By now we more or less all agree that Assassin’s Creed Origins was a big step in the right direction in a bid for the series to return to its best form but those who loved the original elements of the series like myself, and I’m referring to the modern day being in the driving seat, the three tenets, social stealth as well as the game trying to give us a logical explanation to whatever is going on around us, Origins was a big disappointment.
The best way to understand what I mean is to pick a number of random reviews from Metacritic, even the most positive ones, and search for keywords such as “animus”, “layla”, “memory”, “william”, “reliving”, “memories” … you will notice how some of the reviewers of the game don’t even mention these words even though, in the end, we’re still a person in the modern day reliving memories through the Animus.
Now if you’re expecting a blog post about how nice it would be to go back to 2007 and have a game like AC1, I kindly ask you to read on because that’s not my objective, my objective is to talk about an AC game where all the features/changes from Origins are kept intact such as the skill tree and the way side quests are designed yet giving a logical explanation to such features with the addition of a recruit system, a hideout ACIII-style and of course giving the Modern Day the space it deserves.
Before proceeding, here are some terms I will use to keep things simple:
MD: The Modern Day
Layla: The person inside the Animus
Rebecca: The person helping Layla in the Modern Day out throughout the game
Bayek: The assassin, not the same Bayek from Origins
PoE: Piece of Eden
The three mysterious ones: The thief, the archer and the warrior
Also please understand that I don’t write videogame stories, the below is not a full script for a videogame, it’s just bits and pieces of a story to encapsulate all my ideas on how to reintroduce the early-series elements back in the game.
In the early days, Assassin’s Creed was not about a one-man show featuring a DIY version of the Animus but about a group of modern assassins, each having a specific role, determined to relive memories in order to identify the location of the PoE.
This concept can be resurrected.
I would start the game in the Modern Day, with Layla stepping inside the Animus, and with Rebecca’s voice saying in her earphone, “Remember, find the location of the piece of eden and we’re done”. When the memory starts, everything is a little bit blurred as a clear indication that the Animus was rushed into reliving this particular memory but amid the blurred vision we manage to identify a big fortress and Bayek trying to infiltrate the place.
All hell breaks loose and after a few seconds we are desynchronised.
Layla wakes up, asking what happened, with Rebecca confirming her fears that there is not enough data in the Animus to relive this particular memory and that they desperately need to relive more memories in order to either “upgrade” Bayek and/or else gather enough information on the restricted areas of the world to make Layla’s job easier.
The idea here is to make it clear that if the modern Assassins could they would relive just one memory; the one with which they can locate the PoE. But also at the same time to make it clear that this is not possible, reason why Layla has to relive a lot of memories just like Desmond used to do.
Layla goes back in the Animus and we see Bayek when he was younger and this is also the very first time when the modern day and the historical part intersect. A small window in the bottom right hand side corner will be displayed to indicate that Rebecca is speaking to Layla and her instructions are simple: “Again, your objective is either to upgrade Bayek or gather enough information on all the restricted areas.” We find out in Origins that Williams believes how Rebecca and Layla would form a good team if they work together so it would be nice if the two join forces in some way or another in the next game.
Now I understand that for some this would be classified as immersion breaking and in fact the user would be able to customise the HUD in a way to disable Rebecca’s less-important messages, I say less-important because there will be messages that will introduce new gameplay elements – which in my opinion will be appreciated even by those who don’t care about the MD – and therefore they simply cannot be turned off.
In respect to the MD I don’t want to delude myself into believing that it will one day be in a position to also please those who don’t want it but later on in the article I will suggest an idea on how to give a solid MD story and gameplay elements only to those who are interested in that part of the AC universe.
The historical part of the game starts with Bayek being promoted to Master Assassin to succeed where other Master Assassins have failed before him. This is when the story makes it clear that the Templars are stronger, much stronger than the Assassins, hence the reason why others Master Assassins have failed before Bayek.
After the ceremony ends, the Mentor approaches Bayek to understand how he intends to proceed, to which he replies by saying that the Assassins’ Headquarters have to be relocated elsewhere, that workers are needed to forge weapons, craft armour and ammo and also that he will search for the so-called “three mysterious ones” to ask for their assistance.
All this justifies the:
– Work in the dark and hide in plain sight rules
– Need to build a hideout(similar to Ezio’s villa and Connor’s Homestead)
– Need to recruit people to either help you in the hideout or during missions
The fact that Templars are very strong means that Bayek cannot go out there behaving like some sort of superhero the way it was in Origins and Syndicate, he has to be extremely careful and above all, he needs his team to grow, he needs a community, he needs help, because this is not about revenge, this is not a one-man show, it’s about the Brotherhood.
This is when the open world will unlock and immediately you are free to approach people inside the current Assassins’ Headquarters to have a chat about the Templars, the fortress, the three mysterious ones and why not, previous assassins if the game is set some time after the previous entries.
THE THREE MYSTERIOUS ONES: A SMALL CHANGE TO THE SKILL TREE AND THE RETURN OF THE RECRUIT SYSTEM
We missed it in Unity, it was poorly executed in Syndicate, not even present in Origins, I think it’s time to bring back the recruiting system in the series. The way it was implemented in Brotherhood and Revelations was pretty basic, then improved in ACIII where your recruits could do more than just assassinating a target as we had more options such as “Riot” and “Covert Escort”.
What I’m looking at is a system very similar to that in ACIII, but bigger, in the form of what I’m calling the Three Mysterious Ones: A thief, an archer and a warrior, three individuals located in specific areas of the map which on the long run will be Bayek’s allies.
Like many, these three have had enough of the Templars’ tyranny but they are not part of the Brotherhood and have no intention of joining it, their role is to teach new skills to Bayek – they in fact replace the old skill tree – and to help him in an environment simulated by the Animus(the recruit system).
Now please understand there is a difference between skills and recruit options, skills are those specific abilities in Origins that you can use from the moment they are unlocked such as chain assassination, bow bearer and parry. Unfortunately the way they were implemented in Origins, via a skill tree, was an unexplained addition in the game, as it was the case in Syndicate. We are never told why these skills are locked, we are never told where they come from and we are never told why they can be unlocked by collecting ability points.
I would change that.
To start with I would reduce the number of skills to only 8-12 and I would link them directly to each member of the mysterious ones. This means that at the very start of the game you don’t even have a “Skills” option in the menu, it becomes available in the Animus after reliving the very first memory with any one of the three mysterious ones.
To make things more interesting, the mysterious ones have a sort of main campaign of their own where as you learn skills by reliving their memories, you will learn more about them, about their family, about their friends, about why they don’t want to fight alongside you to defeat the Templars and above all, their respective communities, something similar to the different tribes(Banuk, Carja, Nora, etc.) in Horizon Zero Dawn.
In the end the concept is very simple: in the very first memory the archer(or thief or warrior) will showcase all the skills he can teach you and then, the more memories you relive with the three mysterious ones, the more skills you learn and you are free to pick and select the memories based on the type of gameplay you prefer: stealth, archer or warrior.
As soon as these memories are over, the learned skill is unlocked and available in the same way it was in Origins, of course with a small difference that we’re back to the old days of AC2 when Ezio learned the leap skill by reliving a memory with Rosa; it’s all done through memories not experience points and ability points.
Look at these missions as a collection of many of the side quests we had in Origins only that this time you are getting something worth reliving the memory for, important skills and simulated recruiting options that will help you in your journey. This is why their missions should not be small training missions which end after a few minutes but well-scripted quests which could span across three or four memories.
What about the recruit system? As you relive these memories, the Animus is constantly collecting data allowing you to use the three mysterious ones during missions.
From the second memory onwards, besides acquiring new skills, Rebecca will pop up to update you on the recruit system.
For example, at the end of the memory with the archer where he teaches you how to use the sniper bow, besides unlocking the skill to use the long-range bow, Rebecca will tell you – via one of those messages which cannot be turned off in the HUD – that she marked a spot on the map where you will find a “little surprise”. When you reach the location you will experience something that Bayek did not experience in his life, it is an Animus simulation, similar to the tutorials we had in previous games like Brotherhood.
Here you will learn how to use the archer’s long-range recruit system by taking on a mission in a simulated environment with two guards. You will have to assassinate one of them, giving instructions to the archer to assassinate the second one.
This is when things become interesting. From the moment you give your instruction, a 5 to 0 counter will start, meaning that the archer will take down his target when the counter reaches 0. Remember, it is an Animus simulation, reason why there is a small gap from the moment you give out your instruction; the Animus has to collect data on the environment, the guard, the distance, etc. So imagine how cool it would be if you time your run to perfection and kill your target the moment the archer kills his. Or, if you kill your target with a throwing knife when the timer reaches 0.
Now you may ask: if the three mysterious ones made it clear they don’t want to fight alongside you, how can you recruit them during missions? How is it possible for them to help you if they never helped Bayek in real life? How is it possible to kill someone through simulation? And finally, why is this recruit system unlocked at the very start of the game?
The answer is not ability points, it’s the Animus using all previously-relived memories with the archer to gather enough data on his physique, the way he walks, the way he runs, the way he strikes his bow, etc. This system was locked at the start of the game simply because you were yet to relive that particular memory which allowed the Animus to gather the data it needed.
The Animus didn’t even know that the archer existed before Layla relived Bayek’s memories so there was no way for the machine to simulate someone taking down an enemy from long-range. But now it does, thanks to the memory Layla relived in which Bayek learned the sniper bow skill.
Of course, to avoid the possibility of clearing out a restricted area by using your recruit, mechanics such as the snipe assassinate recruit system should have a limit, such as only twice per mission, more than that would overheat the Animus.
The same concept applies to the thief and warrior.
In respect to the skills you can unlock, I would more or less keep the Origins system, that is:
Chain assassination, Sleep Darts, Poison Darts, Smoke Screen Damage and all the other useful skills from Origins’ Seer Skill Tree as well as well as some new mechanics
Sniper Bow, Eagle Tagging, Eagle Harass, Hunters Instinct and all the other useful skills from Origins’ Hunter Skill Tree as well as some new mechanics
Air Attack, Parry, Weapon Bearer, Attack and Push and all the other useful skills from Origins’ Warrior Skill Tree as well as some new mechanics
In respect to the recruit system, below is a list of a number of ways of how you can be assisted during missions, I won’t go into much detail about this as ultimately my objective was to explain the simulated Animus recruit system.
Distract guard for three seconds
- Similar to Henry Green’s distraction system in Syndicate so the guard will leave his place
Harass guard for five seconds
- Similar to how Senu can harass guards in Origins so the guard will stay on the spot
- Tag enemy and instruct the thief to perform a regular assassination
- Instruct where to place thief on the rooftop and when you hit a button he will air assassinate the guard
- The thief will disable/sabotage one of the alarms in the area
- The thief will tag enemies in a specific area like Wildland’s rebel support Recon skill
- Tag target, give instruction, 5 to 0 counter, kill
- Anticipate a guard who is running to sound an alarm by using the archer who will fire an arrow to disable the alarm
- He will join you in combat for ten seconds
- A bomb will be thrown to set your enemies ablaze
CHANGE IN SIDE QUESTS, THE RETURN OF THE HIDEOUT
The three mysterious ones are not the only allies who will join in your journey, a number of NPCs will also play a pivotal role by helping you achieve your ultimate objective of locating the PoE and this is another change I would make to the side quest system of Origins.
In Origins we help many NPCs who give us absolutely nothing in return, if we are to ignore for a second the experience points used to unlock abilities. Besides, many of them had a story to tell but after the story was over we never get to see them anymore, or better, we could meet them again later on and have a small update on what happened after the side quest, but really, that’s all.
What I’m looking at is a system where the NPC takes on a minor role in Bayek’s journey. This is because one of the below could happen at the end of the side quest:
1. The NPC will give you valuable information about the restricted areas in the world
2. The NPC will join you at the Assassin’s Headquarters
3. The NPC will increase your blending options in the region*
4. The NPC will give you absolutely nothing in return, it can happen and I will explain why later on
The NPC will give you valuable information about the restricted areas in the world
One of the things I ended up disliking in Origins after a few hours of gameplay is all the time I spent tagging enemies using Senu, not only because of the 5-10s delay bug when I called it back most of the time but also because months before playing Origins I completed Wildlands and I’ve had enough of tagging enemies with a drone, in other words I would have been more than happy to pay to have a system showing all enemies in the area straight away.
Now don’t jump to wrong conclusions, I’m not suggesting more and more microtransactions, I would actually include a system where the person you helped in a side quest will give you important information for your journey such as the number of guards and/or their exact location for a particular restricted area.
It would actually work in a very simple way. After the quest is over, the NPC will reward you with a piece of information which will be added to your log: “Here you go Bayek, this is for a the fort located at the north western corner of Giza, I’m sure you’ll find it useful”. The information can either be the exact number of guards in the area or even better, the exact patrol routes of all the enemies which means that they will be automatically tagged, if you want to.
Rebecca or one of her team will filter the information, add it to the Animus and that is why guards are automatically located without the pet eagle and/or the traditional eagle vision.
To make things more customisable, the process will not be an automatic one so if you complete the side quest but still want to do the dirty work on your own, you’re free to do it; a message will be shown when close to the restricted area to indicate that you have information but then it’s up to you whether to use it or not, whether to switch it on or /off.
The NPC will join you at the Assassin’s Headquarters.
Earlier I explained how at the very start of the game Bayek made it clear that new headquarters and human resources are needed so as to work in the dark as much as possible. The idea is very simple, since the Templars are incredibly strong in the city you cannot purchase weapons and armour in the same way one could do in previous games, everything has to be forged and crafted internally.
The hideout I have in mind is not a small cave or a small underground but a very large area, even bigger than Connor’s homestead that you have to manage and upgrade. A large part of the upgrade process will be done by completing side quests but there would also be a mini game – like Black Flag’s Kenway’s Fleet – with which you can upgrade each and every individual like blacksmiths, tailors, doctors, etc.
Upgrade is a must as it determines the pace of your workers, by pace I mean the speed with which weapons and outfits are created and crafted. You clearly need material to forge a weapon but the upgrade will not be instant like in Origins, before using that formidable weapon you have to wait a number of minutes which will be reduced drastically the more you upgrade the workers of the hideout.
Let’s take Blacksmiths as an example from now on, but the same logic is applied to tailors, ostlers, etc.
The number of minutes required to complete a task will be a simple mathematical formula which takes in consideration the total number of blacksmiths in the hideout and their respective levels.
In order to keep things simple, there is a limit in the number of blacksmiths which you can host in the hideout and the below table summarises the process:
Maximum number in hideout: 10(ready to be upgraded via the mini-game)
From Sidequests: 7
From kidnapped son side quest which I will explain below: 2
From an unknown position in the map: 1
Let’s look at the process in detail, using Mike the blacksmith as an example. You can find Mike either by meeting his wife who is weeping because her husband disappeared or by completing a fort where he is held. Incidentally, this could be a nice opportunity to add those minor details we loved so much in Origins like for example when you meet Mike’s wife for the very first time, the garden belonging to the family is in a very poor state, clearly because the lady is too sad to take care of it. But if you visit the house once the side quest is complete, the garden will be back to a healthy state.
Regardless how you find Mike, the end result is that you will free him from captivity and he is immediately added to your team in the hideout where again, via the mini game, he can be upgraded to forge weapons at a better pace.
Now let’s assume that after some time, your Blacksmith team is as follows:
Number of blacksmiths in the hideout: 4
Blacksmith #1: Level 5
Blacksmith #2: Level 7
Blacksmith #3: Level 7
Mike: Level 9
Total Level: 28
Here comes the interesting part. After some time one of the junior assassins stops you as you’re roaming the map to tell you that Mike has stopped doing his duties as a result of the Templars finding out that he was liberated from captivity and decided to kidnap his son as a mean of revenge. This means that Mike has to be removed from the equation so the pace with which weapons are forged has gone down:
Number of blacksmiths in the hideout: 3
Blacksmith #1: Level 5
Blacksmith #2: Level 7
Blacksmith #3: Level 7
Total Level: 19
It’s decision time. Do you approach Mike to understand how you can help him or you go out there to find a new blacksmith to replace Mike? If you opt for the latter, you will be back with 4 blacksmiths but with a Level 1 blacksmith so the total level will be down to 20.
If however you decide to help Mike, there is no guarantee that your Blacksmith team will improve. This is because you have no idea what will happen at the end of the “Kidnapped Son” sidequest.
Let’s analyse two different scenarios.
In the first one, you investigate the clues to find out where Mike’s son is held, you clear the place but you find the child dead. You go back to your hideout and Mike, desperate for the loss of his son, threatens to kill himself.
At this stage you’re probably wondering where this jolly bedtime story will lead to. Simple. Bayek convinces Mike that it would be foolish to end his life and how it would be more logical to keep helping the Brotherhood so as it grows allowing Bayek to go after the killers of his son. Mike listens and also vows to find two blacksmiths for your team. Amid all this, his level is increased because he’s more determined than before the side quest started. The conclusion is:
Number of blacksmiths in the hideout: 6 (+1 Mike, +2 the new ones)
Blacksmith #1: Level 5
Blacksmith #2: Level 7
Blacksmith #3: Level 7
Blacksmith #4: Level 1
Blacksmith #5: Level 1
Mike: Level 10 (level increased after side quest)
Total Level: 31
Just like in Origins, this side quest has a context, it is actually expanding on the story of the blacksmith but amid all this it is actually helping your upgrade system.
In a different scenario, when Bayek goes back to the hideout, Mike is so desperate that he does kill himself after the loss of his son and in this case the conclusion is the same as when Mike decided to stop doing his duties:
Number of blacksmiths in the hideout: 3
Blacksmith #1: Level 5
Blacksmith #2: Level 7
Blacksmith #3: Level 7
Total Level: 19
Of course only one memory can be relived, what I’m trying to explain here is not cause and effect or something similar but a way to give more depth to side quests and also the introduction of a system where a relived memory could damage you rather than reward you, it’s up to the player to be clever enough to pick up the subtle messages before the side quest starts to understand whether it should be taken on or ignored.
The NPC will increase your blending options in the region
Whenever social stealth is brought up, many make fun of it because it was hilarious how Ezio could sneak past guards simply by “disguising” himself with a group of courtesans. It just confirms how stupid the AI was in previous entries.
It’s also strange how people seem not to be bothered at all when a complete stranger joins them in their intimate conversations to be hidden from guards.
The idea here is that when you reach a new region, blending with the crowd is not an option, you have to create it. By completing tasks in the region you will slowly increase the number of allies and the more side quests you complete the more visually clear it will be for the player as more and more NPCs dressed more or less in the same outfit as the Assassin will populate the area.
They will do their best to give you blending opportunities such as regular blending with a group of people, sitting down on a benches, helping a couple fix their wagon as it was the case in Unity, etc.
The NPC will give you absolutely nothing in return
It could be that the side quest will give nothing in return. I mean, at the end of the day you are starting side quests hoping to learn something new about a restricted area, add an element to your team, increase blending opportunities in the region or gather valuable information that will help you find the PoE.
But it will not always be the case.
We cannot assume that every single side quest holds a reward. Reliving memories, after all, is like a closed door, you don’t know what lies behind. If the Animus was capable of knowing what you will get in return for a particular side quest, it should automatically eliminate all memories with no valuable rewards but of course the Animus cannot predict what happened at the end of a memory so it makes sense to have side quests with no return value.
This could open up an interesting scenario where you start a side quest, at one stage you realise that it will not give you any reward (the NPC saying, ‘Look I have to be honest, I can’t give you anything in return’), and that is when Rebecca will pop up at the bottom right of your screen with one of her non-vital messages to tell you, “Layla, this will not lead you anywhere, I suggest you stop the memory and move on”. This is when the psychological aspect of the game comes into play, “Do I stop and keep searching for the PoE or do I keep helping this person to see how this quest ended?”
Most of the times you will continue with the side quest but at least all of this brings the Animus and Rebecca into play, for those who keep her messages on.
As the hideout is one and the shops are none, fast travelling to the hideout whenever you want to improve your gear might become a nuisance in the long run. This is why I would opt for a set of pre-defined undergrounds which I explained in detail in one of my early blog posts: The importance of having a community and that family feel between its members.
THE HISTORICAL MAIN CAMPAIGN
You have probably noticed how I didn’t go into any particular detail about the main campaign simply because it is outside the scope of this blog post. It could be the same old target checklist type of main campaign like Syndicate or Origins or something more complex although again, in respect to the three mysterious ones, it would be nice if they have a sort of main campaign of their own since they play a very important role in Bayek’s journey.
THE MODERN DAY
I already explained how the beginning of the game as well as Rebecca’s messages throughout your journey will help the MD be again an important aspect of the universe but at the same time I would be a fool in denying the fact that many of those who play Assassin’s Creed(especially after Origins) are only interested in the historical aspect of the game.
So how to please both type of gamers?
Let’s start with those who don’t care about the Modern Day, their interaction with the present will be at the start of the game, at the very end and when Rebecca has pivotal information for Layla. That’s all, they will never exit the Animus, they have no notes to read and will not endure the cutscenes or segments like we had in Origins.
Those who however want the MD(the Animus, the concept of reliving memories, etc.) to be back in the driving seat will have more options and elements at their disposal.
To start with, by not turning off Rebecca’s less-important comments, she will be an integral part of your journey, not as big as becoming a nuisance, but she will be there to update you on certain elements even when they are not so important such as the Animus overheating or whenever important data has been retrieved.
Besides, to feel part of a simulation, when you perform certain tasks such as tagging an enemy to understand his level, he would be surrounded with Animus data exactly as it was in the days of AC1:
I would of course remove the “Initializing Memory Imprint …” part as it would be incredibly annoying having to see it for every guard you tag.
Finally, one can leave the Animus at anytime to interact with Rebecca and co. and get a taste of what the DLC will be about, that’s right, I think it would be a great idea if the main game plants the seeds for an MD-only DLC where we would have something I like to refer to as a miniature version of Watch Dogs, so a small city, cars and bikes to drive, a silenced pistol, stealth takedowns, an engaging story as it was back in the days of Desmond and of course a number of missions in the city.
The main game would only give a background of the DLC’s story and characters, for example when you leave the Animus in the main game to speak with Rebecca or Shaun, they will prepare you for a character you will eventually meet in the DLC, a new Daniel Cross or something similar, but the mission where you actually hunt him down will not be playable in the main game but in the DLC which in my opinion should be made available for free.
What I’m trying to achieve and say here is that at this stage Ubisoft have to be loyal and sincere to the early fans of the series in a way that they either decide to keep the Modern Day segments intact but without making them an insult to individuals like myself who are always hoping to see the MD return to its full glory or they kill it off once and for all so as to turn the series into an Abstero Entertainment product where you relive memories with the additional bells and whistles such as unicorns and zombies to make your experience more “fun”.
Ideas marked with an (*) are the result of discussions with fellow AC fans.