Assassin’s Creed Mirage and the Promise of the Past – Thumbsticks

These are encouraging days for Assassin’s Creed lovers.

Last week, Ubisoft announced a set of upcoming titles, some of them carrying weird and changeable subtitles. We have Hex code name, of which we know little, except for the idea that they are probably witches. (“Hexe” is German for “witch,” so expect not only hoods and hidden blades, but also cauldrons, cats, broomsticks, and all sorts of seething trouble.) We also have Codename Red, which, judging by the trailer, is set in feudal Japan. It’s the least appealing of the bunch, and that’s not Ubisoft’s fault; fans have been clamoring for it more or less since the start of the series, giving the ad a worn-in, soothing feel.

Ubisoft also revealed Assassin’s Creed Infinity, which is not a game, nor a threat, but a kind of launcher, on which the games are plugged. Thanks to an interview with Eurogamer, we know this is where the games current storylines will unfold – presumably endless. This could be great news for those who like to wail over the Animus: that steel contraption, halfway between tanning bed and torture rack, on which heroes lie down and connect to the past. You’d often be thrown out of the historical action, just when things were heating up, and subjected to the complacent ramblings of scientists. Now, maybe the narrative throw will be limited to Infinite.

Finally, and perhaps most exciting of all, there is Assassin’s Creed Mirage. Set in Baghdad in 861 AD, it will remove RPG leveling, focus on a single city, and have us, you know, murder people again. The trailer features a narrator who reminds us of the creed itself, with its three principles: “Keep your blade from the flesh of the innocent”, “Hide in plain sight”, and “Never compromise Brotherhood”. Not that I didn’t appreciate the refresher course, but I couldn’t help but think, “No need to remind mego tell Eivor,” the cream-haired viking from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, who preferred rowboat raids to hiding, and for whom innocent flesh was a necessary guarantee. At first glance, Mirage is the game to beckon to those delirious souls who are all Creeded out – who have found the recent entries dry and endless, and who crave a return to the old ways. Its title seems sinisterly chosen. (Even the game’s official site calls it “A tribute to an original” and a “heartfelt homage to the game that started it all.”)

Yet, in the spirit of investigation, I played Assassin’s Creed, trying to understand what some of us yearn to return to. One answer is: the spirit of inquiry. It’s hard to grasp now the mystery of the original game; you spent its opening hours, in 2007, trying to find out what was going on. The story, written by Corey May, revolves around Desmond Miles, a bartender who has been kidnapped by a company called Abstergo.

“What do you want me to do, teach you how to make a martini?” Desmond told his chief abductor, Dr. Warren Vidic.

“We know who you are, what you are,” Vidic replies. “You are an assassin, and whether you realize it or not, you have something my employers want locked away in your head.”

And over the next fifteen hours, you never really feel like you’ve broken the padlock.

This is due in part to a sluggish Nolan North, who voices Desmond, giving him one part anger to two parts bewilderment and refusing to budge. (Perhaps North had exhausted his pep voicing Nathan Drake, the treasure-hunting hero of Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, that same year.) Although the plot is primarily about delving into the ancestral memories hidden in Desmond’s genetic code, we never get the measure of the man himself. You end up sympathizing with Vidic, who grows increasingly impatient behind his beard rain cloud, harassing Desmond on the Animus. And then there is the question of history – in particular, that of the Holy Land in 1191 AD, from which all color fled. The artistic direction, signed Raphaël Lacoste, marries the miserable silver gray of Abstergo’s lab with a light that numbs the Middle Ages. The result is the uncanny sensation that the past and the present merge and merge; Desmond can be periodically removed from the Animus, but we never feel entirely removed from him.

The doubleness does not stop there. In 1191, we control Altaïr, a dull hothead in an ice-white cowl, and lookalike of his distant ancestor. Altaïr’s master is the shrunken Al Mualim, who leads a clan of assassins and aims to cleanse the neighborhood of troublesome Templars. Watch the old man, perched comfortably in his mountain yard, teach Altaïr how to change the world. It’s a cloudy echo of Vidic, cooped up in his Abstergo skyscraper, pontificating on the same subject to Desmond – who sports a gleaming white hoodie. As hokey as all of this is, it gets its hooks into you. You start to ask: Who is this guy really, Desmond? What does Abstergo want from him? And what does this have to do with what happened in the 12th century? As the specialists of the series will point out, some of the answers may not actually be be on earth. This martini sounds good.

This confusing atmosphere extends from the story to the game. Al Mualim, teasing that he is, sends Altaïr to three cities – Acre, Damascus and Jerusalem – but does not divulge the identity of his targets. This is for two reasons: first, to give us a reason to go and sniff out the stench of evil, climb towers, steal letters, listen, and so on; and, secondly, to rediscover at Altaïr the fundamentals of his profession. Initially, our man kills an innocent bystander and botches a simple reconnaissance mission. He’s like Daniel Craig at the start of Casino Royale, freshly fired and eager to prove it. Al Mualim strips him of his rank and much of his weaponry, and demands that he regain them in full. It’s the old one metroid ride, in which Samus would start out pumped up and ready to roll, lose everything via a pesky parasite and struggle to get back to her prime.

It is difficult to diagnose gaps in Assassin’s Creed. You might say it’s too long, or that there aren’t enough things to fill its hours, but these don’t quite hit the mark. I played the director’s cut, which spices up the action with extra missions, but it still feels as airless as it always has. The action is chilled with monotony, but it occurred to me the sense of ritual that glues Altaïr’s missions together. Note the doves Al Mualim sends before each kill, alerting distant allies as if he were tweeting. The feathers that Altaïr soaks in blood and throws back after knocking down each of his marks. And the conversations he has with his expiring victims, each of whom champions their cause with enough passion to shake Altaïr’s beliefs.

You end up doing the same things over and over again, but the pattern begins to comfort you. And you realize how compellingly small the first game is, not in its map size but in its ambitions. “Nothing is true; everything is permitted,” says Al Mualim and his students’ maxim, which sounds perfect for an open world, but there’s a steely emphasis on the formula here. would later become a franchise was so specific to that game and had so much more meaning in that game: the hooded monks, the Templars, the parkour-friendly towns. There’s a lyricism to its mechanics. Think of the mounted blade on Altaïr’s wrist, designed to deliver a prick practically worthy of a fairy tale, and note the visual pun as he performs his most iconic vanishing act, plunging into handy carts of straw: a needle falling into a haystack. Years before naval sprees, heaps of recyclable gear, and vast wilderness, you have an unfettered game sharpened by the narrowness of his gaze. Much less was allowed, but everything seemed true.

The fact is, Assassin’s Creed had not jumped so far from Prince of Persia game it once was. It was at this series of Ubisoft, as well as the first release of Altaïr, that Assassin’s Creed Mirage hope to pay tribute. For those who purchase the Collector’s Edition, a princely costume is available for its hero, Basim, and pre-ordering will net you a “Forty Thieves” bonus quest. And no wonder. Beyond the shared acrobatics and springy combat, Desmond’s fate – being forced to sift through the sands of time and tap into the warrior within – has always been something of a retread.

The question is, does Assassin’s Creed Mirage find the magic? I have my doubts, if for no other reason than magic, as it is, was rooted in weirdness – and things we didn’t know yet. The other problem is mechanical. Of all the games in the series, Assassin’s Creed may be the most true to its own take on those trained and dedicated to murder, but it’s not exactly the most fun to play. Many would say the balance was best achieved by its two immediate sequels. In any case, one can understand Ubisoft’s desire to grab something lost. It’s an acute desire, shared by a nostalgic faction of his fans. But you have to be careful when reaching for the past. What you think you see may sparkle with promise, but it has a bad habit of disappearing as soon as you get close.