Part of my vision for Critical Intel is to print accurate information from reputable sources. I fact check my research and don’t run with a story until I’ve read a thick stack of articles or books. But you know what? Even though we don’t know anything about it, I’m going to spin wild, unsupported theories about the next Assassin’s Creed setting. Why? Two reasons: history is my favorite topic, and – let’s face it – it’ll be fun. So take this as a warning: we’re about to venture into the badlands of baseless speculation, wild theories, and gut instinct. There’s no guarantee any of the following will come to pass, but man, it’d be great if it did.
To try and predict what the next AC will be like, we have to deconstruct what elements attracted Ubisoft to the historical settings they’ve already used. First of all, let’s talk visuals – Ubi likes to choose periods that are visually distinctive and recognizable to buyers and players. The Holy Land, the Italian Renaissance, New England and New Orleans during the Revolutionary War, all of these periods have a sense of place because they’re well-established in our cultural psyche. Next, that period has to have a cast of historical and pseudo-historical figures to fill out its Animus database. This means that AC games generally take place in settings that have extensive written records that deal with individuals great and small. Last, we must remember that Assassin’s Creed games always take place during periods of where society’s power relationships are undergoing change, leading to upheaval and bloodshed – after all, there’s a reason we’ve never seen Assassins running around 18th century Switzerland. Partially this is necessary to contextualize the violence and make it believable. This is why Ubi sets most AC games at a time, like Renaissance Italy or the Crusades, when political assassination and targeted killing of leaders was commonplace. (AC3 is an exception, and the story’s believability suffered accordingly.) But most important is that the period’s historical themes play into the war between the Assassins and the Templars, emphasizing themes of populist control versus centralized authority. The original Assassin’s Creed was about questioning the motives of the powerful, and was set during a time when dogmatic religious warfare benefited only the nobles. Assassin’s Creed II pitted the humanists of the Renaissance against the centralized power of the Papacy. Assassin’s Creed III dealt with the ideas of democracy and popular power versus monarchy.
Lastly, we must remember that to put out a sequel in a year, it’s likely that the new Assassin’s Creed title will build on the elements from Assassin’s Creed III in the same manner Revelations and Brotherhood borrowed from Assassin’s Creed II. Therefore, it’s unlikely that there will be major changes to the game’s design, letting us rule out periods that would force a redesign of the core elements. Repeating firearms, for example, would make AC‘s hand-to-hand combat, evasion, and parkour mechanics unworkable and lead to a radical shift in gameplay. While this doesn’t necessarily preclude settings like the First World War, I consider them unlikely.
Alright, enough with methodology. Let’s get to the rampant rumor-mongering.
The French Revolution
If we’re honest with ourselves, Assassin’s Creed III‘s themes would’ve worked better in revolutionary Paris. While George III is always a distant figure in AC3, Louis XVI would be an immediate, involved presence in a Revolutionary setting, further contrasting the people and the monarch. In fact, the French Revolution’s narrative of popular revolt, regicide, violence by republican extremists, and usurpation by a dictator is a perfect fit for AC‘s ongoing narratives about the corruption of power and the dangers of ideology. It’s begging for an Ezio-style three-game arc. First game: a political agitator from Paris joins a secret society intent on overthrowing the French crown, and eventually kills King Louis himself. Second game: as France descends into war with Britain, the hero finds he must kill his friend and fellow Assassin Maximilien de Robespierre, who has begun to enforce the Assassin’s ideas of civic virtue via the guillotine. Third game: due to Robespierre’s Reign of Terror, the French people rally under a powerful Templar named Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Assassins find themselves working with their erstwhile enemies, the British, to depose the Corsican monster.
In addition, the series’ violence would seem more commonplace among the riots and assassination plots of Paris, where citizens were known to kill soldiers and carry their decapitated heads through the streets. Parisian architecture also begs for the kiss of free-running feet, and I admit a certain mouth-watering desire to infiltrate the Bastille. The period is also chock-full of interesting historical figures to play with. In addition to the aforementioned personalities, there’s Charlotte Corday, who assassinated the radical Jacobin Jean-Paul Marat. There’s Marat himself, an incendiary journalist who helped incite the September Massacres and, due to a debilitating skin condition, conducted most of his business from a bathtub. There’s Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the son of a French aristocrat and a Haitian slave, who rose through the ranks to become a Divisional General. Dumas crossed the Alps with Napoleon and fought at the Battle of the Pyramids. Dumas’ exploits, and his imprisonment after a shipwreck, would inspire his son to write The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.
I consider the French Revolution the most likely setting for the next Assassin’s Creed. Not only does the theme fit, but it takes place such a short time after the American Revolution that it would be easy to lead from one game to the other, since it would allow established characters like Connor, Aveline and Lafayette to drop in for a cameo. Ubi also got some practice with French-style architecture while building the New Orleans of Assassin’s Creed: Liberation, and its sailing mechanics could see use depicting naval combat in the English Channel. Enemies would be easy to design, since they’d largely follow the British soldiers used in AC3 with a few variations for variety, and there’d be no particular need to completely redesign equipment, clothing or the enemy’s tactics. Added to all of this, previous games have heavily hinted at the French Revolution for some time: a puzzle in Assassin’s Creed II identifies Napoleon as possessing an Apple of Eden, and the ending of Brotherhood features the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. The French Revolution could, of course, just be one of many historical periods referred to in the Ezio trilogy – but for my money Assassin’s Creed 4 is under the shadow of Madame Guillotine.
There’s been a lot of rumors crowdsourced from Reddit around a maybe-DLC, maybe-AC4-project called Assassin’s Creed: Black Flags, that would expand on AC3‘s ship mechanics. Supposedly, this chapter will follow Connor as a Royal Navy captain pursues him across the seas.
Even if it’s true, I’m not behind the idea of Connor taking a Caribbean vacation, as the title seems to suggest. By the Revolution the age of piracy on American coasts had essentially ended, as the British and Spanish navies clamped down on pirate-friendly ports such as Nassau. Besides, someone like Connor wouldn’t be a pirate, he’d be a privateer carrying a letter of marque, and wouldn’t fly colors like the black flag. But remove Connor and wind back the clock to the golden age of piracy? We could have a swashbuckler starring Blackbeard, the female pirates Anne Bonny and Mary Read and the psychopath Edward Low, who occasionally forced captives to eat pieces of their own face.
While sailing around sacking shipping and slugging it out with the Royal Navy sounds like a lot of fun, I don’t see it as being able to sustain an entire game. Even as DLC, Black Flags better have significant action ashore or it’ll soon be as stale as ship’s biscuit.
The Ming Dynasty
Assassin’s Creed: Embers never really hit it big. Ask around, and it’s pretty clear that most people don’t even realize that there’s a 22 minute short film dealing with Ezio’s twilight years. However, Embers is notable for introducing Chinese Assassin Shao Jun, who flees the purges of the Jiajing Emperor to seek Ezio’s council in Tuscany. You may also recall her from AC3, where Achilles credits her with inventing the rope dart. After consulting with Ezio, Shao Jun returns to her homeland in order to rebuild the Assassins and take revenge on Jiajing.
While this isn’t a lot to go on, Shao Jun would be an interesting change from the Assassins of previous games. Her fighting style seems more fluid and acrobatic than her counterparts, and instead of a hidden blade she wealds a boot dagger with deadly efficiency. But she’s not the only attraction China has; the middle period of the Ming Dynasty would make an excellent backdrop. During the reign of the Jiajing Emperor, the Dynasty entered a serious decline. After the Emperor purged anyone loyal to his predecessor, he sank into seclusion to study Taoism, essentially appointing ministers to rule in his stead. While his disinterest in government or change made his 45-year reign fairly stable, the bureaucracy degraded through corruption and decadence as ministers sold public offices and robbed the treasury. Meanwhile the Emperor – unconcerned with the Japanese pirates ravaging the coast, increasing encroachment by armed Portuguese trading vessels, Mongol raiding parties that set fire to the outskirts of Beijing, or an earthquake that killed 800,000 of his subjects – focused on funding Taoist temples, suppressing Buddhism and trying to prolong his life through alchemy and sexually abusing teenage girls. (His courtesans tried to strangle him in his sleep 1542 and were tortured to death for their efforts, an episode that forms part of Shao Jun’s backstory.) He died from mercury poisoning in 1567, after drinking an alchemical concoction he believed to be the Elixir of Life.
Considering all this intrigue, a mad monarch, the Silk Road, and raiders howling at the borders, I think there’s plenty to create a new title. After all, who wouldn’t play a game with Mongols, pirates, and Portuguese galleons? Add in the beautiful architecture of the Ming Dynasty – which includes the Great Wall and the Forbidden City – and you’ve got a ready-made playground of blood and silk.
For some reason, people keep naming Ancient Egypt as a great setting for Assassin’s Creed. I don’t particularly agree for a number of reasons, but my main objection has to do with personalities – a game set during the time of Ramesses II would have a difficult time fleshing out characters apart from Ramesses, his sons, and other ancient rulers. However, fast forward to the Greek-influenced Hellenistic Egypt and we’ve really got something, and coincidentally, that’s exactly where the clues lead us.
One of the statues in Assassin’s Creed II‘s Sanctuary is of Amunet, an Egyptian Assassin who killed Cleopatra with an asp. Not only does this suggest an interesting gameplay feature – I’d totally play a game where you dispatch venomous serpents to murder your enemies – but it lands the brotherhood right in the middle a fascinating time in Mediterranean history. The characters spring right from the page: Marc Antony, Gaius Julius Caesar, Octavian, Mithridates and Cleopatra herself, the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Hellenistic Egypt has all the pyramids, tombs, and statues people want to see in a game about Egypt, but adds the Pharos Lighthouse and Library of Alexandria as well. Players could fight civil wars as Egypt splits between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy, or stand at the helm when the fleets clash at Actium.
And in the background there’s always Amunet, quiet and cunning, sending the Queen and her traitors to Anubis with a drop of poison and the prick of fangs.
Whatever period they choose, however, I have no doubt that Ubisoft will try their hardest to bring its streets, alleys, and frontiers to life. In the end, Assassin’s Creed‘s promise is to give the player a part of our human past to explore.
It’s telling, after all, that we’re more interested in knowing what time period will be used, rather than anything about the main character, the story, or any of the gameplay features. The most compelling piece of equipment in Assassin’s Creed isn’t the hidden blade, it’s the Animus.