Enter the Animus
The Ship of Theseus is a popular thought experiment/paradox that was first posed by Plutarch during the 1st century, though many paradoxes of a similar vein have been discussed earlier. The gist of it is this: Suppose there is a ship – for this example, the famous ship captained by Theseus – and it is stored in a museum. Over time, parts of the ship begin to rot or rust and have to be replaced. After about a century, every part of the ship has been replaced at least once. Is this the same ship as the one Theseus sailed all those years ago? Or is this an entirely new ship?
It’s fitting then that the new instalment in Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, takes place in Ancient Greece, where this paradox and the hero Theseus hail from. It’s fitting because a lot of people are saying that the new game looks like an exciting, engaging game – but it’s just not Assassin’s Creed. Like the paradox of the Ship of Theseus, has too much changed in the decade that the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been around that we can no longer class Odyssey as belonging with the rest of the franchise? Is are the new mechanics too much of a stray from the norm? To answer this question, a look back at some of the past games in the series should reveal what makes an Assassin’s Creed game tick.
Assassin’s Creed II
It would make sense to start this list with Assassin’s Creed, the first game in the franchise, however Assassin’s Creed II is the best kind of sequel; it includes all the mechanics and story beats of the original, while also implementing new ideas that add to the overall experience, rather than detract from it. It’s also the first Assassin’s Creed game I ever played, so maybe I’m a little bit biased by how great it is.
The core gameplay is relatively unchanged from the original game: you can blend with crowds, climb buildings and stab targets using the signature hidden blade. There are some new mechanics as well, taking advantage of it’s historical setting. A particular highlight is Leonardo da Vinci’s flying machine. You play as two characters in the course of the game: Desmond Miles, a man in the year 2012, and Ezio Auditore, an assassin from Renaissance era Florence. The modern day storyline is a staple in the early Assassin’s Creed games, telling the story of Desmond as he attempts to save the world from a solar flare. The Renaissance storyline is the highlight, a tale of murder and revenge revenge that slowly reveals more about the Assassins, the Templars, and the mysterious civilisation that came before. It’s widely said to be the best Assassin’s Creed game – and, for this post’s purposes, will be the standard to measure future games against.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has had its fair share of complaints regarding whether it deserves to be an Assassin’s Creed game at all, mostly because it departs so much from the story beats and gameplay mechanics showcased in previous games. Sure, we have Assassins and we have Templars, but our central character pays little heed to either for most of the game, instead choosing to roam the seas as a pirate captain, pillaging and sinking vessels as he goes.
And honestly, that’s a hell of a lot of fun. Instead of the standard Templar to Templar hunt that is the focus of prior games in the series, as Edward Kenway you see the rise and fall of the Republic of Pirates, meeting famous figures like Blackbeard and Black Bart. The open world sailing and naval combat mechanics dominate the game, requiring long voyages across the Caribbean Sea for main story missions that fully showcase the gorgeously rendered landscape. As with all previous Assassin’s Creed games, there is a modern day storyline, however it lacks the compelling protagonist of Desmond Miles. Instead, you play as a nameless Abstergo employee who wanders around an office, hacking the computers and cameras to aid the Assassins. The gameplay might have changed – but the core story themes of freedom vs control are retained.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
This game is about as stereotypically British as it gets. Victorian London, Cockney accents and cheeky orphans are all mixed in with the classic elements from the Assassin’s Creed franchise: stealth, parkour, new gadgets and… gang warfare? carriage ramming? exploding, derailed trains? Assassin’s Creed Syndicate has changed the formula.
Don’t get me wrong, these changes are in no way negative – quite the opposite. The inclusion of different types of gameplay is refreshing, mixing in with the classic sneaking around that comes with the Assassin’s Creed name. Syndicate‘s predecessor, Assassin’s Creed Unity, had implemented many important gameplay additions such as a skill tree and variations in assassination methods, however Syndicate allows you to play as either Jacob or Evie Frye, a first for the series. Each character reflects a different play style; Jacob is more of a brawler whilst Evie relies on stealth and ingenuity, with each having specific skills that only apply to them. The quests in Syndicate can get a bit repetitive and you are guaranteed to see the same mobster model 80 times in one session, but it’s that variation on an old formula that allows the game to sustain itself, despite being the 9th major instalment in a franchise with games that have, essentially, the same premise.
Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China
This seems like a odd inclusion to this list, being an 8 hour side game that was released as part of the season pass for Assassin’s Creed Unity, yet this game, and the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles series as a whole is pure Assassin’s Creed. Templar hunts, stealth focused gameplay, a sympathetic protagonist who is mostly just a vessel and… not much else.
I think these games are fun, and I enjoy the hell out of them, but there is nothing new that they bring to the table. That is why they’re often viewed as boring because, while the 2.5D level design is a fresh spin, there is nothing to distinguish China, India and Russia aside from the visual style and the gadgets used. The fact that the scoring system rewards stealth is not enough – the mechanics are tedious and repetitive, it needs something extra in order to vary the gaming experience in the best way it can. I understand that I’m asking a lot of an 8 hour side-scroller, but it just goes to show how the standard Assassin’s Creed plotting and gameplay is not enough to keep the audience engaged if all that is changed is the aesthetics.
Assassin’s Creed Origins
After Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, Ubisoft took a year out from releasing Assassin’s Creed games in order to make sure the next one was the best it could possibly be – and holy cow they did not disappoint. Assassin’s Creed Origins is one of the most visually stunning Assassin’s Creed games, showcasing the full, varied landscape of Ptolematic Egypt and beyond. It’s a wonder.
More importantly, it’s new. Many mechanics from previous games bleed through to create a more RPG style to its gameplay: hunting and crafting, skill trees, levelled and upgradable loot and, most interestingly, an RPG style quest system. Instead of following a continuous linear story, the player is able to pick and choose which quests to do at which time, unlocking more as their level and abilities increases. The interface has had a massive overhaul as well, scrapping the mini-map in favour of a proximity compass. Eagle Vision, a main (if extremely unbelievable) feature in ever other game previously, has been replaced by, you guessed it, an actual eagle. Senu flies above your enemies, tagging them for you and assessing their skill level. She’s a welcome companion in the desert landscape, and scouting ruins and camps with her is a joy.
The Bleeding Effect
So, in the decade that the Assassin’s Creed games have reigned, what’s changed? Or more importantly, what has stayed the same? There is similar stealth gameplay in all of them but, as proven by the Chronicles series and even the original game, that’s not enough to sustain interest in the games. The stories are very similar in each game, with the conflict between the Assassin’s and the Templars in the past and present, with links to the supernatural with the Pieces of Eden. Themes of control, freedom and power are all ideas that the protagonists have to grapple with in their respective stories. If you look at these elements, the games haven’t changed much at all.
Of course, that’s not the case. The games have indeed adapted and evolved, but the core premise and essence that started the series is still present, and will likely still be present in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. So, the Ship of Theseus metaphor no longer really applies. Instead of a single ship getting it’s parts replaced through the years, the Assassin’s Creed games have become a full fleet – ships of the same family that are adapted to best suit the audience and the historical setting of each instalment. Let’s face it, if Ubisoft released different variations of the same game every year, it would be mind numbing. Variety is the spice of life.