Steering one of these massive gaming franchises is hard. Game development is already a trial, but with long-running series like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed, you’re trying to hit a target while blindfolded. You can’t do the same thing in every entry. Occasionally you have to shift things around, but not too much because then you’ll lose what made the franchise special! While feature X may have been a winner when you started development on the latest entry three years ago, fans were tired of it when last year’s title came out. I don’t envy the developers tied to one of these massive machines.
Imagine in the middle of all of that, announcing confidently that you know exactly where you’re going.
That’s what happened today during Ubisoft Forward. Alongside looks at some other titles coming later this year and into 2023, the publisher offered the Assassin’s Creed Showcase. This showcase highlighted everything Assassin’s Creed coming in 2023 and beyond.
The showcase included a cinematic trailer for Assassin’s Creed Mirage, the standalone entry featuring the origins of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Basim. Basim will go from lowly thief to a member of the Hidden Ones while taking orders from his mentor Roshan, voiced by The Expanse’s Shohreh Aghdashloo. This is the back-to-basics game in the franchise, developed by Ubisoft Bordeaux, who previously did Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Wrath of the Druids DLC.
This was followed by the announcement of Assassin’s Creed: Codename Red, a “premium flagship title” that will finally take the series to Japan. This entry will be led by Jonathan Dumont and the Ubisoft Quebec team, who previously did Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. During the showcase, Assassin’s Creed boss Marc-Alexis Coté called it the “future of our open-world RPG games.”
Another flagship title, Assassin’s Creed: Codename Hexe, comes from the primary team at Ubisoft Montreal, under the leadership of Clint Hocking. Coté said it would be a “very different type of Assassin’s Creed game,” leading me to believe that this is the new form of the franchise.
Finally, there were non-console announcements related to the franchise. Assassin’s Creed: Codename Jade is a mobile entry in the series taking place in Ancient China. Coté said this will the first Assassin’s Creed to allow players to create their own character and it’ll still be open-world. Jade is likely made in partnership with Tencent, hence the location focus. The last project is a live-action Assassin’s Creed series on Netflix, led by Vikings: Valhalla executive producer Jeb Stuart.
Together, it paints a bright future for Assassin’s Creed. There’s one problem though… there was no gameplay to be seen.
Promises, But No Play
Take Assassin’s Creed Mirage. This is the next game in the series. Everyone who has decried the current RPG iteration of the franchise has been waiting for this style of game. It all sounds fantastic, with Ubisoft Bordeaux narrative director Sarah Beaulieu talking about “going back to the roots of the series” and a focus on “stealth, parkour, and of course, assassinations.”
There’s no real indication of what that means though. Is that just a stripped-down version of the RPG-style game found in Valhalla? Will parkour be getting an overhaul? Are we looking at more precision movement? How will vertical scaling be handled: freeform or the old handhold object model? What stealth options do we have, and has the AI been changed since Valhalla?
We don’t have answers to those questions because we never got to see the game in action. The same is true of Codename Jade, which had an in-game trailer, but still no clear indication of how it will play on your mobile phone. Red and Hexe haven’t really shown off anything outside of seconds-long teaser trailers. Hexe’s teaser didn’t even show a protagonist.
That’s probably because Ubisoft isn’t fully confident in what it has yet. Mirage has a blanket 2023 release window, which doesn’t even narrow down the quarter in which the game will release. Ubisoft is in the middle of finding Assassin’s Creed’s new direction and it doesn’t want to stumble before it hits its target. And Mirage is the $50 smaller side entry in the franchise; Red and Hexe are major releases and probably quite a ways off. I’d surmise that Hexe is the full teardown and rebuild of the franchise, meaning I wouldn’t expect to see that until 2024 at the earliest.
It’s hard to get excited about games with no gameplay though. While Marvel Studios can throw out a bunch of logos and concept art at D23 Expo, that’s because I generally already know the shape of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. (It either works for you or it doesn’t.) That doesn’t fly for Ubisoft and Assassin’s Creed though, because I have no clue how Mirage, Red, Hexe, or Jade will play. At the end of the day, these are games. The mechanics and aesthetics all have to come together just right. Will any of these be more like Valhalla, harken back to earlier entries, or be something completely different?
I don’t know the answer to that question and absent any gameplay, I’m left lost and blind in the cloud of an assassin smoke bomb.
Infinite Possibilities, One Real Answer
It also didn’t help that Coté’s explanation of what Assassin’s Creed Infinity is was lacking during the showcase. He called it an “entry point” for the franchise and a hub that will unite all things Assassin’s Creed. It was unclear what that meant exactly. Previous rumors pointed to Infinity being a framework for Assassin’s Creed that multiple eras could be laid on top of. Coté’s statements seemed to trend away from that.
Coté provided a more detailed explanation in an interview with Eurogamer, however. Reading through that interview, it’s quite clear what Infinity is: essentially a Battle.net-style hub for all things Assassin’s Creed.
“The idea is for Red, for Hexe, to be available as box products, but the thing is, if you install them, the first thing you’re going to see is the Infinity hub, and that will launch Red or Hexe,” said Coté. “At the same time, if you’re playing Red and Hexe comes out, then you’ll see it available as a new DNA memory that’s available for you and you can directly purchase it from the Infinity hub. So it will improve the discoverability and accessibility of everything that we do on the franchise, combined with what I hope to be free offerings as well, allowing us to dig into other memories, a bit like we’ve done with the Crossover Stories for example, and make them available to a wider range of people.”
The overall benefit of this is mostly to Ubisoft’s benefit. If you’re playing the flagship games like Red or Hexe, the publisher gets a chance to point you toward a smaller entry like Mirage or Rogue. I’ve long said that Ubisoft should use some of its smaller studios to make more-focused, narrative-driven, 15-20 hour games to keep old-school Assassin’s Creed fans happy. It’s likely that Ubisoft doesn’t see as much profit from these types of games as their 100-hour go-big-or-go-home entries. Infinity is a chance to get more eyes on those entries, something Coté acknowledges.
“I keep using Ubisoft Sofia as an example. They built Assassin’s Creed Rogue, something incredible with [Valhalla expansion] Dawn of Ragnarok, and many other gems like their DLC for Origins, Curse of the Pharaoh, which was brilliant as well,” he said. “So, can a studio like Sofia impress our community with a project that’s not necessarily a 150-hour long product? Because when we build 150 hour long product, there’s so much that rests on it commercially, that the stakes become so high. Having Infinity will allow for more diversity in both the periods that we choose to feature and the gameplay that those games have.”
Coté explained that Infinity will be where the modern-day portions of Assassin’s Creed live. These sections began as very important to the franchise, but they’ve largely outlived their usefulness to the overall fanbase. “We’re in a situation where no one’s happy with it, in the sense that people who love it never get enough and the people who don’t like it will always have too much,” he said.
Infinity is where that meta-story can live, outside of the mainline releases. It’s also where Ubisoft has the chance to try out smaller ideas, like revisiting eras and characters from previous games. They don’t have to choose between 100-hour epics and 20-hour meals, they can also try out 3-hour mini-stories that shine a light on classic Assassin’s Creed heroes. The hub provides a focus in the same way a streaming service does: if you’re already here, why not try out X and Y?
The problem is a lot of folks will just see it as yet another launcher to sign into. Another layer between them and the game. What can Infinity do that Ubisoft Connect doesn’t already do? I just want to play the game, not open up the game on my PS5, then sign into Infinity, then start up the game, and then actually start playing it. I get the idea, but the execution is what bugs me.
That’s in abstract though because, like the new games, Ubisoft didn’t actually show off Infinity in any concrete manner. Right now, the publisher is pointing over the horizon and saying “We’re heading in that direction.” It doesn’t quite know what Assassin’s Creed will look like when it gets there because it’s still trying to steer this massive ship in a new direction while trapped in a fog.
All that is prior to the general talent drain that Ubisoft is suffering due to a culture of harassment that probably hasn’t changed. Dumont was one of the employees with allegations against him, pointing at the creative director as exceedingly hostile in certain situations! It’s hard to get the best talent to prop up your franchises when you have open secrets like that.
Assassin’s Creed is trying to reinvent itself at the same time that Ubisoft is. Changing a franchise is already hard, changing a whole company at the same time is just making that even harder. I hope Assassin’s Creed will find a new foundation eventually, but today’s showcase was more promises than practical answers. What we saw today was a roadmap, and roadmaps are only as good as what is ultimately delivered.
[Disclaimer: Tencent has doubled its stake in Ubisoft, and is likely the partner studio for Assassin’s Creed Codename Jade. if you didn’t already know, Tencent owns Fanbyte. We do retain our editorial independence and have little contact with our corporate overlords.]