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 gazing down from above on Assassin’s Creed (2014-2020 and Spinoffs). Cover art is from MobyGames unless otherwise noted. Please consider supporting that website, as its staff tirelessly catalogs key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Assassin’s Creed Unity (2014)
From the beginning of development in late 2010, Assassin’s Creed Unity was planned as the start of a new era for the series. Creative Director Alexandre Amancio, who began supervising the project following the launch of Assassin’s Creed Revelations, relied on guesswork about the next generation of home consoles to inform the earliest phase of pre-production. Nine Ubisoft studios working in concert around the world designed a new game engine that could display up to 30,000 non-player characters (NPCs) at a time, a revamped stealth system aimed at on-boarding new players who hadn’t engaged with the series before, and a faithful depiction of Revolutionary France that included a brick-by-brick recreation of the Notre Dame Cathedral by level artist Caroline Mousse; the latter would prove to be an unexpected boon to real-world architects when its subject burned down in 2019. After four years of development, Assassin’s Creed Unity launched on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in November 2014.
The plot centers on Arno Dorian, a young man who joins the Assassin Brotherhood and gets caught up in the French Revolution after his father is murdered by Assassin’s Creed Rogue protagonist Shay Patrick Cormac. The series’ newest framing mechanism is Abstergo Industries’ Helix, a gaming device that effectively functions as a mass-marketed Animus, which allows an anonymous modern protagonist called The Initiate to relive Dorian’s experiences between 1789 and 1794. A handful of time anomalies present in the Helix also allow the player to explore small sections of Paris during later time periods like World War II.
In an effort to encourage mobility over stationary stealth, haystacks are omitted and exploration is enhanced through refined controls for freerunning up and down the sides of buildings. Assassin’s Creed’s first skill tree – a menu-based progression system popularized by computer role-playing games like Diablo (1997) – makes its debut here as a way to enhance Arno’s abilities. Finally, Ubisoft’s drive to harmonize the series’ narrative and multiplayer components led the development team to fully integrate cooperative gameplay with the single-player campaign; players have the option of summoning in friends to take on objectives in groups rather than going it alone.
Assassin’s Creed Unity‘s ambition seemed to outstrip Ubisoft’s reach, however. The game’s launch was plagued with bugs, including a particularly infamous example in which character faces failed to load, prompting Ubisoft Montreal chief executive Yannis Mallat to issue a public apology in November 2014. Though patches eventually fixed the issues and early buyers were provided with a free package of downloadable content, the game’s omission of any playable female avatars in its co-op mode was a larger problem; Alex Amancio’s explanation that programming and animating these models would require double the work – implying, of course, that male characters are the default and that female characters are a bonus – did little to placate fans. Even as the game’s reputation has slowly risen over the following years, it has remained a divisive title in an otherwise beloved franchise.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (2015)
Ubisoft Quebec, which had previously designed the Da Vinci missions in Assassin’s Creed II and the Tyranny of King Washington DLC for Assassin’s Creed III, was given the lead role in developing the series’ ninth core entry. Creative Director Marc-Alexis Cole sought to foreground the theme of innovation, leading the team to settle on Victorian England’s Industrial Revolution as its setting. The studio incorporated feedback from fans, offering a playable demo at E3 2015 in an effort to avoid repeating the buggy launch of Unity, but its choice to include a female protagonist was apparently not directly influenced by the rancor that had greeted Unity‘s exclusively male avatars. Their efforts paid off, as the game was released with no noteworthy bugs or controversies on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in October 2015 and then on PC the following month.
Players control Assassin twins Jacob and Evie Frye, leaders of a gang called The Rooks, in a version of London ruled by the Templars. The siblings liberate city boroughs from Templar authority throughout 1868 and seek the Shroud of Eden, a powerful artifact hidden within the depths of Buckingham Palace. The present-day story of The Initiate simultaneously grows in complexity as they discover that an outside force has been manipulating Abstergo employees in pursuit of the very same shroud during modern times.
Gameplay systems receive only minor updates from Unity. Hand-to-hand combat is emphasized when playing as Jacob, while switching to Evie allows the player to use tools like a rope launcher to rapidly scale buildings. Carriages, meanwhile, convey Jacob or Evie from borough to borough and a train serves as the Rooks’ primary base of operations.
A host of narrative DLC packages followed Syndicate‘s initial release, offering missions that feature historical figures like Jack the Ripper, Charles Dickens, Duleep Singh, and Charles Darwin. Multiplayer, however, is absent for the first time since 2008’s Assassin’s Creed II. Unfortunately, the negative reception to Unity and the market saturation of a yearly release schedule contributed to Syndicate selling fewer copies than its direct predecessor. Critical reception was strong, with a 2020 retrospective by Game Informer describing it as the second-best Assassin’s Creed title so far, but waning sales forced Ubisoft to revisit how the series could meaningfully evolve in an era when nearly every competitor was publishing narrative-heavy exploratory action games inspired by Assassin’s Creed.
Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017)
The reinvention of Assassin’s Creed began in late 2013 at Ubisoft Montreal under the leadership of Black Flag Creative Director Ashraf Ismail. The studio wanted to explore the origins of the Assassin Brotherhood while also reimagining exploration and combat as a more holistic experience. Nearly 1,000 individuals worked on the game at various Ubisoft branches with each responsible for a particular region in the game world under the guidance of Ubisoft Montreal. The studio was particularly careful about how it depicted the Egyptian countryside, as Ubisoft used NASA technical documentation and satellite imagery of the area to produce true-to-life lighting and topography. Eschewing the annual release schedule to which the series had rigidly adhered for nearly a decade, 2016 would be the first year without an Assassin’s Creed game since 2008. When the franchise’s tenth entry finally premiered on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC in October 2017, it was greeted with the rapturous reception of a returning champion.
The main story is set during the 1st Century BC in Ptolemaic Egypt, where Medjay protagonist Bayek of Siwa and his wife Aya found the Hidden Ones – predecessor to the Assassin Brotherhood – in opposition to the Order of the Ancients. Along the way, they cross paths with Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Pompey, and other major historical figures of the era. The modern story is set in 2017 and introduces protagonist Layla Hassan, a former Abstergo employee who illicitly uses an Animus to explore the memories of a mummified Bayak and Aya in the pursuit of a Piece of Eden while learning about her role in a prophesied future apocalypse.
Reuse of the AnvilNext 2.0 game engine that had powered Unity and Syndicate does little to limit Origins’ major changes to the Assassin’s Creed formula. Direct combat takes on a more outsized role than ever, as Bayek exchanges melee blows with foes whose strength is determined by their level. RPG elements don’t end there, as Bayek must accumulate experience points and level himself up if he hopes to challenge more powerful opponents. Combat skill is not entirely abstracted, however, as enemy hitboxes and acquired weaponry also serve to determine how much damage Bayek does with his attacks. Exploration is likewise enhanced through the inclusion of a dedicated mount, multiple settlements spread throughout the Nile Valley, NPCs who follow unique all-day routines, and sidequests that confer new gear and experience points.
Assassin’s Creed’s transformation into an action-RPG was the infusion of new energy that Ubisoft’s aging franchise needed. Critics regarded it as a successful evolution, while sales doubled those of Syndicate overnight. Developer support continued during the following year through narrative DLC introducing mythological elements and a Discovery Mode offering the opportunity to explore and learn about the history of Egypt while stripping out the game’s combat and plot. Like Assassin’s Creed II before it, Origins had definitively established the template for future series entries.
Note: Cover art sourced from Walmart
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018)
Development on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey began in 2015 at Ubisoft Quebec. With the support of Ubisoft Montreal, which was simultaneously producing Origins, Creative Director Scott Phillips and his team aimed to deepen the series’ RPG elements still further through the introduction of dialogue systems and meaningful choices that impact the story; Fallout (1997), The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011), and The Witcher 3 (2015) served as Phillips’ main inspirations. The game launched to widespread acclaim on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch (via streaming in Japan only) in October 2018.
Players choose between a male and female protagonist – Alexios and Kassandra, respectively – before setting off on a swashbuckling adventure through Ancient Greece. The historical portion of the story is set in 431 BC and sees either Alexios or Kassandra putting their mercenary skills to use in the service of Athens or Sparta during the Peloponnesian War before targeting the sinister Cult of Kosmos. The modern plot continues the journey of Layla Hassan, who tracks down an Isu artifact known as the Spear of Leonidas and then makes her way to the lost city of Atlantis.
Gameplay mechanics refine many of the systems introduced in Origins. One-on-one combat hinges on abstracted level growth through the accumulation of experience points, though the addition of naval warfare once again offers the large-scale confrontations that had been absent from Assassin’s Creed since 2014’s Rogue. While the main plot plays out similarly for either playable protagonist, branching dialogue, romance options, and persistent relationships with NPCs alter the course of events (sometimes in unexpected ways) as the story develops. Greece’s 28 explorable regions also dynamically shift control between Athens or Sparta depending on how the player engages with the ongoing war.
Odyssey was as critically and commercially successful as its predecessor, with IGN boldly declaring it the best series entry so far. A Season Pass of DLC packages adds one story arc focused on Darius, the first wielder of the Assassins’ hidden blade weapon, and a second centered on exploring Ancient Atlantis and the First Civilization. Unfortunately, this expanded content provoked controversy when it depicted Alexios or Kassandra, who may have had a same-sex partner in the base game depending on the player’s choices, settling down in a heterosexual marriage. Negative fan response eventually prompted Ubisoft Quebec to patch in alternate dialogue options and changes to this problematic story beat, bringing the final version of the game closer to the inclusive vision originally promoted by its creators.
Note: Cover art sourced from Amazon
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla (2020)
In late 2017, Ubisoft Montreal staff began speculating about which time period and culture they might explore using the new systems they had established with Assassin’s Creed Origins. Long-running fan requests for the Vikings won out and the team quickly settled on the 9th Century invasion of England as a particularly rich moment for medieval Norse culture. The writers focused on depicting the complexities of Viking life rather than recapitulating the myth of bloodthirsty interlopers popularized by contemporary Christian accounts.
As part of a wider reckoning in the video game industry, Creative Director Ashraf Ismail stepped down amid allegations of widespread sexual impropriety during June 2020; fans would become increasingly aware of Ubisoft’s long-hidden corporate culture of abuse over the following months through victims’ social media posts and an investigation spearheaded by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier. These horrifying revelations were not enough to slow down development on the studio’s most popular property, however, and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla was published on PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and PC in November 2020.
The historical story begins with protagonist Eivor, whose sex is selected by the player when starting the game, leading their tribe from Norway to England in 873. The Hidden Ones make a reappearance 900 years after their founding in Ptolemaic Egypt, offering aid to Eivor as they struggle against England’s multitude of kingdoms and the Order of the Ancients. In 2020, meanwhile, Layla Hassan and her associates work to avert a world-wide catastrophe caused by sudden changes to the Earth’s magnetic field.
Dialogue choices, level-based combat, and naval exploration return from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. In addition to these, Ubisoft Montreal reintegrates the social stealth systems that had memorably defined the series’ earliest entries; Eivor can don a cloak to wander English settlements unmolested or blend in with NPC groups to evade pursuit. Valhalla likewise draws on the cooperative elements of earlier Assassin’s Creed titles, albeit through asynchronous multiplayer, as Eivor can recruit mercenary units designed by other players connected to the internet. Perhaps inspired by Fallout: New Vegas (2010), Eivor can also build alliances with local rulers to counteract the influence of their rivals.
Valhalla was met with a largely positive reception even under the specter of poor working conditions at Ubisoft. Critics praised its vast scope and continued refinement of the engaging RPG mechanics introduced in Origins, though a multi-generational launch seems to have produced more bugs than had been present in its direct predecessors; microtransactions drew similar ire from fan communities who were expecting the game’s features to be fully accessible at a traditional retail price. At the time of writing in November 2021, the series’ characteristic deluge of post-launch content continues with the release of DLC packages expanding the game world to include Ireland and Northern France.
Note: Cover art sourced from Amazon
As the flagship intellectual property of a multi-million dollar corporation, Assassin’s Creed has been adapted into a wide range of other media. Novels, apps, and even a movie starring Jim Caveziel have broadened its appeal to fans who might not otherwise have encountered Ubisoft’s time-bending franchise. Even so, this section will be focusing exclusively on the series’ multitudinous video game spinoffs.
The first overall type of Assassin’s Creed spinoff is the sidescrolling platformer. Most were developed by Gameloft, a French studio co-founded by Ubisoft’s Guillemot Brothers in 1999, and published for keypad-based mobile phones between 2007 and 2012. Titles include Assassin’s Creed (2007), Assassin’s Creed: Altair’s Chronicles (2008), Assassin’s Creed II (2009), Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood (2010), Assassin’s Creed Revelations (2011), and Assassin’s Creed III (2012). All aside from Altair’s Chronicles adapt core entries into a series of 2D levels featuring sprite graphics and acrobatic moves reminiscent of Capcom’s early Strider games. Altair’s Chronicles is a standalone 2.5D polygonal prequel to the original Assassin’s Creed that was released in an enhanced edition on Nintendo DS and iOS devices in addition to the standard Java-based mobile phone version.
Strangely, a second sidescrolling adaptation of Assassin’s Creed II subtitled Discovery (2009) was also developed for the DS and iOS by Griptonite Games. Its primary difference from Gameloft’s mobile titles is the inclusion of three mission types – Normal, Chase, and Stealth – that respectively require the player to approach a stage however they want, dash through it as quickly as possible, or avoid being spotted by guards. Though the DS version remains available due to its publication in a physical format, the higher-resolution iOS port was delisted in 2013.
Ubisoft would later contract Climax Studio, a British developer best known for Silent Hill: Origins (2007) and Silent Hill: Shattered Memories (2009), to produce three 2.5D spinoffs for home consoles, PC, and the PlayStation Vita. The Assassin’s Creed Chronicles (2015-2016) sub-series consists of adventures set in 1520s China, 1840s India, and 1910s Russia. All serve to explain events that occur between core series entries through original stories. Gameplay features a combination of stealth, as enemies’ sightlines are represented with on-screen vision cones, and fast-paced combat. Unlike Gameloft’s sprite-based mobile titles, the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles titles frequently allow the player character to interact with background elements or move back and forth between layered 2D areas.
The series’ most recent sidescroller, Assassin’s Creed Unity: Arno’s Chronicles (2017), adapts the events of 2014’s Assassin’s Creed Unity. Protagonist Arno explores 20 platforming stages, avoiding or fighting enemies and accumulating coins to purchase power-ups. Unfortunately, the game was exclusive to Huawei mobile phones in Europe and has been unavailable since 2018.
While the action-platformer genre was a natural fit, Ubisoft published more than a few strategy games under the Assassins’ Creed name. The first of these was Assassin’s Creed Recollection, a 2011 iOS board game developed internally at Ubisoft Montreal. Players could compete against AI opponents in a narrative adventure that crisscrossed Europe or take on their friends using an online multiplayer mode and unlock multimedia codex entries shedding light on the series’ dense backstory. Like Assassin’s Creed II: Discovery before it, however, it was delisted in one of Apple’s periodic purges of App Store content designed for unsupported operating systems.
The franchise’s next strategy spinoff was Assassin’s Creed Pirates (2013), a real-time naval combat simulator developed by Ubisoft Paris for iOS devices as a tie-in to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (2013). Players took on the role of French pirate captain Alonzo Batila as they bought and improved ships, hired new crew members, and battled enemy vessels. Three years after its final update introduced a freerunner mode in which Alonzo could explore Mayan temples, the game was removed from the App Store.
One of the series’ most surprising strategy spinoffs is The Tower Assassin’s Creed (2017), a simple 2D tower-building simulation for Android devices in which the player swipes at their screen to slide horizontal slices of a tower into place as their avatar automatically climbs upward. Unlockable skins allow the player to customize their Assassin to look like Connor, Edward, or Shao Jun (of Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China) while periodic updates added largely cosmetic new locations. Developer Ketchapp was primarily known for producing commercially successful clones of popular browser and mobile titles like Flappy Bird (2013) and 2048 (2014) before being acquired by Ubisoft in September 2016.
The latest Assassin’s Creed strategy title at the time of writing is Assassin’s Creed: Rebellion, which was developed by Behaviour Interactive and published by Ubisoft for Android and iOS devices in November 2018 following a 2017 beta test in the Oceania region. Gameplay resembles the management sim portions of Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood insofar as the player is mostly just navigating menus to improve their base and send assassins into the field to autonomously besiege Templar strongholds. As a nod to the popularity of gacha mechanics in free-to-play mobile titles of the late 2010s, the game allows players to gamble on recruiting randomized characters from other series entries using real-world currency.
Though most Assassin’s Creed spinoffs are relatively simple in their presentation and gameplay, Ubisoft did release a couple of larger-budget titles outside of the core series. The first of these is Ubisoft Sofia’s Assassin’s Creed: Liberation (2012). Developed using the same AnvilNext engine that had powered Assassin’s Creed III, this PlayStation Vita adventure sees the player controlling French-African Assassin Aveline de Grandpre in and around New Orleans during the 1760s and 1770s. This spinoff proved so popular that a remastered version launched on the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC in 2014 before making its way to PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch in 2019.
The second spinoff featuring traditional core series gameplay is Assassin’s Creed: Identity, which was developed by Ubisoft Blue Byte using the Unity engine and soft-launched in Oceania during September 2014. Its assassination missions feature bite-sized areas set during the Italian Renaissance, rather than the sprawling urban landscapes of core titles and Liberation, but the parkour, stealth, and combat mechanics of Assassin’s Creed II make their way to Android and iOS devices largely intact. Rather than controlling a predefined character, however, players create an avatar and assign them one of four classes that determine their overall strengths and weaknesses. Free updates before and after its worldwide launch in September 2016 would introduce new gear and locations based on Black Flag and the Assassin’s Creed movie, along with a leaderboard used to asynchronously compete against friends.
A handful of miscellaneous titles round out this multitude of spinoffs. The first two, Assassin’s Creed II: Multiplayer (2010) and Assassin’s Creed Multiplayer: Rearmed (2011), are top-down 4-person deathmatches developed in-house by Ubisoft for iOS. The objective of both is to successfully assassinate an assigned competitor while avoiding unnecessary kills against NPCs or non-targeted players, though this seemingly straightforward task is complicated because it’s impossible to tell who is controlled by AI and who is a human opponent without observing their behavior closely. Sprite-based maps pulled from Assassin’s Creed, Assassin’s Creed II, and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood are multilayered, offering roofs from which the player can carry out reconnaissance and aerial assassinations.
The short-lived Assassin’s Creed: Memories, a free-to-play role-playing card game developed in collaboration between GREE and PlayNext, was only available on iOS devices worldwide from August 2014 to March 2015 following a July 2014 soft-launch in Oceania. Players built a roster of assassins who could have their stats augmented through the accumulation of equipment cards bought from an in-game shop. Completing missions set in Renaissance Italy, Colonial North America, Imperial Mongolia, and Sengoku Japan allowed the player to acquire coins needed to open additional missions or purchase cards, while microtransactions sped up the resource gathering process for players willing to spend real-world currency. The focus of the game was a single-player campaign, but 20 vs. 20 multiplayer team battles were also available.
The most recent Assassin’s Creed spinoff is Ubisoft Da Nang’s Assassin’s Creed: Freerunners, which launched as an open beta in April 2021. Players choose one of several characters pulled from other series entries – Assassin’s Creed: Rebellion‘s Ysabel Lomelin, Mateo Galan, Aguilar de Nerha and Jariya al-Zakiyya, Assassin’s Creed IV‘s Edward Kenway and Adéwalé, Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China‘s Shao Jun, Assassin’s Creed Origins‘ Bayek, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey‘s Alexios, or Assassin’s Creed II‘s Ezio – and race against online competitors in this browser-based multiplayer game. The only input is a jump button, which, if timed well, confers a speed boost to the player character’s constant forward momentum upon landing.
Though the reception to its debut entry was chillier than preview coverage had suggested, Assassin’s Creed rapidly became a global phenomenon through reliably expansive action-adventure games set in interesting historical locations. The basic formula proved surprisingly malleable too, as it incorporated multiplayer elements during the early 2010s and then evolved into a role-playing game with the release of Assassin’s Creed Origins in 2017. Once Ubisoft resolves its poor working conditions, the future of Assassin’s Creed will be brighter than ever.
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.
As ever, here is a tentative list of upcoming articles:
- #114: Breath of Fire – December 17
- #115: Metal Gear – January 7
- #116: Dragon Age – January 21
- #117: Time Crisis – February 4
- #118: Kentucky Route Zero – February 18