Visit new places. Meet interesting people. Kill everyone.
In case you haven’t already noticed, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has been getting a lot of positive coverage online. Websites and social media have been buzzing about Ubisoft’s latest entry into the series, which is beneficial considering the publisher did relatively little in the way of hype-train marketing prior to launch. You could argue that that could be thanks to last year’s lacklustre Assassin’s Creed Unity, which was a bit of a mess at launch and largely referenced with THIS screenshot. Creepy.
The Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around for quite some time; eight years next month to be exact. Within that timeframe Ubisoft has released more than FOURTEEN games spanning everything from full AAA releases to mobile-only spin-offs and browser-based titles. On top of that, the publisher has a MOUNTAIN of transmedia content: comic books, encyclopaedias, clothing lines, toys, cosplay props, board games, novels, web series, and an upcoming movie. There are probably Assassin’s Creed lunchboxes and an Assassin’s Creed: The Flamethrower out there somewhere.
For many people who perhaps haven’t dipped a toe into the enormous IP that is Assassin’s Creed, looking on at the contemporary hubbub about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate might be a little intimidating. You could be wondering if there’s any point in getting into a series that is this far along. That’s why we’ve decided to write this article. It’s not a complete primer by any means, and it’s best to think of it as more of a crash-course; as a summary of the main games that are out there, what was good, what was bad, which is a must-play, and which game needs to be buried in a forgotten tomb, never to be spoken of again.
Is there some backdrop the series plays out on?
Yes, there is. The Assassin’s Creed franchise takes place throughout various periods in history. One of the game’s biggest drawcards is that each iteration thrusts players into a new historical setting with real-life historical characters making appearances and playing roles in the grander theme of Assassins versus Templars.
Wait, what? Assassins and Templars?
Yes, Assassin’s Creed has an overarching conflict that finds its way into every iteration of the series. There are two factions: the Assassins (sometimes called The Brotherhood) and the Templars (sometimes referred to as the Order of Knights Templar). Both factions have visions for humanity’s future, but fundamentally different ideas on how those visions should be achieved. The Assassins promote freedom of choice and the betterment of humanity through the individual’s ability to think and innovate. The Templars, on the other hand, believe that the masses need to be controlled through devious methods and background manipulation. Needless to say the two factions are at war; this is a war that has been waged in secret since the moment humanity freed itself from the progenitor race.
A progenitor race? WTF is going on?
Yeah, this is a good question. In the Assassin’s Creed universe, humanity was preceded by a race of super-advanced, super-intelligent beings collectively called The First Civilization. They’re also sometimes called Those Who Came Before, but that sounds a little camp and Voldemort-y. Anyway, not much is known about where this race came from, but according to the official Assassin’s Creed Encyclopedia: “skulls from archeological sites around Boskop, South Africa, give fossil evidence of their existence.” I kid you not.
This First Civilization created human beings and used them as slaves,
choosing to control humanity with powerful technological artefacts known as Pieces of Eden. Eventually humans became so widespread that their numbers were enough to overthrow the First Civilization, which led to a huge war between both species. This war was ended due to some cataclysmic event known as “the Toba”, and after which much of the First Civilization survivors receded. Humanity flourished but the First Civilization remained in contact with them, and essentially became the various gods we find in history: the Greek gods, the Hindu gods, etc. etc.
Basically, humanity was largely free from their creators, but many Pieces of Eden artefacts remained. Cue Templars and Assassins both vying for the discovery and control of these Pieces of Eden.
And that’s a crash-course in the overarching mythos that pervades the Assassin’s Creed franchise.
OK, that’s fine. What about the actual games now?
Let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
The franchise kicked off on 17 November 2007, when the original Assassin’s Creed debuted on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It sold twice as many units as Ubisoft thought it would, and went on to become the fastest selling new IP in the USA. It was also the start of Ubisoft’s best-selling and most successful IP in the company’s history.
The game was marketed as an assassin-themed adventure set during the Third Crusade in the late 12th century AD. However, once the game launched, players soon realised that there was a science-fiction theme running throughout the game. This theme would continue in subsequent releases in the franchise. It was a neat little twist that nobody saw coming; Ubisoft managed to keep it under wraps until the game was out. Oddly, the present-day, science-fiction stuff was revealed within the first 10 minutes of the game. Basically people have ancestral memories locked in their DNA. A machine known as The Animus allows people to relive those memories, and that’s where most of the Assassin’s Creed gameplay happens: through characters reliving their ancestral memories. In the case of the original Assassin’s Creed, players were “playing” the ancestral memories of Desmond Miles. His ancestor, Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad (which is Arabic for “The Bird Son of No One” – so cool), was an Assassin during the Third Crusade.
Assassin’s Creed was generally well received despite the fact that gameplay didn’t evolve much throughout the course of the title. Still, it had the hallmarks of a classic, and Ubisoft would go on to refine the core mechanics and create some of their best games ever. Lead character Altaïr is one of the better player characters in the series, despite the fact that he’s a little whiny at the start of the game.
Is it still worth playing? In my opinion: yes, if only to see how much (or little!) the series has evolved, and to experience arguably the best control scheme the franchise ever had. Balk if you will, but Assassin’s Creed’s “puppetry” control setup worked, and the more “user friendly” they made it in subsequent releases, the harder it got to have complete control over your assassin’s movements.
Assassin’s Creed II
Mention this entry to most fans and they’ll likely say something along the lines of “best one by far” or “damn I miss Ezio”. Assassin’s Creed II came out two years later in 2009. Set in the 15th century during the Renaissance period in Italy, the game continued the present-day story of Desmond Miles, only this time we were reliving history through another one of his ancestors, Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
This is the title in which Ubisoft nailed the game’s core mechanics. Gameplay was varied, combat was polished and more engaging, and the character of Ezio remains one of the most memorable gaming characters in industry history. If you read any listicle on great video game characters, you can bet that Ezio will get a mention at some point.
This was also the game in which Ubisoft hit on another great recurring theme: having historical characters make appearances, and somehow tying those characters’ real-life historical actions to the greater premise of an Assassin-Templar war. For example: Leonardo da Vinci aids Ezio, and a number of his historical inventions are portrayed as having been invented for the Assassins. Essentially, Ubisoft was saying that all of the significant events in world history were the result of Templar-Assassin meddling.
Is it still worth playing? Yes. Getting into the Assassin’s Creed series and skipping the second game would be like skipping Empire Strikes Back in a Star Wars marathon.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
I’d argue that this game and the one after it were only developed because of the very vocal and positive reception Ezio received as a character. Ubisoft basically turned Ezio’s story into a trilogy, but it was a double-edged sword: on the one side we had another game starring a great character; on the other side we had the start of the series’ annualisation, as Brotherhood came out in 2010.
One neat feature, however, was that by this stage Ezio was becoming a very senior member of the Assassin Brotherhood. As such, you had access to Assassin recruits in the game, who you could call in at various times to dispatch enemies. There was also a meta-game in which you could send your assassins on missions that would increase their skills if they were successful in their tasks. It was a nice addition to the series.
This was also the Assassin’s Creed that brought online competitive multiplayer to the series for the first time. It was during a period in the gaming industry when publishers were trying everything to curb the game trade-in market. The multiplayer was largely a forgettable experience but did feature some interesting stealth mechanics. It was basically one of those multiplayer modes that was fun to muck about with for a week or so, but one that never really had lasting appeal.
Is it still worth playing? No, not really. Unless you’ve become very fond of Ezio and you want to know what happens to him and his family.
Assassin’s Creed Revelations
Released a year later in 2011. This was when the series first started showing some cracks as a result of the rapid turnaround in development cycles. There wasn’t much that was new here aside from the fact that we were switching between Ezio and Altaïr from the first game. Revelations was set in two different periods of history as 15th century Ezio was searching for something that 12th century Altaïr had hidden away. Honestly I don’t remember much of this one; it didn’t make an impact on me at all.
Is it still worth playing? Again, only if you want to finish Ezio’s story and even then I’d recommend just reading a summary online or picking up a copy of the Assassin’s Creed Encyclopedia.
Assassin’s Creed III
Oh man, where do I start with this one? Set during the American Revolution during the 18th century, players took on the role of Connor, a Native American who is taken in by the Assassins once his village is destroyed. Connor is the most insufferable character in the series’ history and in a lot of ways he reminded me of whiny Anakin Skywalker from Attack of the Clones. Just horrible.
This was a pity considering the effort Ubisoft had gone to ensure the 18th century Native American characters were accurately portrayed. Indeed, Connor’s character design is probably my favourite in the series, it’s just too bad that his attitude was so horrendous. Luckily the game had an additional playable character that you controlled throughout the opening five or so hours of the game: Haytham Kenway. There were some pretty neat plot twists with this guy, but I won’t ruin them here in case you go on to play Assassin’s Creed III for yourself. That being said, the game received a lot of criticism for selling the idea of Connor the assassin, and then keeping him away from the player for the first couple of hours.
If you do go on to play the game, then I wish you luck. Assassin’s Creed III was billed as the series’ next big step in terms of game technology and open-world exploration. It was total garbage. By this stage the game’s control scheme had been tweaked and “streamlined” so much that the player characters were extremely cumbersome.
If you’re wondering about the present-day stuff, Desmond Miles’ story continued throughout each game up to this point. By this stage it was a convoluted mess and virtually inconsequential. I remember rushing through these present-day segments just to get back to the more interesting historical portions.
Is it still worth playing? No. In my opinion it is one of the worst entries in the series. It was bloated with features that never felt complete and nearly always felt inhibitive and like forced “busy work”. I say “nearly always” because naval ship combat was the one side distraction in the game that was a blast. In fact, the feedback was so positive about these sequences that I’m almost convinced it’s why we got the pirate-themed Black Flag in 2013.
Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation
This was a spin-off title based in the same time period as Assassin’s Creed III. It was initially a PlayStation Vita exclusive, but later made appearances on consoles and PC as a downloadable title under the name Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD.
This little title was fantastic. It starred the series’ first female protagonist, the African-French assassin Aveline de Grandpré who instantly became yet another memorable character spawned by the Assassin’s Creed franchise. She had unique techniques at her disposal including the ability to don different disguises to infiltrate different areas.
The setting was another standout: from the bustling streets of 18th century New Orleans to the claustrophobic bayou outskirts.
Is it still worth playing? Yes. Despite the fact that this was a spin-off from Assassins Creed III, it was a much better game that benefitted from its smaller scope and wonderful female protagonist.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Pirates. Ship battles on the high seas. Shanties. Buried treasure. This entry into the series remains my absolute favourite by miles. That might change considering I’ve yet to get very far in this year’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, but know that out of all of the Assassin’s Creed titles out there, this is the one I’d recommend the most.
Set during the “golden age of piracy” players took on the role of Edward Kenway. That name should ring a bell, because Edward goes on to father Haytham Kenway from the above Assassin’s Creed III. Yes, the events of Black Flag take place before those of Assassin’s Creed III. But here’s the thing: Black Flag can stand on its own as an experience. You don’t really need to know much about the previous games to be able to dive in and enjoy this title. All of the present-day bollocks involving Desmond Miles is nowhere to be seen. Instead the present-day portions of the game take place in first-person (a series first) and star “you”, the person playing Black Flag in an Abstergo (present-day Templar company) research lab. It’s pretty clever and a far more interesting way to handle the increasingly irrelevant present-day portions of the franchise.
But really, the best part about Black Flag is the ship combat. It’s just heaps of fun sailing across the Caribbean, picking fights with other pirates or taking on Imperial ships.
Is it still worth playing? Yes. A million times yes.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue
This was a bit of an odd entry that actually turned out to be a great game. It was released last year in 2014 alongside Assassin’s Creed Unity. However, Rogue was exclusive to last-gen consoles because those consoles didn’t have the power needed to run Unity, which was Ubisoft’s main AC title of 2014. The fact that Rogue went on to be the better game (both in terms of story and game stability) is a little hilarious.
Essentially, Rogue was the final chapter in what had come to be known as the “Kenway Trilogy”. That trilogy comprised Assassin’s Creed III, Black Flag, and Rogue. You were also put in the shoes of a Templar, Shay Patrick Cormac. Shay’s job: hunt down and murder Assassins. In that regard it was a neat title not only for bridging the gap in story between Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed III, but because you were now playing as “the bad guys”.
Is it still worth playing? Kind of. If you loved Black Flag for its ship combat, then Rogue brings more of that. Plus, if you want to experience an Assassin’s Creed from the perspective of the enemy, then it’s also a good option. Incidentally the game is now available on PC.
Assassin’s Creed Unity
What a mess this was. Released last year, this was the first game in the series to hit current-gen consoles. The game was a buggy disaster that took weeks to fix with numerous patches, and patches to fix new bugs brought in by other patches. Good grief. Ubisoft lost a lot of goodwill with this game, which was a pity because when it ran properly it looked absolutely stunning.
Set during the French Revolution, players took on the role of assassin Arno Dorian. Dorian becomes embroiled in a Templar plot when he embarks on a revenge campaign after his foster father is murdered. It all plays out against the backdrop of the French Revolution, so there are heaps of guillotines, beheadings, flowery dialogues with Napoleon Bonaparte, and some funny encounters with Marquis de Sade. Unfortunately, Unity represents the series’ most boring plotline, which is depressing considering the exciting historical setting.
Is it still worth playing? No. I wouldn’t waste time with this one. While it looks incredible (Paris is so well detailed and vibrant) the game is a bore to play despite many of the bugs having been patched out. It also had these obnoxious, forced online connectivity requirements to do silly things like unlock chests, which Ubisoft also had to patch out after massive backlash.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
This year’s title is set in London during the Elizabethan period. I can’t tell you much about it as yet because I’m still making my way through the game. Expect a full review soon.