This week, for the maiden voyage of Retroid Prime Time, I discuss favourite game past and present and what I think makes the perfect favourite game. Come join me for the start of this new adventure.
5 Games Assassin’s Creed Must Borrow From To Stay Fresh
The Assassin’s Creed series is in an interesting flux. The story which the whole franchise began with, a present-day trilogy arc following Desmond Myles, has resolved. The title which followed, the pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, was arguably an Assassin’s Creed game in name only. So much so that players were chased up by an email survey suggesting that there’s a possibility the series will lose the Assassin-Templar-mythos entirely and focus on pirate escapades. Yet, the story will go on, as the lead writer has said.
While the story has struggled forward, gameplay elements which formed the foundation of what we played in the 2006 original have been extensively expanded upon. However, while there are a few mechanics Assassin’s Creed has had perfect almost since day one- for example the input controls for climbing and combat- there are a few fundamental design choices in its gameplay which have always been sour. So sour that, as far as I’m concerned, the games often become an absolute bore by their conclusion.
To make matters worse, facing the series is the well-documented danger that the audience is rapidly tiring of it. Yearly-release fatigue is potentially a threat, but the most dangerous aspect of that is mechanic fatigue. Fatigue with the game’s core gameplay loops; something which might begin to cut into review scores.
The tedious staple mechanics which grind my gears, in no particular order, aaaaare: unfailable climbing, unfailable combat, largely arbitrary purchasables and collectibles, a largely arbitrary economy system. Basically the barebones of Assassin’s Creed‘s gameplay, bar the controls, are tedious.
Here are a few things I think other third person action adventures have done better. Which, if Assassin’s Creed lifted, would improve the series tenfold and save it from that deadly yearly-release-fatigue.
The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings – Blocking or Parrying Still Hurts
Since the first Assassin’s Creed game, it’s been possible to stand still, surrounded by enemies, and block every one of their attacks. Forever. You can hold one button and survive everything the game throws at you.
The only variation on this pattern is “heavy” or “grabbing” enemies whose axe swings you have to dodge rather than block, but that’s barely a variation. There’s practically no incentive to actually pay attention to combat in any of the series’ games. Slow motion in tense moments doesn’t help. Or rather, it helps far too much. Fighting looks brilliant and cinematic, but one comes away from it feeling decidedly unfilfilled, because, to put it bluntly, combat is so piss-easy it’s immersion breaking.
I just started playing The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and one of the best things about the game is an element in its combat mechanic. An element which ties to the game’s impeccable sense of balancing and challenge: even if you block an enemy’s attack, it still hurts you (except in the odd case when one-off magic buffs cover you). This means you never fully feel safe in combat, and you have to be more strategic and intelligent to win no matter the context. If you stand still and block, you die fairly quickly. Blocking quickly stops being a failsafe option, and you’re driven to use actual aggressive, emergent tactics to win the fights ahead. The player is forced to use traps, gadgets, magic and evasion to win.
If Assassin’s Creed‘s gameplay took on a minor challenge-building mechanic like this, the series would change forever. If you imagine, while playing a swordfight in The Witcher 2, that if you held the block button to parry, you would be invincible…the combat instantly seems far more boring. Ubisoft have to fix Assassin’s Creed‘s combat in order to keep the series relevant: This would be a small step in the right direction.
Shadow of the Colossus: Climbing Drains Stamina
One of my biggest gripes with the Assassin’s Creed games is that you can free-run forever.
This design decision seems fair enough in a game with such an emphasis on freedom and exploration. But if we examine infinite stamina as a game mechanic, an aspect which gives a game a compelling risk/ reward element, Assassin’s Creed’s infinite-free-running damages the experience. What it ultimately means is that, even if you’re being followed by the most capable NPC’s in the game, you can hold a trigger, press a stick forward, and escape them with no effort and without fail. In the rare scenario where you have to climb up a building or do some acrobatics to avoid pursuers, you don’t need to worry about getting stuck anywhere unless the controls goof on you.
If you find a nice hiding spot on a rooftop, perhaps hanging from a ledge beneath an NPC, you can literally stay there forever. Even Metal Gear Solid, with its guards who can absurdly only see ten feet, had a challenging and tactical fix for this with the “grip” meter.
I know the assassins we play are meant to be at the ultimate peak of physically ability, but in my opinion, infinite stamina actually works to the detriment of how fun and challenging the game would be.
In Shadow of the Colossus, all of the players’ acrobatics and mobility are restricted by a stamina bar. You can only escape dangers by clinging to safety for so long. Making daring jumps and leaps of faith can only be followed up if you’ve been strategically reserving your strength. The game’s sense of tension and skill is increased tenfold when there’s a chance you’ll lose because you haven’t been careful enough with your stamina. There would actually be something to lose from the game’s emergent chases.
Imagine if, in Assassin’s Creed, you could only sprint and jump and grasp surfaces in your free-running escapades if you were smart about it. An element of tension would arise- you can only push your free running antics as long as you’re smart about how you do it. You can’t run forever. You have to pace bursts of running and jumping and holding onto wall-grips, otherwise you’ll burn out of stamina. The bad guys wouldn’t be as agile as you, but you’re held back by draining stamina. You’ll really have to hide and be smart about escape. And once the player’s ability to free-run is put on a reign, the mechanic will become actually rewarding and thriling.
However, this mechanic might only be really effective if it was complimented by a more effective way of hiding…
The Last Of Us: Crouching
Assassin’s Creed is very similar to Naughty Dog’s classic series Uncharted in that it features a ton of platforming, cinematic action, and… the inability to crouch.
However, unlike Assassin’s Creed, Naughty Dog made another game which rectified this. A game where you can crouch. And that game’s gameplay was at least twice as good as Uncharted‘s. That game was The Last Of Us.
It’s almost an insult to gamers that a series which promises great stealth and infiltrative gameplay like Assassin’s Creed doesn’t have a mechanic for crouching or creeping. I can’t tell you how many times I was spotted by city guards when, right in front of me was a knee or hip-high wall which could easily be hidden behind.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag rectified this a little by providing a ton of foliage which the player can hide in, scattered in abundance all over the open world. However, stealth gameplay being dependent upon climate-specific knee-height foliage in a globetrotting series like Assassin’s Creed isn’t exactly a consistent option in level design.
What Assassin’s Creed needs is a bit of a movement redesign. The Uncharted series had strong “action stealth” in Uncharted 2, where the player could take cover, climb around enemies, and dispatch them in various ways; but it was obviously hindered by the obvious and gross oversight of crouching. The addition of a crouch button to The Last Of Us made a huge contribution to the game’s vibe of stealth and tension.
I think Assassin’s Creed would benefit greatly from the ability to crouch. Imagine the Tenchu series without a crouch button, and I imagine you’ll have something close to Assassin’s Creed for stealth. Crouching is a necessity.
Dragon’s Dogma: Incentivised Scavenging And Foraging
Something which I’ve seen almost no open world do right is scavenging. Red Dead Redemption’s foraging mechanic was nice, but actually useless. You couldn’t use any of the stuff you collected. The Elder Scrolls‘ foraging has traditionally been frustrating: when you’re sired as a vampire in Oblivion, against your will, you’re tasked with the tedious nightmare of collecting random flowers from around the world for an arbitrary purpose. Far easier to reload a recent autosave. Grand Theft Auto has collectibles which are either infuriatingly hard to find, or so well signposted it’s a dull chore to get them all (and again, none of them are useable past giving you some money).
Assassin’s Creed has always had its own arbitrary, frustrating collectible system. Since Assassin’s Creed II, Ubisoft gave the game a system of weapons, money and items. Get items and sell them for money, use money to get better weapons. Assassin’s Creed III added an insanely complex invention system, and more necessary items in the game world, like animal pelts and various materials.
Despite Ubisoft’s attempt at a deep customising and scavenging system, the same tedious pattern has always prevailed for me: two hours into the game, and I have the best sword and armour available in the game. Except marginally better ones are made available by unlocking. But then, you’ll power through the game carving everything including the last boss to pieces with the best stuff available.
Dragon’s Dogma is a game I’ve ranted about many times. I personally think it’s far better than Skyrim, and one of the best fantasy games of recent years. One of its crowning achievements is a necessary collectible system, as you take so much damage and use so many resources in every fight that collecting health and ability-buffing plants from your environment simply has to be done. Even Dark Souls hasn’t perfected this for me. I spent a lot of time in Dragon’s Dogma hunting for Greenwarish and Gransys Herbs, finding new combinations and herbs, and once I became more experienced, hunting for items specifically to create bombs and weapon-boosting items. It’s a lot like The Witcher 2‘s system, only a little deeper.
Assassin’s Creed‘s scavenging is turgid and unnecessary. Getting stuff from guard’s bodies is, in practically every instance, useless. The collectible and trading system feels totally tedious. And, after playing Dragon’s Dogma, I’ve felt how essential and compelling a good collection system can be. It imbues the experience with vitality and, dare I say it, an addictive essence. Assassin’s Creed needs to take some risky steps into non-comfort-zone territory to add more to its game world.
Demon’s/ Dark Souls: Capable Enemies And Actual Damage-Dealing
Earlier in this article I mentioned that you can literally, for the most part, stand still in any Assassin’s Creed game and block every attack that comes at you using one button.
What could be worse than that? I know what’s worse. The fact that if you stand still and let the enemies hit you, you still survive for more than a minute.
They play it slow. That take gruelling turns hitting you. You can survive six or seven hits from the toughest enemies in the game. Basically, there’s no knife-edge of survival and risk. There’s not even a difficulty setting, so you can’t alter the damage you take from enemies to fit your preferred playstyle.
Then if you try a game like Dark Souls, you immediately notice that you actually take damage from strikes. Even at level 60, if you stand and let the first enemies in the game attack you, you will die fairly quickly. At most, three or four hits will usually kill you, from almost any enemy. On top of that, they’re good at countering you and all have unique movements and tactics.
In Assassin’s Creed, almost every enemy is the same. And easy. Even if Ubisoft doubled, or even tripled the damage that enemies do, the series’ sense of risk, challenge, and fun would increase tenfold. The industry has also realized now that challenge can be a good, bestselling thing: Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls have proven this. Challenge is profitable! Take the plunge, Ubi!
Something Has To Change
I believe that, in order to make the Assassin’s Creed series as good as it could be, Ubisoft need to fundamentally re-approach some of the series’ mechanics. As the series stands, Assassin’s Creed provides good cinematic adventures and solid free-roaming adventure experiences, but falls flat when it comes to challenging, emergent gameplay.
They’re probably some of the easiest games ever made, and they suffer because of it. The series may be almost forgotten decades in the future, because there’s so little resistance in their gameplay that not many particular moments actually stick in the mind. One or two of the changes above would add a ton to the immersion, replayability and challenge that the games offer. I sincerely hope Ubisoft take a couple of risks with the series in coming years, and hold off the dull, fatal fatigue the series is beginning to show.