California Literary Review

Putting the Assassin’s Creed Franchise Under the Knife – Part 2

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March 5th, 2013 at 12:02 am

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Now for the rest of the stor(ies).

So, shortly after Assassin’s Creed 3 released I started an intense analysis into the bloat that’s suffocating the series like Jabba the Hutt’s fat rolls on a Twi’lek prostitute. I only got to cover some of the series-wide problems – the lacking difficulty, the broken economy – in a general way while zeroing in on some of the terrible unorthogonal design practices that were very apparent in the “third” game in this five game series.

Now that Ubisoft has announced AC4: Black Flag, and AC3’s DLCs are getting released (and getting the attention of Fox News) I’m returning to finish what I started – a complete breakdown of everything Assassin’s Creed in a reverse chronological order. But for context, it’s probably best if you read the first part of this.

Assassin’s Creed Revelations: Overclocking the Animus Melts the Motherboard

Like I said in the first part, I never actually got around to Revelations. While friends who did assured me it was mostly more of the same, it would be pretty pompous to comment on the gameplay of a game never played.

However I’m not totally clueless about it. Not wanting to be left behind in case I missed anything important when going into AC3, I did the only sensible thing a person does when pressed with a lack of information about fictional characters these days: I turned to the internet.

ALL HAIL THE INTERNET! GIVER OF IMDB ENTRIES, CAT VIDEOS, WIKIPEDIA AND er, porn.

Thanks to wikis, fansites, and these videos from Gamespot, I caught myself up on Revelations (BEGIN SHAMELESS PLUG Just like you can right here on CLR with such series recaps as The Walking Dead! END SHAMELESS PLUG).

Here’s the thing, and I’ll make this as brief and spoiler-free as I’m capable of, with Revelations Ubisoft started to reallllllllly stretch the believability of their fictional framework. Now I know, I know, suspension of disbelief and all that jazz. But that comes with a caveat – the creators have to maintain it.

The plausibility of the Assassin’s Creed series hinges on the audience buying into the animus, the virtual reality device that lets its users explore vivid recreations of past lives embedded deep within their genetic memory. It’s a good meta-fictional construct as it keeps everything the player does in the past relevant to modern times while giving them some narrative wiggle room when they play around with the conceit, and it was given thorough explanation in the first game. They even tossed in a couple Minovsky Physics rules in the sequel to make the pseudo-science more believable: if one of Desmond’s ancestors impregnates someone (and by definition, they must) the animus’ viewpoint sticks with the progeny as genetic memory and passed through the DNA of his bloodline, and at least some knowledge from the memories a user is reliving can pass into their waking state (called the “Bleeding Effect”).

In Revelations, Ubisoft bent both of these rules almost to the breaking point, and the overall fiction suffers for it. The main issue is complicated and nitpicky, so I’ll explain by delving into a cyberpunk story everyone knows, The Matrix.

During the 1999 action romp that is The Matrix, all of the heroes are running around inside the titular virtual reality construct, one so vivid that being injured inside of it hurts their physical bodies actually lying in chairs somewhere in the real world. As Morpheus says, “Your mind makes it real.” However, the film goes a step further when Joey Pants’ character Cypher betrays the group and unplugs his former allies in the real world, which kills them in the matrix . . . somehow?

The problem is basic: this doesn’t make any physical sense.

When Switch says “Not like this.” she very well may be referring to the implausibility of how she’s about to die.

The only way this works is if the characters’ conscious minds (i.e. their souls) are somehow in the matrix rather than just being connected to it. It’s this moment that makes The Matrix films less “Cyberpunk Science Fiction” – where unplugging would just disconnect you from the server and the user would be fine – and more “Philosophical Science Fantasy”, which isn’t a bad thing per se, but it is a different genre. The sequels delved into this concept more heavily (Neo’s mind is stuck in the Matrix when his body’s disconnected for a while) and this may be why they felt a bit like a betrayal of the original premise – but that’s beside the point.

Right at the start, Revelations does something similar when a previous occupant of the animus, Subject 16, shows up to talk to Desmond, who’s trapped inside of the machine’s Safe Mode . . . somehow. The Subject 16 Desmond encounters may just be a copy of the thought patterns of the original person (a sketchy idea in of itself), but he acts more like a fully conscious person – he’s capable of receiving outside information he should have no way of knowing, he comes to new conclusions based on this info, and he even puts forth the idea of jumping into Desmond’s body through the animus as if this was Being John Malkovich, which just makes the animus seem downright magical.

All of this is rather incongruous with how the animus is portrayed in the first few games; this isn’t a machine that “makes it real”. When you “die” in the Animus, Desmond isn’t injured in the real world, he’s simply disconnected temporarily and restarts at an earlier checkpoint. It’s also a bit silly as it means Subject 16’s entire personality (memories and all) was transferred not only onto the original Abstergo Animus, but was a small enough a data file to be brought into the Assassin’s Animus, which they did on a portable hard drive no larger than than one you can purchase at Radio Shack during AC2.

I suppose all this can be handwaved with “The animus is based on Precursor God Technology, and they can send messages through time, so anything’s possible!”

AC Revelations Memory discs

Which you have to do to accept the proto-animus CD’s that Altair somehow figured out how to store his memories on during Revelations, which just begs further questions like: Why didn’t he include this information in the journals he left behind for the Assassins in AC2?

When you resort to narrative techniques equivalent to your teacher shushing you when you ask a question rather than explaining them through the story naturally, you’re running into trouble. But it is Ubisoft’s story and they’re going do whatever the heck they want with it. Considering the ending to AC3 and what we already know of Black Flag, my guess is they’re relying on some of this “Magical Animus” stuff brought up in Revelations to make AC4 work – since the protagonist in AC4 is one of Desmond’s ancestor’s but the game starts with the player as working for Abstergo it implies a similar transfer of data ala Subject 16.

I don’t want to prejudge AC4’s meta-fiction as being too silly to live just yet, so I’ll hold out hope that Ubisoft’s writers at least explain everything as well as they did in AC1. Not likely perhaps, but I’m being optimistic for now.

Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood: The Problem is well, the Brotherhood.

I bitched about the Assassin Recruits enough in my review of the game, so I won’t belay the point: they’re a good idea, just insanely overpowered.

Ubisoft’s mitigated this to some degree in AC3 and even did some neat stuff with the concept, making each recruitable assassin a unique character with their own back story and specific skill (my favorite being the one where they disguise themselves as redcoats and escort you like a prisoner to access secure locations), and take a lot more effort to unlock. They also (thankfully) removed the arrow storm ability which wiped out all enemies withing sight.

But they’re still as broken as they ever were, and they still slow down the game flow. Because the fundamental problem is still the same as it ever was: it isn’t the strength of the recruit’s skills, it’s that they can be reused too often.

Hey what’s up, we just got back from a two minute mission a thousand miles away, hope you didn’t have a chance to actually, you know, kill someone yourself?

The main method Ubisoft uses to keep the Brotherhood recruits from being too powerful is by incentivizing the player to send them on missions into neighboring territories so their skills can’t be activated. After a few minutes of gameplay they become available again with a little bit of extra cash to add to your coffers.

But Assassin’s Creed isn’t exactly a six hour explosion-fest like Call of Duty. In my experience they’re actually fairly slow paced games with bursts of high adrenaline. It’s a perception aided by the huge worlds, the many different side missions, and the fact that these are (or at least were) arguably stealth games so methodical actions should be rewarded more than blindly charging into situations.

For the most part, I just don’t use them because it feels like they basically play the game for you. So they become yet another pointless mechanic on top of a pile of them (a problem mentioned last time).

What’s ridiculous is that the solution is ludicrously simple: you should have to pay for the ability to use the Recruits, not the other way around.

Ezio Makes it rain

You want to rain death without effort, then you’re going to have to make it rain.

AC3 has the right idea in making the recruits NPCs with personalities, and importantly, lives outside of the brotherhood that they’d likely want to maintain. With the exception of special instances when they’re doing you a favor, paying for their time (as well as costs to keep their notoriety down) makes all the sense in the world. Considering that there are few enough costs or money sinks in the games as is, paying for the recruits expenses and rewarding them for their efforts would do a lot to both keep them from being used too often, and to keep your wallet from fattening as much.

The scaling is obvious too. When recruits are low leveled, it costs less to hire them and when they reach higher levels, it costs more. A rate of 100 Money Units (since each games uses a different currency) per level would work for using them in the field, and the rewards you gain when they succeed on away missions should be reduced or limited to non-monetary compensation (like reputation or something).

This would kill two Templars with one poison dart, and it’s an idea that’s just sitting right there out in the open!

Assassin’s Creed 2: The Notorious P.O.S. that is Notoriety

The other major issue mentioned in my Brotherhood review that’s been dragging this series down is actually from AC2: the Notoriety system. It’s far too simple, and far too easily managed to be something more than a minor hassle when, in theory anyway, keeping a low profile should be one of the primary goals of an Assassin stalking through city streets.

There are some obvious things that could be done to fix this – make fewer wanted posters and heralds spawn, make it cost more to bribe them – but these are quick fixes when in truth, the entire system needs to be reworked with a focus on two different aspects.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t make these posters harder to find, they should. They also need to make them reduce your notoriety far less, like by 10% instead of 25% (the current level).

First, there need to be more actions that increase your assassin’s notoriety and they need to be things the player either wants or needs to do.

The biggest problem with the Morality system in Red Dead Redemption for example, was that unlike in Grand Theft Auto, there’s no pressing need to behave lawlessly. In GTA you’d often need to get around quickly so you’d make like the game’s title and steal a car, getting cops on your tail and leading to exciting gameplay, but in Red Dead, you just whistle for your horse (something present in AC3 as well) and off you go!

There’s unfortunately no real “car theft” activity for our hooded stab-masters to partake in, and the current notoriety increasing activities – pickpocketing, carrying bodies, chasing couriers, or attacking guards in the open – are generally unnecessary outside of mandatory cases in missions. So the only real solution involves adding more actions that raise notoriety at all. Partly by putting back in some stuff from earlier games that was removed in AC3 – pushing beggars (small children in AC3) out of the way, stealing horses, and the crazy loons from the first game in the form of drunks wandering at night (since they have a fancy day/night cycle now) – as well as bringing back the delineation between gently pushing aside civilians or shoving them out of the way, and making fast travel more restrictive (by limiting it to point-to-point transfers only) so you have more chances to get into trouble.

New notoriety raising measures could include: men defending their lady’s honor (since they have “lover” NPC pairs) where should you bump the woman, the guy starts a fist fight; ruining someone’s job, as there are lots of open air workers milling about and you can totally screw with them at no risk; NPC criminals already on the run from guards who toss their stolen goods to you, (even if you just let the guards take it back without resistance it’ll raise their suspicion); VIP civilians, such as priests or upper class nobles that not only may have personal escorts, but whom even hassling or knocking aside whilst riding a horse is considered a major insult lest you apologize quickly.

Assassin's Creed 2 Stab

And stabbing them? Well that’s just going to get everyone all up on your white wearing tuckus.

With enough of these events in place, and if money is made scarcer to incentivize thefts and muggings (which they might be doing with AC4’s pirating focus), or if they do figure out an appropriate car theft analogue, notoriety could become much more involved than it currently is.

Now we get to the second part: making the system itself more nuanced.

Currently notoriety works on four levels: 0-Star inconspicuous, 1-star Suspicious (guards take notice after a while), 2-Star Wanted (they notice you more quickly), and 3-Star Notorious (instant notice) to represent the city guard hunting our assassin protagonists.

What’s needed are more intermediate steps that change a different parameter – the city’s (or perhaps the entire game world’s) security layout and crowd size. What I propose is adding three more stars, making it a six star system, perhaps on a separate scale that requires different methods to reduce. At each intermediate star the guard reactions don’t change (so at both 1 and 2 stars guards react the same) but there are fewer civilians on the streets (reducing your ability to hide), more sentries are added to patrols and stationary posts, more zones are labeled as restricted, and checkpoints are added to major choke points that require either a disguise, bribes, or other forms of subterfuge to get through. At the highest level – full panic, essentially – the streets would be empty of civilians to blend in with, those quick corner overhangs will be withdrawn, and several hiding spots are removed or have bells added to them.

There are other things that could be done too – not hiding bodies creates a timer till they’re reported which will raise notoriety unless your recruits dispose of them for a small cost (another way to keep them active but not game breaking), permanent yellow zones in addition to red zones (most likely the richer quarters of town), and bringing back “stalker” enemies from Revelations (without the Notoriety reduction, but to prevent a notoriety increase after they flee) – but the general idea’s always the same – the system needs to be more involving.

Right now the biggest problem isn’t that it’s a bad idea, just that it’s too easy to ignore.

Assassin’s Creed: Free-Running Needs Cost to be Alive

My appreciation on the Le Parkour aspect of Assassin’s Creed has changed over the years. Back in the first game, I was certainly dissatisfied with how blind baby simple it was. “You hold two buttons and push the control stick? This is coming from Ubisoft, the folks who made Prince of Persia: Sands of Time? THE game that pretty much MADE parkour popular in gaming?”

Altair Assassin's Creed Free Running Leap

I guess I was expecting Altair’s adventure in the heart of the holy land to be a Stealthy Free-Roaming Free-Running Platformer. I wonder who could’ve given me that idea, eh, Ubisoft?

It turns out the game I was expecting was Mirror’s Edge. That came out the following year, and while having plenty of flaws of its own (first person was probably a bad choice) the spot on parkour mechanics weren’t one of them. They were that excellent mix of “easy enough to pick up, difficult to master” that I love, even though I know I may be in the minority about this aspect when comparing the two games.

Like I said though, my view on this evolved with the games. By AC2 I accepted that Ubisoft was never going to go the route of making its running-jumping-climbing-on-buildings system much more complicated than they had made it in the first installment, and by Brotherhood some of the level design was getting complex enough that even with this highly automated system, it felt like more of an actual game when you were hopping around the world.

However, the system still always felt like it was missing something, even once I got over my initial dismay and came to enjoy it for its merits.

It simply lacked cost. Lacked risk. Unless you took a blatantly dumb jump, all the strenuous or complex physical activities the avatar on the screen performs are the simplest to accomplish for the player holding the controller. But even knowing what it was that bothered me about it, I was unsure of the best way to resolve the issue.

Until Ubisoft solved this quandary of mine with another game!

Not in any Assassin’s Creed though. Heck, not even in Prince of Persia. Quite the opposite, since their cel shaded PoP travesty in 2008 held your hand more than a field trip buddy in 3rd grade.

No, the game that illustrated to me what was so fundamentally wrong with how Assassin’s Creed locomotion system was something that came out last year: I AM Alive.

I am Alive

I really just need to sit down and write a review of this game. I’ve mentioned it’s excellent design before.

In I AM Alive, the player’s avatar is similar to those featured in AC in that he can climb up and over just about everything. The big difference is that he can’t do this continuously or without cost – it tires him out, as you might expect such physical exertion would. This tiring effect is represented by half of the giant bar on the top of the screen, the left half, which not only reduces as you scramble up surfaces, but also suffers “wounds” if you over exert yourself by pushing past the zero point (which begins to drain your health at the same time).

This mechanic is absolutely brilliant. Not only does it make the REI rock wall portions of level navigation more engaging by adding an element of strategy, it does it without adding any complexity to the control scheme. It’s exactly the addition to Assassin’s Creed’s climbing system that’s needed for the same reasons.

Heck it could even make other systems in AC more interesting. In combat an energy bar could be used for your Assassin’s more spectacular instant kill moves so you’d have to manage when best to use them, or even if you want to stand your ground and fight since the energy pool would drain and make you less capable at fleeing. It could also make your armor options more dynamic too – imagine a lighter set of clothing that increases your attack speed and stamina at the cost of taking more damage, or heavier armor that does just the opposite.

It’s the simplest addition to add to the game that would dramatically improve practically everything about it, and best of all, if Ubisoft did include a stamina bar they couldn’t really be accused of lifting it from somewhere else, as it would come from one of their own games!

The only real question lies in justifying it’s inclusion into the series at such a late point, but AC4 provides the perfect means to do this. First off, saying it’s an upgrade to the animus that more accurately simulates life is a no-brainer. More to the point though, since AC4 is going to be a high seas adventure, and real sailors actually did have to manage the food and water they brought with them as they sailed, it could easily be an extension of whatever mechanic they’ll have to manage your ship needing supplies.

AC4 Kenway Swimming Underwater

Besides, since they’re already including underwater swimming into AC4, it’s likely there will be a new stamina/breath system anyway. Why not just make it so it works everywhere in the game?

The only thing Ubisoft has to worry about with such an inclusion is the cry of making their game too complex for the average, casual player – that this would add an unnecessary RPG element to an action game essentially. But did adding RPG elements like experience points hurt Farcry 3 any?

Nope. They did not. If anything, adding such elements only made what would’ve been an otherwise good game that much deeper, and considering the fact that AC4 already looks to have several elements ripped out of Farcry 3 – a large continuously open world that’s also a chain of tropical islands – why not this one too?

This is exactly what Assassin’s Creed, not only on a per game basis but as a series, needs most. Depth.

Because that’s truly the biggest issue of the franchise. Aside from the focus away from sneaky assassinations and toward full throated action, aside from the waning difficulty with each successive installment, and aside from the increasingly convoluted story and creeping feature list. These are all problems that have sunk game series’ before, and they all need to be addressed, but really, if there was a sense of actual depth and complexity to what it is the player does in AC, then much will be forgiven.

That’s really what I want to do, personally. I want to forgive Assassin’s Creed for getting so far away from its original, fairly flawed, but still rather fascinating first entry. Presumptuous of me I know, but as a guy who’s spent over $200 bucks (and as many hours) on this series, I think I’ve at least paid for the right to toss in these two cents about how Ubisoft would convince me to do just that.

If they don’t? Well, then nothing changes. We get our next AC as a pirate king, then one hopefully set during the French Revolution, then one set during Roman times, then one set during the Ming Dynasty and so on and so forth because Ubisoft seems determined to make AC into CoD before Hollywood capitalizes on it with what’s probably going to be a disappointing film adaptation.

All we can do as fans is ask that they at least try and make each installment in their annualized historical exploitation machine a bit better than the one before. The best way to do that is to write them out.

Assassin's Creed Feather

Because unlike what the games themselves insist, sometimes the pen is mightier than the spring loaded dagger.

These are my reasons, but as I’m only one man I must ask: what are yours, if any?

Until next time folks, keep on stabbing!

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