The Assassin’s Creed series is one of breaking free. Free from timelines, continuity and coherence, it’s a series that can blissfully move from era to era, locale to locale, all while keeping its main storyline in a functional state. While other series are condemned for treating continuity like Swiss cheese, poking holes everywhere and making no effort to make sense of that timeline, Assassin’s Creed has the rare skill to make that idea work. But this skill is only useful when implemented well, and the recent news for the series is a big problem. Earlier this week, a leak of a new PS3/360 Assassin’s Creed game dropped, with the official reveal occurring soon after. Assassin’s Creed Rogue is the newly announced AC game. Taking place in 18th century New York City and the East coast, Assassin’s Creed Rogue only serves as another example of Ubisoft’s total misuse of one of their biggest cheat sheets: the Animus.
Assassin’s Creed’s defining feature was its use of historical locales. Different games took place in different times and places like Assassin’s Creed II’s Ezio in Renaissance Italy or Assassin’s Creed III’s Connor in the Revolution-era American colonies. These various points in history were connected through the Animus, the series’ central device that let players experience different ancestors’ memories. Using the Animus, an ancestor’s life was fully explorable, regardless of how far away their homeland is or how long ago they lived. The Animus was a convoluted, but overall functional way to move from Renaissance Italy to colonial New Orleans to Revolution-era Boston without any noticeable confusion. Sure, it was a spacey cheat sheet, but when it came to doing its job connecting the games, the Animus succeeded.
As the series continued, however, the Animus’ potential was steadily drained away. Games were taking place in similar times and places, all with similar events occurring. Environments were solely centered in a busy city, usually somewhere in Europe, with all the typical crowds and riots. Assassin’s Creed III was the beginning of this trend, where most cities lacked defining architecture, sticking to the same tall buildings, rough allies, and congregational squares. While Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag had an entire ocean to explore and some interesting islands about the sea, the cities suffered from a lack of personality. The time period was also very close to that of Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, so having a rich and unique world was much harder to do. With Assassin’s Creed Unity, the series returns to the bustling streets of a packed city, and with the recently announced Assassin’s Creed Rogue, that stereotype is stronger than ever. These worlds don’t have any defining features, nothing to stand out as a time or place.
This shouldn’t happen. These worlds shouldn’t look so similar to each other. Assassin’s Creed shouldn’t be restricted to a European/New English plaza during the same centuries over and over again. We shouldn’t be seeing buildings and squares looking so similar and time periods that are 50 to 100 years apart. Why? Because of the Animus. The Animus is the ultimate excuse to switch things up. With the Animus, Ubisoft doesn’t have to worry about continuity or keeping a steady theme. They can jump between millennia or move from one side of the world to the next without disorienting players. They don’t have to play by those rules, because the Animus is the perfect method of linking these otherwise incongruent times and locations. We’ve seen so many European and colonial American locales and it’s drained the series’ defining elements dry. There are so many cities, countries and time periods to use, but Ubisoft is terrified of moving away from these overused settings. Why are we revisiting a European burg for the third time when not a single game in the series has taken place in feudal Japan, industrial revolution Chicago, or even 20th century Brazil? Ubisoft’s use of the Animus is like having a teleportation device that can transport you anywhere in the world and using it to move yourself from your porch to the bottom of your driveway. It’s a complete waste of potential.
One explanation for this is that Ubisoft wants players to see how many people can be on the screen at once. Assassin’s Creed Unity is looking to be an enormous game with so many NPC’s independently exploring the city, unlike feudal Japan, where you aren’t expected to see as many mass crowds of people. Ubisoft has been pushing the spectacle of seeing so many AI characters wandering the town since the series began; it’s the fundamental awe of a tech demo showing how many characters can appear on screen without the frame rate taking a hit. This fetishistic approach to technological fidelity is killing off any bit of creativity that the series has. What we gamers are left with is a series that likes staying within its own oversaturated walls and never having the guts to try something new in a different setting.
The Animus is being wasted and it’s taking the entire Assassin’s Creed series down with it. By focusing entire on the technical spectacle of hundreds of NPCs, the Assassin’s Creed franchise is locking itself tighter behind standard settings that do nothing to distinguish themselves from each other. Remember how interesting it was seeing the snowy fields of Assassin’s Creed III after three games taking place in Renaissance Eurasia? That excitement of shiny new worlds is dying under Ubisoft’s desire to contain itself and stick to their status quo. So many beautiful towns and eventful eras are being pushed aside by unappealing settings that have no identity. There’s no excuse as to why the Animus is being used so wastefully. It’s the ultimate deus ex machina machine that, despite its sci-fi goofiness, everyone can accept as a valid plot device. The Assassin’s Creed series is losing its edge, buried under derivative settings while massive new ideas are shoved aside. It’s the kind of dull negligence that has the potential to wreck any appeal of the series that’s left.