Video game developer Ubisoft has stated that, in spite of its freewheeling approach to the series timeline, its historical action franchise "Assassin's Creed" has a definite endpoint. But in light of the way the series has progressed so far, there's every reason to be skeptical of that claim.
" Assassin's Creed," the series, began in 2007, but the historical narrative began in 1191 in the Holy Land. Players took control of Assassin Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, — a member of an ancient secret society dedicated to freeing mankind from the oppressive influence of the Templars.
As the series progressed, first to the Renaissance and then to the 18th century, it attracted fans through a bravura mixture of real-world history, religious symbolism, magic objects and a modern-day political thriller. "Assassin's Creed II" (as well as two direct sequels, "Brotherhood" and "Revelations") followed the adventures of Italian nobleman Ezio Auditore da Firenze as he pursued the Templars across 16th-century Europe. "Assassin's Creed III" told the story of Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor), a half-Iroquois tasked with unraveling a Templar conspiracy during the American Revolution.
"Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag " is slated for this October, and for the first time in series history, winds the clock backward instead of forward. Connor's grandfather, Edward Kenway, takes center stage this time around. "Black Flag" takes place in 1715 and tells a story about the final days of the golden age of piracy on the high seas.
The series is one of Ubisoft's most profitable, and as a result, isn't going anywhere for a while. That said, Ashraf Ismail, the director of "Black Flag," explained that the series won't last forever.
"There is an overall arc, and each iteration has its place inside this," he explained to Eurogamer. "We have an idea of where the end is, what the end is … Depending on what fans want, we've given ourselves room to fit more in this arc. But there is an end."
If there is a defined endpoint, the current trajectory of the series does not exactly support Ismail's assertion. "Assassin's Creed" sold well; "Assassin's Creed II" was a sure bet. But when "Assassin's Creed II" established the series as a fixture in modern gaming and Ezio as one of the most likeable characters of the current console generation, Ubisoft decided to annualize the series.
Fans and critics generally enjoyed "Brotherhood and "Revelations," and they added a considerable amount to the franchise's lore, but the series would not have lost much if Ubisoft had continued directly onto "Assassin's Creed III." The games were too good to be dismissed as cash-ins, but the logic behind continuing Ezio's story was clear.
Everything is permitted
A major part of the "Assassin's Creed" storyline revolved around Desmond, a New York bartender from 2012 who relives his ancestors' genetic memories in order to provide a framework for the historical open-world shenanigans. Without spoiling anything, Desmond's arc comes to a definitive conclusion in "Assassin's Creed III." If the series has an endpoint beyond that, it is either much larger in scope than initially intended, or Ubisoft has had to scramble for justifications.
Even Ubisoft's own company logic defies the idea of "Assassin's Creed" having a predetermined ending. Yannis Mallat told A-List Daily that the gaming market no longer allowed standalone titles.
"That's what all our games are about," he said. "We won't even start if we don't think we can build a franchise out of it. There's no more fire and forget — it's too expensive."
If Ubisoft needs franchise material, there's no reason for it to retire "Assassin's Creed" until sales decline precipitously — especially if its upcoming surveillance action game "Watch Dogs" does not kick off a successful new series as planned.
"Black Flag" could also signal the beginning of a backward chronological trend. "Assassin's Creed: Embers," an animated film that completed Ezio's story arc, introduced Chinese assassin Shao Jun. Jun came to Ezio for training after a ruthless emperor purged China of Assassins, and returned to her homeland. What happened once she got there is unknown.
If Ubisoft does not plan to follow Shao Jun's story, which takes place in 1524, it would be an odd move. Jun already has an intriguing backstory, a ready-made motivation, a distinctive character design and a player base eager to learn her fate. She would also provide the first female lead in a nonspinoff "Assassin's Creed."
"Black Flag" and a hypothetical Shao Jun game might be very good, but they would also continue the series storyline in the wrong temporal direction. Advancing a story by moving backward in time is a neat narrative trick, but Ubisoft may be pursuing the most interesting historical settings rather than the settings they need to complete their story arc.
Whatever the case, "Assassin's Creed" is not going anywhere anytime soon, and when it does end, it will be hard to tell whether Ubisoft began with the end in mind. For now, "Black Flag" will debut on Oct. 29, 2013 for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC, with next-gen console releases later. A subsequent installment for 2014 may also be in the works.
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