Reviews are a general overview of what makes a game good or bad, which, because of limited attention spans and space, don’t necessarily allow for some aspects to be completely broken down to their essence. I’m not saying reviews aren’t thorough, but there are times where I wish I could just dig deep on what exactly makes a certain aspect of a game so good (or so bad). From this thought process The Breakdown was a logical conclusion, a feature in which I take a game and go into specific detail on why a the topic of interest does or doesn’t work.
The Assassin’s Creed games containing Roman numerals have always caught an undesired amount of flak for one aspect: the gradual ramp up that happens in the beginning or, as some extreme pessimists would say, the multiple hour borefest that precedes the stabbing. Such a point seems petty to make, especially since it sets up the following events spectacularly, better than almost any game on the market. An approach such as this shows that Ubisoft can exercise patience and gives gamers something to care about whether they know it or not.
Hopefully, you’ve played at least Assassin’s Creed II by now, but if not, you’ve probably heard about how long it takes for Ezio to actually transform into the iconic assassin promoted on the box. The first hour or so let you follow Ezio around as a normal dude. Picking up feathers for your sick younger brother. Racing against your older brother on rooftops. Getting scolded from your parents because you missed your curfew. These honestly menial tasks aren’t as exciting as infiltrating and assassinating, but they set up Ezio as a person before his invitation to the Brotherhood.
After all, that’s what he is, isn’t he? Underneath that hood lies a man, something the original Assassin’s Creed failed to capitalize on. By doing these day-to-day chores for each of your family members, it not only sets a clever tutorial for the player, but it allows you to see everyone before events go wrong so you actually somewhat care when things do inevitably go bad.
And trust me, things go rotten pretty quick.
Half of the Auditore family is traumatized early on, which remains to be a glorious scene that haunts me to this day. Ezio’s raw emotion that bleeds out in that scene yields such a reaction from me, fueling me even more to exact revenge. The voice work is fantastic and the scene is framed well, but the main hook for this emotional response was strictly because I had time to bond with the family before their untimely death. This is a huge component of why Assassin’s Creed II succeeds in its narrative.
Had I not gotten lovingly scolded from the dad, raced the brother, or collected feathers for the other brother, I probably wouldn’t have exhibited such a reaction. Most games don’t do this. Medal of Honor: Warfighter, among many others, didn’t show the main character’s family before the game, so I wasn’t motivated to even remotely care about this ugly, pissed off family. Humanizing these digital actors pays off in spades narratively, which is an art most developers don’t possess or outright choose not to do in fear of player restlessness. It’s scarcity shows exactly how hard it is to pull off.
Assassin’s Creed III follows a similar template set by Assassin’s Creed II. Sequence six marks the first time you strap the assassin robes on and begin the game in earnest. Sequence six. The preceding five hours are strictly in service to the story and do a phenomenal job of setting of the events after. By witnessing Connor in his early days, you begin to see his roots and why he acts the way he does so you gather a sense of attachment to him. He isn’t dropped into the frame with blatant, bold text stating we need to bond with him. Ubisoft introduces him and, with great writing and intense story beats, gives us a reason to liken ourselves to Connor. No forcing was required.
The other aspect of Assassin’s Creed III‘s ingenious opening is a lot like stepping through a minefield of spoilers, so I’ll tread lightly. The game begins with an obtuse introduction and stretches itself out over a few hours, similar to what Ezio goes through. However, the difference here is it sets up Connor’s goals from a different angle and allows Ubisoft to drop a narrative bombshell. The careful selection of sand particles in this mosaic is being set up slowly during this introduction and by the time the introductory sequences are complete, you begin to see the beautiful work of art and why Ubisoft did what they needed to do. The mosaic wouldn’t have been as meaningful if we were just rushed to the final picture, something many other titles do.
What happens when this precious time isn’t taken? We don’t even have to look in a different franchise to see the results. In the first Assassin’s Creed, we were introduced to Altaïr, a cocky, soulless man that does little to establish his character beyond “that assassin who messed up and wants to pay his debts.” He was retroactively made way cooler and personable in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but in the beginning, it was a little harder to muster an emotional attachment to him.
Or how about the most recent example, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation? Right after you press start, you play as Aveline, the Creole main character, as a child for about thirty seconds then you are immediately jumped forward in time with her well into her assassin career. Where is the build up of her as an assassin? How was she abducted into the Brotherhood? Why? What caused her to join? I don’t know and missing this chunk of time leaves a significant void that Ezio and Connor have promptly filled. It’s doesn’t pigeonhole her as a bad character, it’s just something the two other games have done well and makes Liberation‘s story less impressionable as a result (well, it isn’t as good period, but I’ll leave that for a review).
Complainers may have a valid point amidst a sea of impatience, but they probably don’t realize how much this slower start helped them establish a connection with the mentioned Assassin’s Creed games. Ezio was iconic for a reason and I would like to assume it was because we’ve been with him since his actual exit from the womb. Connor hasn’t been around long enough to decide one way or another, but it wouldn’t be too hard to think he’ll resonate with players just as well. After all, we are probably going to see him again next year, but that’s beside the point. I’m not saying that every beginning needs to take this pace nor am I saying that these introductions aren’t slow; I’m just saying there is a reason for it.