Despite having access to a gaming PC, I am mostly using my not-so-powerful laptop to play video games. And I am not complaining at all – with a PC, you can access a large library of previous game generations, including not-that-old-and-still-playable titles. For me, it’s been an occasion to play through the entire Assassin’s Creed series from the very beginning of it. The release of a new entry in the series is a good time to reflect on its roots.
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While I would say that it was rather Assassin’s Creed II that truly defined the series, the very first entry had laid the foundations. It set up the eternal conflict of Assassins and Templars, with both organizations having its members among different factions of historical conflicts and influencing the way the history unfolds. It introduced the concept of genetic memory as a vehicle to “travel” to different eras via the Animus as well as the powerful ancient artifacts, known as the Pieces of Eden, that are the object of interest for both parties.
Every game in the series has been built upon these pillars. There is also, of course, the marvelous reconstruction of the historical cities’ architecture, here featuring Jerusalem, Damascus, Akka and Maysaf, which is also a major point of the series, however marginalized in some entries, like 3 or Black Flag. The cities are playgrounds for the players presented with the freerun parkour mechanic. There are also, however revamped in recent entries, the famed viewpoints: go climb this building, marvel at the surroundings, uncover a part of the map.
Speaking of the recently refreshed hallmarks, there is also combat, famous for its counter-kills. And we should mention the, long-finished since, current times storyline of Mr. Desmond Miles, a descendant of our historical protagonists and a prisoner-slash-guinea pig of Abstergo, the modern Templars.
Compared to any other game in the series, the first one feels a bit bare-bones.
But enough about the series, let’s get to this particular entry. Well… The problem is that there’s little to add. Compared to any other game in the series, the first one feels a bit bare-bones. There are only three available activities which you need to do a set number of time before being allowed to attempt the next main mission – target assassination. These are: eavesdropping, often combined with pickpocketing; interrogation, preceded by tailing and roughing up the target; and the most varied one – an informant’s request, which can be anything from an assassination of a number of targets to an escort or, for example, a freerun race. There were also two rather minor, unrewarding challenges – collecting flags and killing a number of templar knights scattered among the cities. Still, combined with all I have said previously, it was a revolutionary game in its time, well received by the reviewers.
One last thing I want to mention is the protagonist: Altair. While he wasn’t the most characterful one, he did leave an impression. For one, for the stoicism he himself re-learns over the game. But most importantly, for his well-designed robe, with a hoodie-like upper part. The following Assassins preferred a hooded coat, but the original is beautiful in its simplicity. Everyone after Ezio wanted to make an equally big impression, but not being Ezio, they weren’t truly able to. And speaking of Ezio…
It’s the game that filled the beautiful but empty world of Assassin’s Creed with activities. For many, it’s also the best game in the series. ACII takes us to Renaissance Italy: from Florence, through San Gimignano and Monterrigioni of Tuscany to Forli, Venice, and finally ending in Vatican. We see this world through the eyes of the lively Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
ACII has done much for the series. First, it has truly embedded the concept of Assassins and Templars into real world history, moving the action away from the locales of Middle East and times of the Crusades. It also remodeled the iconic Hidden Blade (no longer requiring the amputation of the ring finger) and built up Altair as a Mentor of the Assassins.
The game’s plot was far more straightforward (even it still dealt mainly with conspiracies) and optimistic – in no small part due to the character of Ezio. Even with all the tragedy surrounding him, he remained cheerful and flirty. He lived the life of adventure and he knew it!
The core gameplay has been refined. The protagonist picked up a second hidden blade and learned new methods of assassination, involving a gun and poison. He equipped himself with smoke bombs and learned to swim. Enemies became more varied, now including armored “brutes” and agile, free running “hunters”. You could also hire groups of thieves, courtesans or mercenaries to aid you against them in different ways. An economy system was added, and every game since has had one, even though they were varied.
Here you could see the Prince of Persia lineage of the Assassins.
This is all good, but it would be for naught if not for the changes in mission layout. Firstly, main missions (now not only assassinations) form a simple progression from one into another. Secondly, and more importantly, a breath of very interesting optional activities was added. Fist fights, races, courier assignments, assassination contracts, and, most notably – secret locations. These were crafted as the playgrounds for the parkour system. Here you could see the Prince of Persia lineage of the Assassins (as the first game was meant to be a new entry in this dignified series).
I did not praise the cities yet – again, fine crafted architectural pleasures to parkour through. Just like in the first game, each city had its visual tint. I vividly remember Venice as blue, Florence as orange, Tuscany as dark green, Forli as gray.
Once more I will praise the main character’s attire. Ezio’s coat captures the spirit of Renaissance: it is finely crafted and intricately detailed. I love the little cape over his left arm. His robes are a mainstay of the series, available to be worn in future games.
The story of Ezio continues right from where we left off. Literally – the game starts with leaving Vatican, to later continue in all of Rome. This time, this is the one and only hub city. There are trips to other places – Monterrigioni plays a critical role, however you cannot free roam through them. Only Rome is open, and the openness has received a boost: while some regions of the map are closed until you get to a specific point in the story, the progress is no more “one district per Sequence”. A larger part of the map is available from the start.
A large part of side missions is now connected to your allies’ guilds.
The game has many new features that return in many of the following entries. Districts are controlled by the Templars from Towers, which can be captured. A large part of side missions is now connected to your allies’ guilds (courtesans, thieves and mercenaries), which also offer challenges for you to accomplish. Most notably, now you are in control of friendly Assassins from the Brotherhood – you can recruit them, call them up for help in several different ways, send them away on missions throughout the world and level them up.
The combat has seen notable improvements, too: you can now wield heavier weapons, there is a new, elite enemy type (papal guard), you receive a sweet, though a bit overpowered, crossbow, and the counter-kill has finally met his lifelong friend: the kill-streak. Now after scoring a kill in a fight, if the next attack will be an instakill too if you manage to fit into a small time window.
The idea for secret locations reappears in the form of Lairs of Romulus, however they are sidelined by a new addition – the Da Vinci’s machines. The story behind them is that Leonardo, Ezio’s long-time friend, is forced to work for the Templars but manages to tip off our hero about the locations of the plans and prototypes of his inventions. Each of these missions requires a trip out of Rome. They start with a stealth sequence and proceed to what’s essentially a gameplay experiment that uses one of Leonardo’s inventions. I have very fond memories of the flying machine’s bombing runs and the wooden “tank” battle.
This is also the first entry featuring a multiplayer mode. Alas, I haven’t had an occasion to try it out.
The final trip with Ezio took us from Maysaf to Constantinople and Cappadocia. His quest was a different one this time – instead of facing a great enemy, he searched for artifacts left by the great master Altair. Through ancient Memory Seals, Ezio became able to relive memories embedded in them by Altair (which Desmond then relives through Animus).
The Desmond portion of the story is a bit different, too: after the last game, he fell in a coma and was put into the Animus. He awakes in the machine’s safe mode, where he has to synchronize fully with Ezio in order to find himself again and awake. His internal journeys are presented as first-person platforming “challenges”, comparable to walking simulators. There is even a piece of DLC in a very similar vein.
As I mentioned, Ezio is not actively pursuing Templars this time, having different things on his mind. Underway, he tries to help the local Assassin branch, however he proceeds to make a little mess instead. The game ends with Ezio retiring. This, combined with the revamped present-day portion, gives the final entry in the ACII sub-series a more cynical undertone, but Ezio’s personality keeps it from being a downer.
The district-securing Dens now sometimes need protection, which is provided in surprising tower defense sequences..
Gameplay-wise, the protagonist receives a new modification to his hidden blade – a hook, giving him extra combat and parkour moves. His smoke bombs are also exchanged for a bomb-crafting system. You have three pouches of explosives: a lethal, a tactical and a diversional one. For each set, you can select three parameters: base effect (including smoke, damage, poison, caltrops or fake gold), range and fuse type (impact, time delay or mine). The district-securing Dens now sometimes need protection, which is provided in surprising tower defense sequences. Friendly Assassin recruits now also have their own short mission chains, where they request help from their Master.
This is the final entry of the Renaissance era, which was later re-released in a 3-pack as The Ezio Collection. Up until now, each title clearly built on the previous one gameplay-wise. Assassin’s Creed III, while not a revolution, does many things differently, however that’s something we’ll discuss next time.