Disclaimer: While the latest entry of the franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, has been out for a while now, the last installment I played was Assassin’s Creed: Origins. And that only after a lengthy absence of a couple of years after having played through Assassin’s Creed: Unity quite a number of times. The reason for that I will get into at the end of the post.
Story and Character are usually my go-to criteria when it comes to games. Gameplay is not that important to me, but Location (Level Design, Open World Design) and Music are deciding factors, too, when it comes to defining games I enjoy.
Now, I shall start from the bottom up, meaning the least favorite comes first. This is also the perfect place for a SPOILER WARNING. There will be many, undoubtedly.
The Assassin’s Creed timeline is a little wonky
When it comes to publishing, the timeline of the franchise is not entirely linear. First was Assassin’s Creed, set during the 12th century.
Then came Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations (16th and 17th century), better known as the Ezio Trilogy.
We then spend some time in the 18th century with Assassin’s Creed III, which takes place in the years leading up to and during the American Revolution, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue and Assassin’s Creed: Unity.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate finally carries the franchise into the 19th century, before Assassin’s Creed: Origins takes us all the way back to the very beginning of the Assassin Order (ancient Egypt), followed by Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (ancient Greece) and the latest installment, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
Getting confused yet? Alright! Then let’s dive into my favorites. As a reminder: I did not play the last two games, Odyssey and Valhalla and I also did not play Rogue. So I played 7 games of the franchise in total not counting the DLCs. And the list begins with:
Assassin’s Creed III
Now, I admit that I had read some bad reviews even before beginning to play Assassin’s Creed III, but I wanted to give this a shot. The game is set in the years leading up to and during the American Revolution, which is a very significant historical setting, a “game changer”, if you will, as far as world politics go. Also, it is a great setting for highlighting the conflict between Templars and Assassins, which is the heart and soul of the franchise. While the Templars wish to shepherd mankind into a glorious, orderly future, the Assassin Order places free will and choice above all. There is also a sci-fi origin story involved, but I won’t go into that here.
In Assassin’s Creed III you will be playing a significant amount of time as one Haytham Kenway, before you switch to Native American hero Connor (he does have a Native name, but this is the one used most of the time). This is, actually, a great plot device in this game. Not as good as the switch between Ellie and Abby in The Last Of Us Part II, but it helps develop somewhat of a connection to the overall story. Unfortunately, one character is so much more interesting than the other, and that one character is not Connor, sadly enough.
Truth be told, I only played this game once and do not remember much of the story. Most of what I remember ties to Haytham’s adventures. So, there is that. Character IS important. And that is why this installment lands the bottom slot of my list.
There is no denying that the frontier as well as the cities of Assassin’s Creed III have their charm. They also serve as basis for a few cool new parcour abilities that have remained with the franchise since. Yet there is nothing really that interesting, at least to me, about that location. The reason being, I confess, that the previous installments were much more fascinating and colorful.
Have to pass on that one, as I do not recall the score at all.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate
Set in 19th century London, the Assassin twins Jacob and Evie Frye can rely on more modern tools than their predecessors. They are also faced with the woes of industrialization and a charismatic Templar leader who is more than he seems.
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate offers two playable characters, Evie and Jacob. One is geared more towards stealth (sensible Evie) than the other (roguish Jacob). It is a nice enough concept, but main missions will predetermine which of the two characters you can use and that kind of defeats the idea of choosing your own approach. You can certainly play Jacob stealthily, too, but I for one found his character more suited to brawls. So, yeah, I guess the characterization works for him. He is your typical Assassin’s Creed hero built on the template of the very best, but Evie is another story. Evie disapproves of all the fun things Jacob is getting himself into, always reprimanding him, making him look stupid. What a sad, old trope.
There is a lot going on in Syndicate, and Evie and Jacob follow different approaches to finding out what exacly that is. While Jacob’s main job is assassinating targets, Evie is more into researching and recovering artefacts. While you can have fun as Evie doing side missions and get your fair share of kills, there were times I wondered why this separation was necessary, since it does not benefit the flow of the story or the character development.
The London we are pushed into is pretty bleak, dirty and without much color. The Victorian era buildings are stern and regal and fun to climb, though. There are various districts you can explore and overall I liked the setting. Not the most attractive, not that great for parcour thanks to those wide boulevards, but you can’t have everything, right?
Not that memorable, really.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins
With Assassin’s Creed: Origins, set in ancient Egypt around the time of Cleopatra and Cesar, Ubisoft decided to reboot the franchise and prepare its transition into an RPG, though that only came into effect in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. Which I haven’t played.
The main protagonist is Bayek, who is Medjay (Elite Warrior/Protector) of the oasis Siwa and the last of his kind. He brings the usual levity and charm, but there is also a darkness to him, brought on by personal loss, which is totally absent in, say, Jacob and Evie Frye. So that is good. Yet, while Bayek is a nice guy, he doesn’t go places. He just does things in places. Things that others tell him to do. Like Arya, his estranged wife.
Arya is an ambitious woman who seizes her chance to change something, while all Bayek cares about is his vengeance. That – along with who she becomes in the end – makes Arya the more interesting character, actually. Unfortunately, the very few missions you play as her are pretty standard.
The story of Assassin’s Creed: Origins is as simple as they come. Bayek is out for blood for a crime that does not become immediately clear. Not the greatest idea if you want the player to get invested in a story. Which I did not. At all.
His journey leads to uncovering an ancient order that is trying to secretly excert control over the world. While they are not called Templars back then, neither are the Assassins. Hence the title Origins. So that is interesting.
While it was unfortunate that I played this game right after the absolutely gorgeous Ghost of Tsushima, it still is a sight. You will ride across deserts, climb the pyramids, explore tombs, travel through swampy deltas along the Nile and visit famous cities of old, like Alexandria or Memphis.
Nice enough, I guess.
Do you remember the Creed? Stay your blade from the life of an innocent, do not compromise the brotherhood, be a blade in the crowd?I still think the first Assassin’s Creed – set in the 12th century – the best in terms of challenging me to remain hidden.
(Did I mention I recently replayed this after having played the extension of true stealth-game Aragami, called Aragami: Nightfall ?)
Assassin’s Creed is all about revelations and accepting that nothing is true. That goes for both of the game’s characters. While the role of Desmond Miles, a prisoner used to explore the memories of his ancestor, serves to explain the why and how of the Animus, he will have become so much more once the end credits role. Most of the action is shouldered by said ancestor, the assassin Altair. Altair is an arrogant, all-too-confident killer in the beginning. Fallen from grace, he first follows blindly where his Mentor leads him. Yet over time, he begins to question his role in the overall scheme.
Master Assassin Altair falls from grace for violating the code of the brotherhood and is demoted. To regain his rank, he has to run a few missions for the Mentor of the Brotherhood. Which means killing targets, to put it bluntly. While he is a dutiful little soldier at first, he learns, bit by bit, that nothing is true. That revelation, along with the historcial references as well as a charismatic main villain, is what kept me riveted to Altair’s story. Admittedly, the present-day story involving Desmond Miles and Lucy was also pretty nice, mostly thanks to the great chemistry between voice actors Nolan North and Kristen Bell.
You will be visiting historical places like Jerusalem, Damascus and Acre and can discover the passes and valleys inbetween on horesback. While the graphics are not great compared to later games, I love the glaring light and colors of Damascus and Jerusalem and the cool grey of Acre by the sea, which give the cities a very characteristic mood respectively.
Jesper Kydd’s score has become iconic and has also been used to great effect in later installements.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Let’s not pretend that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is, actually, an assassin game. It is a pirate game set in the Assassin’s Creed universe. A very entertaining pirate game, I won’t deny that. I have played and enjoyed it many, many times.
Set in the Carribean in the 18th century, we follow Edward Kenway as he strives to build a fortune that will allow him to return home to his wife with honor. Edward is a ruthless man, who loves life and won’t deny his ambitions. While he crosses paths with the Assassins, there is none of the usual initiation. The Creed therefore does not apply to him and to his deeds. His journey is determined by the search for riches, not enlightenment or, indeed, freedom of mind.
Edward Kenway stumbles across the Templars and Assassins by chance. Looking to make a quick win, he pretends to be someone he’s not and from one moment to the next he is in over his head. Both with the Templar/Assassin-conflict as well as the pirates’ dream of an independent republic.
While Edward never loses sight of his ultimate goal, he assists the Assassins in what small way he can. It is the supporting cast, though, mainly his second-in-command Adawale and a few fellow pirates, that slowly unearth what lies beneath the surface of this rather shallow soldier of fortune. The ending is one of the most heart-wrenching of the franchise, too.
Travelling the seas on the Jackdaw, Edward’s trusted ship, you will be experiencing raging storms a sea, tropical islands with white sand beaches, jungles and the buzzling, colorful cities of the isles. The sun is bright and the breeze is warm in this game. Most of the time. As far as locations go, this is one of my very favorite settings.
While not nearly as good as Assassin’s Creed, the score is memorable, as are the shantys you can have your crew sing during the long treks across the sea.
Assassin’s Creed: Unity
Assassin’s Creed: Unity was the first Assassin’s Creed game I played on my PS4. nevertheless I was lucky to be late to the game, so to speak, and all the bugs were taken care of by the first patch I installed. This one takes place during the French Revolution.
Let’s face it, Arno Dorian with the good hair is a clone of Ezio Auditore. While he is a charming mischief-maker in the beginning, his mission of finding redemption ages him and turns him into a more desillusioned man. His story arc is clear: Redeem the wrong he did on the past to win back the love of his life. Which is no easy task for this head-strong young man. Yet despite all the set-backs he perseveres, only to find himself at another crossroads by the end of the game.
The city of Paris looked amazing – still does. The great boulevards, the poorer districts, the palaces, Versailles. It certainly is an eye opener, much like Venice was during my first playthrough of Assassin’s Creed II.
The score offers some very memorable tunes and some of them invite you to hum along as you play. Which is great.
The Ezio Trilogy: Assassin’s Creed II, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood plus Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
Assassin’s Creed II is considered to be the best installment of the franchsie to date by many fans, myself included. set in Renaissance Italy, it has flair, drama, passion and an incredibly well-told story. Also, there is the main protagonist, the one and only Ezio Auditore.
Speaking of. The decades long journey of carefree Ezio, originally a banker’s son with not a care in the world to the herald of a new age is thanks to the writers as well as the fantastic voice actor, who manages to slowly develop a petulant teenager into a velvety voiced best-ager.
This one is personal. Through no fault of his own Ezio is torn from his old life and thrust into a harsh, cruel world that tests his bravado. With the help of a handful of allies under leadership of his uncle, Mario, he perseveres and manages to surpass all obstacles.
There is family, there is drama, there is romance, there is conflict, there is betrayal and friendship (here’s to you, Leonardo!). everything a good story needs, really.
As far as soundtracks go, this is my favorite among the Assassin’s Creed games. It captures the settings perfectly and there are many pieces I enjoy listening to to date.
Why I got tired of the franchise
As mentioned in the beginning, I took a long break before returning to Assassin’s Creed with Assassin’s Creed: Origins. The fact that Assassin’s Creed: Origins brought players back from almost catching a glimpse of the 20th century to the origins of the Assassin Order tells me that there are neither ideas for the now nor for the future in this franchise.
Well. The Assassin’s Creed-franchise is a What If-Universe. It is rooted in the question of what if there were two more or less sinister and, above all, ruthless organizations shaping the future of mankind with the aid of artifacts left behind by a precursor race that loosely ties into historical events or the lives of historical figures. That cannot be told in the here and now, since history is, by design, a thing of the past.
Personal investment of the protagonist in the story and missions is what makes a game a great game. That is a given and goes for video games as well as movies or literature in general. It is what has been lacking in the franchise, beginning with Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Maybe the reason for that change is the intended target audience, and maybe that fact that is changing with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla.
Having given the fanchise another try with Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and looking back on whatI liked about the franchise and games in general, I don’t think I will be returning anytime soon.
So, next on my to play list is Cyberpunk 2077, followed by the next HITMAN-installment and the next Sherlock Holmes-game. I will keep you posted.
Until then, keep on playing!