By Rick Warren / Gfn2112
Assassin's Creed Origins recently released, and with a slew of positive reviews, it appears that it's the return fans were hoping for. The game supposedly improves on the repetitive open world activities and innovates on the gameplay that has remained the same for years. The wildlife is more interesting, the skill trees are deeper, and the world is larger. The new loot system seems to add a deeper layer of motivation to the optional activities of Assassin's Creed, making previously boring tasks exciting. In many ways, this looks like a huge step forward. Yet, what should be the best Assassin's Creed ever may fail to do so due to two huge issues the series has had for years: poor storytelling and under-developed main characters. I'll be looking at these two problems below with attention to the older games, so if you want to avoid spoilers for any Creed games prior to Origins, look away now.
A Modern Mess
Considering how closely related the two problems are, it isn't too surprising that both began with one game: Assassin's Creed 3. Let's start by looking at storytelling. Up to this point, the storyline in the Assassin's Creed games was interesting. While the modern-day story is widely disliked today, back then it was one of the most interesting aspects of Assassin's Creed. This is due to Desmond Miles, the modern-day assassin-in-training voiced by Nolan North. The developers and writers spent a good portion of the first game and the Ezio trilogy making Desmond into an assassin through the bleeding effect. Having mastered the skills of both Ezio and Altair by the time Assassin's Creed 3 began, it was finally time to show them off. Looking back, that was the best part of AC3. The handful of missions where all the buildup from the earlier Creed games paid off was great. Running through Abstergo and taking out the villains that had annoyed me, so much was a blast. Soon, though, the ending came. It's where the downfall of Assassin's Creed's present-day story began.
To sum things up quickly, the end of the world is coming, and Desmond is the only person who can stop it. If he does so, the world will be saved but an ancient being will be released that enslaves humanity. If he does not, most of the world's population will die and he'll need to rebuild society with the few survivors. He chooses to save the world, at the cost of releasing the ancient being Juno... and his own life. In the five years since Desmond's death, absolutely nothing has happened in the modern-day plot of Assassin's Creed. Juno has appeared twice, but done nothing; humanity remains the same. The Templars of Abstergo, too, have done nothing interesting. As for the Assassins? They're a joke. There is no visible leader for the small group focused on, and there is no lead playable character. Since Desmond's unnecessary death, everything about the connected story of the Creed games has been disappointing. The gameplay involves players walking around as an unknown, silent spy with no personality. The entire goal in these first-person sections is to discover what Abstergo is up to. Essentially, this means walking around and reading files or doing hacking mini-games with an iPad. It's laughably bad. The only recent Creed game to diverge from this path was Syndicate, as the modern-day sections came in the form of four forgettable cutscenes. Again, nothing important happened. Whoever the spy we played as for years was had been completely ignored, and the same flat supporting characters were the only Assassins shown.
I would say that the developers have been killing time until the next numbered Assassin's Creed, so they can do something big, but I think that's unlikely (Assassin's Creed 4's present day story was as uneventful as the rest). It seems like the writers had absolutely no idea where to go after Assassin's Creed 3 and have just been winging it ever since. It seems as if it should have ended there, and Desmond should have sacrificed himself to save the world without Juno being released at all. Nothing interesting has come from the lose-lose situation; the only people who have suffered from it are Assassin's Creed fans. Since they continue to push the modern-day story, they should find some ridiculous way to bring Desmond back from the dead. The story needs a protagonist to move forward. If they cannot write well enough to introduce one in half of a decade, maybe they should just go back to the one that mattered. They've gone too far now to just stop with the story and focus on the past, but I've been dreading every modern sequence since 2012. Something needs to change, and the change needs to happen soon.
A Protagonist Problem
As mentioned back at the start of the article, Assassin's Creed 3's other major flaw was an uninspired lead character. Connor is the least popular assassin in the Creed games by far, and it's not too surprising. Until the third act of the game, he does nothing besides whine. He has a valid reason to seek revenge, but no reason to be such an unlikable jerk for the whole game. He's not cocky and clever like Altair, and he's far from the Master Assassin that gave the Creed games their huge audience. Connor is boring, and he's the definition of a bad protagonist. One clever thing that AC3 did do, though, was fool players into playing as a Templar in a lengthy opening section. This character was later revealed to be Connor's father, and the game's main villain. The sad thing is that he was far more interesting than the playable assassin, and I would much rather have played as him for the entire game than Connor. It was a similar problem to Ubisoft's Farcry series, where the villains are terrific, but the main characters have no personality. This terrific villain's name was Haythem Kenway; the son of AC4's Edward.
Edward Kenway was an improvement over Connor, but he still wasn't as great as he could have been. He was followed by Arno Dorian and the Frye twins, who were bad and good characters respectively. Starting with AC3, there's a range of assassins that goes from terrible to good, and good is where that range stops. That's a problem, but is there a solution? Maybe. The possible answer sits at the top of the Assassin's Creed series, and I'm shocked that Ubisoft hasn't considered the possibility yet. I'm talking, of course, about the Ezio trilogy.
Now don't get me wrong, Ubisoft does recognize that these games were a huge critical and monetary success (they even took the time to release a collection of them for the current generation of consoles). Yet they don't seem to realize why. The answer is the thing that makes any narrative work: character development. Ezio Auditore is the best assassin in the series, and one of the best characters in gaming over the past decade. Why? He got three games to evolve. With three fifteen-hour stories, we saw Ezio go from a risk-taking teenager to the greatest assassin in the history of the Creed. In between that, we were given revenge stories and love stories and comedies. Ezio's games offered every type of story, and they created a character that earned his great legacy. Since then, aspects of his personality have been copied over to assassins like Arno and Jacob, but they don't feel nearly the same. Perhaps Ubisoft's problem is that they covered so much ground in the Ezio games. Maybe it is hard for them to find new stories to tell and to make assassins different from each other. Yet with series like The Witcher and Persona, that's not a good enough excuse. There are always new stories to tell and new characters to create. There is always room for innovation.
My wish for Assassin's Creed is not necessarily to learn from other series, but rather to learn from itself. The Ezio Trilogy worked because it was a trilogy. To deliver another great assassin, they need to focus on them for more than one game. Pick a setting (China or Japan, please) that can support multiple games, and develop the new lead character over time. Like with Ezio, show us their entire life. Tell different stories with them, and introduce new concepts and side characters. Today, it seems that as soon as we begin to feel comfortable with an assassin and grow attached, they're taken away and replaced. I would have loved it if each numbered Assassin's Creed was the start of a new trilogy focused on one character. Maybe Edward would grow to be as great as Ezio, and maybe Connor would have been a bit less terrible. While the opportunity may have been passed up multiple times already, there's still a chance to take it going forward.
If you've made it this far, you clearly care about this series as much as I do. Make no mistake, I do love the Assassin's Creed games. I'm only critical because I want them to be better, and I know that they can be. I hope I'll enjoy the story of AC Origins, but I'm fully prepared to be disappointed yet again. Obviously, I'm glad to hear that the gameplay is better than ever, but for Assassin's Creed to be all that it can be the writing also needs to improve. If it doesn't, I'll never be able to stop looking at the games of the past, and the assassins will never be able to escape Ezio's shadow.