There's a truly unforgettable moment right at the end of Assassin's Creed 2, in which Desmond is returned to the modern day world and must escape his safe-house before Abstergo find him. It's not long before they do, forcing you to fight back using the assassin skills you've spent the entire game honing through the memories of your Italian ancestor, Ezio.
Despite the fact I'd already stuck my longsword through the faces of half the residents of 15th century Florence by then, this was the single coolest moment in the game, because I was finally fighting with Desmond! This is what the whole series had been building up to: Desmond was destined to become the unstoppable contemporary assassin, scaling skyscrapers rather than temples, hiding in the crowds of Times Square, stalking his foes like an ancient predator - but in the modern day! I was so sure I knew where the series was going and I couldn't wait for it to get there. 6 games later, I'm still waiting and I can't help thinking that Assassin's Creed has lost its own plot.
Don't get me wrong, exploring the historical sandboxes of ancient Rome, Jerusalem, and the American frontier is still as compelling as it ever was, but the real allure of the series has always been the way its modern day conspiracy-filled setting integrates with the overall narrative. The historical action is made so much more pertinent by its reflected impact on present day events.
Unfortunately for those who still want answers from the first few games, it seems Ubisoft has been moving further and further away from the modern day aspects of the story. Corey May, the lead writer for every main Assassin's Creed entry and the franchise's ostensible story director, was absent for the first time on Assassin's Creed Unity - also the first game in the franchise to not feature any playable modern day missions. This leads me to believe that the original conceit for the franchise's overarching narrative has been abandoned, or at least changed in some way.
What follows is an in depth breakdown of Assassin's Creed's story: where it seemed like it was heading, where it could have gone, where it is now, and where it might possibly lead to in future games. So throw up your hood, strap into your Animus and get ready to dive deep into a narrative-filled hay bale.
Assassin's Creed (2007)
The original game opens with Desmond Miles, a New York bartender, getting kidnapped by Abstergo Industries, who force him to replay the genetic memories of his ancestor, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, by interfacing with a mysterious device called the Animus. So far, so simple.
Altaïr finds himself looking for an artifact called the 'Piece of Eden,' and kills many Templars - the sworn enemies of the Assassins - trying to find it. Eventually he does, at which point the Piece activates and reveals a map of the globe marked with the locations of all the other remaining Pieces of Eden. Take a look:
The Writing on the Wall
Desmond is abruptly brought out of the Animus and learns that Abstergo is actually a front for the evil modern-day Templars. Now they've used Desmond to locate the artifacts, they believe they must find them themselves in order to control the earth's population and prevent the end of the world, which is apparently due to happen in 2012. Left alone, Desmond first experiences the 'bleeding effect' of the Animus and he's now able to enter into a heightened state of vision similar to that of Altaïr's. This suddenly reveals a series of strange messages scrawled on Abstergo's walls, as seen below:
This bleeding effect is extremely important as it's the first sign of a tangible connection between Desmond and his Assassin ancestors - he wasn't just passively playing through their memories, he was slowly learning their skills.
So, at the end of the first game we were left with a modern day corporation of bad guys looking for a number of potentially world-destroying artifacts, and Desmond - now picking up the Assassins' skills - facing up against them. Cue the Indiana Jones-esque music as you head off on a globe-trotting modern day adventure, exploring the remnants of lost civilizations to find all the artifacts before Abstergo! Or not, as it turns out...
Assassin's Creed 2 (2009)
I've always thought of Assassin's Creed 2 as the equivalent of the training montage from every Rocky film. Picking up right where the first left off, Desmond is told by his modern day Assassin friends, Shaun, Lucy and Rebecca that he must enter the memories of another ancestor, Ezio, specifically to train for combat by using the Animus' bleeding effect. 'Okay,' I thought. It may not be exactly what I wanted, but at least it was building up to an epic confrontation with Abstergo. Desmond wasn't ready for it yet, but after punching some frozen meat for a while, I would finally get my shot at Apollo Creed!
Throughout Assassin's Creed 2 Desmond gradually begins to assimilate Ezio's skills, allowing him to free run like an Assassin in the modern day world. Now we're getting somewhere. Meanwhile, in Renaissance Italy Ezio tracks down a secret vault underneath the Vatican. After killing the Pope (yep, that happened), Ezio opens the vault to find a holographic woman who calls herself Minerva. She starts speaking, not to Ezio, but to Desmond, claiming to be part of an 'advanced' society that pre-dates humanity, before they were wiped out by some cataclysmic event. The few remaining survivors of the advanced race sealed themselves in temples in order to prevent the same thing happening again.
The group of Assassins back in the modern day are found by Abstergo and have to abandon their safe-house, giving Desmond the chance to break out his newly gained ass kicking skills, which he does briefly before the credits roll. Bring on the next game and let me finish these guys off!
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (2010)
Oh, back to Ezio we go. I thought I just spent an entire game in training so I could now fight with Desmond! Well, apparently they need to know where the 'Apple of Eden' is - another artifact that bequeaths unknown power to its user. The modern day Assassins finally track it down to a temple in Rome. But as soon as Desmond picks up the Apple, another ancient being named Juno - who appears to be from the same advanced civilization as Minerva - takes control over his body and forces him to stab Lucy. Desmond falls into a coma and again I'm left still waiting to fulfill my modern day assassin fantasies.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations (2011)
After another WHOLE game playing as Ezio, Desmond meets ANOTHER apparition of the 'First Civilization' called Jupiter. Jupiter explains that a central vault exists in New York that holds their plans to save the planet from total destruction, as referenced in the first game. Desmond awakens from his coma and finally the Assassins are ready to go save the earth by traveling to this final vault. Again, we're left with more questions than answers, but perhaps a departure from Italy will get the story back on track...
Assassin's Creed 3 (2012)
Back in 2012, Desmond arrives at the central vault in America but cannot open the inner chambers without a key, which can only be obtained by delving back into his ancestor's memories - this time, an 18th century assassin named Connor. Cue more historical backtracking.
For me, this is where the series actually got interesting again, and seemed to be more focused on its contemporary storyline. There were now new missions in which Desmond would have to track down Templars in modern day settings, and it was awesome. The promise made at the end of the second game was finally being fulfilled!
That is, until the end of the game. After finding the vault's key, Desmond enters the central temple's inner chambers and finds Juno waiting for him again. She tells him he can save the world from an impending solar flare, but at the cost of his own life. Minerva then appears and warns him that doing this will also free Juno, allowing her to potentially conquer humanity. Desmond decides to sacrifice himself anyway and dies, killing my hopes for the direction of the series along with him.
Now, I don't want to impose my own vision for the franchise's story over the visions of the games' creators, but it simply seems to me that Ubisoft pulled a narrative bait and switch of sorts. The logical culmination of the first two games was surely a modern day confrontation between the Assassins and the Templars of Abstergo.
They practically arrived at this point at the end of AC2, letting you take on the Templars as Desmond, however brief a moment it was. Brotherhood and Revelations just felt like Ubisoft were stalling - building up to the epic conflict's final phase. But killing Desmond off in the third (read: fifth) game was clearly a decision to change the story's direction, or at least arbitrarily extend the franchise.
If you look at the titles released since - Black Flag, Rogue and Unity - it's clear there's little interest in exploring the original modern day conflict that made the games so compelling in the first place. Black Flag features just a few present day sequences, but the player character is never seen and is controlled from a first person perspective. Likewise, in Unity Ubisoft all but abandoned their contemporary setting, with the player remaining a faceless, unnamed user of the Animus and almost all of the action taking place in 18th century France.
I still enjoy exploring the various historical locales in Assassin's Creed, but ever since Desmond died, the series has lacked a narrative cohesion to make me feel like what I'm doing in the Animus is actually pertinent to the desperate situation facing present day humanity.
An Alternate Reality
I wonder, how different would the franchise have been if Desmond had survived? Why are we yet to experience a fully realized modern day open world setting?
After getting just a small glimpse of the possibilities of a contemporary Assassin's Creed game, I'm left wanting more. I can't help but imagine Desmond scaling a skyscraper, hiding amongst crowds on the subway, or tracking a target in a shopping mall. Perhaps the promise of this possibility wasn't made by Ubisoft, but rather by myself. Perhaps this was never their intention, but just my optimistic hope. Regardless, it's still the game I've been waiting so long for, and I'll continue to wait, at least until next year's release.