These are heartening days for lovers of Assassin’s Creed.
Last week, Ubisoft announced a bundle of upcoming titles, some of them bearing strange and mutable subtitles. We have Codename Hexe, of which we know little, save for the idea that it probably entails witches. (“Hexe” is German for “witch,” so expect not only hoods and hidden blades but cauldrons, cats, broomsticks, and all manner of bubbling trouble.) We also have Codename Red, which, to judge from the teaser trailer, is set in Feudal Japan. This is the least enticing of the bunch, and it’s hardly Ubisoft’s fault; fans have been clamouring for it more or less since the series began, lending the announcement the feel of worn-out placation.
Ubisoft also revealed Assassin’s Creed Infinity, which is not a game, nor a threat, but a kind of launcher, into which the games are plugged. Courtesy of an interview with Eurogamer, we know that this is where the games’ present-day plots will unfold – presumably without end. This could be great news for those who like to bemoan the Animus: that steel contraption, half-way between tanning bed and torture rack, on which the heroes lay and log in to the past. You would often be tossed out of the historical action, just as things were hotting up, and subjected to the self-indulgent rambles of scientists. Now maybe the narrative tossing will be confined to Infinity.
Last, and perhaps most exciting of all, there is Assassin’s Creed Mirage. Set in Baghdad in 861 A.D., it will scrap the RPG levelling, home in on a single city, and have us, you know, assassinating people again. The trailer features a narrator who reminds us of the creed itself, with its three tenets: “Stay your blade from the flesh of the innocent,” “Hide in plain sight,” and “Never compromise the brotherhood.” Not that I don’t appreciate the refresher course, but I couldn’t help thinking, “No need to remind me, go tell it to Eivor,” the cream-haired viking of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, who preferred longboat raids to hiding, and for whom innocent flesh was necessary collateral. By the looks of it, Mirage is the game to beckon those delirious souls who are all Creeded out – who have found the recent entries dry and endless, and who thirst for a return to the old ways. Its title seems ominously chosen. (Even the official website for the game calls it “A tribute to an original” and a “heartfelt homage to the game that started it all.”)
Still, in the spirit of investigation, I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed, trying to figure out what it is that some of us yearn to get back to. One answer is: the spirit of investigation. It’s difficult to grasp now the mystery of the original game; you spent its opening hours, back in 2007, attempting to learn what the hell was going on. The story, written by Corey May, turns on Desmond Miles, a bartender who has been kidnapped by a company called Abstergo.
“What do you want me to do, teach you how to mix a martini?” Desmond says to his chief captor, Dr. Warren Vidic.
“We know who you are, what you are,” Vidic replies. “You’re an assassin, and, whether you realise it or not, you’ve got something that my employers want, locked away in that head of yours.”
And over the next fifteen or so hours, you never quite feel as if you have managed to break the lock.
This is down in part to a sluggish Nolan North, who voices Desmond, giving him one part anger to two parts bewilderment, and refusing to stir. (Perhaps North had exhausted all of his pep voicing Nathan Drake, the treasure-hunting hero of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, that same year.) Though the plot is chiefly concerned with plunging into the ancestral memories stashed within Desmond’s genetic code, we never get the measure of the man himself. You wind up empathising with Vidic, who grows increasingly impatient behind his raincloud of beard, nagging Desmond back onto the Animus. And then there is the matter of history – specifically, that of the Holy Land in 1191 A.D., from which all colour has leaked. The art direction, by Raphaël Lacoste, matches the miserable silver-grey of the Abstergo lab with light that benumbs the Middle Ages. The result is the odd sensation that past and present are blurring and blending together; Desmond may be periodically pulled out of the Animus, but we never feel entirely pulled out of him.
The doubleness doesn’t stop there. In 1191, we control Altaïr, a dull hothead in an ice-white hood, and a dead ringer for his distant forebear. Altaïr’s master is wizened Al Mualim, who leads a clan of assassins and aims to cleanse the neighbourhood of bothersome Templars. Watch the old man, perched comfortably in his mountain eyrie, lecturing Altaïr on how to change the world. It’s a cloudy echo of Vidic, encastled in his Abstergo high-rise, pontificating on the exact same subject at Desmond – who happens to sport a hoodie of gleaming white. As hokey as all this is, it gets its hooks in you. You start to ask: Who is this guy Desmond, really? What do Abstergo want from him? And what on earth does that have to do with what happened back in the 12th Century? As scholars of the series will point out, some of the answers may not actually be on Earth. That martini sounds good.
This puzzling atmosphere extends from the story into play. Al Mualim, tease that he is, sends Altaïr to three cities – Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem – but doesn’t divulge the identity of his targets. This is for two reasons: one, to give us a reason to go sniffing around for the stink of maleficence, shimmying up towers, pickpocketing letters, eavesdropping, and so on; and, two, to reacquaint Altaïr with the fundamentals of his profession. At the outset, our man kills an innocent bystander and botches a simple reconnaissance mission. He’s like Daniel Craig at the beginning of Casino Royale, freshly licensed and itching to prove it. Al Mualim strips him of his rank, and much of his weaponry, and demands that he earn it all back. It’s the old Metroid trick, in which Samus would begin souped up and ready to roll, lose it all via some pesky parasite, and strive to get back to her prime.
It’s tough to diagnose the shortfalls of Assassin’s Creed. You could say that it is too long, or that there isn’t enough stuff to fill its hours, but these don’t quite hit the mark. I played the director’s cut, which spices the action with extra missions, but it still feels as airless as it always did. The action is glazed with monotony, but it occurred to me the sense of ritual that glues Altaïr’s missions together. Note the doves that Al Mualim dispatches before each kill, alerting distant allies as though putting out a tweet. The feathers that Altaïr dips in blood and sends back after felling each of his marks. And the chats he has with his expiring victims, each of whom argues his cause with enough passion to ruffle Altaïr’s convictions.
You wind up doing the same things over and over, but the pattern starts to give comfort. And it dawns on you the compelling smallness of the first game, not the size of its map but of its ambitions. “Nothing is true; everything is permitted” goes the maxim of Al Mualim and his pupils, which sounds perfect for an open world, but there is a steel-tipped focus to the formula here. Everything that would later billow into a franchise was so specific to, and made so much more sense in, this game: the monkish hoods, the Templars, the flat-packed parkour-friendly cities. There is a lyricism to its mechanics. Think of Altaïr’s wrist-mounted blade, designed to deliver a practically fairy-tale prick, and note the visual pun as he pulls off his most iconic disappearing act, diving into carts of convenient straw: a needle plummeting into a haystack. Years before the naval sprees, the junk heaps of recyclable gear, and the vast expanses of wilderness, you have a game that’s unhindered and honed by the narrowness of its gaze. Far less was permitted, but everything felt true.
The fact is, Assassin’s Creed hadn’t leapt all that far from the Prince of Persia game that it once was. It is that Ubisoft series, as well as Altaïr’s first outing, to which Assassin’s Creed Mirage hopes to pay tribute. For those that purchase the collector’s edition, there is a Princely costume available to its hero, Basim, and a pre-order will net you a “Forty Thieves” bonus quest. And no wonder. Beyond the shared acrobatics and the elastic combat, Desmond’s plight – being forced to sift through the sands of time, and tap into the warrior within – was always something of a retread.
The question is, can Assassin’s Creed Mirage recapture the magic? I have my doubts, if for no other reason than the magic, such as it is, was rooted in weirdness – and in things we did not yet know. The other problem is mechanical. Of all the games in the series, Assassin’s Creed may be the truest to its own vision of those who are trained and devoted to murder, but it isn’t actually the most fun to play. Many would argue that the balance was better struck by its two immediate sequels. In any event, one can empathise with Ubisoft’s yearning to grasp for something lost. It’s an acute longing, shared by a nostalgic faction of its fans. But you have to be careful when reaching for the past. What you think you see may shimmer with promise, but it has a nasty habit of vanishing the moment you draw near.