10 years after the game’s release I finally decided to play Assassin’s Creed II on PlayStation 3 and finished it after 34 hours of gameplay. To be completely honest, I wanted to see what all the fuss is about this extremely popular franchise, before watching the movie adaptation. As usual, I’ve done my research and the second one in the series is at the top of everyone’s list. Even though I played first 20 minutes of the first Assassin’s Creed (2007) at a friend’s place on original Xbox over 10 years ago and recently the introductory level of Assassin’s Creed: Bloodlines on PlayStation Portable (PSP), I consider this my first proper experience with Assassin’s Creed universe. AC: Bloodlines was released at the same time as AC2, but could be essentially called AC1.5 because it has the same main character Altaïr and the story starts shorty after the first game. The gameplay is a simplified version of the first AC due to PSP’s hardware limitations.
Assassin’s Creed II was released by French publisher Ubisoft, which is one of the top major video game companies in the world. By now I’ve completed Far Cry 3 and 4 (including two main DLCs) by the same developer, which was my entry point into the Ubi’s map and game mechanics. I’m mentioning this because the mechanic, where the game makes you climb various towers or high buildings to unlock or reveal sections of the map, has been first used in the Assassin’s Creed. That, in turn, springs up optional side missions and tasks represented on the map by various icons, along with the main missions, which progresses the story. Completing the side missions and tasks will help you unlock new abilities and weapons, as well as earn experience and money.
It was an interesting experience going back to the origins of the mechanic, which in its essence remained the same through numerous AC and FC iterations. I’ve read that Ubi stopped using the tower climbing in recent years and even made fun of it in Far Cry 5 with an in-game character comment while climbing the first and only tower.
Inside the revealed in-game map, you are not limited where and how to explore. You can either sneak around and avoid guards and soldiers altogether, kill them undetected or openly fight them. There are also ways to get help by hiring groups of courtesans and thieves to distract your enemies when there’s no way around them. It took me a while to get used to controls as the game teaches you how to traverse the medieval Italian cities parkour style through various tasks and missions. By the end, I was running and jumping like a pro while avoiding or assassinating enemies left and right. Fictional story waves through historical events and prominent people in an intriguing way, so you can’t help to look up some of it to learn what do historical documents and research actually tell us about secret societies and political machinations of the time. The environments are simplified but detailed enough to clearly recognize well-known buildings like the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and Basilica di San Marco in Venice, which you explore by climbing to complete missions.
To my eyes, not having experienced the wonders of PS4 yet, the game holds up very well, considering lack of texture details and slightly blocky graphics and occasional clunky controls which similarly frustrated me in Prince of Persia on PSP years ago. Which is another Ubi franchise Assassin’s Creed actually sprung from. They were working on a sequel that would focus on an assassin, not the prince, but ended up with a new game that only borrowed the room puzzle mechanic where the player is climbing, running, jumping and swinging around the rooms and corridors. These room puzzles consist only about 1/3 of the game challenges but are the key to unlock the coveted Altaïr‘s armor (which can’t be damaged during a fight). If you enjoy these free running aspect then I would definitely recommend some of the Prince of Persia titles.
Leonardo da Vinci and Alamut
Since the story is set at the height of the Renaissance during the 15th and early 16th century in Italy, which happens to be the time and birthplace of the legendary Italian artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci, the main character Ezio Auditore befriends him early on and he becomes to Ezio someone like the Q character is to James Bond. Coincidentally when I reached the point of the game where you need to escort Leonardo from Florence to Venice with a stagecoach, the very next day I stumbled upon a news story (in Slovene) about a recent discovery how Leonardo (who died exactly 500 years ago last month) spent a short time in my native country of Slovenia. He was sent by the government of Venice to study the possibility of building the last defense in case Turkish armies try to invade through the Vipava valley of river Soča.
Another connection to Slovenia is the fact that the story of assassins took inspiration from the book Alamut, published in 1938 by Slovene author Vladimir Bartol. He conceived the novel in the early 1930s when he was living in Paris as a commentary on the Italian Fascist government. It became more widely known after 9/11 terrorist attacks in the USA.
Ezio‘s story continues in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, followed by Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Ubi then gave us a definitive conclusion to his long life in a contemplative animated short Assassin’s Creed: Embers.
The movie Assassin’s Creed, like the games, jumps between modern time and the past memories of one particular assassin, whose descendant (quite convincingly played by very agile Michael Fassbender) we follow. The past sequences, which are accessed through a memory regression device called Animus, in the story are set in 1492, which happens to be in between Sequences 12 and 13 of the Assassin’s Creed II game.
The core of the story is the conflict between Knights Templar who desire peace through control and order of Assassins who fight for peace preserving free will. Ironically the Knights Templar search for Apple of Eden which contains the knowledge to eradicate the violence from the society, while they don’t shy from it and neither does the game franchise and by an extent the movie itself. Playing with this dichotomy is part of the core thread line weaving throughout this franchise. This is even pointed out in the AC2 game. Here is page 4 of the Codex (the personal journal written by the Altaïr) that Ezio collects:
What follows are the three great ironies of the Assassin Order: (1) Here we seek to promote peace, but murder is our means. (2) Here we seek to open the minds of men, but require obedience to a master and set of rules. (3) Here we seek to reveal the danger of blind faith, yet we are practitioners ourselves. I have no satisfactory answer to these charges, only possibilities… Do we bend the rules in service to a greater good? And if we do, what does it say of us? That we are liars? That we are frauds? That we are weak? Every moment is spent wrestling with these contradictions and in spite of all the years I’ve had to reflect, still I can find no suitable answer… And I fear that one may not exist.Nothing is true. Everything is permitted. Does our creed provide the answer, then? That one may be two things – opposite in every way – simultaneously? And why not? Am I not proof? We of noble intentions, possessed of barbaric means? We who celebrate the sanctity of life and then promptly take it from those we deem our enemies?
The movie is beautifully shot and choreographed, especially when it comes to parkour/freerunning and fighting scenes. The same goes for intricate costumes. Looking at some behind the scenes footage made me appreciate that even more because it is evident they made an effort to shoot most of it in camera with actors and stuntmen while ensuring their safety with wires and blue screen. Unfortunately, the end result is not as coherent as it needs to be for viewers with no prior knowledge of the games. If producers wouldn’t try to stick to the concept of the games so closely and perhaps try to focus mostly on a single character’s story in the past, the experience would be more satisfying. Jeremy Irons, Marion Cotillard, and Brendan Gleeson bring to the film some needed gravitas, but their characters don’t have much to chew on or screen time to be memorable. Some of similar arguments are nicely presented in the video below, which also digs deeper into comparison with Alamut.
Expanding the experience
The world of Assassin’s Creed spans from the games through novels, comics and graphic novels to short films. It really is thrilling to live in the time when you can follow-up or expand any story or theme with Wikipedia or any number of incarnations available online. The AC2 game ignited my interest in Leonardo‘s life, so I started to watch historical fantasy series Da Vinci’s Demons, which follows Leonardo’s early days of struggling artist and inventor. His involvement in the affairs of Medici and Pazzi families resemble some ideas presented in the game, which make sense since the authors of both obviously drew from the historical sources.
Now I continue the game series with Assassin’s Creed IV: Blag Flag, where you take to the high Caribbean seas in the 18th century during the Golden Age of Piracy. That, in turn, lead me to a gritty historical adventure series Black Sails, a prequel to the adventure novel Treasure Island, which heavily influenced the modern perception of pirates and is one of the most frequently dramatized novels of all time.
The AC4 game is actually the sixth major installment in the Assassin’s Creed series and will most probably be the last I play on PS3. I have plenty of others to complete. For now I’m excited about the new and more colorful tropical setting as well as sailing and naval battling on the open seas under the menacing black flag.