I have an extremely weird relationship with the Assassin’s Creed franchise. It was one of the first games I played on a console not made by Nintendo, and in many ways was my introduction into the world of AAA gaming. This means that I have a strange affinity for the franchise, despite huge swathes of it being examples of everything I hate about modern AAA games.
It’s a franchise that I find myself looking on from a mostly negative viewpoint nowadays for various reasons that I’ll get into, but there is still lots of good stuff in there and sometimes I need to remind myself of that because ultimately it is still a franchise that I like. So, when I decided that I wanted to talk about my weird relationship with Assassin’s Creed, I thought that the best way to do it would to be to rank all of the main series games, capturing what I love and what I hate about this modern juggernaut of gaming.
As I say, this is just going to be the main series of Assassin’s Creed titles, “main series” meaning: the big release that Ubisoft promotes to death almost every year. I’m also not counting Rogue since, as much as you could consider it a part of the main series, it was pretty clearly an afterthought to Unity and didn’t bring anything new to the table following Black Flag.
With that caveat out of the way, let’s get into the rankings.
10 – Assassin’s Creed Unity
So there’s a whole lot to unpack here.
Firstly, you can’t talk about Unity without mentioning how completely and totally broken it was on its release. You’ve all seen the image of the characters without faces a thousand times in the years since and it’s arguably deserved, there are very few AAA games on the scale of the Assassin’s Creed franchise that have ever launched that broken, and it took them a lot longer than it should’ve to fix the thing.
However they did eventually fix it, so taking it’s launch aside, what are we left with?
Essentially, you know the standard and fairly generic formula that you think of when someone mentions Assassin’s Creed? It’s just that, with very little layered on top of it. The fact that they were trying to develop two games at once no doubt played some role in this, but there was little to no innovation what so ever in this game. There were plenty of side-quests but they were all the exact same set of activities we’ve been doing over and over since the dawn of the open world game, so I had absolutely no desire to do them.
The story is barely worth mentioning, every character felt like the most paint by numbers version of their archetype, with the protagonist Arno (whose name I had to look up because I didn’t care enough about him to remember) being the most watered down protagonist in the whole series. I had no reason to care about him or anything he was doing because he had no discernable personality for me to grip on to.
That was really my main gripe with Unity. As much as it looked visually impressive for the time (Assassin’s Creed games almost always do), the entire world just felt completely void of character, the colour palette felt drained and muted, which would’ve been fine if that was part of the narrative but it wasn’t. There was plenty to explore and do, but I had no want to do any of it because the world just felt boring, and I don’t play games to be bored.
9 – Assassin’s Creed III
Speaking of boring…
For many years leading up to this, the Assassin’s Creed franchise was very much straddling the line of being a so-called “feature creep”, wherein every game they would pile new stuff on in the hope some of it worked but refused to throw any of the old stuff out that didn’t, and this game is arguably the height of that.
With the exception of the awful tower defence mini-game from Revelations, I can’t think of a single feature that this game threw out, it only tried to pile more stuff on, most of which didn’t work. Once again, I found the open world was pretty boring to explore, a couple of the towns had a decent variety to them, but there were huge swathes of nothingness between it all. This was during the phase of open-world design where all that mattered was how big your open world was, and not how much stuff there is to do in it and this game really suffered as a result.
The narrative had some nice beats to it, playing as the bad guys for the first few hours without it telling you was a great little twist and it actually did a fairly compelling job of telling the story of the War of American Independence, unfortunately, I found all of the good guy characters to be horrendously dull people so once again I just didn’t really invest much in them. Meanwhile, the bad guys ended up being quite charismatic and entertaining whenever they were on screen, which was kind of the downside of making me play as them for so long.
Ultimately, when I list the things I dislike about Assassin’s Creed, almost every single one of the features in AC3, it was the first time when I started to feel tired with the series and quite honestly if it wasn’t for Black Flag’s refocusing in the next game, I doubt I would’ve pushed forward with the franchise.
8 – Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Ah, the weird middle step-child of the franchise.
Syndicate was in a very awkward position when it released because it was in the in-between phase of the franchise, where Ubisoft was trying to move away from the standard gameplay formula they’d been using for years but hadn’t quite decided on exactly what they wanted going forward. It meant Syndicate felt like a weird mashing of gameplay styles that didn’t really gel very well at all.
For example, it introduced a levelling system for armour, weapons etc. but it didn’t feel fully formed enough to work as an actual RPG style system. It meant we were left with a system that didn’t seem to fit the standard Assassin’s Creed gameplay style since if you knew what you were doing, you could still take out enemies much of a much higher level than you without too much trouble, so the entire thing felt a little bit pointless.
That said, the side of gameplay that was the standard formula was done fairly well, with based and strongholds being fun to sneak around and take out, it was able to capture that feeling of controlled chaos that I loved from the Farcry games. There was also the personal aspect of being set in London – which is where I grew up – meaning that I actually knew the rough layout of the city and had quite a lot of fun clambering victorian versions of landmarks I already knew quite well.
The main problem I had with Syndicate was it’s writing, most specifically the protagonists, Jacob & Evie Frye, who I despise with all my heart. First, you have Evie, who is the most bog-standard, generic version of a strong female protagonist there possibly is; she takes no shit from the men, has a very serious perspective on things and snore, snore, snore. Then you have Jacob aka world’s most punchable human. He’s so obnoxious and seems to have the compulsive need to make a Whacky Quip™ during every single scene regardless of whether it’s narratively appropriate or not. I disagreed with him at almost every single opportunity, to the point where I would avoid playing as him as much as possible because he was actively detracting from my enjoyment of the game.
All of this left Syndicate in a very odd position looking back at the franchise as a whole because it doesn’t properly fit into either category when it comes to phases in the franchise since it’s this weird stitched together mess at both.
7 – Assassin’s Creed Revelations
We go from a game packed with way too much “new” to a game with not nearly enough.
As we’ll get into a little later on, I really liked the game that preceded this one, Brotherhood, a lot, so on paper, it would seem like that a game which is essentially the same thing but in a different open world would be something I’d love right? Well, sort of.
I do tend to cut Revelations some slack because it is ultimately a version of the formula that I like quite a lot from Revelations, however, it fails in a few key aspects. The first of which, as I mentioned above is the lack of new features. Obviously, since it was a formula that I liked, I didn’t want them to burn the book and build it again from the ground up, but some cool new additions that would change certain aspects of how I played the game would be great fun and for the most part that didn’t happen.
First of all, we got the hookblade, which is the iconic Assassin’s Hidden Blade, but with a hook on the end, so you can use ziplines and…climb slightly faster? Granted it was fun to rocket down ziplines, but the novelty of that only goes so far and the increased climbing speed really only came into effect when there was a jump just a tiny bit too high for Ezio to make on his own. Then there was the bomb crafting, which was completely pointless because no-one used anything other than the smoke bombs which had already been in the franchise for two games by that point. Finally, there was the building up of the Assassin’s Guild. On the one hand, it was quite fun to do actual missions with these people you’ve been levelling up and getting to teach them how to be really good at stabbing Templars, but it also gave us the worst feature in the history of the franchise with the terrible tower defence game that’s only redeeming quality was the music that played during it.
Do you see the common thread between all three of these features? It’s that we’ve never seen them again in the franchise. They were, for all intents and purposes, failed features that no-one liked enough to ever be returned into future instalments.
That’s why I rank Revelations so low, because as much as it’s a perfectly fine edition of the formula I enjoy, but there was a severe lack of major innovation, and the few areas where it did innovate ended up being complete failures, and I can’t praise a game that failed to innovate so hard.
6 – Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
Ah yes, the game packed to the brim with a void of stuff.
Odyssey marks the only game in the series that I haven’t completed, partly because it’s the most recent, but mostly because I was 40 hours in, and had barely discovered a quarter of the map.
All of Odyssey’s systems are great, the combat is really enjoyable with huge amounts of variety in how you can tackle a situation. There’s a decent amount of variety in the side quests, and several of them have a pretty good story to go with them as well. The game is also stunningly beautiful, with vast swathes of terrain to run and climb all over, bringing ancient Greece to life in a great way to the point where I enjoyed most of the time I spent in it.
My main problem with Odyssey is that there is just way too much stuff crammed inside it. The open world is huge, which is fine but there’s not as much to do in it as I’d like, and while there is a great variety of locations and tasks, there’s not a large enough variety for the size of the world. This meant that after 40 hours, doing fairly similar tasks over and over I had absolutely no desire to keep playing, not because I wasn’t enjoying the game, but because I felt like there was nothing new for me to see and I’d got all the enjoyment out of it that I could, which isn’t great considering I wasn’t even halfway through yet.
It’s frustrating, because all the hallmarks for a great RPG are there, with a levelling system that feels natural and scales up at a good pace for what the game moves at; a variety of weapons and combat situations to mean that every enemy encounter is a challenge, to the point where stealth isn’t just an option, but a necessary part of gaining much-needed advantages and boat battles that are just as fun as they always have been. The problem is that the world-building just isn’t there.
It might be able to get away with this flaw if the story and lore behind everything were compelling enough, but it’s hard to build up a lore-rich world when your setting is a time period before the order which the entire franchise is named after even existed.
Odyssey is a fun game to play, but I found that there was a hard limit to the amount of fun that can be got out of it, and I really hope the next Assassin’s Creed game is more refined and focused than this one because a decrease in scale is desperately needed.
5 – Assassin’s Creed
If you’ve ever read any of my rankings before, you know I’m the first person to stand up and say that the first entry into a franchise was crap, so it’s time to buck the trend because I quite like the original Assassin’s Creed.
It was far from perfect, but it felt like quite a focused game, the three main cities all felt distinct in both their design and feel and while the world that transported you between them, was almost entirely empty, it wasn’t so big as to be a constant annoyance. There’s also something to be said for the simplicity in the mechanics in the original, with just four different weapons and the parkouring was yet to be overcomplicated with several pointless mechanics.
It also followed a rhythm that made sure it never felt too samey, despite the fact you would end up doing some fairly similar tasks over and over. Every new assassination target would require you explore a new portion of one of either Damascus, Acre or Jerusalem, and it also did a pretty good job of varying the order that it sent you to each of these cities, so I never felt like I was retreading old ground with each new assassination target.
The story isn’t overly interesting, but it does a good job of introducing you to the Assassin’s order and exactly what they stand for, using Altair’s complete disregard for all of their tenants to show you just why the Assassin’s should be considered the good guys; even if later games would end up betraying that sentiment.
The original Assassin’s Creed is a game that laid all the foundations required to launch a franchise from, while still having enough stuff there to be a great game in its own right, to the point where it still stands out in the franchise 11 years and 9 games down the line.
4 – Assassin’s Creed Origins
From the first game released, to the first game in the timeline.
Origins was able to take what Syndicate was trying to do, and finally complete that transition to a new style of gameplay, to great effect as far as I’m concerned.
The RPG systems that were poorly implemented in Syndicate were used to their full potential here, and while it still pales in comparison to the mechanics of an RPG like the Elder Scrolls games, it works really well for what it’s trying to do. I criticized Odyssey for being really unfocused, and Origins was able to avoid spreading itself to thin for the most part to create a much more refined game that leads to an overall more fun experience than what we’d get in Odyssey.
As I’ve already mentioned, I love the combat style that this game introduced in Origins, it made every encounter a challenge, and more importantly a challenge that was enjoyable, rather than one that felt like a chore. The strikes and blocks felt meaty and the finishers felt brutal and I found myself really having a blast with every enemy encounter.
The story was a bit crap, with the whole thing getting very it’s own arse at the end, with Aya murdering Julius Ceasar, because of course, that was actually an Assassin and then going on to become the single most important person in the whole franchise by forming the Assassin’s order; which felt really unearned for a character that wasn’t that interesting and had only had about 3/4 of a game to get to know.
I also thought the world design still wasn’t amazing, the cities and landmarks were vibrant and beautiful as always, but the problem with the game being set in Egypt is that most of the map ended up being desert, which just isn’t very fun or interesting to be constantly running around. So it meant that although the game didn’t suffer from a sparsely populated world like Odyssey, it did suffer from a world that often wasn’t very fun to explore, since the answer to the question, “What’s over that hill?” was more often than not, “Sand.” Admittedly, that’s not the designer’s fault, because that’s what ancient Egypt was like, but surely something more interesting could be done with it?
All that said, I still had a lot of fun with Origins, and if this is the style the franchise is going to stick with going forward, I’d like to see future games made more like Origins, and less like Odyssey.
3 – Assassin’s Creed II
This is what happens when a company decides to go all-in on a franchise.
The jump between the original Assassin’s Creed and it’s sequel is one of the biggest leaps in both scope and quality that I’ve ever seen. Following the original, a sequel seemed all but inevitable, and looking at it through modern eyes, it seemed like Assassin’s Creed II would be a fairly solid upgrade from the first, but nothing special; but the development team here went above and beyond to try and get this franchise permanently into the mainstream gaming consciousness, and it’s hard to argue they didn’t achieve that.
There was an insane amount of new stuff added in this game, with the stealth mechanics being expanded to make it a more fun way to play the game; there was a huge variety added to the weapons, and as much as the combat didn’t evolve much, it was fine-tuned to feel a lot smoother than it did before. The quality of the world design also went through the roof, renaissance Italy looked stunning for the time, and the colours that are absolutely everywhere as you run around the place make traversing the world such a joy.
Looking at the story, although it was nothing special, it was enjoyable enough to make me care about the characters more than I do in most Assassin’s Creed games, there’s a reason almost everyone says that Ezio is their favourite Assassin after all. You felt like the historical figures actually had a crafted place in the story, rather than just being there for the novelty of seeing them, and for most of the game, I didn’t immediately groan when a cutscene started to play.
However, there are still a few things that drag this game down for me. For one thing, the game is just an hour or so too long, especially with the DLC, which now is unremovable from the game. In the final 3 or 4 sequences, I found myself getting really frustrated and impatient about how slow the game wanted me to step through it. The story does all it can to build up and head right into the finale, but then it just randomly decides to throw another obstacle in the way and makes you run around the world pointlessly for an extra couple of hours and it meant I’m always in a bitter mood going into the final mission, because I’ve just had to trudge through a couple hours of crap.
Thankfully, that’s the only major problem I have with the game, and it doesn’t rear it’s ugly head for most of the game anyway, so I’m happy to overlook it and recognise how amazing the rest of this game is. You can make whatever you want of the current state of the franchise, but looking back at this game, you can’t say that it didn’t deserve the status it achieved.
2 – Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Remember that one time when Ubisoft just thought “fuck it” and made a pirate game for no reason? Good times.
Counting Black Flag in a list of best Assassin’s Creed games almost feels like cheating, because let’s face it, it’s an Assassin’s Creed game in name alone; that doesn’t mean it isn’t brilliant though.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say that my favourite part of Assassin’s Creed III was the sea battles. The team at Ubisoft clearly thought the same because the next game, Black Flag, was entirely about the sea battles. They stumbled upon a really fun style of gameplay and to their credit, they leaned all the way into it, to make an absolutely fantastic game.
Every battle you got into with the boats felt like an all-out war. The scale of it all combined, with the vibrant colours of the Caribbean, and the extremely well-designed soundscape made every single encounter feel like a chaotic and epic fight. Pile on top of that, extreme weather conditions, a big variety of weapons at your disposal, and the ability to board your opponent’s ships and cause a massive skirmish in quite a confined space, and you’ve got yourself a formula that never ceases to be fun to play.
The world was also extremely well designed, with the towns being bright and colourful, but not so big as to feel too big and also having enough variety in the environment so all of them felt distinct. The random islands and plantations were also great additions, with things constantly sidetracking you (in a good way) when you’re poncing about on the open seas.
Black Flag, has a fairly big open world, but by no means too big, and the game is very carefully designed to tour you through it at a very steady pace, so you never feel overwhelmed at the amount of stuff there is available to you. Speaking of stuff, unlike most of the other open worlds in this franchise, Black Flag’s world is very densely packed with a great variety of stuff to do, be it hunting down collectables, hunting animals for crafting, playing board games, throwing harpoons at sharks or firing on every British ship you see, there’s never a dull moment when traversing the world in this game; and even if you do get bored, you can just make your crew sing sea shanties to keep you entertained.
Once again, the story was perfectly fine. It doesn’t stand out to me as any kind of exceptional storytelling, but it also never did anything to piss me off or turn me against the characters which, in a game like the Assassin’s Creed series, is all I really want.
In a way, I’m quite glad this ended up being a one-off for the franchise because I honestly don’t see many ways in which this formula could’ve been improved, as the boat-based mechanics in subsequent games in the franchise have proven. Black Flag was a rare instance of a game I can honestly describe as unique in its gameplay and at the end of the day, it’s just an absolute blast to play.
1 – Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
It’s got a little bit of everything without having too much of anything.
I’ve talked a lot throughout this article about the “formula” of Assassin’s Creed, which is the general: Viewpoints, 5 different types of collectables and about 100 of each one, way too many weapons and vague stealth mechanics, (this would later become almost every Ubisoft game as well, but that’s a discussion for another day). I generally view this formula as a bad thing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun. While too much can be a bore, the right amount of small tasks dotted all over the open world can make for an extremely compelling game for a habitual completionist like me and Brotherhood is the closest thing I’ve found to a perfect version of that formula.
The open world is big enough to have plenty of variety to it, but not so expansive that it feels bloated and pointless. Traversal of the world feels fun and fluid, with parkour mechanics that Assassin’s Creed have always been good at, but it especially feels like the world was handcrafted to make running around Rome’s rooftops extra fun. Even when you wandered out into the outskirts of the city, the large plains felt like a breath of fresh air and galloping about the place on horseback was just as fun.
There was also an extremely large mission variety, not just in the main story, but with side missions too. Each of the three guilds had different styles of missions, which were solid enough to flesh out the relevant characters while staying pretty brief and not overstay their welcome. Leonardo’s missions are also great fun, playing with all the weird toys and you get to drive a tank, so I don’t have anything bad to say about that. However, best were the Lairs of Romulus which were a series of levels almost entirely based around fun parkouring challenges, with interesting scenery and a great variety in the mini-stories that surrounding them, they’re my favourite set of side quests in the whole franchise.
The visual design is also excellent, with every section of the colour palette being used in one place or another in the game. Ezio’s red and white outfit from Brotherhood is far and away from my favourite protagonist outfit, and every other character had colours and styles that seemed to perfectly match their personality. Speaking of characters and story, it’s still nothing overly special, but it’s definitely the best the franchise has done. Cesare is the best villain from this series as far as I’m concerned and Ezio is also the best protagonist by virtue of the fact that he’s the only one I don’t hate at least a little bit.
Brotherhood is simply where all of the features and styles that make the Assassin’s Creed formula what it is come together in just the right way. I firmly believe that if you took all that was good about Assassin’s Creed and refine it to a point, you’d end up with something that looked pretty similar to Brotherhood, and it’s the game that I will always go to when I need reminding of why I actually love this franchise deep down.
So there are my rankings of the Assassin’s Creed franchise! Disagree? Of course you do, so let me know how you would’ve ranked them either in the comments below or on Twitter @10ryawoo. If you enjoyed then make sure to come back this time next week for my Money in the Bank Predictions!