Where–and when–will Assassin’s Creed III be set?
Ahh yes, Assassin’s Creed, one of this generation’s darling new blockbuster franchises and quite likely the preeminent historical fiction video game series. We’ve already played as Altair, an assassin from the Holy Land during the Third Crusade. We’ve also played as Ezio during the approximate period of the Italian Rennaissance, though his console adventures have taken him to wide-ranging locales such as the Italian countryside, Rome, and even Constantinople during the transition of power from Byzantines to Ottomans. While Ubisoft has already promised that this year’s Assassin’s Creed III will wrap up the modern-day Desmond story arc, the most pertinent question in most fans’ minds is which of Desmond’s ancestors’ lives will he be reliving next? More important than the who is in fact the where and when. The house of Guillemot might be keeping such a key detail close to the vest for the time being, but that doesn’t mean we can’t speculate!
This is probably the most theorized setting that I’ve seen on the Internet, and not without good reason. Assassin’s Creed thrives when it is able to insert its protagonist into periods of history where great change is occurring, which allows the writers at Ubisoft Montreal to get creative and have the player’s actions mean something in a much broader scope. Someone referred to this practice as a Forrest Gump-like approach, and I think that’s pretty much on the mark. Revolutionary America, therefore, is ripe for this recipe. It’s an aesthetically distinct setting with two major powers clashing for control (Revolutionaries and British). You also have the presence of iconic secret societies like the Freemasons, which have already been tied to the Templars in Assassin’s Creed lore. There are a lot of things to love about this setting…but also a couple of major issues that probably disqualify it. The biggest is the dearth of grandiose architecture that provides a stage for the acrobatic parkour that is so a part of the Assassin”s Creed gameplay formula. No massive structures exist during this time, and even the urban areas are still more akin to European country towns than actual cities. Additionally, having the Freemasons already tied to the Templars presents a problematic narrative hurdle: how are you going to have the leaders of the Revolution (who we already know are going to win, for that matter) be the bad guys? Is the assassin going to be a redcoat? The time period and political issues fit the bill, but these other issues will likely keep George Washington’s rebels out of the spotlight.
This would certainly be a daring move for the developers, but setting the story in Ancient Egypt could also be monumental. For one thing, the cities would instantly be the most unique of any in the franchise–which could be both good and bad, depending on perspective (let’s remember that AC3 has been in development for 3 years already, though). You’ll have a bunch of major cities to choose from and tie together should the series return to its multi-city approach (it better) and of course numerous scalable landmarks (the Sphinx, the pyramids, countless obelisks, tombs, and temples, and–depending on specific period–the Library and Lighthouse of Alexandria). Being one of the oldest and most iconic of Earth’s great civilizations, Ancient Egypt holds all sorts of promise for being a sort of cradle of civilization, or at least promise to feature ties back to The Ones Who Came Before (whose architecture and wardrobe look sort of quasi-neo-Egyptian already). There is even a lot of flexibility in the specific time period this could cover, though my money is on The Late Kingdom with the Greek Ptolemies in power. The Ptolemies could have a Templar connection and ties could be made to either Alexander the Great or Cleopatra at the beginning or end of this period, respectively. The end of The Late Kingdom also coincides with the rise of the Roman Empire, which could provide for an epic finale. In fact, the only drawback of Ancient Egypt that I can think of is the very fact that it goes so far back in time when all the other Assassin’s Creed games have gone forward. This would certainly present challenges when it comes to technology, especially in navigation and combat. However, the pluses most certainly outweigh those issues, and the opportunity to capture such a key period of political upheaval and tie in references to The Ones Who Came Before would make for a fantastic Assassin’s Creed experience.
If Ubisoft continues marching forward through history, then I think it is the French Revolution, rather than the American one, that makes the most sense. The two rebellions embody the same period in terms of aesthetics and technology, but France has the advantage in already having robust cities. The political situation in France was far more volatile and full of grey morality than in America, and Templars could be associated with the on-the-way-out noble class. Major figures like Robespierre and perhaps even Napoleon could be tied in, and the brutal nature of the Revolution’s bloodshed could make for some memorable set pieces and plot twists as the revolutionaries gradually devolve into antagonists. Basically, you get almost all the advantages of the American Revolution, none of its major drawbacks, and an arguably more violent setting. Since in the modern-day timeline Desmond and co. were just in Italy, it also makes more sense to stick to Europe since Desmond was in a van for most of Revelations. Oh, and did I mention that Ubisoft is a French company?
WORLD WAR II EUROPE
Moving into World War II (or, potentially, even World War I) is a no-brainer from a political standpoint. I mean really, I don’t need to explain how crazy conspiracy theories about manipulating humanity with Apples of Eden could play into this right? The real issue with this era: is it too modern? World War II was the first modern-style war, and weapons like swords and daggers weren’t exactly standard issue, while machine guns were. This would be a very bold, large departure for the Assassin’s Creed formula. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work, but it might mean it’s too risky for a story-arc-ending installment in the series (i.e. it might be better suited as a spin-off, prequel, sidestory, or just something other than Desmond’s last game). That being said, if the technology (read: gameplay) issues could be worked out (read: rebuilt from ground up to fit modern era), World War II Europe is a fantastic setting. A city like Nazi-occupied Paris would undoubtedly be at the center of attention, and–unlike during the French Revolution–the Eiffel Tower is present for climbing. Excursions to Italy, London, North Africa, maybe even parts of Russia or Germany could be implemented as well. I’m sure that Ubisoft will take Assassin’s Creed modern at some point, but there’s a reason why playable Desmond sequences have been fairly limited thusfar.
And here we have kind of the European in-between that squeezes in the middle of Revolutionary France and World War II. It also just so happens that the Industrial Revolution is in full force during this era, which would allow for significant jumps in technology without going all-out modern. London would undoubtedly be the show’s main stage, but other major cities could easily be incorporated as well. There isn’t much political conflict in terms of wars with other nations (notable exception being the Crimean War), but internal British politics are always ripe for drama, especially during this Whigs-versus-Tories era of radical changes that saw increasingly distributed power and equality and less of an emphasis on lords and royalty. This transition could provide the groundwork for the Templar/Assassin struggle, while there is also the possibility of high-profile cameos like Sherlock Holmes or Jack the Ripper. If set near the end of the Victorian era, perhaps the matter of the Queen’s successor could play into the plot as well. Additionally, the fact that by this time London has been one of the largest cities in the world for hundreds of years could allow for plenty of secrets and references to past events. And of course, it should go without saying that it checks the box when it comes to a sprawling urban setting with plenty of distinctive architecture to climb.
While Europe, or at least the conflicts and interests of Europe, have played a pivotal role in the Assassin’s Creed series, there is little reason to think that the Assassins and Templars didn’t operate in some capacity in other parts of the world. If Ubisoft wants to be bold, then feudal Japan would certainly have to be on the table as another unique setting ripe for interpretation. The period is long and varied, and the story could specifically be set anywhere from around the time of Altair to the demise of the shogunate in the 1800s. While I am personally less-studied on this particular era in this particular part of the world, I’m familiar enough to know that feudal Japan is ripe with iconic characters, dynamic political struggles, and the existence of the series’ signature architecture and urban areas. Gameplay would probably have to be tweaked a little bit, but the technology should be on par with Ezio’s offerings or even many of the Industrial Revolution’s advancements (again, depending on specifically when the game would be set). An interesting plot thread could include Â the rise of Western influence, which could easily involve a Templar conspiracy. When combined with the fall of the shogunate/samurais and the establishment of the Empire of Japan, there are plenty of directions the story could go. What may be a tougher task is tying the narrative to the events driving Desmond in the modern era, especially with the geographic disparity. Like World War II, this may be a setting better suited for a future title than specifically AC3, but regardless, it is an era and setting begging for assassinations and would be a nice contrast to the distinctly European settings we’ve seen so far.
This is definitely one of the more “outside-the-box” ideas that probably won’t necessarily be in Assassin’s Creed III, but still has the pieces that make it a viable Assassin’s Creed setting in general. What immediately jump to mind are the poignant vistas and the contrast between shanty town favelas and modern skyscrapers. Modern Brazil is also a country on the rise both politically and economically, which always opens the door for power plays and generally shrewd politics (which itself opens the door to AC-friendly conspiracy theories). Violence is also a known problem in Brazil, as are violent gangs and cartels, which could provide for influential factions and/or enemies. Like World War II Europe, the biggest challenges come from moving the combat mechanics into a world where automatic rifles play a much larger role than swords. A modern setting would likely necessitate a total reworking of the mechanics so that guns become the weapon of choice while melee weapons become situational tools (a reversal from the way guns have worked in Assassin’s Creed in the past). Of course, this runs the risk of turning AC into a shooter (or at the very least invites those kind of web forum jabs) which presents plenty of problems ranging from not standing out in the marketplace to over-simplifying the entire experience. However, Brazil’s uniqueness as a setting, even in the modern space, is becoming increasingly popular, as evidenced by such games as Modern Warfare 2 and Max Payne 3 (and don’t discount the 2014 World Cup in Brazil which will raise the country’s profile even more, as well as that of its cities).
Like Japan, I am personally less familiar with the details, nuances, and intricacies of China’s long and storied history. Also like Japan, I am familiar with just enough to know that China presents another unique opportunity for an Assassin’s Creed game. I didn’t really specify a time period because frankly China’s history is wide-open and a successful game could probably be built in ancient times or modern times or any time in between. I think that probably the juiciest period would be sometime during one of the country’s many iconic dynasties, which keeps with Assassin’s Creed‘s historic milieu while transitioning to a wholly new setting and culture. This would of course allow for references to all the past Chinese regimes and enable the ability to scale iconic buildings and structures (Great Wall anyone? The Forbidden City?). While conflicts with outside parties would certainly play a role in the plot, hints could also be made (or even seized upon to drive the plot) to the budding Republic (and eventually communist) movement. There is really just a ton of material to play with here, most of which I don’t even fully understand. Again, it may be too radical for AC3, but it would serve the franchise well to have a game set in Imperial China somewhere down the line.
CIVIL WAR AMERICA
The Revolutionary period may be the popular choice of setting for an America-based Assassin’s Creed game, but the Civil War could potentially be just as potent. Like the Revolution, there are two clear conflicting sides while various powers work behind the scenes to try to sway an advantage. This setting allows for technology to advance significantly, but like Victorian England not yet to the point where guns are so important that they break traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay (although they would certainly still need to play a bigger role than in existing titles). One of the distinct advantages of this time versus the Revolution is the growth of American cities in the interim; in other words, actual cities with actual architecture suitable for an Assassin’s Creed game exist, though admittedly still probably not up to the scale that the European settings offer.Â Unless parts of the game are set in the West, you do lose the variable of having to deal with the native population, although the introduction of racial issues could be more poignant. Of course, any game dealing with strong racial overtones risks a hefty PR nightmare (which is reason enough for Ubisoft to stay away from this setting), but on the other hand how cool would it be for a game to address a heavy issue like race in a meaningful, intelligent way? Other games have played with the idea in the periphery, but it could be really central to this setting’s plot. Or not. Either way, there is potentially a lot to work with here.
PROHIBITION CHICAGO/NEW YORK
Sticking in the Western hemisphere, another potential setting could be Prohibition America (roughly the 1920s). There are plenty of factors working during this time period that could feed into a really strong setting and narrative. The U.S. is increasingly isolationist coming off of World War I (and somewhat related, coming off of its first Red Scare). While Europe struggles to recover, the U.S. has for the first time emerged as a key world power, which could play heavily into the conspiracy theories that drive Assassin’s Creed‘s lore. The glamorous Roaring Twenties could provide for some distinct aesthetics (let’s get some period music in there, please!) while the underground criminal culture explodes because of the ban on alcohol, creating key factions to play with. Architecture during this period would finally allow for an America-based Assassin’s Creed to feature climbing/parkour that could be on par with the rest of the series. Both Chicago and New York are strong candidates to be featured cities because of their importance to the culture, the abundance of buildings to climb, and the palatable influence of the mobsters. This era/setting has some incredible ingredients, but whether or not it happens probably comes down to the same thing that holds back World War II and Modern Brazil: it’s too modern and gameplay would need to center around guns. That being said, it could be a stepping stone or testing ground for new gun-based mechanics that could be expanded on in those other settings.
There are so many reasons why Ancient Rome will not be the setting in Assassin’s Creed III or likely any major AC release in the near future. Chief among these reasons is the fact that Ezio’s adventures were already set in Italy, including an entire game set in the city of Rome (Brotherhood) that even featured many iconic leftovers from the Roman Empire. Additionally, it would probably be more interesting for the narrative to tackle the proposed time period that encompasses both the fall of Ancient Egypt and the rise of the Roman Empire. It also brings back the issue of whether or not Ubisoft wants to go backward in time, and especially that far back in time.Â That being said, I had to include Rome on this list for one simple reason: it is an awesome time period to set any piece of fiction in, but particularly an action-based experience like the Assassin’s Creed games. It has the monuments, it has the people, it has the political dynamics, it has its importance in world history…if only Ezio hadn’t already sort of ruined it. It would probably be an amazing game if it happened, but Ubisoft would really have to justify returning to Italy and especially Rome.