2017 wasn't the best year by a lot of metrics, but my word we were treated to some wonderful games. Notably we saw the remarkably healthy return of a number of franchises, once thought to be ageing disgracefully. Mario may have never truly lost his shine, but by all accounts Super Mario Odyssey injects a level of invention and joy not seen since the Galaxy games. In one bold move, The Legend of Zelda franchise went from being one of the dusty retirees of the industry to possessing its near-unanimous Game of the Year in Breath of the Wild — possibly reshaping the future of open-world adventures as we know them. For me though, the Assassin's Creed franchise had the most remarkable journey.
The latest game, Assassin's Creed Origins, probably could have gotten away with simply setting the game in Egypt — surely the most requested future destination among fans — without changing much else about the gameplay. It could have been another middling open world experience that Ubisoft might get some flak for, but still sell well regardless. It was perhaps unnecessarily bold of Ubisoft to strip out a lot of the expected Assassin's Creed experience and redefine how we engage with it, but they went ahead and did it anyway. Surprising quite a lot of people, the developers actually pulled it off.
While applauding the development team's efforts, it also left me wondering, perhaps a little anxiously — what on Earth do they do next? Both Origins and Breath of the Wild have ridden a wave of good-natured surprise from the gaming community, but that's not something either of them can rely on again. So what's next for the Creed? It's something Mark, Kevin and I talk about while discussing the game in the latest episode of the TA Playlist Podcast, but I think it's worth exploring more. Below you will find some ideas, predictions and concerns about Assassin's Creed's future. Please head to the comments after reading and let us know where you think the franchise might be headed next.
SPOILERS for Assassin's Creed Origins ahead.
More of the SameHere's a boring possibility, for me at least. Now that they have regained some of the trust of the gaming public, Ubisoft could easily rest on their laurels and whip out a very similar game within a year. They could simply iterate on the other inventions of Origins, as they have done so stubbornly with their franchises in the past. Maybe we will see no significant updates to the new combat system, no bold new direction for questing or emergent narrative in the game world. And maybe we'll see all this, again, by the end of this year — a reskinned retread of the ground Origins tried to break.
I don't personally see Ubisoft getting away with anything quite so drastic as the hasty rush of Ezio's trilogy, not when the Creed is only just dusting itself off of a fairly lacklustre run — it's easy to forget just how much Assassin's Creed II blew up at the time, and how quickly Ubisoft expanded as a result. However, there is a genuine worry for me that the desire to profit from players' goodwill, quickly and cheaply, might once again prevail over thoughtful consideration of the next move. The Creed deserves better than that. Hopefully the bold moves Ubisoft has made in the past couple of years — from Watch_Dogs 2's drastic tonal shift to giving Mario a freaking gun — shows that they have learned some of their lessons, and recaptured the creative heart that made them a beloved studio in the first place.
To this end, I genuinely hope that Origins is both the beginning and end of Bayek's story. He was a decent enough protagonist, but I just don't think he has the depth or potential of Ezio Auditore to risk stretching his narrative any thinner. Let Origins stand on its own as a decent entry to the series, and allow any eventual sequels to do the same by striking off in yet another new direction.
A Stealthier Spin-Off?
On the podcast, Mark raised an impromptu would-you-rather: could the next game after Origins take a full plunge into RPG territory, or could everything be scaled back to an Uncharted-like linear experience? Considering that I'm pondering a totally different assassination experience for January's Playlist, I've been thinking about a third option — what if Ubisoft ripped off HITMAN?
It's not something I'd feel comfortable about, of course, but it certainly seems possible. In another period of scheduled maintenance for the mainline series (more on that later), Ubisoft might be looking for the next spin-off in the same vein as Assassin's Creed Liberation HD or the Chronicles. Surely there must be a temptation to lift at least some of HITMAN's current template and wedge it into Assassin's Creed's universe? The advent of infinite historical and geographical possibility layered on top of HITMAN's intricate gameplay formula could lead to a very engaging side project between open-world behemoths. Each episode could focus on a key political event in history that perhaps lacks the potential to be fleshed out into an epic narrative. There are plenty of moments of incident in history that perhaps, beyond the site of the assassination, simply didn't have the surrounding architecture to work as a full open world AC title. One of the major complaints about the Assassins is that we never really get to see them get devious and clever about the way in which they take down a target. HITMAN's template could really give us a chance to see the Brotherhood use their guile.
Maybe this is all a little far-fetched to even consider, but the current swathe of Battle Royale clones cropping up around PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds proves that franchises are not averse to pilfering entire concepts from smaller studios. It's certainly a mash-up I would love to play, in any case.
The Top Five
Tell A Good Sci-Fi Story (Or Don't Tell One At All)
Don't get me wrong — I know that Assassin's Creed's narrative is far from the most important aspect to the majority of the series' players. However, there is a core fanbase who remain instrumental in keeping the franchise hype alive through all of its lows. These guys adore the over-arching sci-fi mystery and love to debate and discuss its meaning. I feel that, more than usual, Ubisoft really let those players down with Origins. The First Civilization recordings under the sands of Egypt were maddeningly vague, while Layla's exploits outside the Animus were almost completely pointless. We learn almost nothing about her character unless we sift through the ugly pile of files on her laptop, and yet for some reason we're supposed to care about her relationships and her future. The sense of mystery is simply gone in the sci-fi story at the moment, and for me that's a real shame. The First Civilization revelations for Ezio and Desmond in the final moments of Assassin's Creed II felt dramatic and surprising. Like Ezio, I had so many questions, which of course left me wanting to jump straight into Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood the following year.
What I personally hope is that Ubisoft take some bold steps forward with the First Civilization narrative, rather than the tepid half-stories we've been treated to since the culmination of Desmond's story. The time is right to strike out in an interesting direction, now that the baggage of past entries can be ignored. Give us a modern day character to care about a little more. Give us a more immediate and interactive way to engage with First Civilization messages rather than just collecting some glowing rocks. Most importantly, give us a historical protagonist that is directly impacted by these impossible events happening around him, rather than being a mute and indifferent observer. If the developer can't achieve any of that, then frankly I'm starting to lean towards the crowd saying to drop it altogether. That would be a huge shame as there is so much potential in that narrative, but frankly I'd prefer to see it cast aside if the only alternative is more unsurprising Abstergo double-crosses and cod-philosophical monologues from cheesy holograms.
Keep the Combat, Take It Deeper
I loved the combat in Origins. It had some significant problems in terms of finesse, but it was a breath of fresh air after the robotic blocking and countering of a decade's worth of iterations before it. There was a satisfying weight to the weapons and a genuine thrill in deftly side-stepping a huge enemy attack. It's borderline sacrilegious to draw direct comparisons to Dark Souls, but certainly Origins seems to have learned from developers like From Software that there are plenty of players out there willing to actually learn a substantial combat system, if you take the time to develop one.
I hope Ubisoft stick with the combat model that they have, but also I hope they take it much deeper. Given its demographic and style of world-building, I don't think AC could ever be a souls-like franchise, but there are certainly ways that Ubisoft can adjust the risk and reward of combat. A decent countering and parrying system would be a good start — as Kevin said on the podcast, Origins is just begging for a decent lunge and an overhaul of the countering system. The inclusion of legitimately magical items towards the end of Origins seemed bizarrely out of context at first, but the more I used them, the more fun I had. I hope the inevitable sequel to this game ramps that up a little further, with more difficult decisions to be made as to which outfit to wear and which weapon load-out would be more effective, depending on the opponent. It sounds like basic stuff, but as the series edges further over the line towards RPG territory, this is the time for Ubisoft to really commit to a strong RPG combat experience with all of the familiar and expected trappings.
Aya in Roma
I have a very strong suspicion that, given the way that Origins abruptly ended, we could very well be seeing more of Aya in the future. She has a complex and dark personality that is almost begging for more exploration. It's also probably an opportune moment for Ubisoft to finally take that step forward into having a standalone female protagonist in the series. What better way to do that than with a character that has already been well received with the fanbase, yet still retains an air of mystery?
Then there is the convenience of Aya's position in Rome at the end of Origin's narrative. A lot of the game's fans have expressed how Origins is one of the better entries, but always falls short of Assassin's Creed II in their rankings. There's a lot of nostalgia in the air for Ezio's Italy, so it seems like a no-brainer to set the next game in Rome. For those worried about retreading old ground, bear in mind that it won't be the same Rome at all — not only will the visuals be vastly improved, but this will be a Rome in the height of its' classical beauty and bloody savagery, with myriad nostalgic connections back to the ruined structures and long-deceased figures that Ezio pondered over in Brotherhood.
Finally, we have the possibility that Aya might not be the hero that we think her to be. Kevin's theory that Aya might go on to form the Templars may seem wild at first, but her complicated morality could very well lead to such a thing. While the end of Origins made it very painfully clear that Bayek was starting the proto-Assassins' Brotherhood known as The Hidden Ones, the origins of the Templar Order are still left pretty vague — perhaps deliberately so. There's still a lot of love out there for the series' oft-overlooked Assassin's Creed Rogue, enough that it's getting a remaster this year. Part of that critical success is down to the game turning expectations on their head; Not only is the hero a Templar, but the Assassins are almost wilfully irresponsible to the point where the player can feel uncertain as to who the bad guys are. It could well be that the remaster is a primer for Ubisoft pushing ahead with a game exploring similar themes, with Aya in the centre of it all.
Multiplayer — Dark Souls Style
The multiplayer of the Assassin's Creed franchise may be one of the most divisive topics I've come across in gaming. It seems even individual friends and colleagues can't quite decide whether they liked it or not, and whether they want it back or not. There's a certain amount of consensus that the format was getting stale by the time it was dropped in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, and the progression system certainly needed a lot of work to stop the late game devolving into an unbalanced nightmare. However there are plenty of people who miss the uniquely slow paced yet stressful cat-and-mouse of the early iterations of the PvP. There's a strong possibility that Ubisoft might well bring it back after a hiatus, just as they have done with the series itself. Perhaps it will return in a very similar format, hopefully with some much needed progression and balancing improvements.
However I predict and hope for another option: Go full Dark Souls with the multiplayer.
Alright, maybe not full Dark Souls. I can't imagine a game known for its freedom of traversal working well with sudden fog gates impeding escape, for example. However Ubisoft have already heavily borrowed from From Software's masterful series in the Watch Dogs games, particularly in the ability to invade and be invaded. There's no reason invasions couldn't work in the Brotherhood's universe; in fact, given that the series' main MacGuffin is a memory-siphoning VR machine and there are two groups warring over its' potential, the idea of aggressive "invasion" of your world even has a narrative relevance.
I'd suggest stretching the parallels even further, though. What if we could call for randomised help to infiltrate a fortified encampment, or take down a tricky target? What if we could leave helpful messages for each other hinting at loot, enemies, or First Civilization clues? It'd certainly be nice to see Ubisoft have an excuse to finally stop telling us how to find absolutely everything by spamming our mini map, and allow players to communicate directly in the search for the next interesting activity. Assassin's Creed Unity toyed with the idea of co-op and it failed pretty miserably, but a lot of that came down to the execution — we shouldn't write off co-op altogether because of it. It just needs to blend seamlessly into the open-world experience rather than take us out of it. I think a variation on the Dark Souls model could achieve that easily.
Take Another Year Off (Or Two)
If there's one thing Ubisoft should take away from the success of Assassin's Creed Origins, it's the inherent reward in trusting that fans will return if you take some time off to properly attend to some of their concerns. I hope that they can sustain this attitude going forward. Assassin's Creed may be back, but it's far from fully healed in narrative or gameplay. There is a lot of work to do on fine-tuning the mechanics, and I remain unconvinced that Ubisoft can pull that off in a year — any more than Telltale could fix their engine problems with the relentless pace of their production cycle. Time and again Ubisoft have simply spent their short development time on throwing ideas at a wall and not really making sure any of them stick, while the core mechanics and plot of the franchise gradually gathered dust.
Another rushed iteration of roughly the same content could really undo all of the good will that Origins has generated. Fans of any game series value evidence that the developer gives a damn about the game in front of them, rather than always having an eye on the next iteration or opportunity to monetize.
So please, Ubisoft: throw us remasters and small side projects if you must, but take good care of Origins' sequel. Be bold with it, fine tune it, and give it room to breathe. We'll see you in 2020.
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