"Meeting the demands of core fans while still introducing new features is a really tough line to walk, but Black Flag really pulled it off."

But the real selling point wasn't the gorgeous graphics or huge, load-free environments: it was the sailing. Sailing was a fun part of Assassin's Creed 3 but Ubisoft took the formula and polished it and - again with the risk taking - made it one of the central features of the murder sim.

Meeting the demands of core fans while still introducing new features is a really tough line to walk, but Black Flag really pulled it off. Bar a few mandatory missions, the sailing content was mostly available at the player's discretion, while back on land the classic Assassin's Creed formula - now acknowledged to include base building, resource gathering and minions - kept on keeping on.

Black Flag was honoured with a new numbered title because it introduced a new protagonist, Edward Kenway, who proved far more popular than Connor, his descendent. We had expected a few Assassin's Creed 3 spin-offs, but whatever; we'll gladly take this one instead.

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The future - Assassin's Creed: Unity and beyond.

We're not super sure why Assassin's Creed: Unity isn't Assassin's Creed 5, given that it brings in a new lead assassin, which has up until now seemed to govern Ubisoft's naming conventions. Perhaps it's giving up numbers altogether, now that the magical "4" has done its work helping the franchise move on from Assassin's Creed 3's poor reputation?

Unity is set, once again, to shake the series up, this time by the introduction of co-op, which supports up to four players. That's been the main talking point so far, but the fact that it's coming to PC, PS4 and Xbox One alone is also significant. Without the memory limitations of older consoles, Ubisoft can go crazy with huge, detailed environments and crowds - something we've already seen in footage shown to date.

With overhauled parkour and combat systems, and the systemic potential of more advanced crowd AI, Unity may be the best Assassin's Creed yet - especially as, being set in Paris during the French Revolution, Unity brings the series home for Ubisoft.

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