Starting out as some of the most interesting parts of the earlier games, the modern day part of later Assassin’s Creed games has become more and more incidental, totalling to just more of the same, and an entire subplot that isn’t really going anywhere, and hasn’t for some time, but whether or not just getting rid of what was once such a key part of the franchise is the answer, is a much more complex point.
Starting with 2007’s original Assassin’s Creed players were introduced to an on going war between two secret factions that have secretly been manipulating and influencing society for generations. Along with this war between the Assassin’s and Templars, the first game introduced the Animus, a machine which allowed a person to relive the memories of their ancestors (buried within their own DNA). This machine was created by Abstergo, a giant corporation that acted as the business front for the organisation of what used to be the Knights Templar, in an effort to find some mysterious and seemingly magical objects known as ‘Pieces of Eden’, ultimately hoping they would allow them to take over the world.
The players’ introduction to the world of Assassin’s and Templars came with Desmond Miles, a seemingly regular bartender who happened to be the perfect candidate for the Animus, with a number of his ancestors being some of histories most influential Assassin’s, each of whom had various dealings with the Pieces of Eden.
Desmond’s story unfolded over the first few games and showed him progress as an Assassin in the modern day, eventually uncovering the mysteries of the the ‘First Civilisation’ (a species who inhabited Earth long before humans), and finally sees him sacrifice himself to protect Earth and humanity. All in all Desmond’s storyline was as interesting as the rest of the games it featured in, and had that perfect level of intrigue and mystery combined with payoff and answers.
Following his death in Assassin’s Creed III, most games have tase a different approach to modern day part of the franchise, and there is no denying that it feels like Ubisoft haven’t quite settled on how they want to continue it. Unfortunately turning what used to be one of the most intriguing parts of the earlier games into some of the slowest and least interesting, simple showing us more Assassin’s fighting Templars for various First Civilisation artefacts.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was the first post-Desmond game, and showed Abstergo had retrieved his DNA and were using his memories to access history themselves. Pitching it as a resource to create new virtual reality experiences and films, the modern day storyline follows a worker for Abstergo Entertainment (a much brighter and happier part of the company than the sinister, all white, laboratories the previous games had shown).
With a first person camera this part of the game saw the player contacted by the Assassin’s who revealed what Abstergo and the Templars were really up to, eventually convincing the unseen player to join the Assassin’s.
It was a little strange to switch from third to first person throughout, but the modern day elements were relatively well fleshed out and worked as a good alternative to the Desmond sections from previous games. Allowing the player to almost play as ‘themselves’ in the world of Assassin’s Creed, working for the Assassin’s and spying on the Templars.
Then Black Flag’s follow up, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, decided to change the modern day system yet agin. The Unity version sees the players as an ‘initiate’, playing an Abstergo game, with the Assassin’s hacking in and asking for help. Various Assassin’s talk to the player throughout the game giving bits and pieces of information to the bigger narrative going on outside of the animus. The player is totally unseen in Unity always staying inside of the animus.
This idea continued into Syndicate, where the same ‘initiate’ was playing through another altered Abstergo product, helping the Assassin’s unlock some critical details on the location of yet another piece of Eden.
The London based Syndicate took it even further by having an epilogue sequence (that jumped from Victorian London to London during the First World War), where one of the First Civilisation, Juno, hacks into the players Animus, telling them some unknown details about the her own species and the humans they created.
This system, was definitely more immersive and looked to be a good way to slowly progress the post Desmond modern day plot without really focussing on any specific character, placing the player themselves at the forefront.
Then, however, Origins (which saw a total overhaul to the entire Assassin’s Creed formula) changed the franchises approach to the modern day yet again. This time we were introduced to a new character in Layla Hassan, who worked for Abstergo but knew nothing of the ongoing war between the Assassin’s and Templars.
As the game unfolds Layla is introduced to various Assassin’s and discovers (through the Animus) the truth behind Abstergo. She eventually decides to join forces with the Assassins. These segments returned to the Desmond style, third person, levels where the player controls Layla for small scenes and sequences, but mostly the sections just play out as longer interactive cutscenes.
Odyssey sticks with following Layla, and in much the same way just has some small interactive rooms that you can move around and read emails in, but ultimately it’s clear now more than ever that the out of Animus segments of the game are becoming less and less interesting, as they just aren’t doing anything.
The problem with this differing approach, and the fact that it’s just different versions of the same thing over and over (Assassin’s vs Templars for First Civilisation Artefacts), is that it totals to a sub-story that is so much less interesting that the main one, leading to each modern day sequence really halting the momentum the main game builds up.
Where the Desmond storyline was once one of the most intriguing parts of the franchise, the current modern day elements act more as a distraction from the part of the game you actually want to play. Altering who the focus is on from game to game, whether it’s first or third person, and whether you play as ‘yourself’, or a fictional character, but realistically only teasing tiny parts of a narrative that hasn’t really gotten anywhere since Desmond’s death in Assassin’s Creed III – which was in 2012.
Although in many ways it would be a shame to see what was once such a key part of Assassin’s Creed’s appeal disappear, there is no denying that now it serves as an almost haphazard addition that’s only in each game because it used to be such a key part of the franchise. The characters we care about are no longer there, and for years it’s just been vague hints at more Pieces of Eden that ultimately don’t go anywhere (until the next game where it’s a new artefact the Assassin’s and Templars are racing towards).
I’m pretty certain even long standing fans of the franchise wouldn’t mind if the modern day part of the games were quietly retired, With the both Origins and Odyssey being two of the best games in the franchise, and Odyssey introducing character dialogue options and consequences to the series, the emphasis is now on the core game and the story it’s telling there more than ever. There are a number of ways the modern day part of the series could finish or at least leave the games, from a final send off in its own comic book (or even a continuing series), or possibly a DLC that gave us a few hours fully in the modern day to round out that part of the franchise.
Either way, the franchise has shown some real growth over the past two years, and a genuine willingness to update everything resulting in a much better game. And yet the modern day sections still lag behind, focussing on the same old story. For the modern day sections in Assassin’s Creed to feel as fresh and entertaining as the rest of the games have been (and look to continue) going forward, there needs to be another shakeup, which could mean just getting rid of it altogether.