Assassin’s Creed’s Present Day Story Holds The Games Back

When Assassin’s Creed Valhalla launched in November 2020, it was the twelfth mainline release in the popular historical stealth-action series which began Assassin’s Creed in 2007. While many of the game’s core elements are the same in 2021 as they were in 2007, publisher Ubisoft has also spent those fourteen years perfecting and refining the gameplay mechanics. The combat is much more challenging and satisfying than in the old button-mash days, and the parkour is much more fluid. But one thing the Assassin’s Creed series has never quite figured out is what to do with its present-day storyline.

Assassin’s Creed games take place in the past, but also in the present, as the player controls various characters who use an interface called the Animus to explore ancient people’s memories. The present-day story was much more compelling in the franchise’s early days. Beginning with Assassin’s Creed, continuing through the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy and ending with Assassin’s Creed III, the present-day story followed Desmond Miles, a test subject for the Abstergo Corporation who discovers a long-running conflict between the Assassins and the Templars. Desmond also discovered a powerful ancient civilization called Isu, which created humanity and later came to be worshipped as gods. In 2012, Desmond sacrificed himself to save the world from Armageddon, but he also freed the treacherous goddess Juno in the process.

The present-day story in Assassin’s Creed III wasn’t perfect, and some fans likely felt that Desmond’s ending was too abrupt. But it still brought the first “trilogy” (actually five games) to something of a satisfying conclusion. This would have been a natural point to end the present-day storyline in the Assassin’s Creed series, but it kept going, and Desmond’s absence loomed large.

The present-day storyline continued in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, but struggled to maintain momentum without Desmond. Rather than attempt to replace Desmond with another identifiable present-day character, Black Flag introduced a character so forgettable they literally didn’t have a name. The nameless protagonist was hired by the modern-day villain, Abstergo Industries to work as a software tester and explore some more of Desmond’s memories. During Black Flag and the subsequent Assassin’s Creed Rogue, this character learned of the existence of Sages, reincarnated members of the Isu race who were working to help Juno.

In Assassin’s Creed Unity, the present-day storyline swapped out the old nameless protagonist for another one, a game tester working for Abstergo. Instead of using the Animus, this time the present-day player explored Desmond’s memories by testing an Abstergo-produced video game called “Helix.” Things were getting very meta at this point. In Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, the game tester ended up joining the Assassins and helped them stop the Sages from recovering another Piece of Eden, powerful artifacts which could be used to resurrect Juno in physical form.

But Juno’s storyline didn’t even end in an actual Assassin’s Creed video game. Instead, Ubisoft killed off Juno in Assassin’s Creed: Uprising, a standalone comic. Killing off the series’ main antagonist in a comic that most gamers didn’t read was the clearest indication yet that the present-day story wasn’t a priority.

By 2015, Ubisoft had released nine main Assassin’s Creed games, and the franchise was experiencing fan fatigue. That year, Ubisoft paused the the Assassin’s Creed series to re-examine and fine-tune the franchise as a whole. One of the biggest changes was a soft-reboot of the present-day storyline. When Assassin’s Creed Origins was released in 2017, it finally introduced a new present-day protagonist, Lalya Hassan. But that was the only real change. The rest of the present-day storyline was just more of the same.

Layla started off as an Abstergo employee who traveled to Egypt and unearthed the remains of very first Assassins, Bayek and Aya, and learned of the eternal struggle between the Assassins and Templars. In Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Layla headed to Ancient Greece and learned that the forces of chaos and order that the rival groups represent must be brought into balance, and that she herself was prophesied to make that happen.

She also discovered that, once again, strange weather phenomena were happening around the world, which meant another apocalypse was imminent. Layla traveled to 9th century Norway to search for answers, and at the end of Assassin’s Creed Valhalla she became trapped inside an Isu supercomputer.

The next Assassin’s Creed title will most likely continue Layla’s story, although Layla herself probably won’t be the playable character in the modern day – that will likely be Basim, the 9th century Assassin and reincarnation of Loki, who tricked Layla into releasing him from the Isu supercomputer. Meanwhile, Layla will likely continue searching for a way to save the world.

In 2021, while it’s still possible to redeem Assassin’s Creed‘s modern-day story, that will only becomes more difficult with each new game. Future Assassin’s Creed games will not only have to tell a compelling modern story on their own, they also have to live up to or even surpass their predecessors, while also tying together threads from at least 13 previous games.

Making matters even more difficult, Assassin’s Creed’s creators appear to have committed to another “Save the world from extinction” storyline, which is a rehashing of the modern story from the first five games. Assassin’s Creed veterans already saved the world almost 10 years ago, and they should be asked to do the same thing all over again.

As Assassin’s Creed Valhalla proved, there are still many more time periods and historical figures that future Assassin’s Creed games could explore, so there’s really no need for a present-day story. And at this point, liberating itself from the burden of a creaky modern-day plot would offer the Assassin’s Creed franchise a freedom that the Assassins themselves would appreciate.

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