Circus Maximus: Why Assassin’s Creed Is Not a Stealth Game

The drums pound. The lights flash and set the smoke aglow. The crowd claps and cheers in anticipation. Then everything bursts into life. Lions roar, performers soar, cannons fire, swinging higher, knives are thrown and flames are blown until finally each performer converges on their mark.

The fabled eagle cries. The target is killed. The audience applaud.

You are playing Assassin’s Creed.

Assassin’s Creed is murder made theatrical. Death comes not as a result of silent assassinations but circus executions; a choreographed routine by a brotherhood rigorously trained and skilled in their art. But this art is different from the discipline in which I am trained. This is not stealth. This is stealth entertainment.

Stealth games force the player to walk a tightrope. Though the player takes great care with every step the rope will always sway and she will sometimes slip. Falling from the safety of the tightrope weakens the player. She is exposed, stripped of the element of surprise, stripped of her stealth attributes and stripped of the discipline that renders her an efficient killer. Instead she is forced to face the enemy in direct combat without the advantages offered by anonymity.

Assassin’s Creed has the player not walk a tightrope but perform trapeze. The player traverses the environment with spectacular yet conspicuous acrobatics. She attracts attention that ensures she is never unseen. Every move is a performance and there is always an audience.

“That’s a curious way to get about.”

In the same way the player can fall from the tightrope, she can fall from the trapeze. But here she is offered a safety net. When the player falls, though she is exposed and stripped of important advantages, she is not weakened because the game’s unbalanced combat compensates for any advantages lost via detection.

The ease of Assassin’s Creed‘s combat has the player commit mass murder through simple convenience. The player can execute enemies with great speed and ease, and even has an on-demand flying circus hit squad to help her do it. It’s often quicker to engage enemies in direct combat than to dispose of them inconspicuously, and the player will probably do just that. She is then free to climb back on the trapeze and move on. The conventions of stealth are undermined by the ease in which the player can attack and escape from enemies.

The tightrope the player walks in the stealth game can be mastered. She begins by stumbling and trembling, as if she’s wearing clown shoes on a rope that feels frayed and impossibly thin. But as she progress in confidence and ability the rope swells and grows and becomes a bridge. She has mastered the art of stealth.

In Assassin’s Creed the characters become increasingly skilled but the player does not. The safety net of overly empowering combat means the player does not need to excel in stealth. With many of the genre’s defining characteristics removed the player is stripped of the opportunity to hone her skills as she would in any other stealth game. Instead she relies on upgraded armour and weaponry to advance. The player becomes skilled not in the art of stealth, but performance stealth.

The closest Assassin’s Creed comes to stealth is with its ‘social stealth’ mechanic. When being pursued the player can hide in plain sight within crowds and watch her enemy run by. Because these hiding spots are displayed on a mini-map the exhilaration usually felt during the act of finding them is diminished. As with its combat, Assassin’s Creed never has the player feel vulnerable during stealth sequences because the player is always aware of where the nearest hiding spot is. This makes the act of evasion little more than a simple race to the nearest blue circle and not about skilful positioning and manoeuvrability.

Assassin’s Creed tries to juggle stealth and action. Action is held aloft. Stealth is dropped.

This is stealth entertainment. When the player is not in combat stealth is a charade. It is nonsensical and impractical, a tireless string of gymnastic stunts. When the player is not in stealth combat is a dance. It is fluent and rhythmic. But although the player’s actions in Assassin’s Creed are bombastic and often unnecessary they are beautiful.

It must be beautiful because it’s a stage show. Each jump, each roll and each execution animation must be lovingly choreographed and performed. Ezio Auditore is a performance artist whose ostentatious displays make up the majority of the act. Without his talent it would flounder. He is the lead performer, the star of the show. He is meant to be seen.

Everything from Ezio’s attire to his performance is audibly and visually loud. His brightly coloured costumes laced with intricate golden detail contrast the sneaking suits of his fellow genre contemporaries. The same can be said for his tasks and actions. Stealth games typically have the protagonist ascend an enemy tower and commit an act of silent sabotage. Assassin’s Creed has Ezio ascend a tower from the outside and boldly set it aflame before leaping from the summit.

“Not the bashful type, is he?”

Ezio’s conspicuous activity and celebrity profile means even being on a rooftop — the setting on which much of the game takes place — attracts enemy attention. This makes it almost impossible to remain truly undetected for any great length of time. Conflict occurs so often the player is forced to kill almost every lone guard she encounters. Assassin’s Creed can cause the player to forget everything she knows about how to remain undetected as the art of evasion is removed in favour of a quick execution.

Unbalanced combat and misdirected conventions may have the player question the stealth aspects of Assassin’s Creed. However the entertainment is much less questionable. The trapeze, while conspicuous, is for the most part fluid and fun. Combat, while excessively easy is gloriously gory. Despite the player relying on weapons, armour, knife throwing and sword swallowing to surpass her enemies, rather than the silence, shadows and discipline she exercises in true stealth games, the varied and often tremendously exciting gameplay does enough to keep her entertained.

Perhaps then, to create stealth entertainment that is not simply ordinary strengths must weigh heaviest on the latter component. Assassin’s Creed is many things but it is not boring.

“What a fantastic spectacle.”

So roll up, roll up. Italians and Ottomans. Assassins and adversaries. Come and see the greatest show on Earth. See the factions fly! Smell the towers burn! Hear the eagles cry! Expect cannons and colour, fire and lead, theatrics and gymnastics! Assassin’s Creed has all this and more. But do not expect stealth.

Assassin’s Creed is not a stealth game.

It is a circus.

This feature was originally produced for and published on Pixels or Death – 07/02/2012

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