The Assassin’s Creed franchise is loved by many and loathed by more. I’ve always wanted to enjoy its hooded hijinkery, but find myself torn between the excitement of its potential and the disappointment of its actuality. While enjoyable in concept, the execution has always been plagued by broken or unfinished mechanics, poor design choices, terrible accents, uncontrollable horses, and absurdly tight production schedules.
When, by some statistical fluke, the series’ elements come to form a cohesive experience, a glimpse of what the title can be is offered. But these moments are far and few between. Assassin’s Creed II treated us to a high-point of potential through refining and building upon the foundations of its predecessor. A slither of hope which has since been extinguished. Black Flag managed to rekindle it to a degree, but was still troubled by the missteps of its inadequate ancestry, as if unable to properly separate itself from the defective DNA it had inherited.
One of the main problems with Assassin’s Creed lurks within its inability to establish a firm identity. Its a big hot mess of insecurity. The game is afraid of itself and its audience, and attempts to appeal to everyone with limited and therefore encumbering stealth, reduced difficulty and bombastic action sequences. Through this refusal to specialize for risk of fracturing its fanbase, it endeavours to satisfy everyone, and so, like a bizarre sandwich made for all tastes, satisfies no one. In order to re-establish itself as a competent series and stand out from the crowd, it must offer a solid experience you can only get by playing Assassin’s Creed. Otherwise what’s the point? You might as well just play something that isn’t buggy and banal.
This is process is simple, really. What comes to your mind when you consider the word ‘assassin’? A thick-jawed action hero who defies death and collects feathers, or an entity of precision, planning and perfect execution, who glides unseen and unheard towards his target? The latter, I presume, so it makes sense that the only reason anybody would pick up Assassin’s Creed is to play the role of such a creature. Thus, the series would do well to rearm itself as a predominantly stealth-based affair.
As I mentioned earlier, the groundwork is already there. In this case, the pseudo-stealth mechanics of crowd blending, bush hiding and bench sitting. These elements are all very well for the populated and vegetated areas, where one can slink between daffodils and rudely intrude on the conversation of townsfolk, but they’re little more than half-measures. Attempting to infiltrate a heavily guarded compound — places notorious for their lack of friendly crowds, flower beds and public seating — results in failure for lack of decent means. Unless the next Assassin’s Creed is entirely set in an extremely busy garden centre, changes must be made. For this we’ll do as all great entrepreneurs and innovators do; steal from others.
As a franchise that achieves a phenomenal combination of open-world exploration, open combat and stealth, the Batman: Arkham series is ripe for pillage. But what does Batman have that Ezio, Desmond and all the other interchangeable protagonists of Assassin’s Creed don’t? The ability to crouch. Yeah, you’d think it obvious that a stealth game would include a crouch button, since it’s been a staple of the genre since Solid Snake was crapping in camo-nappies. Here’s Steven Masters, lead game designer at Ubisoft Montreal, defending this glaring omission on Reddit:
“… our stealth is primarily “social stealth”, and we’ve been debating having a crouch button since pretty much day 1. It was always the vision that crouching in public spaces is not “hiding in plain sight” – if anything you’re calling attention to yourself. We found that the “stalking zones” – the low vegitation [sic] where you can crouch down while low profile – are a good compromise since it allows you to crouch but only in circumstances that make sense.”
Again, this is absolutely fine for the city and more plant orientated sections of the game. Crouching in the middle of a street would be conspicuous unless the open defecation laws for that area had been relaxed. But does it make sense to infiltrate an enemy base through the medium of Sunday stroll? As such, the developers attempt to funnel you down an absurdly convenient predefined path of haystacks, tree branches and telepathic guards as not to expose bare-bones mechanics. This illusion denies you the gratification and reward of having crept your own way through opposition. I’m not arguing for a removal of the blending mechanics, they just need to be supplemented with something more substantial. A proper button for sneaking which allows you to define your own path and provide a satisfactory stealth experience.
In recent history, it seems Ubisoft have taken note of this issue as Assassin’s Creed Unity, the upcoming iteration of the series, has what appears to be a working crouch mechanic. However, even if this addition does stand up under scrutiny, its use, and therefore the employment of stealth in general, must be justified. This leads me to another mechanical malfunction within Assassin’s Creed; the combat is extremely effective.
A good thing, surely? Not in within the context of a stealth game. Why should one bother with underhand tactics when you can just solve the problem of witness with mass murder? Combat that is too good can be a detriment. Look to Dead Space for a brilliant understanding of this. Protagonist Isaac Clarke is slow, cumbersome and inaccurate in his melee attacks. Because of this, the game is all the more tense as you scramble to defend yourself against the necromorphic horrors. You’re given a reason to fear the enemy and use every tool at your disposal to survive.
Another example is the Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls combat, a thrilling contest where every swing of your weapon comes at the cost of stamina and the risk of opening yourself to attack. As such, victory comes from your own efforts of careful consideration and timely reaction. If you could just swing your sword endlessly without consequence, the combat wouldn’t be nearly as compelling nor rewarding. In terms of ethic, Assassin’s Creed‘s engagements are contrary. Buttons spamming is rewarded with kill streak combos, and you can just stand in a corner endlessly countering attacks without riposte.
Limitation isn’t inherently negative. Batman is a physical powerhouse, capable of feats that would make Orthopaedic surgeons wince, yet stealth in the Arkham series is imperative. Rocksteady achieve this by clever employment of the great equalizer; the firearm. A few shots take the caped crusader down, and so he must take henchmen out from shadows.
Assassin’s Creed has incorporated guns for a few titles now, but has continually failed in how they’re utilized. You can take several bullets to the face without harming a single hair in Ezio’s old-man beard. Black Flag approached this resolution with watch towers manned by highly-damaging snipers, but you could still take a decent amount of shrapnel to the face before Captain Kenway had to re-apply his eye-liner. Heavier punishment must be made for exposing oneself. We’re not talking instant fail detection here — Assassin’s Creed already have plenty of those foul crimes against interactivity –- just lethal firearms that justify stealth as a viable and workable option.
With the mechanical underbelly covered, we can move on to all that obfuscates it. Our main culprit being everyone’s favourite layer of empty padding; collectibles. In order to prevent the stealth mechanics from becoming a trivial farce, and concrete the notion that we are, indeed, an actual assassin, they must go. Not only is it immersion breaking having a trained warrior of shadow traipse the city in search of feathers, flags, biscuits or whichever arbitrary object the developers decide you need to collect, its boring. These distracting asides operate only as a demeaning barrier between us and our experience as a hooded hoodlum.
With a fleshed out stealth system justified by harder combat, Assassin’s Creed could establish itself as a series with a distinct identity, and, in doing so, find its niche and enable itself to stand the test of time. Or Ubisoft could just continue appeal to the masses and drain its life blood over a nest of squawking investor mouths. In any case, I only wish for the series to flourish. Hopefully, if any of these proposed changes are made, we can get to the real heart of what Assassin’s Creed should and could be. Preferably by way of a knife, having crept up by employing a capable stealth mechanic, and without having to pick up some flags afterwards.