Assassin’s Creed is Best Kept in the Past… Literally

Of all the franchises that sprang up alongside the Xbox 360 and PS3, few have had so many ups and downs as Assassin’s Creed. That series has charted the full spectrum from astounding to a technical disaster and back again. The original left plenty of room for improvement, its sequel impressed on almost every front, the French-set Unity was hobbled by bugs and Black Flag charted a brave, unique trip out to sea. It even has a Hollywood movie to its name just ten years after the series launched.

The one area that’s consistently gotten better is its present-day story, however. Or the lack of it, more appropriately.

The further the series goes, the more it distances itself from its sci-fi sub-plot - concept art for Black Flag by Ubisoft
The further the series goes, the more it distances itself from its sci-fi sub-plot – concept art for Black Flag by Ubisoft

Revolving around a war between the shady Templars and their Assassin enemies, it’s a battle for the soul of mankind that’s raged on since the dawn of time. The fight continues here in the present, and this modern clash is a framing device around which every game hinges. Whilst it was an enjoyable way of anchoring the narrative between different time periods, the conflict became muddled by an often-daft plot involving mind-control and aliens. It also dragged the spotlight away from what Assassin’s Creed does best – letting players dive headfirst into a slice of painstakingly recreated history.

That’s changed in recent years, though. Assassin’s Creed IV plucked us out of the confusion in exchange for a streamlined tale that focused on the past, and everything which followed did so too. I’d be interested to see if the film sticks to that trend.

The series is arguably stronger for it. Black Flag zeroed in on the evocative mythology of the setting, opting for a swashbuckling fantasy instead of precursor races and the apocalypse. It says a lot that this was one of the most engaging entries for a long while.

I’m not sure the sci-fi angle is actually necessary beyond the Animus (this allows users to access their ‘genetic’ memories, essentially reliving an ancestor’s life). Indeed, I’d be happy with games that simply unearth times gone by. I don’t think I’m alone. I haven’t heard many praising the futuristic gubbins of Assassin’s Creed. Anecdotally at least, the consensus would be that it’s not an entirely welcome distraction.

I only wish the developers – of which there are now an absurd amount – had reached this conclusion sooner. The first installment would really have benefited from this. Rather than becoming bogged down with conspiracies and an artifact that was basically a cheat code, it missed an opportunity to explore the setting that inspired the game further. As an example, the Assassin’s order was based on a real sect of fanatics (known as Nizari Ismailis) who indoctrinated and murdered their way into the history books. I’d advise looking them up. They’re fascinating, if a little scary.

That said, we’ve come a long way from businesses trying to take our free will and aliens who were here before humanity. Assassin’s Creed has a wonderful selling point as it is without that, and I’m glad those behind it are doubling down on what makes the series great in the first place. I love the conspiracies that are its bread and butter, but taking a step back and casting us as players of the Animus technology is a more elegant tact that leaves all eyes on its biggest strength.

Check back every Friday for a new blog celebrating the characters, worlds and craft of geeky pop-culture.

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