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Assassin's Creed series [2014-Present -- Ubisoft]

Started by Starfox, Jun 02, 2023, 12:16 PM

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Starfox

Originally published on July 06, 2015 by Doc_Brown

Now that I'm caught up with the 7th generation Assassin's Creed titles, I'll be writing up my thoughts on the 8th gen games as they're released.  While I won't be reviewing them at launch (I usually wait for all of the bug fixes and DLC to come out first), I will be covering them in more detail and in their own separate posts within this thread.  And remember:

= 5 stars
= 4 stars
= 3 stars
= 2 stars
= 1 star

Assassin's Creed Unity
What is the difference between a two-star and a three-star game?  In the absence of its betters, I believe a three-star game could conceivably deserve a place in your collection whereas a two-star game would not.  So based on my previous star ratings, if neither Brotherhood nor Revelations existed I could see myself owning II, but I still wouldn't want either III or Rogue in place of Black Flag.  Regrettably, it is under this latter line of thinking that Unity falls.

I say regrettably because I wanted Unity to succeed.  Before III was announced I was certain the French Revolution would be its setting (how was I supposed to know they were developing treerunning?), and I'd been dreaming of an AC game set there ever since.  I was also thrilled to hear they were going back to the series' roots: downplaying combat in favor of stealth, emphasizing the core assassination missions, even returning to the use of a single hidden blade.

And yet, having finally had the chance to play it, I flirted with the idea of giving Unity a one-star rating.  I'm ashamed to admit this is the first AC title I didn't actually finish; for all of their flaws I still powered through III and Rogue.  I stopped playing because Unity commits the cardinal sin of simply not being fun.  Keep in mind, too, that I waited to play Unity until long after its release--my opinion of the game isn't tainted by the launch issues that have since been sorted out.

Is it really that bad?  Not as such.  The problem is more that there's a litany of small annoyances which build atop one another.  You can interrupt a kill animation to block an attack, but not to roll and evade gunfire.  Icons over enemies tell you how they're going to attack, but those icons are hard to tell apart.  Getting hit can interrupt your actions, thwarting your effort to, say, throw down a potentially lifesaving smoke bomb.  Now image all of that happening, consistently, and you've got an inkling. 

Those are issues of execution, though, and some of Unity's problems were simply bad ideas from the get go.  Not revealing everything on the map when you've synced a viewpoint?  Bad idea.  Having everyone speak with a British accent when all previous games made the effort to sound at least somewhat authentic?  Bad idea.  Claiming it was too much work to include female characters in the cooperative multiplayer?  Bad idea.  Bad ideas are far less forgivable than bad execution.

So why not a one-star rating?  Well, I'd legitimately have to hate a game to rank it that low, and even being one of the worst AC entries there's a lot Unity does that I like.  Revolutionary Paris is massive, beautifully rendered, and distinctly different in each area.  There are more NPCs on screen than ever before, teeming masses you can run through and disappear into.  The 'freerun down' mechanic is a brilliant addition to the franchise that should become standard going forward.

In the end, Unity finds itself in the same category as previous 'leaps forward' II and III.  I admire just how much Ubisoft tried to do here, but they failed more often than they succeeded.  The good news is that if history repeats itself, the next entry (Syndicate) will be the one that gets it right, much like Brotherhood and Black Flag before it.  The bad news is that Unity doesn't even merit an average score.  Even if you're inclined to like it, you'll probably have a hard time doing so.


Guess what it means!

Starfox

Originally published by Doc_Brown

Assassin's Creed Syndicate
Well, I was half right.  While Syndicate marks a return to form for the franchise after the disappointing Unity, it also doesn't reach the heights of Brotherhood or Black Flag.  Ubisoft's problem (as has always been the case, frankly) is that they're great at recreating particular times and places, middle-of-the-road when it comes to populating their sandboxes with things to do, and generally poor on the story-telling front.  Syndicate does enough to earn a passing grade from me, but just barely.

London makes for an interesting counterpart to Unity's Paris.  The city of light was beautiful even in spite of the revolution taking place in its streets, whereas London is both grimier and more sedate (thanks to an industrial revolution rather than a political one).  Smokestacks dot the skyline, horse-drawn carriages fill the streets, and trains chug by on elevated railways.  And while it sadly lacks Unity's population density, the Thames at least is so packed with ships you can literally run across it. 

What really makes it work, though, is the inclusion of the rope launcher.  Parkour is still a core element of the gameplay, but something had to be done to address the ever-increasing size of these sandboxes.  Running around in Unity often became a chore, and it didn't help that your only other option was to fast-travel.  Between those two extremes, Syndicate offers the rope launcher, drivable carriages, and even the option of hitching a ride on a boat or train.  It all goes a long way to keeping things moving and, more importantly, fun.

While Syndicate suffers from the usual Ubisoft sandbox mindset (e.g. pointless collectibles), I've always enjoyed the territory control aspect in games like this (it's just unfortunate Syndicate doesn't do it as well as some past entries in the franchise).  There is also a very fun "mystery" side quest, Secrets of London, similar to but better than Unity's Nostradamus Enigmas, that has you studying pictures to figure out where four music boxes have been hidden in each of the city's districts.

Combat is handled much better than in Unity, although the stealthier options are a bit lacking in comparison (you can't do much in terms of creating distractions).  The game does feel a little sluggish, however, in terms of input response.  Many a time I would try to climb down something only for my character to first climb sideways, or even up, as though responding to a previous button press rather than what I was doing at that immediate moment.

What bothered me the most, though, was the scripted side of things.  Story missions insist you do things a particular way, falling apart if you don't follow the script they've set for you.  The narrative continues to paint the Templars as cartoonish-ly villainous, despite opportunities to go in a more interesting direction.  And the present day storyline, like Unity before it, is presented as nothing more than cutscenes.  At least the other post-Desmond games (Black Flag, Rogue) gave you something to do.

The game also suffers from some notable problems.  For as buggy as Unity was, Syndicate is the first console game I've ever seen repeatedly crash.  Switching between the Frye twins can only be done in the menu, and it automatically kicks you back out to the game.  Speaking of the menu, the map is considered a separate entity (which is particularly annoying when it comes to solving the Secrets of London), and for no apparent reason the game will not let you swap characters or items if you're perched on a ledge.

With Syndicate, Ubisoft has done enough--for now.  Going forward, though, they really need to get their act together and fix the franchise's fundamental flaws.  "Just good enough" isn't a viable long-term strategy, and it's eventually going to wear out any goodwill they've built up with their fanbase.  Hopefully, the extra year they're taking to work on Assassin's Creed Origins is an indication that they're taking such criticism to heart.

Guess what it means!

Starfox

Originally published by Doc_Brown

Assassin's Creed Origins
I'd previously mentioned that Assassin's Creed Unity is the only major game in the franchise I've never finished--a game I gave two out of five stars and even considered giving only one.  So let me immediately clarify that Assassin's Creed Origins is a better game before I admit that I chose not to finish it, either.  The important difference here is that I stopped playing Unity because it wasn't particularly good, while with Origins I stopped because it wasn't my particular thing.

Origins marks a major shift in the franchise to more of an action RPG kind of experience.  This means you and your enemies all have character levels, and you earn experience points you can spend on a skill tree.  In addition to all the drachmas lying around, loot can be collected in the form of weapons and other items, and there's also a crafting system in place for upgrades.  The combat, meanwhile, has seen a shift away from a parry system and to a more involved block and dodge approach.

The problem I have with these changes is that they make the experience more of a grind.  Side quests that you might otherwise ignore are now required in order to level your character for the main quest, an issue that isn't helped when they already feel like busy work.  For example, you may come across a fort and the game will tell you to kill the commanding officer and steal their treasure.  But... why?  It hasn't been established that these soldiers are your enemy.  It's literally just something to do.

I'm willing to put up with these kinds of extracurricular activities provided they're fun, offer a worthwhile reward, or make narrative sense.  Chasing after a piece of paper in Black Flag isn't exactly my idea of a good time, but I'm willing to do it if it means getting a new sea shanty for my crew to sing.  Likewise, renovating Rome in Brotherhood may sound boring, but it makes perfect sense in terms of the plot.  Far too much of what you're doing in Origins just feels disconnected.

That disconnect extends to other aspects as well.  Since you'll be constantly swapping out your gear whenever you pick up something with slightly better stats, you feel no real attachment to anything you're carrying.  It's bad enough I don't know why the game doesn't do it automatically.  The only exceptions are the melee weapons, and that's only because they correspond to different fighting styles (a mace will hit hard but swing slowly, for instance, while paired swords are fast but don't let you use a shield).

Speaking of minor annoyances, the interface seems designed for a mouse, and it can be a struggle moving the icon exactly where you want with an analog stick.  The new version of eagle vision is impressive (you literally take control of your pet eagle, Senu), but also entails manually marking enemies and points of interest, which is more time consuming than the old way.  And if you're playing while connected to the internet, by default the map will be covered with "social" icons for things like photos other players have taken.

It may well be the map that ultimately convinced me to stop playing.  Looking at the sheer size of the game world, realizing how many activities each region contained, it just became apparent how much of a time sink it was going to be.  Add in the gatekeeping--some activities will be too high level for you until later--and you can't even have the satisfaction of "completing" certain areas, of being able to visualize the progress you've made and how close you are to finishing.

It's telling that I found more pure enjoyment from Discovery Mode (a narrated walking tour that replaces the previous games' encyclopedia entries) than I did the actual game itself.  Again, though, that's just me.  If you're into action RPGs, you won't be bothered nearly as much as I am by the tropes associated with the genre.  The problem I now face is whether I'm going to be able to enjoy any future AC games made in this style.  Odyssey has a better shot, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't skeptical of its chances.

Guess what it means!

Doc_Brown

Assassin's Creed Odyssey
While Odyssey is more my speed than Origins, I'm still not convinced these action RPG entries are what I'm looking for from the franchise.  Like Origins I didn't actually finish Odyssey, though I spent significantly more time with it--something like 44.5 hours, and I still had a considerable way to go.  'Too much of a good thing' is an apt way to describe it, fun but in a mindless sort of way and far too much of it.  I stopped when I did simply because I'd reached my limit and had no desire to play any further.

To illustrate the matter, I had mentioned how I found Origins' Discovery Mode a better use of my time than the actual game.  With Odyssey I didn't even bother with it, partly because I'd already spent so much time with the game and partly because Discovery Mode's guided tours clock in at over ten hours--and that's not even counting the fact that you have to physically go to each one to start them, nor the numerous points of interest around the game world and their accompanying blurbs of informative text. 

Much of what I said of Origins applies to Odyssey, so let me talk about some other things.  In a seeming callback to Black Flag, you have a ship and can get into naval battles, though it doesn't land as well here.  It's just a means to get around, outright given to you at one point, while in Black Flag it was your base of operations and core to your identity (as befits a pirate, you stole it).  Arrows can't compete with cannonballs, you can't swing aboard enemy ships, there are no crow's nests with sharpshooters, etc.

To be fair, using your ship to ram into your enemies is more historically accurate here than it was in the Golden Age of Piracy.  Sea shanties are still a thing, and while there's only a handful of them they're all unlocked at the start and appropriately in Greek.  To the game's credit, since you can customize your ship to have a female crew they also went to the trouble of rerecording the shanties with female vocalists, which helps distinguish the seafaring experience from that of the other games, if you choose.

Odyssey also has a Mercenaries system, somewhat similar to Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor, but it's nowhere near as good.  Whenever your bounty level gets high enough, they'll just show up in the vicinity and follow you around despite not actually knowing where you are (while they could hunt you down in MeSoM, that was a specific trait only some of them had).  They just end up becoming a nuisance; you're more likely to pay off the bounty or kill the bounty giver than you are to bother dealing with them directly.

The game also has some strange quirks.  There's a whole conquest system in play for each region (Sparta versus Athens), and much of what you can do relates to weakening one side so the other can attempt to take over.  But you're a mercenary, you're not given any reason to pick a side, and unless a random quest tells you to raid a camp or sack a fort the only reason you're doing these things is... because you can, I guess.  And since you can then repeat the process against whoever takes over, it feels even more pointless.

Viewpoints are handled oddly here, as well.  They don't reveal everything on the map (which annoys me to no end), and while you have to climb them for use as fast travel points, docks (also fast travel points) are usable the moment you sight them.  Even their placement is, at times, questionable: there are multiple instances where there's a viewpoint fifty feet from a dock, a viewpoint that's maybe twenty feet off the ground, on a mountainous landmass where taller vantages are a literal stone's throw away.
 
Lastly, the game just goes in some weird directions.  They've made up a bunch of statues, for instance, that if they actually existed would have been more deserving of inclusion in the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World than some of the real ones.  And while the franchise has always included some wackiness like the Pieces of Eden, this is the first time a main game's gone full blown mystical creature with cyclops, minotaur, etc.  It feels like they're losing the thread, which is a worrisome direction for things to take.
Roads?  Where we're going we don't need roads.

Doc_Brown

Assassin's Creed Valhalla
While I think Odyssey might be the overall better game, Valhalla seems like it has both higher highs and lower lows, so it averages out to the same score.  I feel kind of bad for Origins, frankly, what with it being the first of the action RPGs, since the others got to learn from its mistakes.  I was also never particularly into ancient Egypt--which, ironically, is how I feel about Vikings as well.  I certainly didn't go into Valhalla expecting to like it, and my initial impressions of it were not good.

For instance, one of the first things I noticed was that the controls were weirdly different.  In both Origins and Odyssey, holding Up on the d-pad sends out a pulse to mark nearby objects, holding Right takes out a torch, Down whistles (to lure enemies or call your horse), and Triangle is used to assassinate.  In Valhalla, the pulse is sent out by clicking in the right analog stick, the torch is accessed through Down (now a radial menu), Left is for whistling, and assassinate is R1.  Why change such basic things?

I encountered other problems as well, such as stuttering dialogue, hard to read text, etc.  And yet despite all that, the game gradually grew on me.  Part of that came from realizing I could tweak settings to, say, increase the font size, or turn on subtitles (which also helped as I was having a hard time remembering character names).  The other part came down to learning to accept that the game was doing things its own way, and I needed to stop fighting against it just because I was used to how Origins and Odyssey worked.

Equipment, for example, is vastly simplified, and the combat system is deepened.  You can dual wield--with whatever's in your offhand having a unique special attack--or you can leave a hand free to attack faster.  There are something like twenty different enemy types, like bandits who throw dirt in your eyes or restrain you so their friends can run up and stab you repeatedly, and bosses with their own unique gimmicks.  I'm honestly impressed with just how well direct combat is handled in a stealth focused game.

You can also now assassinate someone regardless of how high level they are (a skill you unlock involving a minigame), and your enemies no longer level up with you so you can actually feel like you're growing in power.  Surprisingly, the game feels quite nostalgic with its Roman ruins (like Brotherhood) and its medieval towns (like the original), though the new Distrust Zones are cooler in concept than they are in execution (you just end up playing them the same way you would the regular Restricted Zones).

Lastly, I wanted to touch on some people's complaints about the game world.  Yes, the map is large and activities are spread out, but that just meant I spent more time on horseback than the other games (especially after unlocking the stable to teach my horse how to swim so I didn't need to rely on my longship).  I genuinely enjoyed simply riding through the autumnal English countryside while music like this played, or standing atop a snowy mountain in Norway with the aurora borealis overhead accompanied by this

So why doesn't it make the cut?  Well, a big part of it comes down to its size.  I put 36.5 hours into Valhalla and barely put a dent in it (the prologue alone was 10 hours).  There's also a design issue I've noticed: I like to do the side missions first, but main missions will often have you revisit locations you've already been to, including having collectibles unattainable until then.  But with its character level system, you have to do side missions to not be under leveled, all of which combines to drag things out even further.

I should also mention that the Discovery Tour now focuses on little narratives that, while an interesting idea, don't really work in practice.  The main game is already telling a story set in this world, and these can't hold a candle in comparison.  Combined with my difficulty reading the text blurbs accompanying points of interest, I ended up focusing my time in the Discovery Tour on the behind-the-scenes bits, which are narrated and therefore the closest thing to the Discovery Tours Origins and Odyssey offer.
Roads?  Where we're going we don't need roads.

Doc_Brown

Assassin's Creed Mirage
Mirage is intended as a deliberate throwback to the original Assassin's Creed, and while I do think it is the better game--how could it not be, coming sixteen years later?--I still think I like the original more.  There are a variety of reasons for this.  For starters, the original showcased three different cities (Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre) to Mirage's one; despite how well realized the latter's Baghdad is, it can end up feeling a little same-y once you're tens of hours in.

Neither one handles their lands outside the cities well, though.  In Mirage's case, the main culprit is the noticeably slower riding speed, at least compared to its immediate predecessors.  You start with a camel, which I assumed was the problem, and spent my first in-game money on a horse, but the difference is merely cosmetic.  Maybe they were trying to make the world feel bigger than it is, or trying to avoid the loading issues of the previous games, but you'll loathe having to do anything outside the city regardless.

Another thing I noticed is that the parkour feels a little less smooth compared to the original.  The camera can feel a bit jerky as you jump from beam to beam, say, or you can just struggle with getting the freerunning systems to do what you want.  To be fair, this is an issue that's affected many of the recent titles, but it might not have been as noticeable in those cases precisely because they were less focused on large, dense cities.  In hewing so close to the original, Mirage invites direct, and thus unfavorable, comparison.

Oh, and remember when I mentioned how the controls changed between Odyssey and Valhalla?  Well, they've done it again: whistle is now Right, Eagle Vision is Left, and the torch is accessed through a radial menu tied to R2.  Mirage also returns to the original style of historical encyclopedic entries, but is still using a hard to read font (thin black with a white outline or glow) on a parchment-like background (so less contrast than you'd like) that's hard on these tired old eyes of mine.

I think my biggest issue, though, comes down to the overall design.  My favorite AC games are those that feature territory control systems, and the reason why is because it makes the things you're doing feel like they're working towards a singular goal.  While the original had no territory control, almost everything you did fed into identifying and taking out your targets, which achieves much the same.  Entries like Mirage, though, are just filled with things to do, unrelated fluff that exists to waste your time.

Granted, part of how I feel could be due to playing Odyssey, Valhalla, and Mirage back-to-back-to-back, burning myself out on the franchise in general.  And it's not like Mirage is devoid of admirable qualities--you have no idea how great it feels to be able to do something as simple as lure a guard away with a noisemaker, or being able to bug out from a bad situation with a smoke bomb--but we are thirteen games into the franchise at this point, and there are just too many other, better options to settle for less.
Roads?  Where we're going we don't need roads.