In fall 2012, Ubisoft published Far Cry 3, the sequel to 2008’s adventure shooter Far Cry 2, with a new protagonist and a new setting. Thanks to a mix of critical acclaim and excellent word of mouth among players, Far Cry 3 ended up shipping over 10 million units in the space of a year – far outstripping its predecessor. Though the game received some counter-criticism with regards to the strength of its story, what mattered was that everyone was talking about it.
Ubisoft’s response was to shorten the release cycle of the Far Cry games from four years to two, with a standalone expansion called Far Cry: Blood Dragon released in April 2013, followed by Far Cry 4 in fall 2014. Far Cry Primal, the next entry in the series, is set for release next week, just one year and three months after the previous game hit shelves. As counter-intuitive as it might sound, fans of the Far Cry series might be better off praying that Far Cry Primal does poorly both with critics and in sales – if only to save the franchise from becoming annualized. After all, we’ve seen this pattern before.
In 2007, Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed. The game’s creative director, Patrice Désilets, had been “given a mandate” by the publisher to “go out and redefine the action/adventure genre for the next generation of platforms” – something that he was considered well-equipped to do after the success of his previous game, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (Assassin’s Creed was, in fact, originally conceived as a Prince of Persia game). Sure enough, Assassin’s Creed sold well with mixed but generally positive reviews, and a sequel quickly entered development, with Désilets once again at the helm.
No one, perhaps not even Ubisoft, could have predicted the success of Assassin’s Creed II. Even today its status as the best game in the Assassin’s Creed franchise remains largely uncontested, and it is also one of the defining games of the previous console generation. Picking up where Assassin’s Creed left off, Assassin’s Creed II followed modern protagonist Desmond Miles as he was rescued by the Assassin faction and introduced, via the Animus, to a brand new ancestor: the swaggering, passionate, good-natured Italian playboy Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Memorably voiced by Roger Craig Smith, Ezio was instantly likeable and his home town of Renaissance Florence was beautifully realized. Little wonder, then, that critics and gamers alike fell in love with Assassin’s Creed II.
This was the last time that more than a year would pass between installments of Assassin’s Creed games. Désilets left Ubisoft during the development of the next game, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, and reviews and word of mouth began to take a downturn following the release of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations – the third and last game to feature Ezio, who by this time was middle-aged and verging on elderly.
“I find it strange we’ve decided yearly is too often,” Assassin’s Creed III‘s creative director Alex Hutchinson said, with regards to growing complaints about Assassin’s Creed‘s annualization. “If Radiohead put out an album every month, I’d buy it. It’s about the quality.” A few months after he said this, Assassin’s Creed III received some of the harshest criticisms since the series began, and many fans weren’t convinced that the games’ perceivable dip in momentum and the fact that a new one was being churned out every year were unconnected issues.
Next Page: The Heart of Assassin’s Creed
Assassin’s Creed‘s franchise fatigue can’t be blamed entirely on the games themselves. Audience hype is essential for maintaining interest in a series, and asking gamers to continually get hyped about the next game in the series when they’ve barely finished playing the latest game, year after year, gets exhausting. Rockstar Games’ response to the overwhelming success of Grand Theft Auto V, which was released five years after the previous entry in the GTA series and earned $1 billion in sales within three days of its release, was not to quickly announce the 2014 release of Grand Theft Auto VI. Rockstar and GTA publisher Take-Two Interactive have been playing the long game, whereas Ubisoft has been playing the short game – perhaps better described as the Call of Duty game.
It might seem overly sentimental to say that this approach killed the heart of Assassin’s Creed, but that’s what it feels like. The early games were, ultimately, all about family. They were about a modern Assassin exploring his own lineage across time and across countries: from stoic 12th century Syrian Assassin Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, through the vivacious Ezio, all the way down the line to Desmond himself. In one sequence in Assassin’s Creed II, the player actually experiences the moment of the family legacy being passed on, when Altaïr has a moonlit tryst with his future wife-to-be. When Altaïr leaves, Desmond (and the player) are left behind with his newly-conceived son, Darim.
Similarly, the first playable sequence as Ezio meets the character as a newborn baby, with players instructed to push certain buttons to make baby Ezio kick and wave his arms. Assassin’s Creed fans were able to follow Ezio all the way from his first minutes of life in Assassin’s Creed II to his last breaths in the short film Assassin’s Creed: Embers.
At the end of Assassin’s Creed III, Desmond is killed off and replaced in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag by a nameless, faceless employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a Templar company that is turning genetic memories into video games. In Black Flag, players explore another of Desmond’s ancestors, but only by using DNA extracted from his corpse. This was the last game in the series to connect the historical Assassin with a modern descendant, with subsequent entries relying on the Helix system that allows the modern protagonist (still nameless and faceless) to relive the lives of any historical figure. The personal connection – the family connection – between the modern character and the historical character is lost. Meanwhile, the “Initiate” doesn’t even get to join in the modern day adventures, instead simply watching the supporting characters do missions via drone-mounted webcams.
Last week, Ubisoft confirmed that the next entry in the Assassin’s Creed series (rumored to be set in Ancient Egypt) will not release until at least 2017 – the first time since 2009 since the franchise will have gone without an annual release. This news came in the wake of reports that launch week sales for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the 2015 release, had suffered a notable drop, which Ubisoft attributed to the disastrous release of Assassin’s Creed Unity.
Unity‘s release was characterized by a series of images that will likely come to represent the game’s lasting legacy. Among the title’s many bugs was one which stripped the skin off the characters’ faces during cutscenes, leaving behind a grotesque and hilarious creature with nothing above the neckline save for a floating hairpiece, two goggling eyeballs and a grinning set of teeth. More than a year later, and after many patches, the PC version still suffers from crashes and visual glitches.
It would be overly optimistic to hope that an extra year is long enough to rejuvenate Assassin’s Creed. What Ubisoft really needs to do is take a step back and spend some time figuring out exactly what these games should be – and a single year may not be long enough to do that. Assassin’s Creed still has enough inherent value that the series would be better off spending five years on the shelf rather than another five years being driven into the ground until even its worth as a cash cow disappears.
And if the insistence that annual releases have been the downfall of Assassin’s Creed sounds like a disgruntled fan complaint, keep in mind that Assassin’s Creed associate producer Jean-François Boivin said the exact same thing when, in 2010, he claimed that there probably would not be another game in 2011. “You can’t plough a field every year. Once every three years – or once every something – you have to let it breathe. You have to let the minerals back in,” he said. “If you keep force-feeding to people then people are like, ‘Yeah, enough of your Assassin’s Creed.’”
A movie based on Assassin’s Creed will release on December 21st, 2016. The release date for the next game in the series has not yet been officially announced.