Blending parts of real world history with some artistic license and a complex web of mysteriously influential organisations, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has become one of the cornerstones of modern video gaming, and although the popularity and success has varied with each game the influence and impact of the franchise as a whole can’t be understated. In this ‘A Brief(ish) History Of…’ we’ll take a look at both the real world, and in-universe, history of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, how it’s changed over time, and the reasons why.
Since 2007 Ubisoft have produced a total of twenty one Assassin’s Creed video games (counting console, handheld, and mobile games), a massive amount of comic books, novels, both animated and live action shorts and films, and even a feature length blockbuster in 2016. In short Ubisoft managed to create a multi-media empire, which is by far their biggest property, in only ten years.
Assassin’s Creed looked to expand on a similar style, setting, and aesthetic to Ubisoft’s already popular Prince of Persia franchise, whilst adding a number of new elements, a modern day component, and a solid grounding in a fictionalised version of our real world history. For the main time period of the game Ubisoft took a inspiration (at least in part) from the 1938 novel Alamut, written by Vladimir Bartol, with a number of elements, including the phrase “nothing is true’ everything is permitted”, becoming large parts of the video game series.
The first game was set in 1191 AD, and saw players as Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, an Assassin of the Brotherhood (a mysterious and secret organisation of trained killers) fighting off the Knights Templar (an equally mysterious, secret, and murderous organisation) who are out to acquire a ‘Piece of Eden’.
The pieces of Eden aren’t fully explained in the first game but over the course of the story we learn they are magical objects that were left behind by a race of beings who lived on earth before humans. Known as ‘the precursors’ these beings lived in a society vastly more advanced than our own, and created humans as their slaves. The Piece of Eden (which is one of many) allows the user to control the minds of other humans.
The first game is framed around a character called Desmond Miles, who is kidnapped by a company called Abstergo, and forcibly put into a machine called the Animus which allows him to access and relive the memories of his ancestors (one of whom is Altaïr).
With an intriguing story that was just about believable enough and some great gameplay that combined parkour, stealth missions, huge battles, and a very clever open world the game proved a huge hit. And in establishing that Abstergo was the modern day evolution of the Knights Templar, and that Desmond was descended form a long line of Assassin’s the first game teased much more to come.
After a Nintendo DS game called Altair’s Chronicles in 2008, and Bloodlines for the PSP earlier in 2009, the second main game, Assassin’s Creed II, took everything the first game was and quite literally made it bigger and better. This time around the setting shifts from the the Holy Land during 1191, to Renaissance Italy between the 15th and 16th century introducing the Assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze.
If there is one character that is intrinsically connected with Assassin’s Creed, and it’s success, it’s Ezio. He appears as the main character in Assassin’s Creed II, and it’s sequels Brotherhood, and Revelations (making up what is known as ‘the Ezio trilogy’), as well as the animated short film Assassin’s Creed: Embers (which rounds out Ezio’s story).
Ezio starts out as a rebellious youth, unaware of his family ties to the Assassin’s Brotherhood, but in 1476 (when Ezio is seventeen) his brothers and father are executed after being falsely accused of treason. Ezio is then trained as an Assassin by his uncle Mario, leader of the Brotherhood at this point, and uncovers a Templar plot to frame and murder his family. Eventually, after years as an Assassin and killing a number of people who were responsible for the murder of his family, Ezio takes on Rodrigo Borgia, the Templar Grandmaster, better known as Pope Alexander VI.
The second game brought with it a much more advanced health system which meant Ezio had to visit a doctor or purchase medicine to heal more serious injuries, Ezio (unlike Altaïr) could now swim, a day and night cycle made the various parts of Italy feel more immersive, the people in the cities were much more realistic and unique, and a number of new weapons where present, namely Ezio having two hidden blades and a very early type of gun.
New additions to the series (which have gone on to become staples of the franchise) include Ezio being able to spend money refurbishing his headquarters, as well as upgrading his weapons, gadgets and armour. Many more historical characters where included, with a prominent appearance from Leonardo Da Vinci who acted as the main supply of new gadgets, and the game clearly had much more varied missions. The second game (and Ezio as a character) was met with critical acclaim, and is still, nearly a decade later, regarded as possibly the best game in the entire franchise.
Assassin’s Creed: Lineage was released shortly before the second Assassin’s Creed game, and was a part of Ubisoft attempting to break into the live-action movie industry. Lineage is made up of three episodes, which total to a little over thirty minutes, and show Ezio’s father, Giovanni, as an Assassin. The shorts act as a direct prequel to the game, and stars all of the voice/motion-caption actors from the game itself. Similarly a 2.5D side-scroller for the Nintendo DS, was released around a month after Assassin’s Creed II, and takes place in-between sequences twelve and thirteen of the main game.
Brotherhood picks up straight after Assassin’s Creed II and continues the story of both Desmond in the modern day, and Ezio immediately after the second game. After Ezio defeats Rodrigo (at the end of Assassin’s Creed II), he takes the ‘Apple of Eden’, but looses it soon after when Rodrigo’s son, Cesare, kills his uncle Mario (at the start of Brotherhood).
Cesare continues the ruthless Borgia reign over Rome and Brotherhood sees Ezio return to Rome to rebuild the city, strengthen the assassin’s brotherhood, and prove himself a true leader, all whilst trying to remove the Borgia and Templar influence from city for good. Eventually Ezio is kills Cesare, and after retrieving the Apple of Eden hides it in a precursor Temple beneath the Roman Collosseum.
Brotherhood was really the next step in the ‘annualisation’ of the franchise, with a two year gap between the first two games, Brotherhood was released a year (almost to the exact day) after it’s predecessor, and started the chain of a yearly Assassin’s Creed title which lasted several years. In terms of gameplay Brotherhood had less of a shift in gameplay than we saw between the first two games, but still added a number of new elements. With the emphasis on the ‘brotherhood’ a management system that involved Ezio recruiting new Assassin’s and having them assist him during his own missions or deploying them across Europe to complete various tasks.
Brotherhood also brought horses as a means of travel into the actual cities for the first time, and allowed Desmond to go in and out of the Animus whenever the player chooses, making for a much more detailed exploration of the modern day setting.
Probably the most notable addition to Brotherhood is the online multiplayer, that saw players as an in-training Templar agent, put into an Animus. A number of modes have players hunt each other, capture treasure, and fight for survival, aiming to train the Templar agents via the “bleeding effect”.
The modern day part of Assassin’s Creed II through to Brotherhood sees Desmond rescued from Abstergo by an undercover assassin Lucy Stillman, and taken to meet other Assassin’s Rebecca Crane and Shaun Hastings. He enters the Animus 2.0, which is the in-universe explanation for the enhancements in the Animus experience. Whilst in the Animus Desmond finds various glitches, each of which unlock a small portion of a video, eventually showing two human slaves (who we’d later know to be Adam and Eve) stealing an Apple of Eden from the precursor race.
After being discovered by Abstergo at the end of Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood sees Desmond and the Assassin’s based in the modern day ruins of Ezio’s villa, and after seeing Ezio hide the Apple of Eden below the Colleseum, head there themselves. When they enter the vault, Desmond touches the apple, and sees a vision of Juno a member of the precursor race. Juno explains her race, how humans were their slaves, and the Pieces of Eden, she then takes control of Desmond’s body, forcing him to kill Lucy (we eventually find out that Lucy was a double, double, agent working for the Templars all along).
2011’s Assassin’s Creed: Revelations bookends both Altaïr and Ezio’s stories, and shows Desmond now in a coma within the Animus (after Juno took over his brain) trying to rebuild his consciousness and wake up. Whilst reliving the memories of Ezio we see the much older Master Assassin head to Masyaf (the Assassin stronghold from the first game) and Constantinople. Ezio, now leader of the entire Brotherhood, searches Constantinople for a number of keys that will unlock Altaïr’s secret library (which is rumoured to be hiding a powerful weapon).
After lots of ‘assassin’s creeding’, Ezio uses the various keys (which are infused with technology from the Apple) to relive Altaïr’s memories seeing what happened to him in the years after the first game. Eventually Ezio unlocks the library finding Altaïr’s body and the Apple of Eden. After seeing how powerful the Apple is Ezio realises he is simply the messenger, and begins talking directly to Desmond, knowing that one day one of his descendants will relive his memories, just like he has done with Altaïr’s.
Desmond then has a conversation with another precursor, Jupiter, who explains that their world ended when a solar flare almost destroyed the planet, and that another flare is heading to earth in modern day 2012. Desmond wakes in New York to Rebecca, Shaun, and his father William Miles (who is a ‘Mentor’ in the Assassin’s Brotherhood).
Again the shift between Brotherhood and Revelations is one of the more minor in terms of gameplay, with most elements (including the return of Multiplayer) staying pretty much the same. Revelations however, does swap out the hidden blade for a type of ‘hookblade’ that sees Ezio able to swing and slide down various ropes, and a tower defence style mode that sees Ezio command a group of Assassin’s whilst capturing districts. A more subtle development shows the Templars fighting back, and as Ezio liberates each section of Constantinople, the Templars are able to recapture districts adding yet another level of realism and immersion to the franchise.
To finalise Ezio’s story Ubisoft released the animated short Assassin’s Creed: Embers which shows an elderly Ezio living a quite life until he is tracked down a Chinese Assassin named Shao Jun, who wants to learn from him. The short shows him begrudgingly teaching her, eventually reflecting on the life he’s lead as an Assassin, coming to peace with everything moments before his death.
The next entry into the franchise saw one of the most demanded time periods finally brought to the series and tells the story of a wholly new character Connor (Ratonhnhaké:ton) a native American assassin, who is the son of a Templar. The game actually starts out with the player in control of Haytham Kenway, a former Assassin and then the Grandmaster of the Templar order. Haytham makes his way to America, and shows off an interesting new side of the Templars, who truly see the Assassin’s as the bad guys. Once in America Haytham frees a number of slaves and gets the help of ‘Ziio’ to find a precursor temple, the two then conceive Ratonhnhaké:ton.
The game (and Desmond’s memories) then shift to Connor’s perspective, who sees’ a vision of the precursor Juno, after Juno shows him the Assassin’s Creed symbol Connor convinces an old Assassin, Achilles Davenport, to train him. Over the years Connor does what Assassin’s do and kills a number of Templars, while also helping the Patriots fight off the British.
Desmond’s story comes to and end in Assassin’s Creed III, where we see him once again follow the memories of his ancestor to a precursor object, this time a key leading to the main precursor vault (that Connor took from his father in the past). Once inside the vault Desmond decides to sacrifice himself to activate a protective shield around the planet that will stop any damage from the incoming solar flare, he does so knowing that activating the shield also releases Juno, who is revealed as wanting to take over the world.
In terms of gameplay Assassin’s Creed III, brought in a huge amount of new features and an absolutely massive map (with each game having increased on the size of the previous entry). Connor is able to dual wield a number of weapons, there are lots of new running animations (better suited to the forrest and trees) and a very in-depth hunting system takes place in ‘the frontier’ (a wilderness environment filled with animals that is around one a half times the size of Rome in Brotherhood).
New weather variations where added (that wouldn’t suit previous games) such as snow, heavy fog, and rain, and Connor’s combat and movement is much more fluid than Ezio or Altaïr’s. Assassin’s Creed III Is the first to introduce naval combat as Connor journeys the American coast in his ship the Aquila.
Following a trend we’d seen before in bringing out a smaller handheld game around a similar time to the main game, 2012 also saw the release of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, originally a PS Vita exclusive, which was later remastered for the Playstation 3, and Xbox 360. The game boasts the series’ first female protagonist in Aveline de Grandpré, an African-French assassin in Louisiana as she infiltrates the Templar order following the French and Indian War.
Interestingly the games modern day portion is presented as a video game developed by Abstergo, aimed at villianising the Assassin’s. The original Abstergo product is heavily edited to avoid anything negatively linked to the Templars, but a hacker group knows as ‘Erudito’ contacts the player and allows them to see the truth behind the memories (showing extended or altered scenes).
The game plays almost exactly the same as Assassin’s Creed: III (with both games running on the same engine), but allowing for some slight alterations to include the Vita’s touchscreen.
Seemingly capitalising on yet another setting fans had always wanted to see lAssassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (which is the first and only game to have both a number and a subtitle), sees players take control of Edward Kenway (Connor’s grandfather, and Haytham’s father) a pirate Assassin who dominated the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy. The game includes appearances from infamous historical pirates such as Anne Bonny, Calico Jack, Charles Vane and Edward Teach (a.k.a Blackbeard).
The modern day part of Black Flag is all in first person (this being the first game main game since Desmond’s death), and sees the player as a tester for Abstergo who are working through the memories of Edward Kenway’s life to uncover more information on the pieces of Eden, although their public cover is that they are doing research for a feature film. The player finds out that the memories are accessed by Desmond’s DNA which was extracted after his death. Over the course of the game the player is contacted by hackers and convinced to aid the Assassin’s eventually coming up against the precursor Juno attempting to manifest herself into human body.
One of the biggest differences in Black Flag is the seamless open world where players can start with some missions on one island, jump in their ship, sail to another and then play out some missions there without any transitions or loading screens. Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, features many more upgrades than we saw in Assassin’s Creed III, and plays a much more prominent role throughout the game (with around fourty percent of the game taking place at sea). Black Flag received praise for its story, gameplay and graphics (being the first game to be released on the then next-gen consoles, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One), rounding out to what most would consider a very close second best to Assassin’s Creed II.
From the taste of an Assassin turned Templar we got at the beginning of Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed: Rogue takes this idea even further but also turns it on it’s head, telling the story of Shay Patrick Cormac a former Assassin and new initiate into the Templar order. Shay is trained as an Assassin by Achilles Davenport , who returns from Assassin’s Creed III, but is often at odds with the creed.
Eventually Shay realises that in their way the Assassin’s are just as bad if not worse as the Templars, and decides to leave the Brotherhood. He spends a while in New York acting as a vigilante eventually being convinced to join the Templars in an effort to truly help people. He goes on to kill a number of Assassins and is inducted as full Templar by Grandmaster Haytham Kenway (with the game acting taking place over much the same time period as Assassin’s Creed III). Cormac eventually spends his life pursuing the precursor artefact Kenway tasks him with finding, and ends up Paris where he tracks down a precursor box. Whilst in Paris Cormac assassinates a French Assassin named Charles Dorian.
Overall Rogue delivers a slightly diluted version of Black Flag’s experience. The game was also a ‘past-gen’ exclusive only being released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, and so didn’t match the graphics of either Black Flag or Assassin’s Creed Unity (with was released on the same day as Rogue). Although still considered a pretty decent game, how closely Rogue mirrored the extremely successful Black Flag was a clear drawback, and compared to Unity almost felt a little outdated.
With the gap between the first Assassin’s Creed game’s setting and the second being a little over three hundred years, later games where much closer together and far more interconnected. Assassin’s Creed III, Liberation, Black Flag, and Rogue take place in between 1715 and 1776, this continued with Unity picking up right where Rogue leaves off, with the reveal of the Assassin Cormac murders at the end of Rogue being the father of Unity’s main character, Arno.
After his fathers death Arno is adopted by François de la Serre, a prominent Templar who is eventually murdered as well (by which point he is the Templar Grandmaster). In his quest for answers Arno discovers the secret war between the Assassin’s and Templars, and after learning of his true heritage joins up with the Assassin’s, which puts him at odds with Templar Elise de la Serre, his love interest.
With Abstergo’s intent on mining memories to produce movies and interactive experiences, Unity shows the player as someone using the ‘Helix’ system, an animus gaming experience that is once again hacked into by Assassin’s allowing the player (known as ‘initiate’) to see the truth behind the Abstergo propaganda.
Unity received a number of alterations and enchantments to the Assassin’s Creed formula ranging from the introduction of better control of free-running up vs free-running down, a number of new weapons and styles, and for the first time a customisable skill tree (rather than simple linear ability upgrades). The Paris of Unity is also much bigger, dense, looks great, and is better populated, finally allowing players to go in and out of buildings and includes much more realistic and organic character interactions.
As well as the updated movement, combat (with the removal of the counter button), and levelling system Unity shifted away from competitive multiplayer and ‘united’ players in co-op missions that players could join as a part of the open world map.
2015 saw the release of a wholly new type of console game for Assassin’s Creed (for man home consoles at least), with the first part (of three) 2.5D side-scrolling games in Assassins Creed Chronicles: China. The first part of the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles trilogy follows Chinese Assassin Shao Jun, the female Assassin from Assassin’s Creed: Embers. The second part (released in 2016) features Arbaaz Mir, who also appeared earlier in the 2014 graphic novel Assassin’s Creed: Brahman. Arbaaz’s levels show off India in 1841, whilst the Sikh Empire was at war with the East India Company.
The third and final part of the the Chronicles series takes place in 1918 Russia, and also features a character previously seen in a comic book, Nikolai Orelov. As a trilogy the games showed off how the Assassin’s Creed formula can be altered to fit a wholly different style of gameplay, and although they were all relatively light on story still added to the overall mythos of the franchise.
Continuing the streak of giving fans the time and places they want for the series Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate shows Victorian Assassin’s Jacob and Evie Frye. It’s the first in the series to have two different main characters, with certain missions played as Evie, and others as Jacob whilst the player can actively switch between the two in the open world. Where Evie specialises in stealth, Jacob does in combat adding a new level of depth to the game. The storyline alternates between playing as Jacob and Evie (who are fighting off the Templar domination of Victorian London) and the modern day where the an Assassin named Bishop continues giving the ‘initiate’ (first seen in Assassin’s Creed: Unity) instructions.
Syndicate’s gameplay yet again adds a host of new features. London not only looks great, but has a fully fledged traffic system of horse and carts (which led to new racing, hijacking, escorting, and kidnapping missions), and the most interactive and realistic city yet.
One of the newest additions is the gang war (which Jacob essentially started) that makes players fight for control over London, and a much more fluid combat and mission system (with players able to go in an out of a number missions with ease and next to no loading screens). The biggest addition is perhaps the rope launcher which allows for the quickest travel yet, enabling Jacob and Evie to zipine up to any building at almost any point.
Syndicate is also the first game since Brotherhood without any kind of online multiplayer, and also marked the end (or at least a break from) the annualised release of an Assassin’s Creed game, with Ubisoft stating after Syndicate in 2015, no console game would come out in 2016.
With no game (and perhaps that was to focus fans attention) 2016 saw the release of the first feature length film in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The movie starred Micheal Fassbender as both the would-be Assassin Callum Lynch in the modern day, as well as his ancestor the Spanish Assassin Aguilar de Nerha, Marion Cotillard also stars as the Templar scientist Dr. Sofia Rikkin, and Jeremy Irons as her father and leader of the Animus project Alan Rikkun.
Rather than simply retelling Desmond’s story as a movie, Ubisoft decided to make this a new entry into the same universe, and so detail a different person being abducted by Abstergo and forced to relive their ancestors memories. The film sees Lynch learn the ways of the Assassin’s via the bleeding effect, eventually joining their ranks (like his ancestors before him) and stopping the Templars using the Apple. Unfortunately the movie was a critical failure, and didn’t manage to excite either Assassin’s Creed or just movie going fans, seemingly halting plans for any more live action movies to follow.
Taking a jump back to the Italian Renaissance era the 2016 mobile game (released on Android and iOS, and the only game in between 2015’s Syndicate and Origins in 2017) tells a new story of an Assassin operating in and around the same time as Ezio. Featuring gameplay relatively similar to the earlier games. Identity brings back characters such as Da Vinci, Machiavelli, as well as Ezio himself.
A decade into the franchise one of the bigger criticisms of Assassin’s Creed was the formulaic nature of the games, and that underneath all of the alterations and continual improvements it was always a pretty similar game. Origins sought to change that, by expanding upon the fluidity of Syndicate, but taking it to wholly new heights that include a fully reinvented combat style which swaps out animation based encounters for a hit box system.
Origins goes much further back in time than any other game (excluding the precursor segments) and shows Ancient Egypt with main characters Bayek and Aya (both playable, just like in Syndicate) who are out for revenge for the death of their son. The game includes appearances from historical figures such as Cleopatra (VII) and Julius Caesar, whereas the modern day section sees an Abstergo researcher, Layla Hassan, playing out the memories of Bayek and Aya and by the end of the game agreeing to help the Assassin’s fight the Templars.
The alterations and fine tuning (combined with the break in the franchise for the first time in years) totalled to one of the best Assassin’s Creed games there is, refining everything to a wholly new level and adding a massive amount of depth to almost every aspect. Combat was altered, exploration was bigger and better, an education mode that allowed players to simply explore and learn was added and even Eagle Vision was swapped out for an actual Eagle, where the player controls a bird flying above the map, which then gathers intel as it flies. The hit box combat system means that defence is a bigger part of Origins than any other, with the characters now having a shield. The the game makes a clear effort to ensure stealth or straight up combat are equally feasible options (whereas previous games were more specific).
Origins was a critical hit, and again cited as one of the best games, and has a follow up that looks to take place not long after in 2018’s Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey.
In a little over ten years Assassin’s Creed managed to become Ubisoft’s biggest brand by a considerable stretch, and has made a name for itself as one of the biggest gaming franchises out there. Continually fine tuning a formula that started in 2007, Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed has all of history to play with, and likely has many years to go.