Assassin’s Creed Needs to Just Start Over From Scratch
After eight years, Assassin’s Creed still has a lot of potential. But to unlock much more of it, the series may need to start again from scratch.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, recently released on Xbox One and PlayStation 4 and coming to PC this month, is earning a reputation as one of the better entries in the series thus far. I’ve certainly spent much more time with it, and had much more fun with it, than I have with any of the games in recent years. The concept—play as a blade-wielding, rooftop-clambering silent assassin through various time periods—was always strong, if severely diluted by Ubisoft’s parade of annual revisions.
Syndicate‘s choice of era (Victorian London) and emphasis on infiltration-assassination missions (no time-sucking filler) certainly had me hooked. But it’s impossible to not notice, even when having fun, that Assassin’s Creed is a very old game. Not purely in its engine, which has the exact same bugs as games from half a decade ago, but the dozen games’ worth of lore that seems to be making it impossible to do something truly surprising again. Assassin’s Creed could use a reboot, a chance to start fresh.
You can’t help but notice, playing Syndicate in 2015, that it feels almost exactly like you’ve booted up a copy of Assassin’s Creed II circa 2009. This of course means that it feels like you’re playing a very good videogame. But it’s also hard to shake the feeling of playing a really well-crafted user mod for a game from the previous decade. Then again, with only a year between Assassin’s Creed game releases, what can you do besides create incredibly elaborate mods?
There is a new addition to Syndicate that makes the moment-to-moment gameplay feel noticeably different, namely the portable zipline. Using this, you can scale an entire building by tapping a button, or create a direct pathway between any two high points on the map. No, they can’t be infinitely far apart, but the distance you can traverse in the air simply by firing your zipline can be pretty surprising.
Not only does this mean you can skulk around on rooftops rather than descend to the ground, it means you can now use “air assassinations”—death-defying leaps from tall places directly on to unsuspecting enemies—then immediately tap a button to ascend back up to the roof without being noticed. All in all, the zipline makes it a little easier to play cat-and-mouse with your foes, rather than get sucked into hand-to-hand combat.
Another element of Syndicate that lends it a different feel than other games in the series is Austin Wintory’s phenomenal, minimalist soundtrack—it feels like there’s a string quartet in the room, playing a dynamic accompaniment to your gameplay, like that video of the guy playing violin alongside Super Mario Bros..
But there’s only so much you can graft on to an aging skeleton before it starts to go all out of joint. The biggest drag on Assassin’s Creed isn’t the creaky engine but the years-old, voluminous storyline. Every historical adventure has been linked together into one massive meta-narrative that involves modern-day Assassins plumbing the past for information that will help them in their contemporary fight against the Templars, but each successive game in the series seems to be taking a thinner and thinner slice out of what’s left of that pie.
In Syndicate, we keep jumping back to modern-day scenes featuring two bit players from the previous games, as they—actually, I have no idea what they’re even doing anymore, besides engaging in the umpteenth breathless, time-is-of-the-essence heist in which they attempt to snatch another crucial McGuffin away from the Knights Templar.
The London story is just as unmemorable: There is a Bad Man doing Bad Things in Blighty, and he needs very much to have a knife inserted into his larynx. Accepting this job is a pair of rando assassins, with no apparent motivation other than Eliminate The Bad Man Because He Is Bad. I want to like these guys, but I need a reason why.
This two checked items and one carry-on’s worth of narrative baggage is another reason Assassin’s Creed could use a fresh start. Ubisoft has a team of talented writers on this series that I think are unduly constricted in where they can go. The core concept remains solid, but annual iteration on previous gameplay concepts and adding more words to a story already largely written only gets you so far. A new game designed from the ground up, with every feature and story element on the table to be kept or jettisoned, could deliver something truly surprising again.
Of course, starting from scratch would mean temporarily turning off the money spigot that is the annualized Assassin’s Creed franchise. And who’d want to kill a sure thing for the promise of something better—maybe? Series that get rebooted are series that already have failed, and if Assassin’s Creed keeps succeeding at the cash register, we may well never play anything in the series that feels truly new.
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