Assassin's Creed's Identity Crisis

Spoiler Alert

The following contains plot spoilers for Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. But inasmuch as the revealed details are pretty much ridiculous, I wouldn’t worry too much.

Iteration is important. One of the most elegant things about the difference between, say, Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 is the way in which the combat system builds on what has come before. On the one hand, ME2 feels like ME. On the other, it’s streamlined. Simpler. More elegant. And what speaks most highly for it, I think, is that I feel like playing ME2 made me better understand what combat in ME was supposed to be.

So I recognize that games that come in series are supposed to iterate. But having just finished Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, I’m starting to remember the dangers of iteration. One of my greater frustrations is the fact that AC:R seems pretty severely unaware of what it actually is. I remember, when I first started playing the original AC, being somewhat flummoxed by the appearance of Desmond, a distinctly modern and eminently clueless apparent post-skater hobo trapped in some sort of oddjob research facility. This was, I had been assured, a game about assassins, and particularly Crusades-era assassins wandering about the Holy Land. Not a game about hominid lab-rats whose greatest in-game accomplishment was going to bed.

But I’ve bought into it, and happily: the AC series is about Desmond, not about Altaïr or Ezio. And, to my mind, from the moment that Desmond et. al. bust out of the Templaricorps Ltd1 research facility, the entire series begins building toward a very specific moment: the moment when Desmond must take the (perpetually hazy) mission of the Assassin Order into his own unemployed and mostly unskilled hands. This is really the promise of the whole series:2 that someday, all this time playing video games will pay off for Desmond, and he will suddenly actually be an assassin. Desmond, paying homage to the garb of his ancestors with his dirty Wal-Mart hoodie, will take the fight which I can’t remember what we’re fighting about to the Templars, because at least I remember that they’re the bad guys.

And so these are the things I have been waiting for, since that moment at the tail of game 1:

  1. That Desmond will display genuine assassin-fu in the real world.
  2. That he will use this ability to kick some Templar ass.

This is not too much to ask.

But instead, I feel like the AC games are working through a very different progression:

  1. Desmond’s ancestors use increasingly anachronistic tools to play increasingly absurd minigames.
  2. Desmond is driven around unconscious in a series of trucks.

It’s like Desmond, shiftless roustabout that he is, can’t even be bothered to stay awake through his whirlwind tour of Europe and the Holy Land. His only achievement to speak of, in one of those exceedingly rare bouts of wakefulness, is accidentally murdering his closest ally.3

Meanwhile, in the increasingly implausible landscape of his genetic memory, Ezio:

  • goes on a scavenger hunt for books.
  • masquerades as a punk-rock lutist.
  • is dragged behind a speeding wagon, Indiana Jones style.
  • completes innumerable tasks centered around improvised (and completely impractical) explosives, such as a bomb you can stick to someone’s face such that their head explodes in a shower of fake gold coins, and to which they respond not by being concerned about the bomb but by being excited about the coins.
  • wanders haphazardly through the memories of Altaïr, including conducting a couple of escort missions despite the fact that he is NINETY YEARS OLD.
  • coordinates a series of tower-defense style excursions where we learn that the Templars have cannons, ballistae, and machine guns which they will only use in this context for reasons completely unclear.
  • defeats the heir to the Sultanate of the Ottoman Empire by accidentally inventing parasailing.4

I’m looking forward to AC3, somewhat in spite of myself. But at this point, while what I should be expecting is a conclusion, I feel like I have no idea what the next set of wild-eyed iterations will bring. Given the weird, persistent appearance of Greek deities and the increasingly elaborate killing methods, I’m starting to suspect that we’ll find out soon that the whole Assassin’s Creed series is actually an extremely elaborate prequel to God of War.5

  1. Okay so that’s not the real name of the company, but it may as well have been. 

  2. And, we hope, for us. 

  3. Who, if I may say, is also really the only thing resembling voice talent on the cast, although this may change with the apparent addition of John de Lancie to the cast. 

  4. This is a thing that happens: while you are parasailing on the road from Constantinople to Masyaf, in order to protect your unconscionably forgiving girlfriend from an unlimited stream of Templar guards, you dip magnificently out of the sky to grab a guard off his moving horse, whereupon you hurl said guard forward—accelerating him, to my estimation, about another 15-20 mph—such that he knocks another guard off another moving horse. (Your girlfriend, despite not knowing that you are an assassin, is totally fine with this.

  5. Which, come to think of it, might actually be kind of cool.