Plenty of games use the playground of history to tell their tales. But few have taken the risks that Assassin’s Creed has since its inception on the Xbox 360 back in 2007. If you’re unfamiliar with the twists and turns that Ubisoft’s history-hopping stealth action-adventure franchise has made over the past decade, this will serve a primer. And if you fancy yourself a scholar of all things Assassin and Templar… well, you could surely do with a refresher course, right?
The Tale Begins in an Unlikely Place
When you hear that a game is set during the 12th century, your first thought is likely that it takes place in medieval England and revolves around the typical tropes of knights, honor, and chivalry.
The original Assassin’s Creed took a decidedly different tack when it came to this well-trodden time period. The game was all about investigating the ancestral past of a man named Desmond Miles, specifically focusing on Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, the Assassin son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother who lived in Syria during the Third Crusade in the 12th century. And according to the game’s lore, the real conflict – which allegedly persists to this day – is between the Assassins, who value free will, and the Templars, who believe a strong sense of order and rule. While the Knights Templar and Order of Assassins were very real players during the Crusades (and throughout the Middle Ages in general), the game does embellish the rivalry between the two.
There’s plenty of authentic history in Assassin’s Creed, though, which is a huge part of the appeal. In what would become a series trademark, Altaïr encountered some famous faces in his travels throughout the ancient Levantine cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre – including Robert de Sablé, Grand Master of the Knights Templar, and even England’s King Richard the Lionheart himself.
The Ezio Trilogy
In 2009, Assassin’s Creed II launched the franchise to great heights that it still enjoys today, so it’s appropriate that it revolved around the Italian Renaissance – one of the most astounding periods of growth and enlightenment in human history. And the Florentine Assassin Ezio Auditore da Firenze, another of Desmond Miles’ ancestors, certainly had a spectacular set of cities to explore on his 15th-century adventure, including Florence, Venice, and the Vatican, among others. Leonardo da Vinci, one of the luminaries of the period, was there to help Ezio when he needs it, with some of his astonishingly ahead-of-their time inventions. Other famous encounters include Machiavelli and Ezio’s nemeses – the conniving House of Borgia, one of the most ruthless families of the Renaissance.
Of course, the picturesque villas of Tuscany were all well and good, but what’s Italy without the Eternal City? Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, released in 2010, gave players the chance to explore Rome on a grand scale as Ezio’s tale moved into the 1500s.
The final chapter in the narrative, 2011’s Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, saw an aging Ezio’s Renaissance journey come full circle with a trip to 16th-century Ottoman-ruled Constantinople. Appropriate, given that some historians believe that it was actually the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 that ultimately sparked the Renaissance in the first place. Byzantine intellectuals fled to Italy, bringing their Classical learning with them. In Constantinople, Ezio encountered a young Suleiman – a few years before he’d acquire the title “the Magnificent” as perhaps the greatest sultan in Ottoman history.
The Kenway Saga
With Ezio’s tale at an end, the series saw the adventure move much closer to home – Boston and New York City in 18th-century Colonial America in 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III. Here, players took control of yet another ancestor of Desmond Miles, Connor Kenway (otherwise known as Ratonhnhaké:ton), an Assassin of British and Mohawk heritage. The result was a rare video game look at the clash of cultures at the heart of American Colonialism. Of course, Assassin’s Creed III also offered a glimpse at some of the most iconic names of the Revolutionary War, including Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and Thomas Jefferson. Here, Desmond’s role in the overarching Assassin’s Creed story came to an end, but there was still plenty more of Assassin and Templar lore to explore.
In 2013, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag jumped back in time to take a look at Connor’s grandfather, Edward Kenway, and his adventures on the high seas of the Caribbean during the Golden Age of Piracy in the early 1700s. As Edward sailed between Spanish Havana, British Kingston, and pirate-controlled Nassau, he encountered swashbuckling buccaneer scoundrels like Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and Calico Jack. Ubisoft even went the extra mile with authenticity here, using a novel capitalization style that was popular in the 18th century with the game’s text – just another little touch that lets you know the developers were really paying attention.
And we can’t let Black Flag go without mentioning its downloadable expansion,Freedom Cry, which allowed players to take on the role of former slave Adéwalé, Edward Kenway’s right-hand man, as he witnessed the horrors of the slave trade in Saint-Domingue – the colony that would eventually see the only successful slave uprising in the Americas and become modern-day Haiti.
The final chapter in Assassin’s Creed’s North American excursion, 2014’s Assassin’s Creed: Rogue, put players in control of a Templar for the first time – Irish-American Shay Cormac – and explored the icy seas of the North Atlantic during the French and Indian war. This conflict tends to get glossed over in most American history books, but it was critical in shaping the landscape of the coming 19th century. Along the way, Shay rubbed shoulders with Ben Franklin himself, and even played a role in a certain science experiment on a stormy night…
Revolutions, French and Industrial… and Beyond
Assassin’s Creed: Unity, also released in 2014, marked a revolution for the franchise. It was the first game in the series developed from the ground up for the Xbox One – and it needed all that extra power to portray one of the most transformative events in human history: the French Revolution. French-Austrian Assassin Arno Dorian encountered some of the more infamous moments of the Revolution firsthand, including the horrifically bloody Reign of Terror, and the game featured appearances by the Marquis de Sade, Robespierre, and even Napoleon himself.
And now, with Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate coming to Xbox One on October 23, the series explores the tail end of the Industrial Revolution in mid-19th-century Victorian London – delivering the most “modern” take on the franchise to date. As twins Jacob and Evie Frye, you’ll meet icons of Victorian life, including Charles Dickens and Charles Darwin – and even use one of the innovations of the age, the locomotive, as your base of operations.
So, what pages of history will Ubisoft mine next? The possibilities are essentially endless. Desmond Miles’ story may be over, but for the folks at Ubisoft, the journey ofAssassin’s Creed never ends – and all of recorded history is now potentially their playground.