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Assassin's Creed: The Failed Hashshashin Simulator and its Aftermath
by Matthew LoPresti on 12/17/10 12:07:00 am   Expert Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

At the beginning of Assassin's Creed, Desmond Miles is becoming acclimated with the Animus, a machine built by the Templars that lets the occupant relive past memories stored in their DNA. As this happens, Desmond gets a quick glimpse of one of his ancestors, Altair ibn La-Ahad, walking around an ancient garden, with beautiful women and majestic mountaintops in view. 

At first, I didn't know what was going on. I ignorantly assumed Ubisoft was blatantly going after the 18-35 male gamer market, armed with an arsenal of boobs to get their attention. But like any good designer knows, there are calculated reasons for everything. As I learned by playing the game and doing some history homework, Ubisoft Montreal had a strong, unique but ultimately flawed vision for Assassin's Creed, one that was more or less abandoned for the series' sequels.

For most fans, Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood were better in almost every respect. Things like the repetitive and simplistic mission structure from the original were replaced with a more varied experience not unlike the Grand Theft Auto series. This made for a more palatable gaming experience (I mean, who doesn't like GTA?), but something was lost. Gone was the very reason I enjoyed the original Assassin's Creed so much, which I will explain throughout most of this article.

A Silent Eulogy

I'm sure Ubisoft doesn't like to admit it, but the original Assassin's Creed was much more of a niche experience than what most people were expecting, and many gamers understandably gave their opinions on Assassin's Creed after playing it. The main complaint being that the game's design was too boring and repetitive.

Regardless of the reasons behind those designs, Ubisoft couldn't afford to piss off the 6 million Assassin's Creed customers they now had, which was the estimated total number of units sold for the first AC at the time. It was too big a name to make the same mistakes twice. And for that, we got what we now know as Assassin's Creed 2, the story of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a Florentine Assassin that lived during the Italian Renaissance. 

While most never noticed the switch, AC2 was a radical departure from the original game. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, we need to better understand the vision Ubisoft Montreal had for the first Assassin's Creed. In defining that, we can more easily see the contrast between it and its sequels.

A History Lesson

Much like how the English language alters proper names from their original counterparts (Firenze = Florence), Assassin's Creed has a misspelling. At the time of the Crusades, the word “assassin” didn't exist yet. Not until Shakespeare 's Macbeth did we first hear the word assassin, which was over 500 years later. The original term was “hashshashin”, which was a pejorative term for a real-life group of Shi'a Nizari Ismaili Muslims that famously committed political assassinations from around 1092 to 1265AD. Their original hideout was a fortress named Alamut, which means either “Eagle's Nest”, or, most likely, “Eagle's Teaching”. Later they would expand, moving to other areas of the Middle East, one of them being the fortress at Masyaf.

Their goal was to eliminate key political figures, both Muslim and Christian, that impeded their desired vision for the future.

According to legend, one of the ways the Hashshashin gained recruits to their cause was actually shown at the beginning of Assassin's Creed: through the use of a garden. Basically, the Hashshashin would drug recruits and bring them to the fortress' garden. Here they would be lavished upon with succulent food and beautiful women. But as soon as they got comfortable to their new surroundings, they would get ripped from their pleasures and told that they had just experienced Paradise, in a real sense, and if they ever wanted to get back to Paradise they would have to do the Hashshashins' bidding. This is what you saw at the beginning of Assassin's Creed. Altair was a new recruit in Desmond's vision, getting close to Heaven in Masyaf's garden.

Once inducted into the ranks, the “lucky” Hashshashin recruit would travel to a Middle Eastern city and assassinate his designated target, in broad daylight for all to see, in the standard Hashshashin garb of white robe and red sash (which symbolizes innocence and blood, respectively).

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because it basically sums up Assassin's Creed. Controlling Altair ibn La-Ahad, a Hashshashin from Masyaf, players travel to Damascus, Jerusalem, and Acre in order to assassinate 9 selected targets. As well, look at how Ubisoft Montreal designed Altair:

 

 

 

White robe, red sash. And if you look closer, you can see another detail that helps show how determined Ubisoft Montreal was in getting the historical facts right: the eagle's beak on Altair's hood. As stated earlier, the original Hashshashin fortress was named Alamut, which most likely meant “Eagle's Teaching” in Arabic. Ubisoft decided to take the next logical step in Hashshashin lore and made each assassin represent an eagle. The most damning of all evidence is that the name “Altair” loosely translates to “The Flying One” in Arabic. 

As well, one of the main complaints I've read regarding Assassin's Creed was why Altair never committed his assassinations at night, to better conceal his deeds. Well, as I pointed out, the hashshashin never did that. They always committed their assassinations in broad daylight, to make sure the citizens saw the act with their own eyes. It was a conscious design decision to never let Altair assassinate at night.

Put all of this together, and you begin to see that Ubisoft's vision for Assassin's Creed was to create what was essentially a Hashshashin documentary, not just a standard action-adventure video game. They got all the facts more or less correct (sadly, most Hashshashin recruits that assassinated their targets were captured and executed, which doesn't really work in the context of a video game). However, they needed to complete their vision with a strong gameplay design. Sadly, here is where Ubisoft Montreal failed, even though they actually succeeded in many ways.

Life as a Hashshashin is.....Boring

When players reach Damascus, Jerusalem, or Acre, they can't simply walk up to their targets and kill them with their hidden blade. No, they have to do some investigative work first. Players must traverse the city's zones (of which there are 3) and find any useful information that will help them achieve their goal. Information retrieval boils down to 4 mission archetypes:

  • overhear a conversation between two people while sitting on a bench

  • steal sensitive information from someone by pick-pocketing him

  • interrogate a person closely involved with your target

  • help your Assassin brothers by collecting flags throughout the city or by killing their assailants

Once all the required information is retrieved (players must complete at least 3 of the 6 available missions), the player has the ability to go and perform the actual assassination. 

Ubisoft Montreal basically asked themselves: “what would a real Hashshashin do?” As was true with the game's historical foundations, their gameplay solutions were trying to be as realistic as possible to the source material, to truly put the player into the role of a real Hashshashin during the Third Crusade.

However, if you're an unsuspecting gamer, you'd probably think Ubisoft Montreal was deliberately planning to fail with these seemingly boring mission designs, especially when a player had to repeat the whole process 9 times to complete the game. However, they had an ace up their sleeve: the cities themselves. Simply walking around each city was a sight to behold. It truly felt as if you were in Crusades-era Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre.

People seemed to go about their daily lives. Street orators would spread propaganda on the ensuing Crusades, siding with either Saladin or King Richard (depending on which city you were in), beggars would plead for your money, and business owners would advertise their wares. To say it was immersive would be doing it a huge disservice. The world of Assassin's Creed felt tangible, and this greatly enhanced Ubisoft Montreal's vision. 

Being able to experience these expertly-crafted environments made it much easier for a player to step into the role of a hashshashin, to think and to act like one. They made the player role-play a hashshashin. Not in the traditional D&D sense of the word. More like pretend. We all played pretend when we were growing up, donning a cape and running around the house as if we were Batman. With Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft Montreal gave us the opportunity to relive those memories, but with a white robe and red sash instead. Altair was designed to be a shell for the player to immerse themselves into the world of the hashshashin.

Coming from this point of view, those mission designs make a lot more sense. If you were pretending to be a hashshashin, those would be the missions you would act out.

Over and over again, in nearly every aspect, Assassin's Creed was designed to be what I call a “Hashshashin Simulator”. In terms of production, that is an ambitious task, and for the most part they were successful. You have to give Ubisoft Montreal a lot of credit for even attempting such a task.

However, even before the game was released, Ubisoft Montreal had problems with their designs. One of the more prominent rumors on the Internet regarding Assassin's Creed was that Ubisoft Montreal never planned to include a GPS HUD element, added only because of focus testing near the end of production. The GPS system acts like a mini-map on the bottom portion of the screen, informing the player of the direction and proximity of available missions.

Now, a few players (including myself) have gone back and disabled the GPS system, playing the game in the way the designers originally intended (or so we believe, as this information has never been verified). With everything else in the game designed to be as immersive as possible, this really isn't much of a stretch. In fact, it's actually a better experience. Instead of looking at the GPS to locate the missions, players needed to actually search for them, using Eagle Vision to spot them, and learning the layouts of the cities through experience. This then created a much more intimate connection between the player and his surroundings. After walking around Damascus' first zone in this way, I started to know the zone's layout by heart, making it easier for me to evade the guards when I was spotted, as well as simply getting from Point A to Point B.

While this was an awesome way to play the game, players really needed to be active in their search for the missions, and that's because the cities were just too big for their own good. If a player didn't put a good amount of time into the game, they'd be left wandering the streets, unable to progress to the actual assassination. This is why people complained about the lack of a GPS or on-screen map during the focus tests. The design conveyed the vision, but it just didn't work for a mainstream audience. I'm going to assume that the designers tried not to give away too much and simply added a GPS system instead of a full-blown map HUD, to try to keep their original intentions alive.

In the end, the addition of the GPS made the game too simple for gamers to enjoy in the same way it was originally designed. Missions were points on the GPS, located with ease. Half the gameplay that the designers were trying to create was sacrificed to make the game more manageable for the masses, instead of biting the bullet and agreeing to themselves that some players may just not like a Hashshashin Simulator in general. And as stated before, the addition came too late to balance the game properly, losing the ability to possibly increase the role-playing effects some other way. Assassin's Creed's fate was sealed.

But this wouldn't be the only time this kind of situation occurred, not-so-subtly pointing out how unviable Ubisoft Montreal's vision really was. The GPS was an interim solution to a much bigger problem: how do we make a Hashshashin Simulator fun without it being boring and repetitive? Sadly, Ubisoft Montreal never got the chance, as evidenced by even more Internet rumors. Supposedly the complaints from the first game were heard by Ubisoft management, and they in turn demanded that the game's sequel be less problematic. Unable to find a proper solution to all the issues that were created with the first game's ambitious design, management then persuaded Ubisoft Montreal to give up their aspirations of making a Hashshashin Simulator and simply add GTA elements to not anger the supposedly 6 million disappointed Assassin’s Creed fans. Again, who doesn't like GTA?

In the end, Assassin's Creed failed. Its heart was in the right place, but it just couldn't connect all the right dots. The GPS took away some of the hard-fought immersion, and some people just didn't like the uneventful mission designs, regardless of how applicable they were. It was successful in pretty much every area except for design, where it counted the most.

A Sequel without a Vision

When Assassin's Creed 2 starts, Ezio is not yet an assassin. Oblivious to the hidden dealings that are going on in Italia, Ezio goes about his young life, indulging in the standard Florentine pastimes: flirting with beautiful young women, defending his family's honor from rival families, and tending to familial chores.

We all know what happens to Ezio after the game's intro, the sad fate that forces him into the role of an Assassin. Even though Ezio follows in his predecessor's footsteps, this is where Assassin's Creed 2 greatly contrasts with AC1. Ezio is not a hashshashin, even though he wears the uniform. Everything a player feels at the very beginning of the game is in direct conflict with what Assassin's Creed stands for. Ezio is not a killer, and no one really tells him to be one. It's a lack of role-playing motivation. Ezio has friends, family, and a history in Firenze. The people he walked with were his allies, not enemies. It's not easy for a player to assume the role of a foreign, antagonistic entity when he's walking around the same streets that defined him as a person.

AC1 was designed to get the player to role-play a hashshashin, while Assassin's Creed 2 puts you into the role of Ezio, period. Ubisoft Montreal did too good a job at defining the character of Ezio Auditore at the beginning of AC2 and made it hard for a player to become what Altair was: a shallow hashshashin that eagerly assassinates people.

And as I said before, that wasn't the only aspect to pull the player out of the immersive world of the Hashshashin. Using a GTA mission structure, players were only required to go to a point on the map to start missions. A player didn't need to know what he was going to do on the mission beforehand, even if it was an assassination. This is the complete opposite of AC1, where all the smaller missions were prepping Altair for the main mission: the assassination. New information gathered informed the player on how best to tackle the assassination. This meant the idea of the assassination was always in the back of the player's mind, reminding Altair why he was even in those cities. This also made the act of assassinating your target that much more rewarding, as you had been spending the last hour or so preparing for it.

In Assassin's Creed 2, this mental preparation was completely stripped from the game, all because of the GTA mission structure. It was just another mission to complete. It's been taken to an even further extreme in Brotherhood, where there is a huge number of missions to complete, all as seemingly random as the last.

So even if Ezio was designed like Altair, having the overall gameplay structure mirror GTA just didn't help convey the role-playing aspects that AC1 had. Basically, AC2 failed two-fold.

There's no reason why Ezio can't just take off his Assassin uniform and commit his acts without it. At least it wouldn't fool me into thinking he was another Altair, which he's not. Altair walked the way he did because he was acting like a hashshashin, one that was planning to do ill deeds in a foreign city. Ezio walks the way Altair did, but he has no reason to do so. The cities aren't against him. This is extremely evident in Brotherhood, where the citizens are more than happy to have someone finally take care of their city, Roma, for them.

As well, the cities exist as playgrounds now. In AC1, the cities “existed” because of the assassinations. You were in a city to assassinate someone, nothing more. In AC2 and Brotherhood, you have the ability to experience more than just the assassinations in the cities, with several side missions to partake in, like races and platforming challenges. However, you don't have any sense of urgency when you can do whatever you want in any order you want. Just do what you want, and when you're ready, go to the next mission marker. That's basically what AC2/Brotherhood boils down to. Again, Ezio has no reason to be a hashshashin, and the player has no reason to role-play as one.

The world of Altair had been replaced by the world of Ezio: one was designed to simulate the life of a Hashshashin, while the other was designed to be a fun video game.

It was also disappointing to see none of the reviews mention any of these changes. They obviously knew the mission structure was altered, but no one understood the ramifications of those alterations. As noticeable by the bulk of the reviews, Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood are considered the best entries in the Assassin's Creed franchise. And I'm sorry to say, but their reviews damned us from ever experiencing anything like AC1 again. Their more favorable reviews approved Ubisoft's altered designs. That is unfortunate, because many people enjoyed the original experience, including myself. But again, the prospect of market success is what drove those changes, and that's not changing any time soon.

Now don’t get me wrong though, I actually enjoyed AC2 and Brotherhood a great deal. Simply walking around Firenze, Venezia, and Roma are experiences I won’t soon forget. And I have to give special mention to Jesper Kyd’s score for the sequels, as I doubt the Assassin’s Creed franchise would be half as enjoyable had he not supplied such a wonderful soundtrack (“Home in Florence” is my personal fav). The bulk of my complaints are obviously aimed at the unfortunate contrasts between the franchise’s entries.

A Two-Faced Series

We're just going to have to face it: we're never going to get that true hashshashin simulator, the one that wasn't altered for continued market success, and the one that didn't boil down to simply listening to someone while sitting on a bench. Even though, at some point in history, a real hashshashin did just that.


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Comments


Kwasi Mensah
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Wow awesome read. I don't think anyone's drawn all of those connections to real life hashshashin before. I was definitely a player that wrote of AC1 as needlessly repetitive. I'm tempted to pick it up again this weekend without the GPS.

Matthew LoPresti
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Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed it!



If you do go back to Assassin's Creed and turn off the GPS, make sure to pay attention to what the guy at the Assassin Bureau says. I recall one mission in Jerusalem where he tells you to search near the Church, the Mosque, and the Synagogue. This makes the search a lot easier:) And it's interesting to see all the subtle hints Ubi added to help a player.

Jonathan Jou
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I think an interesting question I'd be interest in hearing your answer to is, "How could Ubi have made a fun Hashshashin Simulator?" It probably would've been worthwhile to make it clearer to the player just exactly who and what they were role playing as, but it's pretty obvious from a high level view that the same assassination procedure performed several times probably loses its appeal as the player progresses. I'm reminded of games like Hitman, which focused on planning out the perfect assassination, in which there were multiple ways to kill your target envisioned by the designer, a whole armory's worth of weaponry, and stellar amounts of disguising/lockpicking/body placement and so forth. I'd probably be interested in a game where instead of being given a name, 6 missions to complete, and then a final mission which is killing someone, I was given the name, maybe an informant or two, and then just let loose in the city. Instead of framing it as "you must complete X tasks out of Y available," if the player actually *did* need three out of the six possible pieces of information to plot a successful assassination, then the mission structure would feel far more compelling.



Of course, those are the thoughts of someone with far less historical knowledge. I'm still wondering how you would want to improve it.

Matthew LoPresti
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That's a very interesting question actually, and ironically what my friendly editor suggested to include in the article. You made him win that argument! :)



I guess my answer would probably be to emphasize your goal, the assassination, in a few different ways. Basically, the intro CG cinematic for Assassin's Creed, which plays before the main menu, shows Altair assassinating someone in Acre. Now, the way he commits the assassination isn't really something a player can actually do in the game. During a public execution, Altair runs through the crowd and takes out one of the guards with a crossbow (not included in the game). He then pulls the other guard down to the ground with the crossbow itself. Altair then jumps into the air and unleashes his hidden blade as he lunges down on his target. While really awesome, the controls don't really give the player the ability to perform these acts, nor does the game even include a crossbow. I would first design the game to be able to do EXACTLY that, as well as a good amount of other actions that help with the assassination itself. As you pointed out with Hitman, it's fun to be able to add your own signature to the assassination with different inventive strategies, but Assassin's Creed really didn't give you a large set of tools to do that.



Now, that's just the assassination, which is a smaller part of the game's experience. I guess in my vision, I would put a larger perspective on the assassination itself. For example, I would have Altair required to go to where the assassination is going to take place before the other missions, to see the layout. As you pointed out, it would be pretty interesting to make the player see the value of completing those missions, but because the player doesn't know the context of the acquired information until going to the assassination itself, it's much harder for him to really WANT to go out and complete the earlier missions. It would be great if on the reconnaissance mission Altair spots a scaffold, and decides to acquire info on it. Once completing that mission, he learns that it would probably break if anyone climbed onto it. With this info, a player would steer clear from it, or even possibly get his target to climb onto it himself, killing him in the process.



And the more obvious suggestion would be to simply add more mission types, to reduce the appearance of repetition. Maybe one mission could even enable another mission. One example would be that on the first mission you gain the names of all archers attending the event you plan to assassinate your target at. With these names, you could then go out (if you so choose) and find every archer and kill them before they attent the event. As well, you could simply shorten the game's length. If a game gets boring after the 5-10 hour mark, don't make it last any longer.



Those are few of the things I would do to make it a fun Hashshashin Simulator. I don't think the mission designs as they stood were that bad, it's just how often you had to perform them. If Ubisoft added more variety, and added more context to the assassination itself as you were completing these missions, the experience of going through these missions would be more compelling. There'd be an equation going on in the player's mind, related to the assassination. Each mission completed would add more to the equation, getting him more and more excited to perform the assassination in his own way. And yeah, having a more robust combat design would have helped a lot in terms of adding ownership to the assassination itself.



Yeah, this is a good question:) I'll probably continue to think about it. There's probably a lot more I could suggest.

Jared Stewart
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If I was to "cover" (for lack of a better word) Assassin's Creed I would do a couple of things way differently.



1. I would expand the weapons available - as Matt mentioned the crossbow being shown in intro CG but not being in the game was a big letdown.



2. I would include an outfitting type stage at the brotherhood hideouts. Weapons could be acquired, swapped, stored there. Weapons would have weight, and costs. The more weapons Altair carried the more encumbered he would be and the slower he would run/climb etc. Also carrying a lot of weapons could be a tip off to the guards and make it more difficult for the player to escape.



3. Continuing with the concept that weapons cost the player something. The player would be rewarded for carrying out an assassination. More money would be rewarded for having a more public, more prominent assassination. Money could also be deducted from the payment in the event that an innocent was killed, or for medical treatment, or for destruction of property.



4. The money earned wouldn't just be used to buy weapons, but training for those weapons as well. Rather than have Altair start with all the skills and weapons and then almost immediately lose them (a source of great frustration for me). Altair should start with some bare minimal skills and weapons (say a knife and a simple attack). As the game progresses the player can have Altair acquire better weapons, and improved attacks and finishing moves (there should be a lot of these) for those weapons.



5. The game should incorporate some aspect of time, the life of the city would go on regardless of how the player played. Stores would close, gates would be shut, guards would be changed etc. The target would follow a path throughout the day, the path could change in the event of a threat or because of some scheduling on the part of the target (say the target is going to speak at the forum tomorrow and adjusts the path accordingly). The research that Altair performs would be to determine who the guards are, if there is a change in shifts, what the target's schedule is, a rough idea of the path that the guard takes, where any hiding places are, if there are any shortcuts and so on.



6. So that the player can better use the information Altair would jot it down in a notebook along with sketches of the areas that the target will traverse. The player could open up the notebook and plan the assassination. Where he will come from, what weapon he will use, how he will escape.



7. I would set the game up so that if the player fails to successfully assassinate the target (the actual event shouldn't be protracted into a lengthy fight but rather should be over in under 5 seconds ideally). Then the player would need to uncover more information and bypass some extended security.



8. The assassination target should never try and fight Altair (I completed so many assassinations only because they did), the assassination target should always run away.



9. The hiding places would be improved from the rooftop garden shacks, and occasional hay bales. Rather than having this fairly monotonous hiding place (which is also rather obvious), Altair could hide in other locations (say on the bottom side of the bridge) or in a concealed doorway.



10. Boost the guards strength and AI. I could understand Altair sneaking up and killing one or two guards. I could even understand Altair winning in a sword fight against one. But to survive in a sword fight against three or four is too incredible.



11. Incorporate some sort of fatigue measure. As Altair stays up the amount of endurance available to him is reduced (and even more greatly reduced when he physically exerts himself). The idea here is to prevent the player from doing two things. 1) Staying up through 1 day or more of game time, 2) fighting for an extended period of time.



12. There is should be no way all the guards in the city should go into a hostile status just because one or two guards have been disturbed. This would more than make up for the improved guard toughness.



13. Cash rewards for finding flags and killing Templars.



14. Improve the surface story and make those segments more playable. Also let the player continue to play after he has beaten the game.

Matthew Dorry
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Hi Matthew,



I am quite impressed with your points on the original "Assassin's Creed". Following your rhetoric, I'm inclined to agree that "Assassin's Creed II" should have been a wholly different game than what it became, as much as I loved it. However, something tells me that were AC meant to have originally been a series, Ubi never intended it to be so tightly contained. In fact, although much of the evidence suggests otherwise--Being that you play as a Fida'i in the Asasiyun--I don't think the greater arc of the series' story was ever specifically about the Asasiyun. And as accurate an account as the game was, it still suffered from popular errors. This is never more prevalent than in Ubi's choice to greatly downplay the order's birth from and strong adherence to Shi'a Islam, entirely re-painting their motivations. Of note is the brotherhood's all-important phrase. Unfortunately, it arose from a wrongly attributed misinterpretation of a different phrase that is only suggested to have been uttered Hasan-i-Sabbah, the order's founder, on his deathbed. From my perspective, this was likely intentional for the greater point. In fact, the phrase only gained prominence through first Nietzche's nihilistic applause of it and later the beat movement's use of it. Anyway, I'm trailing.



Those things considered, I firmly believe that the greater story was always meant to be about the Templar Order and the Apple of Eden. Especially considering that the outer story is of Desmond in Abstergo's (Templar) lab, wherein lay many bloody New-Agey symbols (There's no doubting that the Dan Brown craze had an influence on AC's inception), with the intention of finding the Apple. Unless, of course, those were all emphasized only much later in the development cycle. I have no way of knowing. Although AC was historically quite accurate, since Ubi already showed signs of leaning more toward popular misconceptions, there's no telling how far off the path they had originally intended to go. But since the story had a focus on the Templar, sticking with the Asasiyun would not have taken them far. Although they battled against both the Crusaders and the Saracen, they never had a greater goal of liberating man. They were simple another religious sect, more or less. That, and they were eradicated by the 13th century. Ubi, however, in glaring contrast to the historicity of the rest of the game, seemed quite intent on developing a greater mythos surrounding the order so they could turn it into a war between and order intent to free man and order intent to enslave man. We all need heroes and villains, right?



So, in conclusion, it's not entirely implausible that the series would have gone in the direction it has. In fact, considering where it has gone, things could have gone in a much more nonsensical direction.

Candace Hinton
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