At the beginning of Assassin's Creed, Desmond Miles is becoming acclimated with the Animus, a machine built by the Templars that lets the occupant relive past memories stored in their DNA. As this happens, Desmond gets a quick glimpse of one of his ancestors, Altair ibn La-Ahad, walking around an ancient garden, with beautiful women and majestic mountaintops in view.
At first, I didn't know what was going on. I ignorantly assumed Ubisoft was blatantly going after the 18-35 male gamer market, armed with an arsenal of boobs to get their attention. But like any good designer knows, there are calculated reasons for everything. As I learned by playing the game and doing some history homework, Ubisoft Montreal had a strong, unique but ultimately flawed vision for Assassin's Creed, one that was more or less abandoned for the series' sequels.
For most fans, Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood were better in almost every respect. Things like the repetitive and simplistic mission structure from the original were replaced with a more varied experience not unlike the Grand Theft Auto series. This made for a more palatable gaming experience (I mean, who doesn't like GTA?), but something was lost. Gone was the very reason I enjoyed the original Assassin's Creed so much, which I will explain throughout most of this article.
A Silent Eulogy
I'm sure Ubisoft doesn't like to admit it, but the original Assassin's Creed was much more of a niche experience than what most people were expecting, and many gamers understandably gave their opinions on Assassin's Creed after playing it. The main complaint being that the game's design was too boring and repetitive.
Regardless of the reasons behind those designs, Ubisoft couldn't afford to piss off the 6 million Assassin's Creed customers they now had, which was the estimated total number of units sold for the first AC at the time. It was too big a name to make the same mistakes twice. And for that, we got what we now know as Assassin's Creed 2, the story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a Florentine Assassin that lived during the Italian Renaissance.
While most never noticed the switch, AC2 was a radical departure from the original game. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to better understand the vision Ubisoft Montreal had for the first Assassin's Creed. In defining that, we can more easily see the contrast between it and its sequels.
A History Lesson
Much like how the English language alters proper names from their original counterparts (Firenze = Florence), Assassin's Creed has a misspelling. At the time of the Crusades, the word “assassin” didn't exist yet. Not until Shakespeare 's Macbeth did we first hear the word assassin, which was over 500 years later. The original term was “hashshashin”, which was a pejorative term for a real-life group of Shi'a Nizari Ismaili Muslims that famously committed political assassinations from around 1092 to 1265AD. Their original hideout was a fortress named Alamut, which means either “Eagle's Nest”, or, most likely, “Eagle's Teaching”. Later they would expand, moving to other areas of the Middle East, one of them being the fortress at Masyaf.
Their goal was to eliminate key political figures, both Muslim and Christian, that impeded their desired vision for the future.
According to legend, one of the ways the Hashshashin gained recruits to their cause was actually shown at the beginning of Assassin's Creed: through the use of a garden. Basically, the Hashshashin would drug recruits and bring them to the fortress' garden. Here they would be lavished upon with succulent food and beautiful women. But as soon as they got comfortable to their new surroundings, they would get ripped from their pleasures and told that they had just experienced Paradise, in a real sense, and if they ever wanted to get back to Paradise they would have to do the Hashshashins' bidding. This is what you saw at the beginning of Assassin's Creed. Altair was a new recruit in Desmond's vision, getting close to Heaven in Masyaf's garden.
Once inducted into the ranks, the “lucky” Hashshashin recruit would travel to a Middle Eastern city and assassinate his designated target, in broad daylight for all to see, in the standard Hashshashin garb of white robe and red sash (which symbolizes innocence and blood, respectively).
Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because it basically sums up Assassin's Creed. Controlling Altair ibn La-Ahad, a Hashshashin from Masyaf, players travel to Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre in order to assassinate 9 selected targets. As well, look at how Ubisoft Montreal designed Altair:
White robe, red sash. And if you look closer, you can see another detail that helps show how determined Ubisoft Montreal was in getting the historical facts right: the eagle's beak on Altair's hood. As stated earlier, the original Hashshashin fortress was named Alamut, which most likely meant “Eagle's Teaching” in Arabic. Ubisoft decided to take the next logical step in Hashshashin lore and made each assassin represent an eagle. The most damning of all evidence is that the name “Altair” loosely translates to “The Flying One” in Arabic.
As well, one of the main complaints I've read regarding Assassin's Creed was why Altair never committed his assassinations at night, to better conceal his deeds. Well, as I pointed out, the hashshashin never did that. They always committed their assassinations in broad daylight, to make sure the citizens saw the act with their own eyes. It was a conscious design decision to never let Altair assassinate at night.
Put all of this together, and you begin to see that Ubisoft's vision for Assassin's Creed was to create what was essentially a Hashshashin documentary, not just a standard action-adventure video game. They got all the facts more or less correct (sadly, most Hashshashin recruits that assassinated their targets were captured and executed, which doesn't really work in the context of a video game). However, they needed to complete their vision with a strong gameplay design. Sadly, here is where Ubisoft Montreal failed, even though they actually succeeded in many ways.
Life as a Hashshashin is.....Boring
When players reach Damascus, Jerusalem, or Acre, they can't simply walk up to their targets and kill them with their hidden blade. No, they have to do some investigative work first. Players must traverse the city's zones (of which there are 3) and find any useful information that will help them achieve their goal. Information retrieval boils down to 4 mission archetypes:
overhear a conversation between two people while sitting on a bench
steal sensitive information from someone by pick-pocketing him
interrogate a person closely involved with your target
help your Assassin brothers by collecting flags throughout the city or by killing their assailants
Once all the required information is retrieved (players must complete at least 3 of the 6 available missions), the player has the ability to go and perform the actual assassination.
Ubisoft Montreal basically asked themselves: “what would a real Hashshashin do?” As was true with the game's historical foundations, their gameplay solutions were trying to be as realistic as possible to the source material, to truly put the player into the role of a real Hashshashin during the Third Crusade.
However, if you're an unsuspecting gamer, you'd probably think Ubisoft Montreal was deliberately planning to fail with these seemingly boring mission designs, especially when a player had to repeat the whole process 9 times to complete the game. However, they had an ace up their sleeve: the cities themselves. Simply walking around each city was a sight to behold. It truly felt as if you were in Crusades-era Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre.
People seemed to go about their daily lives. Street orators would spread propaganda on the ensuing Crusades, siding with either Saladin or King Richard (depending on which city you were in), beggars would plead for your money, and business owners would advertise their wares. To say it was immersive would be doing it a huge disservice. The world of Assassin's Creed felt tangible, and this greatly enhanced Ubisoft Montreal's vision.
Being able to experience these expertly-crafted environments made it much easier for a player to step into the role of a hashshashin, to think and to act like one. They made the player role-play a hashshashin. Not in the traditional D&D sense of the word. More like pretend. We all played pretend when we were growing up, donning a cape and running around the house as if we were Batman. With Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft Montreal gave us the opportunity to relive those memories, but with a white robe and red sash instead. Altair was designed to be a shell for the player to immerse themselves into the world of the hashshashin.
Coming from this point of view, those mission designs make a lot more sense. If you were pretending to be a hashshashin, those would be the missions you would act out.
Over and over again, in nearly every aspect, Assassin's Creed was designed to be what I call a “Hashshashin Simulator”. In terms of production, that is an ambitious task, and for the most part they were successful. You have to give Ubisoft Montreal a lot of credit for even attempting such a task.
However, even before the game was released, Ubisoft Montreal had problems with their designs. One of the more prominent rumors on the Internet regarding Assassin's Creed was that Ubisoft Montreal never planned to include a GPS HUD element, added only because of focus testing near the end of production. The GPS system acts like a mini-map on the bottom portion of the screen, informing the player of the direction and proximity of available missions.
Now, a few players (including myself) have gone back and disabled the GPS system, playing the game in the way the designers originally intended (or so we believe, as this information has never been verified). With everything else in the game designed to be as immersive as possible, this really isn't much of a stretch. In fact, it's actually a better experience. Instead of looking at the GPS to locate the missions, players needed to actually search for them, using Eagle Vision to spot them, and learning the layouts of the cities through experience. This then created a much more intimate connection between the player and his surroundings. After walking around Damascus' first zone in this way, I started to know the zone's layout by heart, making it easier for me to evade the guards when I was spotted, as well as simply getting from Point A to Point B.
While this was an awesome way to play the game, players really needed to be active in their search for the missions, and that's because the cities were just too big for their own good. If a player didn't put a good amount of time into the game, they'd be left wandering the streets, unable to progress to the actual assassination. This is why people complained about the lack of a GPS or on-screen map during the focus tests. The design conveyed the vision, but it just didn't work for a mainstream audience. I'm going to assume that the designers tried not to give away too much and simply added a GPS system instead of a full-blown map HUD, to try to keep their original intentions alive.
In the end, the addition of the GPS made the game too simple for gamers to enjoy in the same way it was originally designed. Missions were points on the GPS, located with ease. Half the gameplay that the designers were trying to create was sacrificed to make the game more manageable for the masses, instead of biting the bullet and agreeing to themselves that some players may just not like a Hashshashin Simulator in general. And as stated before, the addition came too late to balance the game properly, losing the ability to possibly increase the role-playing effects some other way. Assassin's Creed's fate was sealed.
But this wouldn't be the only time this kind of situation occurred, not-so-subtly pointing out how unviable Ubisoft Montreal's vision really was. The GPS was an interim solution to a much bigger problem: how do we make a Hashshashin Simulator fun without it being boring and repetitive? Sadly, Ubisoft Montreal never got the chance, as evidenced by even more Internet rumors. Supposedly the complaints from the first game were heard by Ubisoft management, and they in turn demanded that the game's sequel be less problematic. Unable to find a proper solution to all the issues that were created with the first game's ambitious design, management then persuaded Ubisoft Montreal to give up their aspirations of making a Hashshashin Simulator and simply add GTA elements to not anger the supposedly 6 million disappointed Assassin’s Creed fans. Again, who doesn't like GTA?
In the end, Assassin's Creed failed. Its heart was in the right place, but it just couldn't connect all the right dots. The GPS took away some of the hard-fought immersion, and some people just didn't like the uneventful mission designs, regardless of how applicable they were. It was successful in pretty much every area except for design, where it counted the most.
A Sequel without a Vision
When Assassin's Creed 2 starts, Ezio is not yet an assassin. Oblivious to the hidden dealings that are going on in Italia, Ezio goes about his young life, indulging in the standard Florentine pastimes: flirting with beautiful young women, defending his family's honor from rival families, and tending to familial chores.
We all know what happens to Ezio after the game's intro, the sad fate that forces him into the role of an Assassin. Even though Ezio follows in his predecessor's footsteps, this is where Assassin's Creed 2 greatly contrasts with AC1. Ezio is not a hashshashin, even though he wears the uniform. Everything a player feels at the very beginning of the game is in direct conflict with what Assassin's Creed stands for. Ezio is not a killer, and no one really tells him to be one. It's a lack of role-playing motivation. Ezio has friends, family, and a history in Firenze. The people he walked with were his allies, not enemies. It's not easy for a player to assume the role of a foreign, antagonistic entity when he's walking around the same streets that defined him as a person.
AC1 was designed to get the player to role-play a hashshashin, while Assassin's Creed 2 puts you into the role of Ezio, period. Ubisoft Montreal did too good a job at defining the character of Ezio Auditore at the beginning of AC2 and made it hard for a player to become what Altair was: a shallow hashshashin that eagerly assassinates people.
And as I said before, that wasn't the only aspect to pull the player out of the immersive world of the Hashshashin. Using a GTA mission structure, players were only required to go to a point on the map to start missions. A player didn't need to know what he was going to do on the mission beforehand, even if it was an assassination. This is the complete opposite of AC1, where all the smaller missions were prepping Altair for the main mission: the assassination. New information gathered informed the player on how best to tackle the assassination. This meant the idea of the assassination was always in the back of the player's mind, reminding Altair why he was even in those cities. This also made the act of assassinating your target that much more rewarding, as you had been spending the last hour or so preparing for it.
In Assassin's Creed 2, this mental preparation was completely stripped from the game, all because of the GTA mission structure. It was just another mission to complete. It's been taken to an even further extreme in Brotherhood, where there is a huge number of missions to complete, all as seemingly random as the last.
So even if Ezio was designed like Altair, having the overall gameplay structure mirror GTA just didn't help convey the role-playing aspects that AC1 had. Basically, AC2 failed two-fold.
There's no reason why Ezio can't just take off his Assassin uniform and commit his acts without it. At least it wouldn't fool me into thinking he was another Altair, which he's not. Altair walked the way he did because he was acting like a hashshashin, one that was planning to do ill deeds in a foreign city. Ezio walks the way Altair did, but he has no reason to do so. The cities aren't against him. This is extremely evident in Brotherhood, where the citizens are more than happy to have someone finally take care of their city, Roma, for them.
As well, the cities exist as playgrounds now. In AC1, the cities “existed” because of the assassinations. You were in a city to assassinate someone, nothing more. In AC2 and Brotherhood, you have the ability to experience more than just the assassinations in the cities, with several side missions to partake in, like races and platforming challenges. However, you don't have any sense of urgency when you can do whatever you want in any order you want. Just do what you want, and when you're ready, go to the next mission marker. That's basically what AC2/Brotherhood boils down to. Again, Ezio has no reason to be a hashshashin, and the player has no reason to role-play as one.
The world of Altair had been replaced by the world of Ezio: one was designed to simulate the life of a Hashshashin, while the other was designed to be a fun video game.
It was also disappointing to see none of the reviews mention any of these changes. They obviously knew the mission structure was altered, but no one understood the ramifications of those alterations. As noticeable by the bulk of the reviews, Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood are considered the best entries in the Assassin's Creed franchise. And I'm sorry to say, but their reviews damned us from ever experiencing anything like AC1 again. Their more favorable reviews approved Ubisoft's altered designs. That is unfortunate, because many people enjoyed the original experience, including myself. But again, the prospect of market success is what drove those changes, and that's not changing any time soon.
Now don’t get me wrong though, I actually enjoyed AC2 and Brotherhood a great deal. Simply walking around Firenze, Venezia, and Roma are experiences I won’t soon forget. And I have to give special mention to Jesper Kyd’s score for the sequels, as I doubt the Assassin’s Creed franchise would be half as enjoyable had he not supplied such a wonderful soundtrack (“Home in Florence” is my personal fav). The bulk of my complaints are obviously aimed at the unfortunate contrasts between the franchise’s entries.
A Two-Faced Series
We're just going to have to face it: we're never going to get that true hashshashin simulator, the one that wasn't altered for continued market success, and the one that didn't boil down to simply listening to someone while sitting on a bench. Even though, at some point in history, a real hashshashin did just that.