Have you ever stopped to wonder why the world of Assassin’s Creed doesn’t quite feel like a world?
To celebrate the release this Friday of Assassin’s Creed: Origins we are going to explore the series and its weird and wonderful world. Whether it be foible, folly, or flourish, we will look at the worlds, the ideas, and the studios, to revel in a decade-long franchise that’s shifted the gaming landscape. For more AC Week articles, go here.
Despite the po-faced accretions of the overarching plot, filled as it is with boilerplate sci-fi nonsense, Ubisoft has with Assassin’s Creed a whole world on its desk. One imagines some besuited bigwig, presumably of various faiths and beliefs, with a glorious topographical map of the world: pinned, demarcated, annotated with thoughts like, ‘perfect for DLC,’ or perhaps, ‘ideal territories for episodic chapters.’
And sure enough, like some benign East India Company, much of the earth has been captured, negotiated, and co-opted; great cities of history are brought to assiduous life, ports on the Ubisoft Ocean. It’s odd then that when you boot up an Assassin’s Creed, any of them, it doesn’t feel as if you’re a part of that world.
If you think of the one Rockstar has shaped, it’s a very different story. The whisper of an old name is enough to invite tingles of excitement; mentions of familiar events and allusions to other places pull the disparate threads together like the snippets of the Shroud. There lingers the idea that over the very tide that laps against Liberty City, across the waters of code, is Vice City – a glimmering jewel in the distance you might even make out with the right eyes.
But why? Is it the unmistakable magic of Rockstar’s imprimatur? Maybe… Probably, but it isn’t as though Ubisoft is short of talent, and it isn’t only Grand Theft Auto that gets this right. Is it the way Assassin’s Creed is assembled annually with the rapid-fire precision of an F1 pit crew? It can’t help, and certainly they had to take a year out to stave off stagnation. But no, the answer is simple: In its world-building exhibition, Ubisoft neglects to make the return journey.
Blithely committed to pushing back the frontier, the developer is keen to assimilate newer and newer ground into the fold. From the dusty clay streets of 12th century Damascus to the red brick houses and patterned porticos of Victorian London; from the boardwalks and byways of Boston, to the far-reaching sapphire of Black Flag‘s seas: there is a tremendous will toward the unconquered.
The refusal to re-tread old ground is admirable in its way, and certainly a team as big as Ubisoft’s has the resources not to have to, but there are advantages to cooling the itchy feet.
In a game with no shortage of thrills, the real moments of excitement in Yakuza 0 come by way of walking down old roads. Set in the 1980s, years before the first Yakuza in 2005, it plays on your kinship with Kamurocho – one that’s been built up across all five main entries in the series. Noticing out the corner of your eye the alley where you whooped the tar out of some Shimano clan heavies – or rather, where one day you will – is the kind of texture you can’t buy.
Similarly, architectural shifts are there to beckon the digital tourist. Kamurocho’s pride and joy, Millennium Tower, is a vacant lot in 1988; Club Sega, the blinking, fluorescent sinkhole of lost hours is now branded Sega High-Tech Land. It’s like holding translucent blueprint paper up to the Olde Towne map, every street a vector of memory, of that archaeological sense of uncovering, changed yet the same.
Consider the way Rockstar has re-framed its work in side-stories and revisits. Liberty City Stories rewound to 1998: motorbikes, conspicuous in their absence from GTA III, now scream down the streets – yet to be banned by the city council; Tony Cipriani, the oedipal Soprano stand-in, is now the protagonist, so you’ll spend more time in districts like St Marks and Harwood because it’s Leone family turf. It’s home now.
In San Andreas, set in 1992, the mission ‘Fly to Liberty City’ asks of you just that. It cuts a square mile out of St Marks and cordons off the edges, encasing you in a time capsule. When you get there, something so simple and so small changes the way you see the streets. It’s snowing. Such a detail might seem trivial, but seeing it for the first time in such a familiar snow globe was an odd little joy.
It isn’t all open-worlds either. Characters across different games, times, and linear settings can be wed together by events and their connections to geography. Resident Evil is a series where each game is linked through connecting tissue: the psychic scars left by the fallout of Racoon City. You can feel the effects like the waves of heat off an infected wound.
Characters course its streets across different games; they hurtle through its surrounds in a train. It was instrumental in the downfall of a feared corporation; and it altered a man’s career trajectory, sending him one day to a village in Spain. A picture of the Raccoon forest hangs on the wall of a plantation house somewhere in Louisiana, years later.
It helps that these series don’t stretch back too far in time – they are close enough for familiar characters to come and go. Assassin’s Creed on the other hand bends toward the power of its premise: with the animus it can go anywhere, anywhen, often making leaps of not tens but hundreds of years.
Still, is it any wonder that the most cherished games in the canon, II and Brotherhood, tarry in renaissance Italy, shepherded by that rare thing for this series: a protagonist with likeability and longevity? The map of Rome in that game was completely new, but the sensation of being in Italy during that time, coupled with Ezio’s winsome blend of bravado and humour made us feel, for the first time, part of something cohesive.
The underrated Revelations makes the pilgrimage to Constantinople with an older Ezio, peppered with wry cynicism and salted with grey hairs. His weary determination and weather-beaten posterior made him the perfect chaperone for this new trip. It helped us frame the Ottoman Empire and its discontents against ground we had trodden before.
It speaks to the incredible untapped potential of the Animus: through ‘memories’ and ‘synchronisation’ it bound the series’ trinity of protagonists, bringing Desmond, Ezio, and Altair in concert with one another across generations. It can be used to make a night sky of history, pointed with characters like twinkling stars in one all-encompassing belle époque. But Ubisoft never went back.
And so with Assassin’s Creed: Origins we turn forwards to the past, to Egypt, and let’s hope to stay a while. Let’s hope, even, to revisit it after we leave. “You can’t go home again,” says Tom Wolfe. And he’s right insofar as it won’t be the same home you remember. Sometimes, though, that’s a beautiful thing.