Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Why Zelda Should Be Assassin's Creed's Future

Of all the criticisms which have been leveled at Assassin's Creed: Unity, one of the big ones has been its apparent step backwards. Well, the big one besides the hilariously horrifying bugs, obvious glitches and embargo problems at any rate. Having abandoned seafaring combat in favour of a more traditional approach and effectively tacking on the much touted co-op angle as an additional mode, it's hard to disagree with this. While there have been obvious steps forwards in places, at its core the title seems to be stagnant, doing little to truly address some of its flaws in terms of how easy combat remains, guards so readily losing the player and the like.

The core problems remain at every turn and the big efforts to put new spins on things often seem for new games seem like one-shot gimmicks. These have plagued the series for years and the answer to combating this issue could lie with another famed franchise - The Legend of Zelda.

On the surface each game looks very similar. Each retains certain core gimmicks and sticks closely to its genre, each will always feature a very similar protagonist to its predecessors and each tries to have new ideas added to a repeated formula to give it new life. Yet despite this, Zelda is not nearly so frequent a target for this criticism as Assassin's Creed, and there's a few obvious reasons for that, all of which boil down to overall approach. 

Think for a moment about what elements each franchise have added to their titles and how they adapted their ideas to each installment. 

With Zelda, from the N64 era onward, there is a clear progression of changes and new ideas. 
Ocarina of Time introduced the musical and song elements along with time travel. 
This was then taken into Majora's Mask with a few tweaks, turning the time element into a set series of days and with sidequests they needed to keep track of. Then atop of this there was the mask mechanics, altering Link's form; each of the racial masks allowed for a new method of travel and exploration. 
Wind Waker dropped elements of both but kept others. Music and composing certain sequences remained a major part of the game, necessary for completing each dungeon. While outright transformations were largely ignored, added methods of travel were looked into with the addition of a boat, along with vastly changing the entire world as a whole.
When Twilight Princess came about, shades of each could be seen and even new versions of old ideas could be found in basic elements of it, with transformations making a return and the like.

At every turn Zelda tries to rework its ideas, revamp them and renew them. Even the very idea of music being at the core of the games doesn't begin with Ocarina of Time, and it's been an element present in almost all of the games. Each is carefully thought out, built upon the last installment in some way with prior ideas adapted and renewed even as additional ones are built atop them. There's a constant sense of progression from one game to the next, and while it retains the basic core gameplay, it the developers seem to be approaching it with the intent of not trying to fix what isn't broken. They take on-board new ideas, but don't lose sight of what made the games so effective in the first place.

Assassin's Creed does embrace many of these same points, but it's a very flawed equivalent of this for a few reasons. An earlier paragraph referred to the series' new ideas as gimmicks, and that's sadly what these come down to far too often. Rather than being directly integrated into the very core of the game, they're added more like bonus features or optional elements to try and spice things up. 

Ubisoft's approach was initially very clear in Brotherhood when the series' introduced the option to control and command bands on initiates. While they could be called upon in battle and even sent off on missions, this was rarely plot essential and many core missions even barred their involvement entirely. Rather than making it something essential to the entire game, it was instead added on around it and discarded when it got in the way. The same goes for later elements, with even the highly praised elements such as ship to ship combat. Black Flag only went in the direction it did thanks to the battles being one of the few highly praised elements in III, then abandoned for a completely different game when the creators moved onto Unity.

Sticking with ship combat itself for the moment, then also consider how it was implemented into each title. Many segments did surround the use of ship battles, with several blockade runs and big sequences being the highlight of Black Flag, but many critical sections seemed to ignore its involvement. Half the game was spent using the ship and then the other half, usually the one most critical to the plot, abandoned it entirely, instead falling back on the mechanics of past games. Rather than truly combining them or offering new opportunities from having a crew at their command, or even heavy artillery for that matter, Ubisoft's design left a clear divide between each part of the game. This has only been taken further with Unity, which has all but abandoned the very idea of working in a group as a part of the core mechanic. Instead it's left purely as a multiplayer mode, 

Perhaps an even bigger problem than this inability to truly build upon mechanics is the overall approach of making things bigger before truly fixing them. Now, no one will ever argue against the art design or mo-cap quality of any Assassin's Creed game; each has proven time and time again to present gorgeous locales, interesting environmental options and the ability to traverse the city as a white garbed Batman has never not been fun. However, as time goes by these flashier elements have become the focus of development and trying to rake in big crowds. Half of what Unity was promoted about was the ability to generate bigger crowds than ever, taller buildings to traverse and the like. The issue is that they focused upon building flashier and more extravagant elements without better improving the series' foundations.

Think for a second about all the criticisms surrounding the series. The very act of hunting down, planning and assassinating people has always been fun, but it's often boiled down to mass murder and frantic building chases. The likes of Dishonoured and even Shadow of Mordor have been praised as doing a better job with the concept, manipulating enemies and forcing the player to stick to the shadows. The very combat system itself has remained the same from the start, but none of the glaring issues have been fixed. Anyone who knows how to counter attacks or carries a few smoke bombs will immediately know how to win every fight, and even ranged attackers offer little real threat. This is not to mention entirely new issues like massive graphical glitches and failings in certain titles, like how, notably in Unity, NPCs can completely shapeshift as you approach them.

Say what you will about the Zelda franchise, it does stick to what works in a similar manner to Assassin's Creed, but the time was taken to fully iron out each issue in turn. The combat might be as basic, but the main focus is instead upon item gathering, puzzles and dungeon crawling, all of which they do well. There's no real flaws evident in their basic approach and no glaring issues which remain similar to Assassin's Creed's problematic combat system. The closest one which exists is the requirement to unlock items, but that has been reworked in the past and used to open up the world around the player rather than being left unchanged.

Perhaps the biggest point of all, the single greatest thing Ubisoft could learn from watching Nintendo, is this: Restraint. Nintendo might be traditionalists in every respect, for both good and bad, but as iconic as their characters get they tend to know where to draw the line in terms of overexposure. Throughout the last generation we saw a grand total of six games, seven if you include Rogue. In an attempt to have it be their answer to Call of Duty, Ubisoft is mashing out these things like they're coming off a production line. 

This yearly release schedule they have now has led to the series creatively stagnating bit by bit. The reason so many seem to be so similar, and we have had so few real advances or total reworkings is because the games are hammered out by various teams in insanely short spaces of time. It's not enough to truly patch out each sequel's problems or even fully consider exactly how to incorporate new ideas into the series rather than tacking them onto the title. Assassin's Creed II was the last massive leap forwards for the series and that was only given on additional year of development time, so imagine for a moment what the developers could accomplish with that again. 

With longer development times Zelda doesn't suffer from this issue, but more importantly it doesn't suffer from overexposure. A franchise's flaws are all the more obvious when they are seen over and over again, in rapid succession with no efforts to truly improve them. It might be a venerated franchise, but the Legend of Zelda has rarely seen more than two releases per console. As a result the continual dungeon crawling, the collection of the same items, even the re-use of certain enemies and ideas can still seem fresh. Interest in the franchise itself can be maintained by an established fandom, which Assassin's Creed most definitely has, or even by having the characters show up in minor secondary games. 

While many other points could be drawn up, these are the key areas which Ubisoft could look at and use to improve their beloved franchise. Assassin's Creed is by no means bad, but it seems very strange that they cannot take the time to look at prior successes or venerated franchises and see what works with them. If they were to really stop and examine both, the quality of games focusing upon the Assassin/Templar war would almost certainly increase exponentially.

These are of course only personal thoughts however. If you have your own opinions or even disagreements with this, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below.

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