Assassin’s Creed games are often a mixed bag. They hit their stride with beautiful graphics, sprawling cities and historical detail, but at the same time usually stagger in their presentation of interesting protagonists, so-so stories and repetitive gameplay scenarios. That said, there are definitely a few exceptions to these rules, and today I will separate the cream from the crop, as I rank the AC series from worst to best. Grabbing a hidden blade may be necessary, as at least one of these games is in dire need of being put down.
Note: I have only included the main entries in the series here. Those that I deemed to be spin-offs, as well as handheld iterations, have not been included. Sorry, Bloodlines.
7. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
I don’t know how Ubisoft could have messed this one up. They had a chance to create an epic conclusion to Ezio’s gripping tale, and instead they created an affair that was solely average. The game started out great, with a few awesome set-pieces and a return to the original’s hub town of Masyaf. But when you got to Constantinople, things took a strange and confusing turn.
First of all, the inclusion of a tower defence system was completely unnecessary and equally frustrating. Most defences were easily and quickly broken by those flamethrower siege machines; perhaps Ezio should have invested in some of those, instead of flaunting around with flowers.
A portion of Constantinople looked fantastic. Hagia Sophia in particular had a certain majesty about it, but it’s a shame that the same could not be said for the rest of the city, or its inhabitants. The crisp, realistic visuals of previous editions apparently weren’t good enough for this iteration, and so they were replaced with an especially grainy filter; everything seemed to have been painted using an incredibly sandy brush. Faces had also taken a hit in the visual department, as Ezio and Desmond ended up looking like strange, bug-eyed monkeys the entire time. I have no idea why their looks were changed; it seemed totally unwarranted.
Freakish looks aside, Ezio was still as great as ever, and while his and Altair’s missions were generally sound, I still wish that more attention was given to the actual assassination side of things. Most of the story revolved around Ezio locating artefacts to Altair’s memories, which allowed for some touching and poignant moments. However Ezio’s targets were few and far between, and when they came around, they were little more than forgettable henchmen.
6. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
Brotherhood was generally a step above Revelations in many ways, but it still had some repetition coming off the back of Assassin’s Creed II. The city of Rome was used to great effect, and monuments such as the Coliseum, the Pantheon and the Castel Sant’Angelo were beautifully designed; they basically mirrored their 16th century counterparts. The city, plus the surrounding countryside and villages, made a huge area for exploration, but I couldn’t experiencing a sense of déjà-vu as I clambered over rooftops and shimmied down facades. Both ACII and Brotherhood were set in the Italian Renaissance, and as a result, the latter seemed to come off as a bit of an expansion; nothing was truly new in terms of visual fidelity.
There may have only been one city in Brotherhood, but that does not mean that it lacked in things to do. New features came about in the addition of Borgia towers which could be destroyed to liberate districts from Papal corruption. Assassin trainees could also be recruited, and then sent out to various European states, in order to decrease the Borgia and Templar influence throughout the continent. These added to the game’s depth, and provided a meta-game that proved to be a useful distraction from the game’s violent and incestuous plot.
The incest in question sprung up from everybody’s favourite homicidal family: The Borgias. It was interesting to have a family of villains as the main antagonists, especially after ACII’s family of heroes. Their inner turmoil meant for a great story, and seeing their evil dynamics unfold in front of Ezio’s eyes made their deaths all the more satisfying.
Despite having a cool story, the game suffered from Revelations’ lacklustre set of assassinations. I’ve mentioned that the Borgias were great, but apart from them I cannot think of another memorable kill. Furthermore, there were some seriously annoying vehicle missions from Leonardo da Vinci. I get that that flying machine was pretty neat and all, but tortoiseshell-like tanks didn’t really have the same effect. Thank god they were never built.
5. Assassin’s Creed III
For some, ACIII may have been the weakest edition in the series, but for me, it was a great change of pace from the previous three entries, as the Renaissance cities had begun to feel a little samey. In my opinion, a journey from Europe across the Atlantic and onto the American frontier was just what the doctor – or the assassin – ordered.
This time, nature was your playground. There may have been two cities for you to explore – 18th century Boston and New York no less – but it was the Frontier where beauty was truly encapsulated. Trees could now be scaled, mountains could be hiked, boulders could be dodged and fallen branches were easily avoided with skilful slides and leaps. The world was full of luscious greens that rustled in the wind; birds would sing and rain water would splash in puddles amongst the foliage. Animals could also be found in their multitudes. There have always been birds and horses in Assassin’s Creed, but now there were rabbits, wolves, pigs, turkeys, and even bears that could be hunted, or perhaps hunt you.
The assassin partaking in this hunting was called Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor if you prefer. He may not have been the most enthusiastic or charismatic kind of guy; in fact, he did come across as slightly boring – but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t devoted to his cause. Like all Patriots during the American Revolution, he sought justice, and would be compelled to act violently to succeed in his quest to see the laws of humanity upheld. He was certainly passionate, even if this passion was locked up very tightly in a beige-tinged box.
As well as being an expert assassin, Connor was the captain of the Aquila: a French naval ship that could be taken up and down the coast of America in search of plunder, adventure and Templar-killing fun. These naval missions were a new and welcomed addition to the series, especially for those who wanted a rest from running and jumping over pointy objects. The oceans sparkled in the sun and shook with raging force during storms; another new ecosystem had been created that was once again a naturalistic departure from the game’s brick and mortar predecessors.
4. Assassin’s Creed Unity
AC Unity is getting a lot of flack at the moment. And while I agree that its frame rate struggles at times, that it isn’t as polished as it necessarily should be, and that it is ridiculous that no one has a French accent, I do in fact believe that it is a great addition to the series; one that creates one of the most realistic interpretations of an historical city to date.
Obviously, I wasn’t around in the 1790s, but I feel that Unity perfectly encapsulates the unrest and savagery that was going on during the French Revolution. There is a considerable amount of squalor in the streets; the poor and sick and dying fight over bread and grain, riots and protests ensue in almost every neighbourhood, and public executions of the aristocracy can be viewed in all of their neck-cutting glory. The buildings themselves are also well designed, and feature the looks of the old Medieval Paris; the beautiful boulevards of today’s city were not implemented until the nineteenth century. Monuments have been given a similar treatment; Notre Dame is certainly a beautiful and realistic spectacle, but it definitely differs from its modern day counterpart.
The amount to see and do in Paris is incredible. Minute, and much larger, details add to its realistic aesthetic, like the peasant women washing their clothes in the Seine, to the vast crowds laying siege to Hôtels and Palais throughout the city. It feels alive and full of activity. The story missions also integrate well with the period’s historical events, as the assassinations are interlaced with the likes of Louis XVI’s execution, the storming of the Bastille, and the attempted “suicide” of Maximilien de Robespierre. The narrative is truly one of much darker circumstances than the series’ previous outing, which is then highlighted by the bloody history in which it is placed.
The newest protagonist, Arno Dorian, may be involved in a dark story of redemption, but I still find him to be a pleasurable fellow, who certainly has a lot of charm despite his somewhat tragic circumstances. He may not be Ezio, but Arno is able to quip with the best of them; barely a mission goes by where he doesn’t have some sort of sardonic comment to make. He is sarcastic, grave, passionate and thoughtful, which mix together perfectly to create a character that can provide both some great laughs, and some equally dramatic moments.
3. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Black Flag continued the tradition established by ACIII, as it placed you in a more natural environment: the aquamarine plains of the Caribbean. Here, an entire sea was made available for exploration, and also included myriads of islands and islets for you to discover. It was a paradise of sun, sea, sand and swashbuckling adventure.
Placing you in the (probably stolen) boots of Edward Kenway, the grandfather of Connor from the previous game, Black Flag took the series in a different direction in terms of its story. This time around, things were much less serious; a lot of the melodrama had been replaced by a light and breezy pirate tale full of drinking, shenanigans and whole lot of grown men saying “Arrr” at each other; Edward was the swash to Connor’s buckle. That may not make much sense, but basically, I mean that he was much a more entertaining chap to be around than his rather moody relative.
This was the first game that actually provided an interesting and engaging set of stages in the present day, as you infiltrated Abstergo as a tester for their new pirate “video game.” These sections allowed some first-person exploration, which then led to interesting puzzles that unlocked audio diaries and fact files that added to Assassin’s Creed’s deep lore.
Missions in the past took place in the cities of Kingston and Havana, as well as on various islands in and around the Caribbean Sea. While a majority of these were thoroughly varied and enjoyable, many also involved tailing someone from one destination to another. Now, this may not seem like a bad thing; that’s what hidden assassins do, of course. However, that is only the case if it were actually possible to keep up with your target successfully without bumping into random pedestrians, getting stuck on pieces of the scenery, or generally making a ruckus and alerting them to your presence. These missions were incredibly frustrating; mercifully, other distractions were available to keep you away from Edward’s clumsiness.
A huge aquatic area could be traversed in Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, and if travelling wasn’t your type of thing, other ships could be mercilessly attacked in order to gain supplies and crew for your fleet. Naval combat played a large part in Black Flag, which was both fun and satisfying, especially when barraging an enemy frigate with cannon balls from across a large expanse of water. Exciting escapades could also be found on land, as jungle retreats and Mayan temples could be traipsed through in search of hidden treasures.
Both land and sea offered numerous wonders (howler monkeys, anyone?), but we all know where the real pleasure was to be had: up at the helm, with your men singing sea shanties.
“What do we do with a drunken sailor?” Have a ball, apparently.
2. Assassin’s Creed
The first game in the series was a bit of an oddity. It received a mixed reception on release and there are still those that claim that it is a boring and repetitive; a series-starter that failed to deliver what it had promised. I, on the other hand, completely disagree with this assessment, as I feel that Assassin’s Creed was a marvel at the time. As far as I know, no other game had been able to create such a beautiful, expansive and realistic world; something which was only to be rivalled with the launch of Grand Theft Auto IV the following year. The visuals, plus the scale of the game’s three primary cities, are as impressive now as they were in 2007.
Jerusalem, Acre and Damascus were huge; they were detailed; they were full of atmosphere and life; and they were able to remain distinct from one another, as Jerusalem’s holy grandeur differed greatly from the disease-ridden Acre. Districts within the cities were also made individual by their inhabitants. The rich lived in palaces, the middling citizens shopped in vast markets, and the poor wandered around aimlessly while their areas remained full of squalor. All of the aesthetics used were able to craft an era of turmoil and unrest; a true depiction of the Middle-East in the twelfth century.
The ideological battle between the Assassins and the Knights Templar was shown to be surrounded, and yet hidden, by actual historical events. The Assassins were made to seem like a necessary part of the social system; that they had a purpose of purging the land of evil; that they were an active element; and that without them, justice and freedom would have been foreign concepts.
To achieve this goal, a myriad of assassinations had to be undertaken by Altair Ibn-La’Ahad, a man scrabbling to reclaim his fallen glory. He may not fit in with the game’s other characters – he spoke with an American accent after all (and monotone no less) – but I don’t think that this should be seen as a negative. He was blunt and to the point, perfectly displaying the persona of a cold-blooded killer. He lacked the passion of Ezio not because he was boring, but because murder had rendered him emotionless; unnecessary feelings would have clouded his judgements, and severely affected his much-needed work.
This work involved taking out nine unfavourable targets throughout the Holy Lands by investigating their actions within their inhabited cities. These investigations may have been slightly repetitive, but they allowed for a more open-ended assassination structure; they provided clues to your target’s location, as well as information regarding their movements.
The nine themselves were as memorable as they were ruthless, as each of their bloody deeds were highlighted in extreme detail through the breaking of limbs, the poisoning of guests, and the execution of infidels. The assassinations were placed at the forefront of the action.
1. Assassin’s Creed II
There was certainly something very special about Assassin’s Creed II. It was a game that changed so much about its predecessor, while still adhering to its basic formula. It removed the repetitive missions and replaced them with story-centric tasks; it made combat and movement in general more fluid; and it removed the monotone protagonist in favour of the more impassioned figure of Ezio. It created a cinematic experience that hinged on action, suspense, romance and revenge.
You travelled with Ezio through a large span of his life, from his birth and into the beginning of his middle age. This gave you a chance to love him for the charming, passionate and extremely likeable individual that he truly was, although it was clear from the start that cheekiness was his forte: “Your sister seemed quite satisfied with the ‘handling’ I gave her earlier.” This made you care about his struggles in a way that wasn’t available with Altair. Empathy was easily felt when Ezio lost everything; it was a chance to help him to better his life, and succeed gracefully in inciting revenge upon his family’s killers, in addition to the Templar conspiracy that threatened his homeland.
As well as our romantic champion, the story was also riddled with other interesting heroes and villains, most of whom were taken directly from history. Leonardo da Vinci was on hand as your friend and inventor, aiding in your quest with a handful of helpful devices – including an improved hidden blade that spared one of Ezio’s precious digits (poor Altair). The assassination targets were kept distinct from one another through their cruel and dictatorial actions. For example, Francesco de’ Pazzi was quick to brutality, Jacapo de’ Pazzi was pragmatic yet cowardly, and Carlo Grimaldi was cunningly ruthless. The attributes of the Templars made killing them satisfactory, as Ezio fulfilled his personal, and dutiful, vendetta against tyranny.
The missions available to Ezio on his journey were anything but tyrannical, as they ranged from the politically fuelled to the gloriously mundane. My use of the mundane here is not a knock, however, as these tasks allowed the story to centre around a man, and not just around a Templar killing-machine. Furthermore, missions in general had been overhauled, in an effort to destabilize the repetitiveness of the first game. Now, hidden caverns and huge churches could be explored to gain entry to assassin’s tombs, secondary targets were available for assassination, and Ezio’s home in Monteriggioni could be upgraded for economic purposes. There was a lot more going on in Renaissance Italy than in the Medieval Kingdom of Heaven.
The Italian cities present, Florence and Venice, were as huge as they were detailed; more attention had been given to noticeable landmarks, such as the Basilica di San Marco or the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, and the jovial atmosphere of the Renaissance was clearly marked. A number of smaller towns were also available for exploration, which gave a contrast to the cities in their rural design. An Italian world had been created here, one that correctly differed the tumultuous Middle Ages with an altogether more sophisticated society.
Assassin’s Creed II was certainly something special. I will reiterate those words again and again if necessary. Its improvements on the first game’s story, characters, gameplay, and aesthetic make it the best Assassin’s Creed to date, and I welcome any challengers who think they can knock Ezio off his eagle-white throne. It would not be easy.