Is it time Assassin’s Creed left its present-day stories in the past? (contains spoilers)
Really, it’s all Ezio’s fault. Once Signor Auditore Da Firenze swaggered onto the scene in Assassin’s Creed II, sweeping players off their feet with his roguish charm and swashbuckling swordsmanship, it was clear that boring old Desmond Miles stood no chance. Not even two games in, and Ubisoft’s attempt to meld present-day sci-fi mystery with historical conspiracy had been waylaid by a young Italian nobleman who single-handedly made the latter far more exciting than the former. Even the daring cliffhanger ending to the first game, with its arcane scribblings and portents of imminent catastrophe, couldn’t compete. Players lapped up Ezio’s adventure, and demanded more – and Ubisoft duly delivered, with two well-regarded sequels that saw the series start to spin off its original axis.
Even so, Ubisoft was evidently still keen on its original conceit and the ongoing manoeuvres of the Templars’ corporate front, Abstergo. Over the course of the next three games, it tried various ways to win its audience over to its contemporary plotline. This eventually culminated in the entertainingly ludicrous finale to Assassin’s Creed III, which saw Desmond killed off, having sacrificed himself to save the world. His DNA was used to trigger the historical sequences of the fourth game, Black Flag, but by now the focus was firmly on the past. By 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the Animus had been repurposed into a VR game machine, the real-world player recast as an in-game one; a year later, Syndicate followed suit with a similar story.
Yet there are signs in Origins that Ubisoft doesn’t simply see the present-day sections as a vestigial limb – though since it’s such a vast game, they add up to a tiny fraction of the total playtime. Here, you control a new character, Layla Hassan. She’s a former Abstergo employee gone rogue, who has set up her own portable Animus machine in a cave in Alexandria, where Bayek’s remains lie. And yes, that means she’s using DNA from his mummy to tap into his past; her version of the Animus, you see, lets her access anyone’s genetic memories, including ancestors with no direct connection to the user. Hassan’s playable sections are short, but through dialogue and phone conversations a picture soon emerges of a brilliant, courageous but foolhardy and naive scientist, whose meddling has inevitable consequences as Abstergo tracks her down. She’s forced to rely on techniques she’s inherited from Bayek during her time in the Animus to escape in a brief but tense encounter.
It’s when you access her PC, however, that the plot really begins to thicken. It’s tantamount to a huge exposition dump, albeit a reasonably well-written one. We see emails from a close confidant, concerned that the effects of this untested device might end up frying her brain. Documents provide us with her personal thoughts on Bayek’s mission (and Hassan’s complaints about headaches and more frequent misspellings towards the end suggest her friend had a point). There’s plenty, too, for long-term fans of the series to sink their teeth into, with archived emails, an employee manual and NDA from Abstergo, along with a medical report and further – apparently stolen – documents about Desmond Miles. Even so, much of this will be fairly meaningless to those unfamiliar with the whole story. Besides, it’s been obvious from the start that Abstergo isn’t what it pretends to be; it’s not clear why we’re supposed to find it exciting when another character discovers what we’ve already known for several games.
The way it’s resolved – happily, before Bayek’s own story concludes – leaves more questions than answers. An unexpected reveal and a final encounter with a key figure from the series’ past results in Hassan being offered a proposition that seems hard to realistically refuse. But does this mean she’ll return in future games? Or is this simply a way of establishing a narrative reasoning for the Animus being able to connect its users with any historical figure, genetic links be damned? Perhaps this is all leading towards the chance to play as an Assassin in a present-day setting, though that would seem to be a grave mistake on Ubisoft’s part – particularly in light of Origins’ strengths and weaknesses. This is a series, after all, that distinguishes itself with its evocative reconstructions of history rather than its systems, which here include ideas from the likes of Watch Dogs, Far Cry and Destiny. Shorn of its one defining feature, it would be harder still to distinguish it from its peers.
Whatever the reason, Hassan’s story, though compact and relatively enjoyable, still feels slightly unnecessary: an obligation to please those who still enjoy the meta-story but not much more than that. Surely it would be far better, from now on, to simply keep the Animus as one of gaming’s great get-outof-jail-free cards. Since the beginning of the series, this historical Matrix has afforded a range of familiar game contrivances – like convenient barriers and anachronistic interface overlays – an in-fiction excuse for their presence. We’re not sure it quite excuses some of the glitches we saw during our time with Origins, mind. The low-poly placeholder character model, squatting within a cave; the teleporting quest-giver; the apparently injured NPC, who promptly parkoured up the nearest rock face when we briefly set him back down. Still, they did say that this portable Animus might result in a few unexplained anomalies.
This is a series that distinguishes itself with its evocative reconstructions of history rather than its systems