Assassin’s Creed is a long-running annual franchise that has seen a wide variety of entries over the years, from its origins as a linear stealth game to a swashbuckling pirate adventure to, most recently, a sort of demigod simulator. However, as diverse and unique as many of its entries superficially are, there is one problem that plagues every single Assassin’s Creed game: there is simply no good reason to play an Assassin’s Creed game.
That might sound quite harsh, and it is; what makes any game worth playing, and what makes other games more worth playing than Assassin’s Creed? There are many different reasons to play a game, but, fundamentally, there are two elements that underpin every game, and these two elements define how the player interacts with the game. The first of these elements is the story. Sometimes it’s a traditional linear narrative, like a film or book, but sometimes it can be more atmospheric or elusive, telling an experiential story in a way that only games can. Regardless, it is the emotional experience of a game. The second element is the puzzles. With only a few exceptions, every game is a puzzle game. Any challenge a game throws at you that must be solved through critical thinking is a puzzle, whether it be a literal line puzzle in The Witness or ten thousand bullets hurtling in your direction in Enter the Gungeon. If you have to develop and then execute a solution to a problem, that’s a puzzle, and these puzzles are what set games apart from all other artistic media.
In order for a game to be “worth playing”, it should contain worthy examples of one of these elements. It need not contain both; Super Mario Bros. 3 contains no story worth mentioning, but its platforming puzzles are exquisitely designed; and What Remains of Edith Finch hardly challenges with its gameplay, but tells a wrenching narrative well worth experiencing. A game need not contain both, but if it contains neither, possessing both an uninteresting story as well as repetitive, simple or dull puzzles, it is simply not worth playing. Assassin’s Creed games fail to provide either of the two basic elements that can make a game worthwhile.
First, as most fans of the games will probably tell you, Assassin’s Creed really isn’t doing much in the story department. There are decent narrative tidbits occasionally; Black Flag’s doomed pirate society’s slow decline and Origins’ revenge tale come to mind. However, it seems to be a rule of the franchise that the emotional, human narratives must be trampled by National Treasure-style anthropological conspiracies. Black Flag might contain some interesting characters, but they hardly get time to develop, that time instead being devoted to the usual tale of two secret societies dueling it out over thousands of years. Assassin’s Creed is not alone in struggling to maintain a weighty story in an open-world game; most games of this length fail to maintain an emotional narrative because few narratives can sustain that level of investment. If films were forty hours long, it would be difficult for them to maintain a focused story. The greatest open-world games work around this problem by presenting their greatest stories in small packages, telling interesting tales in sidequests rather than as the main story. Assassin’s Creed does not do this. Until its most recent RPG-style entries, AC sidequests consisted of a few different types of busy work (races, collectibles to grab, thieves to track down) scattered through the world with little to no connective structure. The latest two games take a step forward by aping The Witcher 3. It’s a better idea than what the older entries had, but the stories they choose to tell in these sidequests just aren’t that good, and it feels almost as if adding these sidequests was just another requirement in Ubisoft’s late-2010s open-world checklist rather than an attempt to impart a meaningful experience.
These narrative issues would be easily forgivable if they were merely a supporting element in a game that consistently challenged and engaged the player, but this isn’t the case either. Assassin’s Creed offers few interesting challenges, and those it does offer are repeated ad nauseam until any spark they once had is long extinguished. The first few enemy forts in AC: Odyssey are legitimately enjoyable; it feels like you are solving a puzzle as you pick off the weakest link in the guard structure until there is an opening to complete your objective. The problem, however, is that every fort is exactly the same as that first fort. Sometimes they are larger, sometimes there are more enemies, but they are all the exact same puzzle and they are all solved the exact same way. After the first fort, the others are simply rote execution of a solution you developed a long time ago. This is the case in every Assassin’s Creed game’s level design. The same is true of the games’ combat. Once you’ve fought a few enemies, you’ve fought every enemy. Once you’ve explored one area, you’ve explored them all. There is one exception to this rule, and it is a good one: AC: Syndicate contains a series of “boss” levels, where you must assassinate an important target in an interesting location. The style of these challenges is ripped from Dishonored rather than from previous AC games, and it fits very well. I found myself having to think of the best infiltration strategy for each mission, and they felt very unique not only from each other but from the rest of the game. Having played every game in the series, Syndicate’s boss levels are the only levels that stand out in this way.
The potential is there to improve this issue. Combat could become an interesting puzzle throughout the game if the new tools the player is given actually supplanted basic counter-attacking as a dominant strategy; simply make them stronger while making regular combat a lot more difficult, and that gameplay system is much more interesting. Ubisoft’s quantity-over-quality approach renders solving the level design issue much more difficult, since the manpower required to take hundreds of forts and make them all unique puzzles is impractical. However, it is still better to have a few unique puzzles than hundreds of copies of the same puzzle again and again.
In conclusion, Assassin’s Creed could improve tremendously with the addition of either quality storytelling or quality puzzle design, whether that be a better combat system, good level design, or preferably both.
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