The eighth major entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise comes out this Friday, and developer Ubisoft has upped the ante yet again, promising a thrilling experience against the backdrop of 1868 London. But how will this game stack up to its predecessors? Will it be another critical failure, like Assassin’s Creed III, or a pleasant surprise, like Black Flag?
The Assassin’s Creed series has been a massive commercial success. Even before the first game was ever released, a well-tuned advertising campaign promised an exciting game unlike anything else on the market at the time. To some extent, the series delivered on that promise by bringing an open-world stealth game to previously unexplored historical periods and locations, both of which have become hallmarks of the series. From Jerusalem during the Crusades to Paris during the French Revolution, the Assassin’s Creed series has always levied interesting historical backdrops for its stealth action. But just as reliably as it produces breathtaking visuals, the series has had its share of controversy and criticism.
The second game in the series, Assassin’s Creed II, took those criticisms to heart. The gameplay was tightened, with better climbing mechanics and fast-paced combat. The already impressive visuals were dialed up yet again, with lush and accurate renditions of Renaissance-era Florence and Venice. Players took on the role of charismatic aristocrat Ezio Auditore da Firenze, who had all the character and charm that Altaïr lacked, and then some. Ezio was a hit, and ended up being featured in the next two games as well — the spin-offs Brotherhood and Revelations.
Which is, perhaps, why Assassin’s Creed III suffered such a negative response from players and critics. The game featured another quiet and stoic protagonist, closer in character to Altaïr than Ezio. The trademark visual style seemed drab and muted in part due to the game’s setting — the American Revolution. Boston and New York weren’t quite as thrilling or visually striking as the Rome or Istanbul of the last two games.
It’s here that the pattern seems to emerge. Assassin’s Creed, as a series, has done phenomenally well when it innovates and takes chances, while keeping an eye on what players have liked in the past. No other entry in the series has demonstrated this quite like Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Pirate Captain Edward Kenway was just as witty and enjoyable to play as Ezio ever was, and coupled with an improved and expanded sea-battle system that previously debuted in Assassin’s Creed III, the game was surprising and fantastic. It was a gamble, taking a stealth-based city-crawling game to the high seas, but it paid off. Black Flag showed the gaming industry that iteration and innovation aren’t mutually exclusive.
Ubisoft took another chance with the next flagship title, Unity, and like Assassin’s Creed III, met with mixed results. The story was disjointed, the gameplay was muddy, and the multiplayer aspect was inseparable from the single-player game.
All of which are reasons why it seems that Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is on track to be the commercial and critical success that previous games haven’t been: because Ubisoft has, once again, listened to the community and taken a chance.
Syndicate sheds the multiplayer angle entirely, the sole development focus has been on delivering a solid single-player experience since day one, as evidenced by some of the announced DLC packs, which focus less on collectibles and more on story. Further, Ubisoft isn’t just learning from its own successes and failures. IGN and Forbes have both reported that Syndicate plays a little bit like another well-worn entry in the open-world stealth genre — Batman: Arkham Asylum.
Will Syndicate be another critical and commercial success like Black Flag, or will it take after Unity and leave players feeling let down?
[Image via Ubisoft]