Over a decade since the first entry, Assassin’s Creed has ballooned into a mixed-media franchise that includes at least seven spinoffs, nine novels, 11 comics, a Michael Fassbender film, an in-development TV show and enough Pop! toys to fill a jam band. The brand is so ubiquitous, so familiar, that its core ideas — religion is a misreading of coded messages from an ancient, advanced race of technologists; a shadow war between the champions of freedom and control has been fought over centuries by Earth’s greatest historical leaders and thinkers — have mutated from quirky and compelling to obtuse and intimidating to predictable and bland.
It’s easy to forget how audacious this series was and occasionally can still be. If you remember one thing from this article, let it be this: The second Assassin’s Creed ended with the player fist-fighting the Pope in order to uncover the truth of an ultra-advanced, pre-human civilization on which our world’s religion is built. Let’s take a moment to recognize that, of all video games franchises on the planet, this particular series about cynical, comical and controversial conspiracy theories somehow became a mainstream phenomenon.
Last year, Assassin’s Creed Origins served as something of a reboot, mercifully carving off much of the backstory that had calcified into a complex meta-narrative spanning the history of humankind. Great! A fresh start is what the series needs. This year, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey expands upon Origins with an even bigger world and a number of welcome gameplay additions.
Odyssey’s release is a good opportunity to reflect on the series’ zigs and zags. Because for all of its overwrought melodrama and impenetrable conspiracies, Assassin’s Creed has spawned, consistently, some of the strangest, most self-effacing and ambitious AAA games. A single series that spans swashbuckling pirates, Victorian-era organized crime, the plurality of famous Renaissance artists, a golden apple with the power to obliterate human life and, yes, of course, a boss battle that culminates with the graphic pummeling of Pope Alexander VI for no other reason than “the truth is out there.”
Update, October 2, 2018: Updated to include Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.
11. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations
Despite (or perhaps because of) the constant threat of succumbing to franchise bloat and committing an expensive creative misfire, Assassin’s Creed’s designers have largely built their games around the shared and proven skeleton of third-person stealth combat. With each entry, a hero pairs a knack for parkour with a love of concealed blades to slaughter an entire political regime using crowds, haystacks and extreme heights to stay just out of sight. Assassin’s Creed: Revelations is, in some capacity, the exception.
This game takes a series known for graceful stealth combat and adds, of all things, bombs — yes, “bombs” is plural; there’s a variety of explosives to craft and combust.
Even at the bottom of this list, I can’t bring myself to bully Revelations. In their quest for a raison d’être, the designers grasped for something, anything that would distinguish this game from its predecessors. The bombs are a bust, but some ideas hinted at greatness. A messy fort defense system is only now, six years later, being refined by Middle-earth: Shadow of War. And I’ll go so far as to say that Revelations includes the best character work for Desmond, the unlikable protagonist who, for years, had dominated the franchise’s modern-day timeline.
In an extended collection of first-person, 3D puzzles (yes, you can wear 3D glasses; Revelations was published in 2011, after all), the player navigates abstract spaces (think a clumsier Portal) to uncover Desmond’s deep existential truths. Paired with these vignettes is a collection of monologues recapping Desmond’s former life as a puckish runaway who gets caught up in the hubbub of 20-something life in New York City. If you’ve ever wondered what Assassin’s Creed would sound like if written by John Updike on a bender, then have I got the game for you.
10. Assassin’s Creed 3
Assassin’s Creed 3 is a multicar pileup: the franchise’s rapid commercial expectations colliding into the publisher’s exponential desire to include more and more things to do, further demolished by the complexity of developing a game on a quick turnaround with a team of hundreds spread across the world. When the lights went off in Canada, they came on in Shanghai, and for years a moment didn’t pass without someone, somewhere feeding their ideas into this machine.
Since then, Ubisoft has built itself around this global production model, but Assassin’s Creed 3 feels, more than any other entry, like the product of growing pains. The team had many years to make the game, but with the final product being a mixed bag, one wonders how much of that production time went into formalizing a process for creating games at this humongous scale.
It doesn’t help that the game, like Revelations, misunderstands the appeal of previous entries. Where early Assassin’s Creeds send the player skittering across the rooftops of cramped villas and cities, Assassin’s Creed 3 drops the player in the wide-avenue towns and dense forests of Colonial America. The setting makes for some playful story turns, but never quite supports the playstyle at its heart.
9. Assassin’s Creed Unity
Have you ever seen a controlled demolition of an old building? That’s how I remember Assassin’s Creed Unity. Like an implosion of a dilapidated hotel, it’s an achievement that requires great knowledge, thorough planning and a profound attention to detail. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, but at the end of the day, all that’s left is rubble.
The first Assassin’s Creed game built truly for the current generation of consoles and PC hardware, Unity is still the most visually stunning entry in the series despite being three years old. What a rarity in video games, an art form in which new iterations surpass their predecessors, visually speaking, thanks to a constant hum of new graphical horsepower and creative tools.
Unity also experiments with multiplayer within its central campaign, rather than relegating it to supplemental modes. Where early Assassin’s Creed games imagine the player as a leader of an army of AI-controlled killers, Unity portrays each player as part of a human-guided team.
The combination of multiplayer and graphical finesse seems to have been too much for both the development team to achieve and modern hardware to power. The initial 2014 release is notorious for containing some hilarious and grotesque bugs.
As in Revelations, there’s still something special tucked beneath the game’s flaws. Unity oozes big ideas and inspired craftsmanship. Its recreation of Paris during the French Revolution is the most decadent and vibrant city in the series. After its botched release, the developers gradually reconstructed their grand building from the rubble. Three years later, it’s in good enough condition to revisit without fear it might collapse.
8. Assassin’s Creed
What’s so precious about the original Assassin’s Creed — other than its lovable wax museum-like character models — is the sensation, in every moment, that you’re playing the inexplicable realization of the most preposterous video game pitch in history. Put yourself in the shoes of the CEO of Ubisoft around 2004: The biggest games on the planet are Half-Life 2, World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto. Patrice Désilets, a man whose previous credits include Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and a Donald Duck game, pitches a new franchise that is sort of like Grand Theft Auto.
Except. Except! Except, there are no guns or cars or pop songs or massive multiplayer spaces!
The game is set in the Holy Land in 1191. The player takes the role of an assassin in a secret political order. Yet the player is also playing as a man named Desmond who, in the present day, is attached a to a machine that allows him to relive the “genetic memories” of his bloodline. And, because that somehow isn’t enough, in both the past and present, a grand search has begun for a special artifact inspired by the apple in the Garden of Eden that has the power to control human minds.
This pitch got greenlit, produced and shipped. It received average to semi-positive reviews, mostly criticizing the lack of things to do, but the game had built tremendous buzz even before release. Ubisoft quadrupled down, following the game with sequels and spinoffs and enough content that, years later, critics would gripe that there was too much in the series: too many side quests, too many modes and simply too many games.
Revisiting the original Assassin’s Creed, you’ll rediscover a brilliant proof of concept; its raw simplicity makes it almost unrecognizable. There is little to see, less to do. It’s like a tiny medicinal dropper filled with ideas potent enough to feed a multimedia juggernaut.
7. Assassin’s Creed Rogue
A sequel of sorts to Black Flag, Assassin’s Creed Rogue continues the series’ brief tangent into boat-captaining, treasure-looting, deck-swabbing piracy. The big twist this time: The player takes the role of an Assassin-turned-Templar, hunting and slaughtering his former colleagues as revenge for grievous betrayal. Intrigue!
And yet, for all the narrative gymnastics, the opportunity to play as the “villain” boils down to some familiar hand-wringing arguments about the ambiguous line between good and evil, and blunt declarations about how both sides of the franchises’ central conflict have corrupt members muddying their well-meaning intentions.
Rogue is less rich than Black Flag. It lacks visual oomph (gone are the tropical islands, replaced with muted arctic tundras), creative density (you get the sense this project had a fraction of the budget of other titles) and commercial ambition (no surprise, it was released as a me-too alongside Assassin’s Creed Unity, the latter of which devoured the marketing budget).
For fans of Black Flag, there’s a pleasure in imagining a timeline in which Rogue had received the support it deserved, and Assassin’s Creed wholeheartedly made the leap from parkour to pirates. A hint of what that reality would look like that can be seen in Ubisoft's upcoming ship-to-ship battle game Skull & Bones, which appears to expand on the surf and abandon the turf.
6. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate largely delivers on the botched intentions of its immediate predecessor, Unity. Which is to say, Syndicate is a return to form, taking the stealthy climbing and killing of the early Assassin’s Creed games and transplanting them within a Victorian-era crime drama.
Sure, Syndicate’s London is a less visually dazzling setting than Unity’s Paris, and its missions obey an established formula, but everything works well enough. The dual-protagonist setup — twins: a brawler man, a stealthy woman — allow the game to flirt with a variety of ways to deal death. And the vehicle skirmishes finally, finally, don't feel like punishment.
By the end, the game wheezes under the weight of fetch quests, outdated combat and a burdensome list of busy work. But Syndicate is all about the journey, even if you wind up at the same place as usual.
5. Assassin’s Creed Origins
In some small way, Assassin’s Creed Origins reminds me of the original Assassin’s Creed. With big changes to combat and navigation, Origins may prove itself to be a rough draft for the next decade’s worth of Assassin’s Creed games. At the same time, it plays less like an ambitious, unfamiliar new idea, and more like a greatest hits album.
Everything is here and nearly everything is refined. I just get the sense that I’ve seen it all before — maybe not in this series, but somewhere.
What is refreshing, however, is the setting and the characters. Although the story sometimes trips over itself, the place and people mark an overdue departure from the series largely European canon. Assassin’s Creed excels as pulpy, playable history. How wonderful to visit somewhere new.
4. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
If Origins is the foundation, Odyssey is the house. It builds ably on Origins, with an absurdly large map, an increased emphasis on melee combat and deeper role-playing elements. Its changes aren’t as dramatic as those in its predecessor, but they make for an overall more comfortable experience.
Grand family dramas are one of the things Assassin’s Creed does best. Odyssey’s family saga in particular benefits from a truly epic backdrop. The story is drip-fed to the player over hours and hours of quests to the point that its scope can occasionally feel like too much of a good thing.
But there’s a lot to love for those who can invest the time. Kassandra and Alexios are strong, developed personalities — and hey, you can choose a playable character for the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game, and Ubisoft managed to justify it within the series’ overbearing lore.
Odyssey is a game that pulls double duty as historical tourism. Its Ancient Greece features craggy cliffs, views that go on for miles, white sand beaches and color, color everywhere. Thank goodness it has a photo mode — the world is stunning.
Above all, the true accomplishment of Odyssey is how it shows a titanic old franchise can change successfully. It doesn’t add anything that games-as-a-medium haven’t done before, but it’s been constructed carefully, passionately and skillfully.
~Simone de Rochefort
3. Assassin’s Creed 2
Assassin’s Creed 2 is the “just right” porridge, a perfect balance between the proof-of-concept Assassin’s Creed and the hyper-refined Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. Some folks will tell you this is the high point of the series, and that sounds reasonable enough. Its settings — Venice, the Vatican, the Tuscan countryside — are diverse and colorful, while its contemporaries are remembered for standardizing first- and third-person shooters with a viscous, poopish tint.
Here, the series commits totally to a zany, conspiratorial cynicism that, like all great camp, feels crafted with a deep sincerity. Assassin’s Creed 2 also launches an unlikely trilogy around its hero, Ezio, a roguish Italian assassin with a sense of style other series leads have struggled to top.
It’s A New Hope, Alien and The Godfather. It’s brilliant. But the sequel’s better.
2. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag
Experimentation and deviation undercut many Assassin’s Creed games, but here, the creators bet it all on a long shot and won. Asking fans to spend dozens of hours captaining a bulky pirate ship goes against the series’ focus on stealth, speed and the proven power trip of being a one-person death squad. I suspect Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag works for one simple reason: The game was developed with an astonishing sense of direction and purpose from which it achieves a holistic excellence.
The sea shanties, the lush fauna, the splash and fizz of the ocean’s waves, the sense of ownership of your boat: Everything clicks together. The modern-day timeline is largely sidelined, and as a result, Black Flag feels like its own separate series. It shows little reverence and no obligation to be anything other than itself.
What a shame its legacy will continue as a multiplayer boat combat game, instead of as a full-blown open-world spinoff. But maybe Black Flag retains a freshness because of its rarity. Rather than keep this boat at sea, Ubisoft returned to its original treasure box, and has been pillaging it ever since.
1. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
It’s OK for a TV show or a video game series to jump the shark. The phrase has a negative connotation, but personally, I feel the moment a piece of fiction jumps the shark, it transcends itself. Jumping the shark happens when creators push so hard against the established internal logic of a story that they break it, permanently.
Or to put it another way, the toothpaste isn’t going back into the tube.
The term comes from an episode of Happy Days in which Fonzie jumps over a shark on water skis. Up to this point, the writers had built an identity around Fonzie’s escalating sense of coolness. Jumping a shark is the endpoint, it’s the coolest possible thing Fonzie could do. Except it’s too silly and implausible, even by the sitcom’s standards. It turns the cheeky small-town hero into an oddball pseudo-celebrity. It ruins him. Here’s another example: Homer Simpson is a buffoonish dad. Leading Frank Grimes to accidentally kill himself is the dumbest thing Homer can possibly do. It takes a dopey father and converts him into a lethal idiot. Both were great episodes of their respective series. Both spoil the fun for the episodes that follow.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is the jumping-the-shark moment for the franchise, the culmination of a need to fill the series with things to do that began with the criticism of the very first entry.
You can recruit fellow assassins. You can run Rome like a mob boss. You can commit horse-to-horse assassinations. The movement is faster, the weapons deadlier, including a crossbow that was basically a gun. The map is littered with things to do and people to stab. At the time of its release, this abundance felt more like a gift of extreme generosity than the obligatory checklist of future games.
Do I think Brotherhood established the series’ worst habits? Absolutely. But here, those ideas are fresh and polished. It’s video game decadence, and it’s no surprise Ubisoft has served a variation of this meal nearly every year since.
In each episode of Quality Control, a Polygon editor talks to a critic after they review a new game, movie or piece of gear and allows them to add a little bit of extra context and insight.