Why the Worst Year for 'Assassin's Creed' Was Also One of Its Best

Why the Worst Year for 'Assassin's Creed' Was Also One of Its Best

'Unity' and 'Rogue' represent diametrically opposed visions for 'Assassin's Creed.' Glixel/Ubisoft

2014's 'Unity' laid bare the excesses that stopped the blockbuster franchise in its tracks while 'Rogue' soldiered on

2014's 'Unity' laid bare the excesses that stopped the blockbuster franchise in its tracks while 'Rogue' soldiered on

What's the most important day in Assassin's Creed history? When the first game came out? This December 21, when the Assassin's Creed movie stakes its claim in bold new territory for the brand?

I think it's November 11, 2014. Usually, Ubisoft releases one major Assassin's Creed game that time of year, but that day it released two. Which sums up Assassin's Creed like nothing else. Because, nine years in, it's clear that the story of Assassin's Creed, the video game series and transmedia franchise, is not really about assassination, or murder, as much as it is another sin: gluttony.

"This is as close to time travel as we have right now." That's Ubisoft's Alex Amancio, talking about revolutionary Paris as recreated in 2014's Assassin's Creed Unity and visited through the fictional eyes of Arno Dorian, a dashing French nobleman-cum-assassin who speaks with a smirk and a British accent (don’t ask).

Unity's Paris, rendered at grand scale and swanky with period detail, is a good representation of the whole game. A near-total overhaul of the Assassin's Creed engine and design template, Unity was the series' most ambitious entry, a best foot forward into the next console generation. An exclusive to the then-brand new PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Unity sloughed off the shackles of 2005 hardware and really let rip. It didn't just look good, it had redesigned systems for stealth, combat and character progression, a new co-op mode, and – less thrillingly – micro-transactions.

So ambitious was Unity that it chronicled five years of the French Revolution in the background. We went to Paris not to march on Versailles but to follow Arno's story, and his concerns were more personal: climbing the corporate org chart at a secret assassin order; avenging the murder of his foster father; scoring with his foster sister; owning and operating a café. He had a lot to do. With a wardrobe of 200 mix-and-match pieces of clothing in 27 color schemes, simply getting dressed was a mission.

As Arno, we pushed through cafés into riotous crowds 5,000 deep, surrounded by the cries of fireworks, muskets and the bourgeoisie. We scrambled effortlessly and impressively over rooftops – which one ought to expect from a game developer employing a "chief parkour officer" – and loomed improbably atop the spire of Notre Dame, where we surveyed the whole of Paris: the largest, prettiest and most populated thing ever seen in an Assassin's Creed game – or maybe any game, for that matter. Soft colors, warm light, the heart of the virtual city beating in real-time.

We could see the whole city – could, if it hadn't been crusted over with a claustrophobic layer of icons. Missions to solve a murder and missions to do one, missions to hang out with Napoleon and Madame Tussaud, missions to pull off heists, riddles to solve and treasure to hunt. Fog to clear, cockades to collect, newspapers to read, data to harvest. Treasure chests to unlock. Treasure chests to unlock by grinding on puzzles in a companion app. In-game currency to purchase with real currency.

Too much, maybe? Excessive? Well, yeah – it's Assassin's Creed. Each game is bigger than the last, with more to do than the last. Was a back never supposed to break, a spine never supposed to snap?

After Syndicate, last year's entry, was released to decent reviews but middling sales, Ubisoft called a timeout. "Clearly in our first week we were impacted by what happened with [Unity]," an Ubisoft executive acknowledged on an investor call. Months later, the studio announced "that there will not be a new Assassin’s Creed game in 2016. Since the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, we’ve learned a lot based on your feedback. We’ve also updated our development processes and recommitted to making Assassin’s Creed a premier open-world franchise. We’re taking this year to evolve the game mechanics and to make sure we’re delivering on the promise of Assassin’s Creed."

What was so bad about Unity? Was anything bad about Unity? Or did it just happen to be the one Assassin's Creed to finally collapse under its own weight and fail? And to fail for doing nothing more than what Assassin's Creed games have always done?

What if Atlas hoisted the heavens up on his shoulders and the heavens were so heavy that his face literally exploded? Those faces! The romantic heroes and villains of the French Revolution with their faces deleted, save for freaked-out eyeballs and wind-up teeth, the fleshless void framed by powdered wigs. That particular glitch was a rare one, but the image was so macabre it was the obvious ambassador for the game's myriad woes. Bodies collapsed in on themselves, framerates stuttered. The lucrative treasure chests to be opened through a mobile app were so reluctant to open that the feature was discontinued, leaving the rewards littering the streets like nouveau riche trash.

Unity's launch was enough of a debacle that Ubisoft formally apologized, offering free DLC as a goodwill gesture. But the issues weren't just technical. Unity had the feeling, the accurate feeling, of being assembled in expensive constituent parts around the globe with no clear vision to tie those parts together. Missions, activities, collectibles blocked out the horizon. You could lose hours to Unity and do nothing but remove a few icons from what was basically an icon generator. Assassin's Creed, at its worst, is like scrubbing stubborn dirt off plates instead of having a meal.

Unity was released in 2014, a transition year between console generations. It was the last year PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 titles would be commercially viable, but Unity wasn't coming out for those – so something else had to.

Enter Assassin's Creed Rogue. Developed primarily by Ubisoft's Sofia studio – making it the first game in the series not led from Ubisoft Montreal – it was a smoothed out and abridged rewrite of the past year's Black Flag, built for machines that in months would be consigned to closets. As a result, Rogue was bound by legacy limitations. Unlike Arno, player character Shay couldn't crouch, walk through most buildings or wear 40 different types of pants. Rogue's unique selling point was to put Shay on the opposite side of the series' historical conflict, enlisting him with the evil Templars. Players still did all the same stuff they always did in Assassin's Creed, however, and the change of uniform did less to refresh the series' gameplay than expose the shallowness of its fiction.

Before Rogue shipped, it leaked that the game was less than half the length of an average Assassin's Creed game – which couldn't have reassured anyone eyeing it as a cynical cash-in from a fatigued franchise. Certainly in comparison to its moneyed sibling, Rogue seemed every bit the lesser game. Understandably, Ubisoft put its marketing muscle behind Unity, which got a cinematic trailer scored to a Lorde song while Rogue voice actor Steven Piovesan hand-ironed the Rogue logo on a t-shirt and wore it to Comic-Con. Even when the games released, Rogue was practically lost in the tumult of Unity's slipstream of mess.

There was every indication that Rogue would be the lesser of the two games – but might it still be a better Assassin's Creed game?

And yet? It was pretty good.

It was good, moreover, because it abandoned the Assassin's Creed design imperative and was simpler and shorter. While Rogue drew heavily from Black Flag, it eliminated that game's weakest aspects. Its short length didn't come across as thriftiness but a welcome corrective. It wasn't the best Assassin's Creed ever, but it was the least encumbered – and the weirdest.

Rogue exhibited an off-model strangeness that could only have come about by the project being a lesser priority. What else to make of a game set during the Seven Years War where you can dress your character up as a fluffy Viking and have him charge through a coterie of choreographed penguins to blow up a polar bear with a grenade launcher? Or the astonishing performance of Richard Dumont as Templar Christopher Gist, standing out from a po-faced cast by delivering a villainous hot air balloon from a Thomas the Tank Engine cartoon? Or the ending, in which the modern day Templars' master plan is to troll their Assassin enemies by emailing them a video supercut of Shay owning their ancestors 200 years ago?

It's nice to see a weird underdog get the credit it deserves, even if that recognition comes at the expense of Unity's blowing up like Mr. Creosote from Monty Python. There was every indication that Rogue would be the lesser of the two games – but might it still be a better Assassin's Creed game?

Rogue succeeded by being short, sweet and silly, and paring back—but Assassin's Creed has always championed the opposite approach. Unity is flawed. It's unsustainable, over-reaching, content-clogged. But this is Assassin's Creed, so are those really flaws? Or the point?

There's a few scenes in Unity where Arno gets to meet the Marquis de Sade, reclining on some ratty chaise longue. Arno looks on de Sade as this vulgar libertine – indulgent, decadent, living to excess – but if only he knew how much they had in common.