Winter means historical murder.
There aren't many games that I can remember seeing for the very first time. In these days of livestreamed E3 conferences, Twitch reveals, and trailers being visible in all corners of social media within moments of them being released, games enter my consciousness in so many different ways that they may as well do so via osmosis. There was a time though when that wasn't the case. Back in those days, we'd pore over static screenshots in magazines and pass rumours like Chinese whispers. We'd often find out about games by being shown them – and that's how I was introduced to Assassin's Creed. I was told about the game by my little brother, who said he was playing a game “set in the Crusades, except you're not in the Crusades - you're living the memories of an ancestor – and you disappear in crowds and climb castles and kill people with a blade on your wrist.” A couple of days later, I watched him perform a leap of faith from a bell tower somewhere in Damascus. I was so intrigued that the following weekend, I bought an Xbox 360.
While the quality of the series has gone up and down, my dedication has remained pretty much constant in the years between then and now. In retrospect, that first game was little more than a tech demo for what Assassin’s Creed 2 would be. They’re games that generally came out every year, and were consistently at least good – and occasionally great. For me though, they’ve come to mean a chance to enjoy an element of gaming that’s fairly unusual for me – they’re games I can play with my wife. Of all the games I play (and I play a fair few, let's face it), there are two that she’ll engage in with me regularly. One is Sea of Thieves, the other is Assassin’s Creed. I’m not sure when our passing of the pad became tradition, but it’s pretty much an annual one now – to the point where after a conversation a few weeks ago in which I revealed I probably wouldn’t buy Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey until next year, she came back home with it having bought it herself. I think she probably watched me play the first. A holiday to Italy a few years after wandering the Renaissance period as Ezio Auditore da Firenze in Assassin’s Creed 2 was punctuated with occasional nods towards historical buildings and a wink. “You’ve climbed that,” she’d say. “And jumped off the top,” I’d reply.
I thought it might be interesting to ask her what it is about these games that keeps her – a self-confessed “not a gamer” – interested enough to keep coming back to them, partly to see if her reasons were the same as mine. She cites the historical settings, and the fact that they’re so pretty. The historical accuracy and dedication to getting as much of it as accurate as possible appeals to her enormously. From a gameplay perspective, she likes the soft learning curve. A lifelong button basher, she can generally still handle combat in AC games For me, a lot of it is about the sense of scale. You’ll see something enormous off in the distance, then you’ll approach it and realise just how massive it is. Then you can climb it, and finally once at the top you can hurl yourself off it after hitting a button to open up the map and enjoy a wonderful sweeping camera move that reveals the region. It’s a loop I never seem to tire of.
Our time with the game is shared pretty evenly. We tend to divide the games up into exploration and story progression. If an underwater cave needs exploring or a shipwreck looting, that’s a Pharaoh job. Pad is passed to me, I’ll do the necessary. Puzzles to be solved or obscure items found, that’s a Lachesis job. I’ll pass the pad to her and sit and sip tea while she does it. Assassination missions are generally left to me, but fort clearing and general fighting is anyone’s. Whilst I favour a stealthy approach and love nothing more than leaving an entire area devoid of life without a single soul seeing me, she’ll ride a horse in through the front gate and just brawl.
The most recent games (2017’s Origins and 2018’s Odyssey, if you weren’t paying attention) have expanded on the size of the game dramatically – both of them RPG sized. We moved through Origins area by area, leaving no question mark undiscovered, no tomb unpillaged, no synch point unclimbed. It was a labour of love for us – it took months. And now we’re doing the same with Odyssey, expecting it to take even longer. It’s gaming at its most chilled out and relaxing, as we approach each night with no specific objective than to push a little further into a massive game, and have all the time in the world to get through them. When asked which game is our favourite though, it surprised me that we both said the same one.
Whilst piracy in the Caribbean in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was a series stand out for us, and Origins and Odyssey have both respectively consumed us for months on end, the one we both look back on most fondly is the one that ‘flopped’ and ultimately led to the hiatus that meant 2016 was the first year without an Assassin’s Creed game in as long as we could really remember – that game being 2015’s Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate.
I always felt bad about how Syndicate was received. 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity had been set in revolutionary France, and had been a broken mess. We’d played it regardless, but it had felt pretty soulless on the back of Black Flag. It had technical issues. The controls would fail. The story didn’t make much sense, and the main protagonist (Arno Dorian) just didn’t appeal. It sold well, but there was a backlash – and lots of people it seemed took out their disappointment in that game by refusing to buy Syndicate. You can kinda see their point – but they missed out on a really good game. Syndicate was set in places that we’ve actually been to, full of landmarks we can see in person if we get in a car and drive for an hour. Climbing the Colosseum is all well and good – but as someone born and raised in the UK, climbing St Paul’s Cathedral or hauling myself to the top of Nelson’s Column was just a really special feeling. Of course the other thing that Syndicate had was the brother and sister combo of protagonists. I played most (but not all) of the Jacob missions, while Lachesis played most (but not all) of the Evie missions. We appreciated each of them having their own strengths and styles, and we appreciated being able to play as someone of our own gender during the extensive free roam time.
It's this willingness of my significant other to play this game with me that makes me able to play it each year. For us, it's a key part of our year - a new AC game means nights on the sofa with the heating on and hot chocolate. It means a load more in-jokes for us, and a chance to see just how brutally Lachesis can take out a group of armed guards. It's another world to visit, another load of people and events to Google to find out just how accurate the story is. It's another set of conversations about moral dilemmas, and our different approaches to dealing with people and complex scenarios. It's more talk of this weapon vs that one, this armour set weighed against another. It's another massive grind to campaign completion, to full map reveal, to every secret uncovered.
I never really look forward to it - but I always love it when it's here.