Franchise Festival #112: Assassin’s Creed (2007-2014)

Welcome back to Franchise Festival, a fortnightly column where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found in the archive here.

This week we’ll be silently stalking the history of Assassin’s Creed (2007-2014); future entries in this sub-series will cover later years and spinoffs. Cover art is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.


Table of Contents

Assassin’s Creed (2007)
Assassin’s Creed II (2009)
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010)
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (2011)
Assassin’s Creed III (2012)
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)
Assassin’s Creed: Rogue (2014)


Background

Ubisoft was founded in France by brothers Christian, Claude, Gérard, Michel, and Yves Guillemot in 1986. The video game studio, whose name was derived from the phrase “ubiquitous software,” developed Trivial Pursuit (1986) and Zombi (1986) before going on to release a slew of adaptations, ports, and licensed titles for PC platforms and dedicated gaming consoles throughout the late ’80s and early ’90s. Its first major original intellectual property (IP) was 1995’s Rayman, a platformer designed by Michel Ancel. 

Rayman‘s success allowed Ubisoft to grow into a publicly traded company in 1996 and establish branches in Annecy, Milan, Montreal, and Shanghai by the end of 1998. Its development and publishing pipeline expanded dramatically at the turn of the century, with major tentpole releases on the next generation of home consoles – including Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (2002) and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) – making them a household name. The studio was in a uniquely strong position to launch an entirely new series by the mid-’00s.

Assassin’s Creed (2007)

Patrice Desilets began developing a sequel to Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time at Ubisoft Montreal in early 2004. This project was conceptualized as a grand escort mission during its first year of development, as the player controlled an assassin seeking to protect a young prince. Desilets convinced Ubisoft to let him abandon the Prince of Persia IP entirely by 2005 in favor of a swashbuckling open-world adventure inspired by Vladamir Bartol’s Alamut (1938), an anti-fascist work of historical fiction that told the story of medieval Persia’s radical Isma’ili faction.

Producer Jade Raymond, then known for her success leading development on The Sims Online (2002) at Maxis, expanded Desilets’ staff to include over a hundred individuals over the next two years. Lead programmer Mathieu Mazerolle and his team developed a game engine that emphasized mobility and open-ended exploration rather than combat or stealth. The animation crew, including Alex Drouin and Elspeth Tory, focused on motion capture and working hand-in-hand with programmers using HumanIK middleware to make character movements as naturalistic as possible. 

Cities in Assassin’s Creed are much larger than those in any earlier home console game. Source: MobyGames

The greatest challenges faced by Ubisoft Montreal were refining the project’s scope and crafting environments that were wide-open while still directed enough to guide the player to their objectives. Among other small changes, like dropping the ability to ride a horse within city walls due to technical limitations, planned role-playing game (RPG) progression mechanics and extensive sidequests were cut late in development when they threatened to compromise Desilets’ desired level of sandbox gameplay. Assassin’s Creed finally launched on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 amid a massive advertisement campaign in November 2007.

For much of the adventure, the player controls 12th Century assassin Altair as he tracks and murders powerful men in the Levant during the Third Crusade. This story, however, is revealed to be a recreation of events experienced during the early 21st Century by Altair’s descendant Desmond Miles using a virtual reality device called the Animus. Desmond has been imprisoned by Abstergo Industries, itself an evolution of the Knights Templar, and is being used to track down a mysterious artifact known as the Apple of Eden. The Templars have been locked in a millennia-long struggle with the Assassin Brotherhood for control of this and other Pieces of Eden scattered around the world.

Desmond’s modern surrounding are less inspiring than the cities of the 12th Century Levant. Source: MobyGames

While Desmond’s interstitial gameplay chapters only involve walking around a futuristic facility and engaging in dialogue, Altair’s gameplay is quite varied. The robed assassin must track his targets through three massive cities – Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus – and the surrounding countryside as he engages in a handful of scouting missions before finally moving in for the kill. Reconnaissance activities include pickpocketing, interrogation, eavesdropping and more. An on-screen icon that indicates how conspicuous Altair’s actions are encourages players to vary their distance from targets and blend in with crowds when appropriate.

Aside from its introduction of climbable towers used to develop a map of each area, a mechanic that would go on to appear in nearly every future open-world Ubisoft game, Assassin’s Creed is most noteworthy for its traversal system. When the joystick is pushed in a direction while one of the controller’s face buttons is pressed, Altair will dodge around and over any obstacles or people that get in his way. This parkour-based evolution in character movement would open up a range of crowded settings and locations that would have been too difficult for players to navigate using traditional third-person game controls.

After using towers to improve his understanding of the area, Altair can leap recklessly into nearby piles of hay. Source: MobyGames

Assassin’s Creed sold more copies than expected, but critics drew attention to a number of problems. Desilets’ insistence on not shoehorning the player into a series of repeatable activities left many players frustrated at the lack of gameplay variety, while inconsistent enemy AI and a battle system in which Altair nearly always loses direct confrontations came under fire for undermining the smoothness of the experience. These critiques would directly influence how Desilets and his team approached the sequel.

Assassin’s Creed II (2009)

In contrast to how most sequels expand upon their foundations, Assassin’s Creed II actually streamlined the series scope. Producer Sebastian Puel was “tasked with doing in 20 seconds what I would have done in 120 in AC1,” resulting in tighter, more economical cutscenes. Behind the scenes, though, production was anything but streamlined: though it retained roughly 75% of Assassin’s Creed‘s staff, the team tripled in size to a peak of 450 individuals under director Desilets. 

Much of its one and a half-year development time was spent designing a compelling narrative and crafting significantly more activities than had been available in Assassin’s Creed. Only a few months before launch, a team working remotely at Ubisoft Singapore was tasked with adding “secret location” challenge gauntlets that highlighted the increased acrobatics possible in its enhanced version of the studio’s Anvil game engine. After a brutal sprint to the finish line, in which a sizable portion of planned story content and the ability to replay missions were cut, Assassin’s Creed II was published for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in November 2009 before making its way to PC the following March.

The rooftops of Tuscany, while still desaturated in the style of late 2000s, are more picturesque than dusty Jerusalem and Damascus. Source: MobyGames

In the game’s present-day setting, Desmond is saved from Abstergo by fellow Assassin Lucy Stillman and a team comprised of wisecracking historian Shaun Hastings and technician Rebecca Crane. Desmond then uses Lucy’s Animus device to relive the memories of his ancestor Ezio in an effort to improve his own physical skills. Ezio’s narrative sees him allying with Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolo Machiavelli in 15th Century Tuscany as he seeks revenge on the Templars who executed his father and brother. This story eventually leads him to uncover information about the First Civilization, a technologically advanced precursor race called the Isu that created humans and the Pieces of Eden before succumbing to a mysterious catastrophe, in a vault beneath Vatican City.

It’s nice to finally have a villa of your own. Source: MobyGames

Though Assassin’s Creed II’s geographical scope is more limited than that of Assassin’s Creed, its gameplay mechanics are expanded. So-called “freerun highways” make running and jumping through cities smoother than it had previously been. Ezio can use vehicles – including gondolas and a flying machine based on a real-world sketch by Da Vinci – or swim to get around Florence, Venice, and other urban locations when running isn’t an option. Combat now allows the player character to disarm opponents and make use of improvised tools scavenged from the environment. Ezio even has access to an upgradeable home base in Monteriggioni where he can collect income and spend it on new weapons and armor. Finally, missions now feature a wide variety of evolving objectives rather than a discrete series of reconnaissance steps.

Gondolas are key to navigating Venice. Source: MobyGames

Assassin’s Creed II was a massive success, resolving nearly every issue that had been present in its predecessor; complaints about intrusive digital rights management (DRM) software in its PC port constituted fans’ most noteworthy criticism of the series’ second title. The Battle of Forli and Bonfire of the Vanities, paid downloadable content (DLC) packages launched in early 2010, reintegrated the two story chapters that had been cut prior to the game’s release. Both of these were included alongside Templars Lair, a set of three additional platforming puzzle dungeons, and cosmetic DLC as part of the remastered Ezio Collection on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2016.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (2010)

Ubisoft Montreal began work on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood during the development of Assassin’s Creed II and incorporated most of that game’s staff by the end of 2009. Desilets, who left Ubisoft in June 2010 in pursuit of more creative freedom, was replaced as director by Patrick Plourde. Since it would be reusing a game engine and many art assets from its predecessor, development was largely spent conceptualizing and testing multiplayer within the context of a historically single-player franchise, improving story pacing, and offering new methods of interaction with its detailed historical simulation. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in November 2010, only a year after the previous title, and then on PC four months later.

The crossbow finally makes long-distance assassinations possible. Now you just have to find a grassy knoll. Source: MobyGames

Ezio returns as the player character in a new story set in early 16th Century Rome. Using enhanced combat and traversal abilities, Ezio wages a war against the corrupt, Templar-aligned Borgia family. Desmond, meanwhile, comes into his own as a fighter and uses the knowledge gained from his ancestral memories to avert a predicted 2012 apocalypse while exploring modern Monteriggioni.

The game’s most important new mechanics hinge on its eponymous brotherhood. Once Ezio has destroyed a Borgia stronghold, he is able to recruit allies from the surrounding district and train them to assist him. These fellow Assassins can be called on during combat or can be sent on assignments around Europe using a menu; allies who survive their missions gain experience points, allowing them to upgrade their skills and appearance.

I wouldn’t have expected Assassin’s Creed to veer into management sim territory, but here we are. Source: MobyGames

In addition to the base game’s competitive multiplayer mode, in which players complete objectives and assassinate targets while being pursued or undermined by other player-controlled characters, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood‘s longevity was enhanced through several pieces of DLC. Copernicus Conspiracy and The Da Vinci Disappearance offer new single-player missions while The Animus Project 1.0 and 2.0 expand multiplayer with additional modes and maps set in Italy’s Pienza and France’s Mont Saint-Michel. All content was later re-released on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One as part of the Ezio Collection (2016).

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (2011)

Pre-production for the fourth core Assassin’s Creed game began on the Nintendo 3DS in February 2010 under the name Lost Legacy, but Ubisoft Montreal shifted development to home consoles and renamed the project roughly seven months later. This left a team led by director Alexandre Amancio and producer Martin Schelling one year to build upon Lost Legacy’s concept and narrative structure if they wanted to fulfill Ubisoft’s planned annual release schedule. In an effort to bridge the geographical gap between Altair’s journey in the Levant and Ezio’s Italian adventures, Ubisoft Montreal set Ezio’s third outing in early 15th Century Constantinople; the ongoing support of a dedicated researcher was augmented by two trips to modern Istanbul by members of the development team in a bid for ever-increasing historical accuracy. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations launched for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in November 2011.

It’s pretty spooky to see Desmond’s mind trapped in the Animus. Source: MobyGames

Desmond and Ezio return as the protagonists, though Desmond has been locked in a deeper level of the Animus as a way to prevent brain death following the climactic events of Brotherhood. This allows him to interact directly with his ancestors and gives an aged Ezio the opportunity to use the Animus as well. The latter travels back to 12th Century Masyaf from 15th Century Turkey, controlling Altair during periods before and after the events of the series’ debut in an attempt to access a vault that Altair designed in the distant past.

Ziplines are always fun. Source: MobyGames

The bulk of the single-player game is set in Constantinople, however, where Ezio navigates a war between Greek nationalists and the Ottoman sultanate while growing his expansive network of Assassins. These allies are more important than ever, as they can be assigned to infiltrate off-screen cities and aid in tower-defense sequences that determine which faction owns city districts. In a nod to Ezio’s advanced age, he makes use of a hookblade to speedily overcome vertical surfaces and close distances during chases using ziplines rather than climbing and running as he had in previous titles.

I know they were controversial, but the tower defense sequences are my favorite gameplay in Revelations. Source: MobyGames

Multiplayer now offers an original story that conveys the Templars’ perspective of their war with the Assassin Brotherhood. Unfortunately, access to this content was gated behind ownership of a UPlay Password included with new copies of the game; this was part of an initiative by Ubisoft to discourage players from purchasing used copies of their games. In spite of this predatory business practice and concerns that the series was becoming bloated with unnecessary features that distracted from its core mechanics, Assassin’s Creed: Revelations was another commercial success for the studio. It was later repackaged alongside its paid downloadable content – including The Lost Archive, a side story concerning Desmond’s Animus Project predecessor Clay Kaczmarek – in 2016’s Ezio Collection.

Assassin’s Creed III (2012)

A small team of Ubisoft Montreal employees, including creative director Alexander Hutchinson, started designing Assassin’s Creed III in early 2010. The implementation of a new game engine called AnvilNext would cause development to last twice as long as it had for Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, or Revelations. These technological advances would be worth the wait, however, facilitating the inclusion of dynamic weather and chaotic battlefields. Assassin’s Creed III‘s October 2012 debut on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 was followed by Wii U and PC ports a month later.

Street brawls are easier to survive when you’re willing to use an enemy as a shield. Source: MobyGames

The game concludes Desmond’s arc in the present, as he works to avert the foretold apocalyptic solar flare using technology found in the Grand Temple of the First Civilization beneath New York, while two stories set in the past concern English Templar Haythem Kenway and Kenway’s half-Mohawk son Ratonhnhaké:ton in 18th Century New England. The former journeys to Boston in search of the aforementioned Temple in 1754 while the latter, under the assumed name of Connor, joins up with the Assassin Brotherhood and participates in the events leading up to the American Revolution during the 1770s.

The countryside had been a reliable component of the series, but it takes on a more prominent role in Assassin’s Creed III. Source: MobyGames

Most of the Animus sequences are set in colonial Boston, New York, and the rural countryside between them as Connor alternately joins and opposes historical figures aligned with the Templars and Assassins. Navigation is refined still further from the Ezio Trilogy, including the ability to jump from tree to tree within forests, while hunting allows Connor to participate in the local economy and upgrade his gear. Combat now offers the opportunity to wield multiple weapons, fire flintlock guns, and use enemies as shields. In a sign of things to come, nautical missions developed independently by Ubisoft Singapore allow the player to engage in large-scale naval battles.

I prefer the version of history where Washington resigns his commission. Source: MobyGames

Ubisoft Annecy and Ubisoft Bucharest designed Assassin’s Creed III‘s multiplayer component separately from the core Ubisoft Montreal team. It expands upon previous series entries’ multiplayer with a new Domination Mode, in which players capture and protect designated areas from attacks by their opponents, and presents itself as a straightforward combat simulator being marketed to game enthusiasts by Abstergo Industries rather than featuring its own plot. In addition to a handful of multiplayer updates, paid DLC for Assassin’s Creed III includes a series of missions in which Connor investigates Benedict Arnold’s treachery at West Point and a delightfully unhinged alternate universe where he assassinates a tyrannical George Washington with the support of Benjamin Franklin. These side stories would be bundled alongside the base game and spinoff Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (2012) when it was remastered for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and PC in 2019.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013)

Development on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag began in early 2011 when writer Darby McDevitt and other members of the Revelations team were invited to design DLC for Assassin’s Creed III that expanded on that game’s sailing component. Revelations‘ director, Alex Amancio, successfully pitched the project’s expansion into a distinct series entry during December 2011 before departing Ubisoft for a career outside of the video games industry. Jean Guesdon and Ashraf Ismail were then respectively assigned to the roles of creative director and game director for the first time after having supported earlier titles in other capacities. Guesdon centered his team’s work on a three-word mission statement: “Epic, Fluid, Freedom.” These efforts proved worthwhile when the game was released to effusive critical praise on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U in October 2013; visually enhanced ports then came to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC only one month later.

The Caribbean offers wide spaces in which Edward and his crew can battle rival vessels. Source: MobyGames

Players control Edward Kenway, father of the preceding game’s Haythem Kenway, as he travels around the Caribbean during the 1710s. The series’ traditional conflict is largely eschewed during these Animus sequences in favor of a rich Golden Age of Piracy simulation; Kenway is unaffiliated with either Templars or Assassins, only joining the latter following the death of fellow pirate Mary Read. The present-day story sees an unnamed Abstergo Entertainment research analyst investigating Kenway using the Animus and eventually discovering the identity of The Sage, a sinister figure who seeks to exploit the battle between Assassins and Templars for his own gain.

Modern scenes are now depicted from a first-person perspective. Source: MobyGames

Of course, Black Flag‘s biggest departure is its emphasis on sailing. The Jackdaw, Kenway’s ship, is acquired early in the adventure and becomes the primary method of traversal between the port cities of Havana, Kingston, and Nassau. In contrast to earlier series entries, the spaces between these urban hubs are every bit as important: Kenway pursues sidequests and treasure by diving into shipwrecks and exploring other locations of interest scattered across dozens of small islands. The Brotherhood feature of the Ezio Trilogy makes its return here in a modified fashion too, as Kenway can recruit people into his pirate crew.

Assassinating plantation owners as Adéwalé in Freedom Cry is among the series’ most cathartic moments. Source: Assassin’s Creed Wiki

Freedom Cry, the highlight of Black Flag’s DLC Season Pass, offers a sweeping adventure centered on Kenway’s quartermaster Adéwalé. In an emotionally resonant narrative written by Jill Murray, Adéwalé becomes stranded in Saint-Dominique and organizes an uprising alongside the island’s enslaved people. Freedom Cry would later be released as a standalone title in February 2014 before being included with Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue in The Rebel Collection (2019) on Nintendo Switch.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue (2014)

Ubisoft Sofia led development of the seventh core Assassin’s Creed game with support from Black Flag veterans at Ubisoft Singapore and other regional studios. The team decided not to include multiplayer, instead dedicating most of their resources to implementing features that fans had been requesting for years. Assassin’s Creed Rogue served as the franchise’s seventh generation swan song when it launched on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in November 2014.

The North Atlantic is similar to the Caribbean in execution, though its frigid temperature makes long-term swimming impossible. Source: MobyGames

Since its controls and overall gameplay are nearly identical to those of Black Flag – aside from a greater amount of land traversal – Rogue is best known for its narrative conceit. Protagonist Shay Patrick Cormac abandons the Assassin Brotherhood when he discovers their willingness to cause deadly catastrophes in their pursuit of Pieces of Eden, joining up with the Templars and fighting against his former allies in New England during the Seven Years War. Cormac’s new affiliation brings with it a corresponding reversal of traditional series tropes, as the player works to prevent assassinations rather than planning and executing them.

Flintlock pistols and their ability to zoom prove critical in boarding enemy vessels. Source: MobyGames

Rogue‘s emphasis on refinement rather than innovation led to uncharacteristically negative reviews. Critics drew attention to its lack of meaningful iteration on Black Flag and its less engaging setting, with colonial New York and the frozen waters of the North Atlantic failing to produce as much swashbuckling charm as Caribbean piracy. Thankfully, this would not keep the game from receiving a remaster on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in 2018 and being bundled alongside Black Flag in The Rebel Collection a year later.


What do you think about Assassin’s Creed? Which is your favorite series entry? Favorite setting? How about the coolest assassination you pulled off? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Be sure to tune into the monthly Franchise Festival podcast if you’d like to hear an even more granular exploration of noteworthy video game series. If you enjoy the articles or the show, please consider backing us on Patreon. Patrons, like our newest backer Jarathen, make it possible to keep producing great content!

As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:

  • #113: Assassin’s Creed, 2014-2020 and Spinoffs – December 3
  • #114: Breath of Fire – December 17
  • #115: Metal Gear – January 7
  • #116: Dragon Age – January 21
  • #117: Time Crisis – February 4