The URL of my blog should tell some of you that I’m a Lovecraft fan. But among the myriad franchises and pop culture phenomena I have had the privilege of enjoying, the Assassin’s Creed franchise holds a special place in my heart. Unlike most people that fall in love with the gaming series, I was lucky enough to begin playing it in the order of release, being treated to the millenia-spanning story one incredible instalment at a time. Now, I haven’t been able to play the last couple of games in full because my computer won’t support them, but since I was with Altair when he was sprinting over Damascus and Jerusalem, I think I get to have say in things.
The trailers for the games are things of beauty. They don’t just get you excited for the games, sometimes they make you watch them for their sheer cinematic quality. There are two things about every Assassin’s Creed game that send a shiver down a fan’s spine: the present, as depicted in any one game, and the past and future of the plot, which colours the narrative and overshadows the games like the legend of Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. Monumentality meets action: as Ezio and Machiavelli ride past the Piazza di Spagna, we are reminded that a certain Keats would live there three centuries later, and two centuries before our time; when we follow Cormac in the Seven Years’ War, we weave together the threads of the story to understand the Kenway saga and realise that the eighteenth century wasn’t nearly as boring as we thought it was, even outside Germany. The trailers, besides hinting at aspects of gameplay like counter-kills and summoning assassins, delve into the historical backdrop of the story. It might be best to explain further below, as I rank the Assassin’s Creed trailers in ascending order, according to my taste. While every assassin (and Shay) is dear to a fan’s heart, I’ll stick to the main games this time, and where we have multiple trailers, I’ll try to pick and choose as favourably as I can.
Assassin’s Creed II: It’s testament to the high quality of these that the least of them can hardly be called ‘the worst’. The trailer opens during the Carnevale in Venice, introducing a new, unnamed protagonist who kills a guard with two courtesans’ help before fighting off others using counter-kills. A target is chased and shot. Gameplay mechanics are portrayed well enough (though every gamer knows it’s a lot harder to do those things so smoothly in the actual game). What I could never bring myself to like was the lack of both monumentality and action. One may defend the trailer by citing the dancing, the fireworks, and what I think was the Basilica di San Marco, but passivity is everywhere in the trailer, especially compared to all the others. The opening, for all the dancing, is decidedly muted, and the assassination is neither done from air (which might have been a clever nod to the character’s name) nor after a fierce battle with the guards – it’s just bland. And yet, it remains a special point in the series’ history, if only because it sent us head-first into Renaissance Italy.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue: ‘Someone must make amends’. The title gives away that after six games, we’re about to play as the bad guy, bringing to the fore the moral ambiguity of the premise of the games. The announcement trailer is clear and concise enough, depicting Shay using his ‘eagle vision’ to find and destroy a wounded assassin. The story trailer has references to previous games, gives us an outline of the story, and has many moments of fighting, climbing, and sailing in the icy north where no Assassin’s Creed had gone before. If it was for a live-action film, anyone would want to go see it.
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood: Briefly put, pros: Ezio in Italy, cons: needs a little more grandiosity. The ‘trailer’ trailer shows Ezio marching into the Borgias’ convoy and standing his ground against the vanguard, with help from his recruits. The story trailer, which I’m starting to wish was part of the other one, juxtaposes Cesare’s narration with video of Ezio very deftly, and unlike AC II, it’s quite true to the actual scenes from the game that it tries to depict.
Assassin’s Creed Syndicate: ‘A blaze from the ashes of an old brotherhood’ – I’m sure all of us tuning in to the release sat up when we heard this. The problem with many of the other trailers is several times bigger with this one, because while I could pick the first Google result as the official trailer, this one has at least four or five. Of course, they all have something going for them, be it Jacob’s kukri knife and rope dart, or the way he recruits the ‘Rooks’, or Evie throwing someone into a furnace, or just the famous people whose names get dropped. There’s the setting, and here, it’s depicted quite well in that the protagonists’ motives are justified in the trailer. You might be a staunch capitalist, but it’s unlikely you feel nothing when Jacob promises that the slums will be the fortresses and the poor will be the armies in the war on oppression. And, as you see above, I found the centrepiece of any Assassin’s Creed trailer: the Eagle, whose multifaceted significance is known to true fans.
Assassin’s Creed: The very first one, where we were thrown into history and conspiracy and mysticism and assassination, and we followed the ‘son of no man’ as he galloped and fought through the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. The trailer has its faults. It shows Altair with his ‘signature’ crossbow, which he never actually used in the main games, because it would be historically inaccurate. The trailer goes out of its way to remind us that everything is happening inside the Animus, from the muddled images at the beginning, to the monochrome, to the end when the camera pans out, or rather cuts to a farther standpoint. This makes everything seem a little more unreal than we’re comfortable with. Much more than some of the other trailers, it’s a little tepid, with Altair jumping down to ground level and just blending in with the monks, an act equal parts awesome and boring. But every second of the trailer’s action is important to the whole franchise: the man depicted is a demi-god to his successors, and would become a legend among his friends and foes. One may disregard even that, and marvel at the setting itself: obviously, we are in the Middle Ages, most likely in the Middle East, and we are witnessing one of the historical assassins striking down his target – someone who just hanged people in public and does not seem to deserve our commiseration. Everything about the assassin is mysterious and powerful, and that he disappears in broad daylight corroborates everything we’ve read about the assassins. In short, the trailer is marvellous.
Assassin’s Creed Black Flag: Again, we have two trailers, but one can be summarily dismissed: there is fighting in a bar, and pirates sail a ship. I would speak more about it if it didn’t have a superior counterpart that got everyone talking about motion capture in a video game trailer. The legendary Blackbeard is seen recruiting hands for one of his fellow sailors in the West Indies. ‘There was a time when I thought myself,’ he says, pouring himself a drink as his listeners watch in the dim light of a tavern, ‘the deadliest scourge of these seas, but this man…’. We glimpse our new hero, fighting like a demon as he attacks a ship, swimming in the clear waters of the Caribbean, and exploring ruined temples. Clearly, this will be an adventure like no other. And just as we fear that the captain is just a corsair, he pulls his hood over his head, walks into the night rain, and assassinates a man, as Blackbeard is heard warning his listeners that this man has secrets that even he does not dare to ask of.
Assassin’s Creed Revelations: We see a man – or rather, two – has become a myth, or even a mythos. Martial arts choreography brings the action to life as Ezio, now an ageing man who has come looking for secrets in the land where Altair walked, fights off scores of armed soldiers. And as he fights for his life, he sees a ghost – Altair, walking through the crowd, almost smiling, almost beckoning. Players of the game are, like the makers, of various faiths and beliefs; but no one can look at Ezio literally treading in Altair’s footsteps without feeling goosebumps, and sensing sublimity in the passage of time, in the knowledge of the past, in the actions of men and women, and in idealism. It is as impossible to not rewatch Ezio’s spectacular fight, as it is to not watch every footstep when Ezio is lead to his doom. Now, if only there had been mountains to climb in the game.
Assassin’s Creed III: ‘I watch them fight, and die, in the name of freedom’. We see volleys of gunfire, and wounded soldiers retreating. A bald eagle spreads its wings, and a new hero enters. Just when the Americans seem to be vanquished, he pushes past them, rides a horse alone into enemy lines, and wreaks havoc with his tomahawks. The rebels take heart and seize the day. He finds his target, and claims it. As General Washington realises that hope is not lost, that eagle soars towards the sea. There is one word for this trailer: sublime. What is true of it is perhaps even more so of the single trailer that equals, or surpasses it.
Assassin’s Creed Unity: ‘Nothing ever lasts forever’, the song tells us, as we are witness to what some have called the most glorious moment in human history: the fall of the Bastille in 1789. While the cinematic trailer shows us a more personal view of things, there is no better alloy of monumentality and splendour of action than the sight of four assassins storming the Bastille, opening up the way for the people to liberate France as the eagle flies over Paris, over the highest turrets that royalty had built – a portent of a revolution greater than any one man, perhaps greater than any nation. Something is lost in our language as we mature, and I for one can hardly describe the thrill of seeing an attacker being put down by one assassin as his fellow nods in thanks, before everyone empties the fort, renders the gunpowder useless, and exits. As they look over Paris, we remember Connor fighting in America, and realise that nothing might be true, but perhaps this is: liberty is a beautiful thing.
Whether it’s Aveline liberating New Orleans or Adéwalé fighting slavers, there’s no dearth of material in Assassin’s Creed to take us places and make us marvel at them. Here’s hoping that this time next year, I’ll have more input on this with another thing of beauty and brutality.