Dear Ezio Auditore Da Firenze,
I still remember the first time I saw you. I had come downstairs into the living room of our house to see my younger brother playing Assassins’ Creed: Brotherhood. There you were, in your shining white Assassin’s robes, running into walls and occasionally climbing them. It looked fun but I was well aware it was the third game in the series. I asked my brother if he was confused by what was going on, since he hadn’t played the first two games? He told me something along the lines of not caring about stupid things like plot so, partially to spite him, I resolved to play the entire series in order. Assassins’ Creed was so-so. Serviceable if a bit repetitive with the assassination missions themselves being the stand outs. But Assassins’ Creed 2, the first game to feature you as its lead Ezio, absolutely blew me away. And there is was, I was a fan, I was in love, I stole you from him Ezio.
Assassins Creed 2 was one of the defining games of my teenage years. It still is one my favourite games of all time, though I get pretty funny looks from people whenever I tell them this. The music from the soundtrack gives me chills to this day and forms a not insignificant part of my gym playlist. Remembering running across the rooftops of Florence or Venice, making my way seamlessly through this huge virtual playground, before executing the perfect air assassination on a pair of unsuspecting guards (who probably did nothing wrong but were in my way) still brings a smile to my face. And you, Ezio, were a big part of what made Assassins Creed 2 and its sequel Assassins Creed: Brotherhood so great. Charming, funny and a relatable story arc that took you from a rash teenager through to an angry young man driven by rage and then on to a tempered, wiser man of middle age willing to put his personal grief aside for the greater good. And that’s just your first game.
Have you seen Titanic Ezio? You probably haven’t, given you died in 1524 and are fictional. Well it’s a very sad and even longer film about a boat that sinks. It makes lots of people very upset. I was mostly bored. But Assassins Creed: Embers, the short animated film they put out with collectors’ editions of your final game, made me tear up. It’s not a great film, I’d even go so far as to say it’s bad, but it ends with your death. Sitting by yourself on a bench in your native Florence, your family safe shopping in the city market and you, smiling, closed your eyes in the sun. The way that scene affected me made me realise just how powerfully I had connected with you as a character. I’m not someone who usually cries at sad movies. It takes a lot to get me to form that kind of emotional bond with a story or character. But having seen you go literally from birth to death over the course of three games, to have shared and been part of your story really shows the power video games can have.
Since you Ezio, I’m sorry to say, the Assassins Creed series has mostly gone downhill. After a few patchy entries its reputation is in the toilet, thought of as another lazy annualised franchise spoken of in the same breath as Call of Duty and Fifa. I disagree with this assessment Ezio, I disagree vehemently, but I can’t ignore it.
The Assassins Creed movie has done the series no favours either. Making the foolish decision to focus its narrative on the modern day, which in the games is relegated to a framing device, the film was mostly set in a generic grey facility that seemed to contain nothing but dull, artificial dialogue. Despite taking up the majority of screen time the present day story still felt like a framing device filling time before we could climb back into the Animus and go to the past. A real case of the frame obscuring the painting. As for the film’s historical Assassin and his story, it was nonsensical. Set in Spain during the Reconquista it jumped around from action scene to action scene with no chance for character or story to develop. I can barely remember the main character even speaking. Also everyone in 16th century Spain had these really big, obnoxious face tattoos. I’m not sure that’s historically accurate. I wish I could say that the action and parkour scenes were good but everything in this film is obscured by smoke to the extent that there were many scenes where I couldn’t even see where characters were. Rather than make an Assassins Creed movie it seems the Director just wanted to film smoke for two hours. The characters though, in both the past and present, were the film’s biggest downfall. Dull with motivations seeming to change from line to line and not an ounce of levity at any point. By taking itself too seriously the film left itself devoid of the life, colour, fun and the emotional resonance that comes with characters we like. Usually I leave a bad movie disappointed, but I left Assassins Creed angry. How could they produce this trainwreck when your story was just sitting there ready for adaptation Ezio?
After all this I was left questioning my love for the series and, yes, for you Ezio. I had played the ‘Ezio Trilogy’ (Assassins Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations) with my first serious girlfriend and I was left wondering if my feelings for the games had become intertwined with that relationship.
After seeing the Assassins Creed movie I decided to replay Assassins Creed 2. Was I remembering it through rose-tinted glasses? Was it as good as I remembered?
It was better.
The Ezio Trilogy
Honestly. Assassins Creed 2 was better than I had remembered.
It’s not perfect. For one it’s unfathomably ugly, even by the standards of its day. Assassins Creed 2 came out in 2009, the same year as Uncharted 2 and that game still looks fine to modern eyes. The cities of Assassins Creed 2 look great, but when it comes to the people it’s patchier. You, Ezio, are as handsome as I remember, but many of the side characters are staring, bug eyed and move really unnaturally. Uncle Mario is a particular offender in this respect. When one of the minor characters sat down in a cinematic his clothes moved with him so rigidly it was like he was made of lego.
But who cares about looks? I’m not vain, I love you for who you are Ezio, you handsome devil.
The level design of Assassins Creed 2 is top notch, managing to maintain an excellent gameplay experience while still making you feel like you’re surrounded by Renaissance Italy. Florence and Venice are as fun to traverse as I remember and I could spend long periods of time just running across the rooftops seeing how far I could go without slowing down. Huge virtual playgrounds really is the only way to describe them. The smaller maps of Forli and Tuscany also provide plenty of opportunities for interesting movement and climbing challenges and if you just want to get from one place to another they are easily traversable from horseback. The combat too is really fun. The sword fighting slash/counter encounters with hoards of guards are enjoyable and tense affairs (when the heavy lads show up) but finding a suitable hiding place, waiting for your target and stealthily assassinating them is unbelievably satisfying.
But it’s the writing that makes this game stand out. Not in the way I’d remembered though. You, Ezio were still cool and funny and charming, but you were also sad, angry and lost. One of the finest moments in the game is when you were leading your mother and sister out of Florence after your father and brothers had been wrongfully executed. They were asking you what they were going to do? Where they were going? All you could do was answer again and again “I don’t know”. It’s a moment of true hopeless uncertainty.
As you unravelled the conspiracy that led to your family’s death, eventually tracing it back to the sinister Templars and their plan to bring about tyrannical order under their leader Rodrigo Borgia, we saw you killing Templar leaders first for revenge and later for the cause of human freedom. But we also saw you take a break to laugh with your friend Leonardo da Vinci, comfort your grieving mother and flirt with everything that moved. The whole game is filled with moments of triumph, sadness, anger, laughter and tenderness. It’s almost like you were a character capable of experiencing multiple and sometimes contradictory emotions, almost like a real person. We experienced a life’s worth of ups and downs with you as you grew and changed with your experiences. In may seem like basic storytelling but it’s amazing how many games, films, TV shows and books forget you need light, shade and change.
Assassins Creed Brotherhood is basically more of Assassins Creed 2, a quasi-expansion pack rather than a true sequel, though it did make some improvements. The introduction of Cesare Borgia as a villain who was a physical threat to Ezio, as well as a great character, is welcome. Overall everything that’s great about Assassins Creed 2 is in Assassins Creed Brotherhood.
Assassins Creed Revelations doesn’t work. I’m sorry Ezio, you are still fantastic in it, but what was going on around you wasn’t up to the standard of your other games. Revelations is about the same length as Brotherhood, which was fine for Brotherhood because it was basically the final act of Assassins Creed 2 so could reuse many of the same characters, didn’t have to set up its own story and could cope with being shorter. Revelations on the other hand was a new story that had to introduce a whole cast of new characters and consequently felt rushed. What’s more you felt only tangentially involved in the main story, with the new characters who I wasn’t playing as taking centre stage in the action. Also Istanbul did not work as well as Florence, Venice or Rome due to its wider streets. This was designed to make the new hook blade (which allowed you to catch yourself on wider gaps) useful in gameplay but just broke the flow of the movement. A tower defence mini-game was a weird addition to the franchise too. I don’t blame you for this Ezio, you were getting on by then and presumably couldn’t protest.
So if AC:2 and Brotherhood were so great what went wrong? Well Ezio, I’d already replayed your games, I might as well try to work out why things have gone awry. Having looked again at what makes Assassins Creed 2 great and thought critically about why I feel this way what happens if, with that in mind, I look at the others. I think that’s worth a try Ezio.
Assassins Creed 3
I used to hate this game, Ezio. Really hate it. Now, I have mixed feelings. Replaying it I can see a lot of work was put into this. No cash grab sequel is Assassins Creed 3. It has its flaws but I think there’s a real attempt to make a better game than its predecessors.
Firstly it’s much better looking. You can play Assassins Creed 3 in 2017 and not have your eyes want to jump out of their sockets to hide in a haystack. The combat is more varied and tougher, sometimes too tough, forcing you to take the stealthy approach. Stealth has also been beefed up with greater variety to the hiding spots and the inclusion of more stealth-focussed missions.
Even where the game misses it’s not from lack of trying. It’s easy to tell there was a real love of the history and a lot of work went into recreating the period, even though this sometimes ended up being to the game’s detriment. The story too tried to do something interesting, even if it didn’t quite pull it off.
Assassins Creed 3 is a game that aimed for greatness and didn’t quite get there.
The level design of Assassins Creed 3 suffers compared to its predecessors and this is partly due to its setting. Assassins Creed 1-Revelations were set in old cities. Damascus, Florence, Rome, with narrow streets and tightly packed buildings that facilitated the franchise’s parkour movement system. Assassins Creed 3 is set in colonial North America during and in the build up to the American Revolution and, I’m sorry, colonial Boston is not as interesting as Rome. Visually or from a gameplay perspective.
The wider streets and more dispersed buildings of 18th Century New York and Boston completely scupper the parkour. For a game series where one of the main appeals is leaping from rooftop to rooftop to have a game where there’s usually a maximum of three buildings in a row you can jump between this is a major problem. More than once I would go through the effort of climbing a building, find there was nothing else enough to jump to and have to climb straight back down again. At some points I just gave up and walked from mission to mission through the streets. Slowly too since I didn’t want to alert the redcoats and end up having to go through a lengthy fight before I could do the mission. This absolutely kills the pacing and turns getting around from a highlight to a chore.
History is one of my favourite parts of the Assassins Creed series and I would be lying Ezio if your games didn’t inspire me to learn more about the real Renaissance Italy. But, while the history was present in your games, it was never overwhelming. The game was set in Renaissance Italy and the power struggles of that time and place informed the plot but you didn’t need to be an expert on the period to understand what was going on. Everything we needed to know about the Medici banking family, the Borgias or the Bonfire of the Vanities was explained in game. While Assassins Creed 2 featured real historical characters you could understand who they were, their relationships to other characters and their roles in the plot without knowing the first thing about the real people. Your friendship with Leonardo da Vinci, Ezio, was natural and built up over the game. A believable bromance. They were characters in their own right rather than historical cameos. The plot itself was informed by its historical setting but that was it. It was a story about people set in Renaissance Italy, nothing more.
Assassins Creed 3 gets eaten by its history. The story flits between the major events of the American Revolution without it being entirely clear why the characters in the story are involved or how they got there. The game relies so heavily on a prior knowledge of the American Revolution I wasn’t even sure what was going on the first time I played it. Having since listened to Mike Duncan’s excellent Revolutions podcast and become the American Revolution expert of my friendship circle, this time I pretty much got what was happening. But it’s generally not a good idea for a game’s plot to rely on its audience having listened to a podcast which didn’t exist at the time of publishing. The way the game handles historical figures is fawning rather than treating them as characters in the game’s narrative. I’m introduced to Sam Adams and just expected to already think this guy is awesome. We first meet him during an early mission in Boston and he becomes a major figure in the plot but it’s never explained how he knows the other characters or why we should trust him. He just appears and he’s Sam Adams so we better do what he says! This is not good writing.
But the characters, Ezio, the characters. We start the game as Haythem Kenway and he’s fun, Ezio. Charming, witty, you enjoy spending time with this character. But after you take a boat to the colonies, recruit some friends to help you rescue a group of American Indian prisoners so they can guide you to an ancient temple built by the “First Civilization”, discover the temple is useless and have sex it’s revealed Haythem was a Templar this whole time! He’s the bad guy! That’s a good twist and one I didn’t see coming. So who is the protagonist then? Well, it’s Haythem’s half American Indian son, Ratonhnhaké:ton. And how’s he?
He’s so boring! Remember, Ezio, how I said stories need light and shade? Ratonhnhaké:ton is a miserable git. Without resorting to a list of characteristics that would all be listed on a thesaurus page for ‘boring’ the best way I can describe him is Anakin Skywalker. Sorry Ezio, I know you’ve never seen Star Wars but if any rude third parties are reading our letter they will know exactly what I’m talking about. A mopey teenager who has mistaken monotone for cool and constantly complains about people underestimating his skills. Yes, his mother was killed by soldiers, but he reacts to it like he’s been told he can’t go to the Slipknot concert. It would not be out of character for Ratonhnhaké:ton to stare at an equally dead-eyed Natalie Portman and complain about his distaste for sand. Later on Haythem returns to play the dad/villain role (kind of like Darth Vader) and he’s as charming as ever! Why can’t we play as him?
There’s a germ of a good idea here. This should have been a father/son story where each are on opposite sides of an ideological war and the son is dealing with the confusion of his mixed loyalties. Instead this potentially interesting story gets smothered by an exhaustive list of the battles of the American Revolution.
Having an American Indian protagonist is another good idea, it’s a potentially interesting perspective we rarely hear the American Revolution told from. It’s a shame then Ezio, it’s badly mishandled. Ratonhnhaké:ton’s motivation, when he remembers, is to stop the encroachment by European settlers on his people’s land and to achieve this he joins up with the American Patriots. It took a lot of strength to stop myself from standing up and shouting at the screen: “Then you’re on the wrong side!” One of the major causes of the American Revolution, apart from overpriced tea, is that the British government wanted to stop the American settlers further colonising American Indian land. There are plenty of good reasons to join up with the American Patriots. Liberty, comparatively democratic government etc but preventing colonialism is not one of them. It was for this reason that during the American Revolution most American Indians fought on the side of the British. If Ratonhnhaké:ton wanted to save his people he should have joined up with the Crown.
Also for a game about the American Revolution, the most white people centric of the major Enlightenment era revolutions, to have a person of colour as its protagonist and not really bring up race is kind of a big oversight. The American Revolution was by no means a bad thing but if it has one big stain on its CV it’s slavery. The game does not do enough to address this. Ratonhnhaké:ton has only one throw away line about how the Americans seem to be fighting for freedom only for rich white men. It isn’t even in gameplay, it’s over a loading screen. Beyond that the game seems to have swallowed the narrative that the American Revolution was just the bestest thing to happen in human history ever you bet your ass it is yeehaw. For the Assassins Creed game that is most immersed in its history it’s also strangely the least critical of it.
That’s a negative note to end on Ezio and I don’t want to be negative. This is a love letter. After some consideration, I like this game. I don’t love it as I do you, but I admire the work and effort that went into it. I admire the improvements it made and the new ides it brought to the series. And a series shouldn’t be afraid to change, even if that change seems radical. Like setting a game on a pirate ship.
But it’s getting late and the candle is burning low. I also underestimated how long it would take me to play an entire video game series while doing a full time job and trying to write a comedy show.
I will write again soon my love.