New Assassin's Creed Games Need to Follow the Tight Design and Manageable Length of Assassin's Creed II

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New Assassin's Creed Games Need to Follow the Tight Design and Manageable Length of <i>Assassin's Creed II</i>

I’ve been somewhat obsessive about the Assassin’s Creed series basically since its start. Only “basically” because the first one felt like a great concept with a story worth following, but with gameplay that proved more tiresome than enjoyable after a couple of hours. The second one, though? It left such an impression on me that I remember the circumstances that brought me to it. I was reviewing games back then, too, and had a break during the very busy holiday season of 2009 to play something of my own choosing. I had a coupon that would let me knock $30 off the price of a new game, so I grabbed Assassin’s Creed II in the hopes it would at least feel like I didn’t pay full price if it was another disappointment.

Instead, it was one of the greatest games released in a period of time absolutely stuffed with titles you’d now consider classics. It remains one of the single greatest jumps in quality from initial game to sequel that I’ve ever experienced… and its own sequel, Brotherhood, was even better. In fact, to this day, I consider Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood the apex of the series. It featured an exceptionally tight but enthralling narrative, an expertly crafted city with worthwhile secrets to explore, variety in missions and locations, new modes featuring a small army of assassins at your disposal, downloadable content that was more than worth both the price of admission and reentry into Renaissance-era Rome, and a protagonist that the series still hasn’t found an equal to, even if they’ve come closer in recent years than in the ones right after Ezio Auditore da Firenze completed his arc in this particular universe.

I’m not someone who only likes the Ezio games, either. The entire Americas trilogy, featuring Assassin’s Creeds III, IV (Black Flag), and, to a lesser extent, Rogue, had their high points. III is one I enjoyed more on replay, and Black Flag spun out an entire excellent game from the sailing elements of III. The series started to get bogged down after Black Flag, though: the return to cities and large crowds in Unity also came with a complete waste of a setting as rich as the French Revolution’s, because the game just played horribly and restrictively, and the campaign was split between single-player and elements that were only available through online co-op. As crowds and pure stealth were later deemphasized post-Unity in favor of more complex combat—and more of it in general, with your skill as an assassin taking a backseat to your skill as a warrior—they eventually led to the heavy RPG elements contained in the last three Assassin’s Creed titles: Origin, Odyssey, and Valhalla. The series had shifted from having specific walls in place tied to the memories of whichever present-day character was living through Assassin’s Creed’s particular brand of storytelling, to installing new ones tied to what your character’s level and gear were. And there were so many levels, and so, so much gear.

All three are massive open-world games. Too massive, actually, in that they don’t quite justify their size with worthwhile things to do. I’ve praised Origins and Odyssey again and again—longtime No Cartridge listeners know what’s up—but in quite different ways than with the Ezio games. The three titles featuring everyone’s favorite Renaissance Italian protagonist were, as mentioned, fairly tightly constructed affairs. They were narrative heavy, yes, but there was real intrigue, and purpose, and certainly plenty of freedom of movement for the time, even with the memory walls in place that gated certain areas until later chapters. If you didn’t want to perform the more optional side missions—the ones that had you helping out the populace and so on, not the ones that were fleshed out missions and dungeons on par with anything the main story presented you—that was fine: there were other ways to earn the funds you’d need to upgrade your gear and outfit Ezio, and you didn’t have to worry about falling behind. With the newer games, though, and a level system that created far more obvious player-character statistics to track and upgrade, and the constant need for new and better gear, you were always fighting in a world that was far more restrictive than the seemingly less-open Renaissance-era titles ever were.

The side missions are not truly optional in something like Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. You don’t have to complete all of them, because there are just so many of the things that you can avoid that fate, but the length of the game has been somewhat artificially inflated by the sheer volume of rote rinse, repeat missions that exist within. Which is a shame, in the sense that it makes what used to be thrilling historical tourism for nerds into something of a chore. You can’t just push on to the fireworks factory in modern Assassin’s Creed games: you’re here for 80-100 hours, whether you want to be or not. In 2020, when Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla released, I didn’t pick it up—that’s the first time I didn’t at least give an Assassin’s Creed game a shot, and it’s because I was preemptively exhausted by the mere idea of playing through another Odyssey-style title. I find now that all I want is for Assassin’s Creed games to be something else than what they are: I want them to only be as long as they need to be to tell the story they’re telling, to shrink their scope, cut off the fat and leave the meat, whatever descriptive cliche you want to utilize. I don’t want Ezio back: I want the tight, purposeful design that made those games worthy vehicles for their charming protagonist back.

It’s not necessarily just the difference in length that’s the issue. It’s a difference of purpose, of justification for said length. Comparing anything to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is pretty unfair, but the differences between Ubisoft’s version of open-world freedom and what Nintendo and Monolith managed are stark. I’ve played Breath of the Wild three times since its release in 2017, at over 100 hours each time. I just praised Monolith’s solo effort, Xenoblade Chronicles 3, despite having to spend 110 hours to get to the end of the thing. Clearly I’m not against videogames with triple-digit lengths on principle. There just has to be a reason for it that serves the game and the player, and isn’t just because some shareholders have got it in their head that the people who complain about the dollars to hours ratio of videogames should be the ones developers cater to.

Breath of the Wild is a massive expanse with purpose in its every element. It also doesn’t have to be a massive expanse, if you don’t want it to be. You can play that game for as long as you like, and then when you’ve had your fill, you can go on to attempt to defeat Ganon. Completing the 120 hidden shrines in the game? Completely optional. Filling out the entire map? Optional. Paying attention to the map? Also optional. Meeting all of the game’s citizens, completing all of the sidequests—doing any of the sidequests, or even completing the game’s four dungeons and defeating their masters? Optional. The only things you must do are leave the plateau that serves as a tutorial, and defeat Calamity Ganon. Everything else—and how you do everything else—is up to you. Breath of the Wild takes me 100 hours because that’s how long I want it to take. Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey takes that long because you won’t be able to defeat any of the late-game enemies if you don’t let the constant assault of waypoints on your map guide your every move for that long.

While you’re required to do quite a bit more in Xenoblade Chronicles 3 than in Breath of the Wild, everything still feels more purposeful, more varied, more justified than what’s contained within Ubisoft’s modern Assassin’s Creed games. And it helps, too, that Monolith has proven there are narrative rewards and payoffs at the end of their games. Ubisoft hasn’t delivered on the dual-storyline promise the series started with for ages now, not since someone realized they were going to need to make a lot more of these highly successful games than the initial design documents likely hinted at, which has guaranteed a perpetual pushing off of any real climax to the modern-day portion of things, even if, within each individual memory of the past, a contained story can be told.

Which is also one reason why the prospect of more of Sony’s Horizon series feels less daunting to me than more Assassin’s Creed, even if both involve gear and leveling and constant fighting and huge open-world maps. There’s just more going on there, and less that feels like it’s wasting my time without good reason, even when it’s not necessarily ideal—and no one is threatening me with an onslaught of new Horizon games, either. Sega’s Yakuza games—prior to their own transition from games with RPG elements to straight-up RPGs—were also a masterclass of balancing freedom, expanse, and a tight design that allowed you to play for 20 hours or 100, depending on how it was all feeling to you as you went. Yakuza 5 is a perfect videogame I spent 50 hours with, and completed just 25 percent of in that time. I’ll want to go back someday, because the game’s design allowed me the space to do so that more recent Assassin’s Creed titles do not.

Now, I understand this isn’t universal opinion, and there are people who much prefer the Origins/Odyssey/Valhalla trio to the older games Still, it feels like something is lost when I can’t even muster up the energy for the Odyssey DLC that I paid for, despite playing each of the Ezio trilogy a disturbing number of times—and I know I will do so again whether they get a second remaster for this new console generation or not. Maybe they’re missing some of the good that would come out of future innovations and hooks in the series, but the focus and tightness of their design, how amazing it all felt to play, how even the present-day stuff worked well when it seemed like it was actually going somewhere, is what keeps me coming back to what some—including the people running Ubisoft—seem to see as relics.

As fun as Origins and Odyssey are, the design choices that went into making them into epics exhausted me on the concept of more games like them. Ubisoft announcing a slate of future Assassin’s Creed games, and a return to what seem to be annual (or close to annual) releases and overlapping development cycles with multiple studios involved, just like they were in the old days of the series before these things were all 100-hour hurdles to clear? Exhaustion doesn’t even begin to cover how those announcements make me feel.

Ubisoft should take a hint from its past, and from proclamations made by critics like Dia Lacina, who recently talked up the easy digestibility of Soul Hackers 2 as a positive: not every game needs to be triple-digits in hours or gigabytes to be worthwhile. You can play the entirety of the three-game Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection in the time it takes to play Odyssey once, and that’s a fact I can’t quite pull away from. Keep making massive Assassin’s Creed games; people love them, and they are clearly great. But don’t forget about the tighter, shorter, more purposeful experiences, either: those were highly successful, and absolutely could be again. What matters is how the games are designed, how they justify their own existence, and the answers to both of those questions shouldn’t involve adding in more of the same, until the people who whine about how $20 games whose narratives changed their lives aren’t worth playing because they only lasted for 12 hours stop doing that. You’ll never, ever stop them from complaining, considering the content of those complaints. But you can shut people like me right up with one weird trick, detailed above.


Marc Normandin covers retro videogames at Retro XP, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon, and can be found on Twitter at @Marc_Normandin.