4. Assassin’s Creed
The game that started it all, the first entry in the now globally popular videogame franchise is considered more of a proof of concept than a fully-realized game. Back in 2007, Ubisoft seemed to be testing the waters for a more mature Prince of Persia with Assassin’s Creed, and the game also showcased their impressive new graphical engine and A.I. crowd physics.
The gameplay was repetitive and the combat uninspired, making the game a mixed success with critics, but I was hooked from the start. I recognized the game’s flaws but was simply smitten by its unique setting and concept, as 2007 was the beginning of gaming’s Call of Duty-ification. I’ve always been fascinated by the Middle Ages and the Crusades, particularly the Third Crusade (the backdrop for Robin Hood), which is depicted here.
I was also drawn in by the idea of the Assassins and Templars, who in this first game more closely resemble the real life organizations they are based on (the Templars were an order of Crusader knights while the Hashashin were a sect of Shia Muslims whose Arabic mantra more or less translates to the Assassins’ “Nothing is true, everything is permitted”). As someone who values freedom and particularly free speech above all, I found it very easy to get behind the Assassins and their philosophy. Fictional vigilantes too often dish out justice based on their own moral code. Batman’s parents were killed by criminals and he thus has a very black and white view of how to solve that problem. The Assassins however understand that they cannot tell people what to think or do, they can only maintain peace between the cultures of the world, and their Creed—which is largely abandoned in later games—allows them to punish the wicked while sparing the innocent. Politics are of little interest to them; the only reason they seek to destroy the Templars is because they are the Assassin’s complete opposite. The Templars make for good villains because their goals are noble; it’s how they go about it that falls short. They aim for world peace but at the cost of humanity’s free will.
This duality drew me into the mythos as soon as I booted up the game, and I’ve always wished the series had focused more on the philosophical conflict than on the headier sci-fi elements, which are only touched on here. The videogame within a videogame structure is novel, but even from the start it never registered with me. It’s just too unbelievable. The whole idea of “genetic memories” makes no sense, even to a layman like me, and a machine that could pull that data and recreate it as a 3D simulation is completely preposterous. The lengths at which Ubisoft tried to integrate this concept into the game are beyond silly. Why would Desmond need to play and “synch” his ancestors’ memories, why can’t he just watch them happen, and why does he have to watch the lead-up to whatever revelation he is trying to reach? There’s no logic to it beyond acting as a framework for a videogame.
But I was drawn to Desmond and I liked the idea of the Assassin vs. Templar conflict extending into modern times. Once I got past how silly the Animus was, I became engrossed in the story, and writer Corey May’s stellar script helped improve the so-so gameplay. Yes, you mostly spend your time beating up informants and eavesdropping on conversations, but I was so blown away by the parkour that just running around on buildings made up for the lackluster investigations. The assassination missions themselves made up for the slow build-up, and the nine men Altaïr is tasked with eliminating still stand out as the series’ best Templar targets. Each had a distinct personality that more recent AC villains sorely lack. Who are the bad guys in Unity? Hell, if I know.
When the sci-fi elements were relegated to the background and you didn’t know what was really going on, the mystery kept the story strong. After the reveal of the First Civilization, another preposterous sci-fi element, the story went downhill. No one’s quite sure why Ubi felt the need to integrate these additions into what was already a strong narrative foundation. A game series where two secret societies duke it out across history seems pretty awesome in its own right, but for whatever reason the Desmond wraparound was created and now here we are.
Due to the lukewarm reviews and the fact that no one else I knew played this game, I was certain this was the last we’d ever hear of Assassin’s Creed. On the one hand, I’m glad the series continued, as I’ve had a lot of fun with the next three games on this list. On the other hand, I always prefer my obsessions when they are bit more cultish, when I am one of the special few privy to the secret. Like with Game of Thrones, I appreciate the bigger budgets and bigger scope… but it was a lot more fun when I felt special.