The Franchise That Loved Me
It was lust at first sight.
One of the most amazingly cool concepts of the modern gaming era was woven into the very heart of Assassin’s Creed: genetic memories. As the kidnapped Desmond Miles was forced into the elegantly designed and fascinating Animus, the feeling of being trapped and excited in equal measure was palpable.
A quick dream-sequence later and you were thrust into the shoes of one Altaïr ibn-La’Ahad – ancestor of Desmond and key to the mystery of the Pieces of Eden and the purported end of the world. As you slowly assassinated your Templar prey, flicking back to modern-day sequences that hinted at early stages of Stockholm syndrome, the plot unfolded into one of the most gripping and fascinating in recent memory.
As a sci-fi fanatic, an obsessive gamer and a lover of third-person action adventures, what could possibly go wrong? This was surely to evolve from lust into love and produce a relationship destined for a happy ever after?
Not so, as it happens. But don’t blame the franchise; it’s me.
I really have struggled to put a finger on what it was that alienated me from the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Now seems like a prudent time to get to grips with this apparent mismatch. On paper, Assassins Creed ticks absolutely all of the right boxes and I cannot fault the dedication and ingenuity of the teams that have worked on these games. The quality, depth and scope of the franchise has clearly evolved with each successive game. Fans lavish praise upon the franchise in ever-increasing amounts and justifiably so. If there was ever an example of a developer listening to the wishes of its fans and delivering in spades, this is it. For that, Ubisoft are to be applauded. Indeed, beyond my aversion to open-world games (something that Assassins Creed embraces more so with each iteration), I struggle to really criticise what is clearly a work of quality and dedication.
Lie back and tell me about your father…
If there’s one thing, however, that I could perhaps level at Ubisoft, it’s this: you only get one chance at a first impression.
However credible the franchise may have become, it’s fair to say that the original game was not without major faults. Arguably a classic case of form over function, it was littered with intriguing gameplay mechanics that, in practice, were rather dull indeed. Preventing you from assassinating your target until you had ‘investigated’ them might have looked good on the drawing board but in reality it completely killed the mood. Sit on a bench and eavesdrop, you say? Pickpocket yet another individual, you say? Interrogate someone else by button-mashing, you say? Hide in some hay when it all goes wrong, you say? I think I’d rather remove my eyes with sandpaper, I say.
As someone with a background in design; the whole experience smacked of an over-confident team somewhat obsessed with their own idiosyncrasies as opposed to being focused on delivering a thoroughly user-focused experience.
It was part-way through my third ‘investigation’ tick-list that I completely gave up on the game, wishing that I’d not wasted the previous few hours of my life on the somewhat hollow and meaningless endeavour. Oh, that and the diabolical frame-rate on the frankly appalling PS3 port that was making me feel ill.
So, as much as I wanted to love this game back; as much as I wanted to repay its affections in kind, I simply could not.
And that would have probably been the end of it. Except Ubisoft wisely saw the immense potential in this franchise and went on to transform it into the tour-de-force that we see today. They were savvy enough to see the complete genius in the narrative and of how it could be exploited and stretched to the Nth degree whilst still retaining immense depth.
Existential mystery and wonder: the heart of Assassin’s Creed
Yet therein lay the rub.
I’m a sucker for a good story. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more important in a great game. Stories that set-up mystery and intrigue and suggest what more is to come are arguably the best of all. Just as Lost had a stunning premise and an enticing narrative, so too does Assassin’s Creed. But just like Lost, Assassin’s Creed knows that the moment it reveals all of its wares, it’s will completely lose its appeal. Rather like pulling the curtain back and seeing not the wizard, but a tired, old man at an unimpressive machine. And so instead we’re teased, one drip-fed page at a time, not knowing quite where things might go or if it will ever end. How on earth could it end? How could they possibly even wish to reach a conclusion of something that lives and breathes (and generates vast swathes of income) based largely on the concept of, well, not ever reaching a full conclusion?
And so whilst I’m quite desperate to take Assassin’s Creed back and envelop myself in its sci-fi loveliness (ever more so with each impressive release), I know that I’m simply never going to make it past first-base in the relationship. It’s just never going to fulfil me and the longer I leave it, the worse it gets. As my desire to jump back in grows, so too does the sense that I’ll leave feeling short-changed and disappointed.
Like most great lust affairs: the thought of it is infinitely more appealing than the reality.
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Husband. Parent. Gamer. Go figure.