Trial Separation

By Mark Delaney, 1 year ago
In 2007, Ubisoft was a middle to major French publisher known mostly for Rayman, Prince of Persia, and its line of Tom Clancy-endorsed wartime shooters, like Rainbow Six, Splinter Cell, and Ghost Recon. Each of these was known for delivering at least a few worthy titles in their respective franchises over the previous generations of consoles. With the Xbox 360 and PS3 still in their relative infancy, the publisher assigned a new project to Ubisoft Montreal. At the helm was an up and coming game designer in the company, Patrice Désilets, whose background in film seemed perfect to work on the next Prince of Persia game. It was to be centered around an assassin because, as Désilets argued, a Prince isn't an interesting character. Ubisoft didn't like not having their titular prince be the playable protagonist, so the game spun off into its own creation, the prince was removed, and born was what has now become the company's flagship franchise, Assassin's Creed.

Nine years ago, the demo for the original game was met with great applause. People were thrilled to see this new game with its death-defying parkour, time-hopping narrative, and a backstory as intriguing as a season of LOST. It was decidedly next-gen at a time when early adopters were aching for something new and impressive to justify their spending. Two years later, Ubisoft came back and followed up their hit with what some people consider to be the best game in the series. Assassin's Creed II introduced Ezio Auditore da Firenze, whose life in Italy would be irreparably changed in the first act of his story. We would go on to witness his transformation from hot-headed young man and trainee, all the way to master assassin, across three games that released in consecutive years from 2009-11. The finale to the Ezio trilogy was starting to show signs of wear, but it didn't stop Ubisoft from announcing the next game, due for release -- you guessed it -- a year later.

Widely considered the fan favorite among protagonists, Ezio is still the only assassin to get his own trilogy.Widely considered the fan favorite among protagonists, Ezio is still the only assassin to get his own trilogy.

Assassin's Creed III brought the series to the United States after a lot of cryptic clues hinted at such a setting. By this point, the games' mysterious narrative was falling into the background in favor of the gameplay. It's the type of thing that happens a lot in games that reach the size and scope of this one. Naval battles were a hit and the forest parkour revitalized a familiar feature set. The hero, Connor, would not win over fans nearly as much as his predecessor. Because of that (or maybe not), he was cast out in favor of a new standalone adventure the following year.

After a single game with the series' original star, Altaïr, Ezio got his own trilogy, then Connor got just the single game again. The same then went for pirate Edward Kenway with Black Flag and French Revolution-era star Arno Dorian, whose buggy title Unity, served as the true next-gen debut for the Assassin's Creed series. Last gen holdouts weren't forgotten either, as they witnessed the first game through the eyes of a Templar in Assassin's Creed Rogue. It all seemed very improvised. Is Ezio the fan favorite because he's the most interesting, or simply because Ubisoft dragged their feet with him while they introduced multiplayer?

At this point, the series had released eight mainline games in the series in an eight year span. That's on top of the formerly PS Vita exclusive title, Liberation, and the many DS, mobile and even Facebook releases for the series. Most recently, the series was handed off to a new studio for the first time, as Ubisoft Montreal sent the Assassins and Templars a few hours north to Ubisoft Quebec, who released Assassin's Creed Syndicate with dual protagonists, the Frye siblings. This game gave Ubi a perfect batting average, nine main titles in nine years. It was better received than some other recent entries and some said it was the spark that was needed to find new life in a series suffering from oversaturation and loss of direction.

AC III was the beginning of the end for the games' narrative focus.AC III was the beginning of the end for the games' narrative focus.

That brings us to today. Just recently, rumors of where the series might head next were confirmed to be true. Assassin's Creed has always been famously bad at keeping secrets and this fall's direction was no exception. Where will it go next? On hiatus.

When 2016 comes to a close, it will be the first year since 2008 that gamers weren't given a new main entry to Assassin's Creed. Of course, further cementing the oversaturation remarks, there have actually already been two Creed games this year, both of them coming by way of the 2.5D Chronicles spinoffs. Along with the previous rumors of a year's hiatus came rumors that the next game will introduce a new trilogy to take place in Ancient Egypt, and featuring deeper RPG elements than those that helped Syndicate receive praise. Whether or not the game will do any of those things is only a matter of speculation for the next several months, but just the thought of such features has created a buzz around the games that hasn't been felt in a while.

The decision to give the series some time to catch its breath seems overdue, and oddly-timed. While plenty agree, even many devout fans, that the series had grown stale recently, Syndicate was well received and looked to be the first in a while to turn the games around. Our own Dave Horobin coined it the best game in the series since 2010's Brotherhood.

So why now? Why not do this years ago, when the games needed this timeout the most? Why not do it after ACIII, or Black Flag, or certainly after Unity that was released so broken that Ubisoft gave out free games as apologies. At first glance, the obvious answer (and one that I believe is at least partially responsible) is Michael Fassbender. This December, he'll star in the Assassin's Creed movie as it seeks to become arguably the first good film based on a video game ever. For Ubisoft to release a new game this fall unrelated to the movie, which would come out just a few weeks later, could've been a huge mess for their marketing strategy. Casually interested moviegoers and ad watchers could confuse the game with the movie, and vice versa. A game tie-in with the movie seems like an even worse idea. Those never end well. The Fassbender vehicle is primed to be one of the premiere releases in its near-Christmas release date, at a time when a bunch of gamers young and old are getting vacation time from school and work. The studio surely doesn't want to move the film out of that launch date.

Black Flag was praised for its excellent naval battles, while some other entries failed to create their own unique gameplay elements.Black Flag was praised for its excellent naval battles, while some other entries failed to create their own unique gameplay elements.

An earlier release date for the game isn't realistic either, so the answer is to postpone the next game. By how much? A few months until the spring window might have been enough. Then it could hit stores as the movie hits disc and digital services, much like we saw with Warner Bros. doubling down on Mad Max content recently. However, it seems to me that Ubisoft recognized that they were already out of their preferred Black Friday 2016 window, so why not give it the full year and come back in fall 2017?

Being a massively popular series is strange sometimes. If you do some reading, it seems no one is content with your product. Yet when release day comes, you're still setting records and making millions. Speaking for myself and maybe others out there, I can attribute my grudging and continued involvement with the series to be based on a yearning for what once was. I've been chasing it with each new release, hoping that this is the one. This is the one that gets it back on track. I do believe that the series has lost its way in its gameplay certainly. Assassinations in Unity were so formulaic and boring. The naval combat, which didn't fit into that particular game, wasn't replaced with an alternate gameplay loop that could draw me into the game for hours. Even before that, Black Flag's missions on foot seemed like nothing but stalking dime-a-dozen guards from tall grass, over and over again. It was an excellent pirate game. It was not, however, an Assassin's Creed game.

The UI has always been horrible, in my opinion. I love a game that approaches information sharing with a less-is-more mentality. The AC games have always bombarded players with info in all four corners of the screen, plus in between some of these corners. On top of that, enemies glow with various colors and a detection meter circles around your character -- there's just too much. It breaks the immersion. Overall, stealth has only recently begun to feel good mechanically. For years there weren't any stealth mechanics besides hiding in plain sight or breaking the sightlines of enemies. These are fun and even iconic parts of the game, but they need to be supplemented with better stealth controls too. Much of the series doesn't even let you crouch. If the games are going to keep telling me that I "work in the dark to serve the light", I'd like something that better exemplifies that mantra than this. Granted, that entry is five years old but the stealth mechanics have not improved much since then.

Syndicate was the best in a while, according to many, but the series is still taking a breather this year.Syndicate was the best in a while, according to many, but the series is still taking a breather this year.

More painfully to me, the series has lost its way in its narrative. The Ezio trilogy set up fantastic mythology regarding the story universe, with the Pieces of Eden, the First Civilization, and the cataclysmic event that dethroned them. These are threads that were dripped to us game by game up until the end of ACIII. Since then, we haven't really seen or heard much at all about those plot points. Instead, the later games have acted as one-off Assassin versus Templar feuds that have little to do with the big picture that they were once painting. This is an obvious product of the game's Animus. The whole of human history is available, within which Ubisoft can create stories -- so they have. It reeks of a business-first mentality. The first few games had heart. The more recent games have taken a quantity over quality approach. I haven't played Syndicate yet, and I'm once again cautiously hopeful that it'll be a return to what drew me into the games in the first place. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me for half a decade... well, you get the point.

So I welcome the time apart. Fans of the games, like I still consider myself to be, should consider it a trial separation. When a couple is not co-existing in a healthy manner, they schedule a separation period to see what life is like without each other and to see if they still want or need each other. This fan-publisher relationship has not been too healthy, not for years now. The year away from the series seems like the best case scenario at this stage in its lifespan. It's a household name, one that will become even bigger if the movie is well received this December. To follow up the film with a refocused and perhaps redesigned game would mark the biggest moment in the series' history.

I do like Ubisoft as a company. When they hit E3, their executives seem to genuinely be fans of games, just as much as some of the game designers, so I'm hopeful that the series can be reborn in exciting new ways for 2017. For financial reasons, they annualized the series. For more admirable, creatively driven reasons, they're taking this year off. The movie plays a part, and I don't think that they would have taken the year off if there was no movie coming, but I also don't think they would have skipped this year if the games were still as stellar as they once were. This is Ubisoft listening to fans, listening to reason. Isn't a great game after two years better than a good (or worse) annual game? They seem to agree, finally. After the initial hiatus story broke, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot said the series might stick to a non-yearly schedule and that their only aim now is to keep the franchise coming on a "regular basis". A recent poll that we conducted here on TA indicates that such a strategy would be welcomed by a vast majority of gamers, at least those on this site.

Spinoffs like <i>Chronicles</i> keep the series in our collective consciousness, but you can't miss what never goes away.Spinoffs like Chronicles keep the series in our collective consciousness, but you can't miss what never goes away.

What they can't do is take the year off and come back in 2017 with more rehashed material. No more standalones, no more of the same busy work, no more formulaic assassinations. Whichever studio is handed the keys to the franchise will have their work cut out for them. Making just another game in the series is no longer an option. They've taken the year off for presumably more reasons than to just promote the movie, so the end result has to reflect that renewed commitment. Make this next game special and, please, make its story important to the overarching mythology. We get it. The two opposing sides have been fighting for all of human history. Now show us the consequences of that feud. Maybe the game will look like more of an RPG. That seems like something that fans would adore. Ever since whispers of Egypt were heard, the anticipation has been higher than one of the games' sync points. If it's another trilogy that they have planned, we might get the next great Assassin in the series. An additional year could very well do wonders for the series and we'll see if that happens or not in time. Yet again, I find myself saying, "this is the one." This could finally re-route the games I once loved, the stories I once loved.

For now, I guess it just takes a leap of faith.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is one of three voices on the TA Playlist podcast. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his fiancée and son. He almost never writes in the third person.