A Look Back At Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection, And Why It’s Gaming’s Best Narrative Series
A quote from Aris Nortis of Kotaku: Syndicate is the last vestige of an old era of Assassin’s Creed games, before the series pivoted to daunting maps and needlessly complex RPG mechanics. (Why do I need to level-up Kassandra’s Fire Mastery? Just give me back the hidden blade!)
Assassin’s Creed II’s entries were of course part of this old era. A much simpler time that wasn’t filled with countless annoying lookouts, enemy spawn points, and dropped loot. I’m a fan of the Assassin’s creed series. Enough to say that Assassin’s Creed is my favourite gaming franchise. I’ve completed every single instalment including the mobile and handheld games; I have all the books, collected the comics and have seen the film. But I’m lucky enough to not be trapped behind rose tinted glasses: Unity, set in the tumultuous time of the French revolution was utterly disappointing. Hate is a strong word but that game perhaps deserves it. It’s the only title in the series that I didn’t bother to obtain 100% completion. Unheard of, I know. I finished the main story, uninstalled it and left it on a shelf to gather dust. Origins, the latest title was less than stellar too: frustrating combat, laughably flat and boring side missions, a lacklustre story and a dull protagonist (why was Bayek never confused or have anything to say about strange events? He remained stoic, which ultimately destroyed any sense of immersion).
Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, a game that took us to ancient Greece, reinvigorated my love for the series, leading me to decide to revisit Assassin’s Creed: The Ezio Collection, and I’ve come away discovering, with much pleasure, that Ezio’s trilogy is perfect. A self-contained set of three games in a larger series that gets everything right and remains satisfying in every respect. Ezio is one of the best protagonists in gaming, and even though the development of his character cannot compete with more narrative-led, linear games that rely on constant story beats (like 2013’s The Last Of Us), or deep role-playing adventures (like The Witcher franchise), we are still allowed to become familiar with his personality and follow his growth throughout the three games. From a young man who wants revenge after losing much of his family at the hands of the Templars, to becoming a legendary master assassin working in the shadows to serve the light. He is charming, personable, and cares for the people around him, and I was never bored with interactions he had with the plentiful characters which included Leonardo Da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli. Throughout the course of the three games, his journey held my interest.
Assassin’s Creed II – The Beginning Of A Saga
The first game in the trilogy and the second game in the franchise starts Ezio’s origin story. We see how the Templars enter and alter the course of his life. The way he is introduced to the Creed and the famous eagle-beaked cowl is elegantly done and everything is unravelled at a pleasing pace. The game takes place over multiple locations in 15th and 16th century Italy, with the story jumping around in time and locale. Gameplay involves Ezio being versed in parkour (even though Ubisoft’s own Watchdogs series presents a more authentic representation) and traversing Italy across rooftops and balconies, movement is fresh and doesn’t feel cumbersome. Locations lend themselves to the parkour mechanic with rooftops and vantage points (used to unlock more of the map) galore and famous landmarks are lovingly recreated. Combat is uncomplicated and swordplay includes the usual combat mechanics of countering, parrying, and disarming. Overall mechanics are simple but not tedious and extra mechanics include hiring thieves and mercenaries to aid Ezio in a fight, and courtesans to distract guards. Mission’s tend to follow a stealth formula, tailing targets or approaching them without being detected to embed Ezio’s hidden blade into the side of their neck.
As a self-contained title the game is perfect. There are no filler missions, with them either pertaining to the core story or introducing a new gadget handed down to Ezio by Da Vinci, and watching Ezio’s journey is genuinely interesting. The high concept story of Assassin’s Creed II isn’t dense, starting with Ezio discovering the Assassin garb following this father’s execution and ending with him learning that he’s involved in a much bigger battle than his personal mission for revenge. From his father telling him the location of the Assassin’s cape, he unknowingly enters the centuries-long fight between the Assassin’s and Templars, both factions seeking to find and gain control of the mysterious Apple Of Eden, an ancient artefact capable of controlling people on a massive scale. On the tail of his father’s killer, Rodrigo Borgia, a Templar and head of the nefarious Borgia family, he stumbles upon a milestone in the world’s most unreasonably hard scavenger hunt and the game ends with the mystery deepening as he is confronted with an entity from The First Civilisation, the creators of the Apple. Ezio is left, unsurprisingly, very confused.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood – Size Matters
Ezio’s second game learns from and develops everything that the first did right. It is assumed that the player is already accustomed with the story and we’re provided just a short recap (read to the end to see more). The game picks up seconds after the first one ends, with Ezio now inducted into the Creed. The structure of the story beats remain the same, occasionally jumping in time. The narrative stays focused on Ezio’s vendetta, but this time he must work his way up the Templar chain of command, furthering the cause of his newly found Creed. Again the pacing is great, and missions continue to be interesting, concentrating on Ezio and a small ensemble of important characters. Ezio comes away from his meeting at the end of the first game a more focused and serious person, but we’re treated to moments of relief when he revisits his old self whenever he happens to come into contact with a bella donna.
Smaller is better in Brotherhood, which is entirely set in Roma. The game sacrifices the country spanning adventure for a more detailed and engrossing single locale, going against the status quo where bigger is seen as a more ambitious endeavour resulting in a better experience. However this smaller scale does not result in less grandeur. The developers know what they got right the first time round and honed in to improve those mechanics. There are still plenty of rooftops to run across and famous landmarks to visit. Traversing is made easier with faster ways to reach the tops of buildings, like an extra jump for more reach and more choices of routes when escaping guards. The combat has been tweaked and improved too, resulting in a more forgiving and accessible system allowing for easier counters. Ezio also has the option to wield heavy and long range weapons this time around.
Over a period of four years, Ezio works on destroying the Templar and Borgia stronghold on Rome, drawing out hot headed Cesare, a prominent Borgia. Missions come now come with a 100% synchronisation challenge, where the player must meet certain criteria for perfect completion i.e. remaining undetected, or killing targets using certain means.
Rome is a pleasure to explore and while there’s not much to encounter (the game was released in 2010) negotiating the city is fun, getting to the rooftops is quick and easy. Encounters with enemies can be quickly revolved with satisfying combat.
Main missions are fun and move the story along well, and side missions are quick and rewarding. Brotherhood was in line to be the best game in the series, that is, until the closing chapter was released…
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations – Requiescat En Pace
Ezio’s story was seemingly at an end during the closing scenes of Brotherhood, with the Assassin finally hiding the Apple in an underground vault beneath The Colosseum. But not is all as it seems. The discovery of The Pieces Of Eden, of which the Apple is only one of (think the Horcruxes from Harry Potter), means the Assassins must endeavour to find these too and stop them from falling into Templar hands.
We’re introduced to an older Ezio coming out the other side of the events of II and Brotherhood curious as to what the real purpose of the Creed is. He travels to Constantinople after learning of Altaïr’s library, an underground room hidden under a castle in Masyaf, Syria which is said to be the intended resting place of the Apple Of Eden. Altaïr is the protagonist from the First Assassin’s Creed set during the First Crusade. He is also the first Assassin to realise the devastating potential of the pieces of Eden.
Revelations sits on the podium as the best in this series, hands down. Ezio, now in search of the five keys needed to open Altaïr’s library meets a set of fun and well fleshed out characters including the Turkish Assassin Yusuf Tazim, who welcomes him to the city with humour and competing charm.
The new setting is perfect, again opting for a single city location and greeting us with a fresh and detailed environment. Ambient noise makes the setting more engrossing, and for the first time the music contributes to the experience, with a subtle and at times relaxing soundtrack accompanying Ezio’s adventure in Constantinople. The ambient extrinsic score is something which I think is a tremendously important aspect of open world games, and makes the difference between just playing a game and enjoying the story to wanting to explore and discover the environment and not have it feel like a chore.
Revelations improves on what Assassin’s Creed does best; with new and more brutal animations and a satisfying counter mechanic, combat is brief but enjoyable making sure that encounters aren’t monotonous. Another area of gameplay I noticed done differently in Revelations is the protagonist’s abilities. Ezio keeps the things that he’s learnt from previous games, namely his parachutes and his extra reach jump, this time given even more power with the hookblade, a cool addition to the hidden blade that enables him to climb even faster and further. Negotiating the city is indeed better too, adding zip-wires and multilevel rooftops.
It’s a more personal affair this time intertwining Ezio’s quest with more of Altaïr’s story and showing a man tired and ready to give up his crusade as Assassin. What makes the series a perfect trilogy is it’s consistent refining. It’s a brilliant story arc and in fact Revelations is the last of the games where I cared about the lore, with later instalments turning the wider story into a silly, self-aware to a detrimental degree, mess. These games get everything right, each iteration improving on the last, taking out the needless mechanics and choices and improving the ones that worked. Adding simple additional mechanics such as commanding a team of assassins to get rid of a guard blocking the way or throw-able bombs to distract him make the adventure even more enjoyable. Ezio is a fantastic character who is backed up by an equally well thought out supporting cast. The narrative stays on course and doesn’t add any filler characters or dull subplots and concludes in a satisfying end.
With The Ezio Saga, Ubisoft recognised the importance of an over arcing story over a number of games. Each title is part of the saga, part of the story they are trying to tell – not a standalone where the character seemingly forgets everything they’ve learnt since the previous entry. There’s no starting from the beginning, no needless exposition, and no confusing character development. Ezio is Ezio, and Ubisoft allowed us to follow him from birth to death, with each title flowing seamlessly into the other, in what I think is the best narrative series in gaming.
Assassin’s Creed For Dummies
I have no idea when Michael Fassbender’s second outing as an Assassin will hit the big screen but the first attempt managed to get a lot wrong… a lot. Stomping on my hopes and dreams of a decent Assassin’s Creed movie adaptation and solidifying the fact that I should in fact write the screenplay and direct the next film.
Assassin’s Creed II starts off with the perfect recap of a story that the movie somehow turned into a convoluted mess. A few minutes of narration and I promise you’ll be caught up, and as much as I love Fassbender, thankfully there’ll be no need to watch the movie.
As a bonus, here’s a cutscene showing how cool Assassin’s Creed can be… something else that the movie failed to express.