Assassin’s Creed is a videogame series by publisher Ubisoft. The player takes the role of various assassins all throughout history and explores historical settings, meets real people from those locations and kills most of them. It is a very enjoyable series.
This is the first part of a multi part series I’ll do on the technical and designphilosophical parts of the first five games. I will close it with a final part talking about the rest of the series in broad strokes, as it is not needed to retreat already explored topics. Today we start with the first one and its companion games.
The very first Assassin’s Creed game was released in 2007 to solid reviews and huge success. It spawned two spinoff games and a multimedia franchise that includes games, music, comics and even movies. But you wouldn’t expect any of this by just looking at this first release.
The story is simple enough, if you’re into scifi: Global Supercorporation kidnaps random guy because he has information they need to rule the world. They strap him into a machine to search his memory for said information and we get to experience the story as playable memories in his mind. If you have read any science fiction story ever you probably know the plot.
Early on the story explains that what we see are so called genetic memories, memories of the ancestor of our protagonist locked away in his DNA. If you know ANYTHING about biology you’ll roll your eyes now. If memories could be saved in our DNA we probably wouldn’t have that much of a problem with dementia or alzheimers. But the game makes it work by inserting another sci-fi trope: The ancient civilisation.
In case you are not into sci-fi or conspiracy theories let me give you a crash course. The ancient civilisation trope is used mostly as a sort of god like thing if you don’t explicitly want to use the word god. They are often considered progenitors to the human race, they can be aliens or time travelers. Prometheus did it, Plato did it and Assassin’s Creed does it. In this case, there was an ancient civilisation that evolved long before us humans. They basically engineered humans as slaves. Humans revolted, led by Adam and Eve and a war errupted. A natural catastrophy occured destroying almost everything and only a handful humans survived, from which we evolved.
If this sounds familiar, its probably because this idea is as new as bread. Thousands of years ago Plato created the Atlantis myth to express his ideas of a perfect society. The ancient civilisation trope is probably as old as storytelling itself. There are countless variations of it and some silly people actually believe it really happened.
In Assassin’s Creed this backstory is of secondary nature. In the first installment it is only used to justify a magical MacGuffin within a more or less realistic setting. The modern day segments are clearly a homage to modern thrillers and conspiracy theories and a magic ball of fire wouldn’t really fit within that narrative. The writers made it work, albeit clunky. The end result is a silly story that serves as background for the player to experiene the memories of our protagonist. And that is where the main game takes place.
We open up on the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. It is the year 1191 and the crusades are currently touring through the countryside, playing in all major clubs and cities. The player is Altair Ibn La Ahad and he is a Master Assassin tasked with retrieving the artifact of the first civilisation, which will eventually be called the Apple of Eden, or rather one Apple of Eden since, apparently, there are many of them. But Altair is cocky and kinda an asshole so he screws up the mission and returns emptyhanded, with his friends apparently dead. He tries to wiggle his way out of the mess he caused by telling his master a half-truth when one of his allies shows up with the artifact, telling the whole truth. After a meaningless intermezzo that serves as a tutorial and does little for the story, Altair is stripped of his rank and weapons, which is videogame logic for “you have to learn all those things again” as if I had to re-learn how to eat with a fork just because somebody takes away my fork.
It is right here where people that play a lot of games already know how the rest of the game will play out. Every time you successfully complete a mission for your master, you get a rank and weapon restored, magically un-forgetting things you already knew in the first place. The rest of the game is just doing the same thing over and over again until the final boss is killed and the story ends back in the real world with our evil conglomerate finding their superweapon and deciding not to murder our hero because otherwise we as gamers couldn’t re-experience the past. It is as textbook as it gets in terms of videogame storytelling, which means that plot and story are thrown out every single time gameplay takes over.
There is a trend nowadays to make videogames as cinematic as movies. This trend started around ten years ago and it clearly shows here. While not as refined as later games, the first Assassin’s Creed clearly displays early signs of movie wannabeism. And it ultimately led to its downfall. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The game was a success and a sequel was greenlit right away. But it would take a while for the sequel to release and Ubisoft needed something to keep the brand relevant. This is where the series first went wrong, right there in the beginning. Instead of focusing on the sequel and refining everything, spinoffs were created. Both of these wannabe big games were released by low-tier developers for portable devices and as such required much less time and effort to create. Unfortunately they also suffered from a rushed development cycle and weaker hardware as many great ideas form the original game had to be thrown out. The result were two lackluster games that served as both sequel and prequel to the original story.
The Altair Chronicles depicted Altair’s life before the events of the main game, which meant we could re-learn how to do thing again. The story was as bareboens as the gameplay and didn’t do much for anyone or anything. The Bloodlines game was a sequel and actually tied up some loose ends, but it was cheaply made and it showed.
This is the moment where I propose a theoretical game. Let’s say that Ubisoft thought about re-mastering those games. Perhaps they think about selling the old games to a new audience and they figure new technology could help them do that. What would happen?
Well, the most realistic assumption is they’d take the PC version of the game, cram the settings to the max and sell it as remastered edition for current consoles. If we’re lucky they give us a slightly tweaked lighting system. In itself a move that makes sense from a financial point of view but what if, for whatever reason, they actually decided to care and invest some effort? Well, we would end up with a damn fine game and I’ll explain to you how.
Let’s acknowledge the biggest weaknesses from those three early games: The first Assassin’s Creed was a better tech demo, the spinoffs were cheap tie ins and the overall idea was not yet set in stone. So right away we could fix that.
Let’s take the first game and put everything into the engine used for the modern games. Now there are two engines used, one is called AnvilNext and one is called AnvilNext 2.0. For the sake of financial sense lets use the AnvilNext engine, since the AnvilNext 2.0 would require a lot more rework. So we put everything into that update graphics engine.
This is a bit of work but it can be done with a very small budget. It would award us with a much more stable framerate, much better lighting features, modern shader effects and and overall improvement in visual quality. We can use the PC version since it has higher resolution textures. We can use all audio assets as is but we do have to remix and remaster the sound. Already we have a solid quality game that you could sell. But let’s not do that, let’s go a step further.
Let’s swap all character models from the present day segment of the game with their counterparts from the later games, simply because those are much better looking. We also swap Altair’s model for the newer version they created for a later game. We do that for all models where newer versions exist. This way we get much better graphics without actually changing that much. Combined with the new engine, our game now suddenly doesn’t look ten years old. And we still haven’t done anything major. But we are not done yet.
Since we now know where the story is headed and what it’s all about, we can use that to improve the game. The first game was very barebones outside the main story. Later games added more collectibles, character databases and modern day information. So let’s add that. We can add a shop to our homebase where we can unlock maps of hidden treasure and collectibles. Since the first game has no money system, we could tie that to the completion rate of our main story. The first game was unique in that it gave you multiple missions to do on your way to your main mission. You only needed to finish two of those missions and the others were optional. The problem was that those missions were highly repetitive.
So what if instead of six mission with four optionals, we cut it down to four missions with two optionals. That way we have much less repetition and we can tie those two optionals to our shop where we unlock treasure maps. Already we added a lot of replayability to our game, improved pacing and cut repetition without changing too much. Little tweaks like that greatly impove a game. If we couple that with a better fast travel system we improved the game drastically.
When the first game came out, the concept of DLC didn’t exist yet. It wasn’t until after that DLC was introduced to much success. But since we are preparing our game for a modern release, we could add the Bloodlines spinoff as a story DLC. We can skip the prequel for a later release but the Bloodlines story would make much sense. We already have all the assets available and most of the bloodlines game was boring repetition anyway so we could cut all of that and release it as additional chapter to play after we finished the main storyline. We only need to make it one chapter, as it helps us cut out repetition and boredom. The new technology will elevate the game and since it didn’t sell that well anyway it would be entirely new to a whole group of people.
Of course that is just wishful thinking and will probably not happen. But it is too bad, since the first Assassin’s Creed was a good game, a diamond in the rough and although later games did some great things, many things from the first were never revisited and that is a shame.
Come back next time when I talk about the sequel, it’s spinoffs, DLC, DLC sold as full games, Italy, Turkey and shortfilms.