Saying that Assassin’s Creed’s controls are bad is like saying David Cameron is a bore or London is too expensive. Everyone agrees it’s a problem, no one’s quite sure what to do about it, and most people either cope as best they can or avoid the situation entirely.
I stand before you today as a person who really likes Assassin’s Creed. I liked Assassin’s Creed II, but I also liked Assassin’s Creed I. I loved Assassin’s Creed IV and I’m very much enjoying the latest one, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.
I just fundamentally like the series: I like travelling to various historical eras, and I like meeting cartoonish versions of famous historical figures. I like scouring the map for hidden collectibles. I like methodically checking things off of a big list of sidequests. I love leaping off tall buildings and landing in carts full of hay.
I like all of those things enough to accept the apparently immutable fact that Assassin’s Creed’s controls are a jumble of garbage. They were abysmal when the first game launched in 2007, and they have remained abysmal for eight subsequent sequels. I am here today to ask: Must this be the case? Must it be a given that one of the biggest video game series in the world is a complete pain in the ass to play?
Within five minutes of firing up a new Assassin’s Creed, I guarantee that your on-screen avatar will do some shit you didn’t want them to do. Tell him to climb a wall, and he’ll leap to a nearby lamppost. Tell her to sneak past a guard, and she’ll run out into plain sight. Extrapolate those five minutes over the 30-odd hours it takes to complete one of these games, and even the most patient gamer will start to wonder why the hell a multinational, megabucks video game publisher like Ubisoft has allowed this to persist.
If you fired up Syndicate and gave the controller to someone who’d never played an Assassin’s Creed game, they would likely have some pointed questions for you. Questions like, “Why does the right trigger cause me to run? Does that also cause me to climb? What happens if I just hold down the trigger but no buttons? Also, how do I jump?”
That last question, “How do I jump?”, probably should have come first. The fact that a person would have to ask that question about a game that is ostensibly entirely focused on leaping from tall buildings is a problem. The fact that I’ve played hundreds of hours of Assassin’s Creed and I actually sort of can’t answer it off the top of my head is even more of a problem.
The best Assassin’s Creed games haven’t solved the control problem, they’ve just coped as effectively as they can. Assassin’s Creed IV, for example, didn’t actually have good controls, it just had levels that accommodated bad controls. Most of the stealth-focused levels in that game were set in large outdoor areas that gave you lots of room to move around and lots of safe spaces in which to hide. The series’ racecar-like control scheme works okay when players have broad avenues to navigate. When things tighten to a corridor—like, oh, basically every urban environment they’ve ever used—the wheels start to come off.
I love watching Assassin’s Creed evolve and try new things, however small those evolutions may be. Each new creative team brings their own ideas to the mix, and it’s cool watching which ideas stick around and which ideas fade. The fact remains, however, that many of a given AC game’s new ideas are meant in some way to improve or compensate for the controls.
Syndicate implements a bunch of these kinds of ideas, some of which are brand new, some of which are carried over from last year’s AC Unity. You can toggle yourself into “sneaking” mode, which makes your character crouch and take cover more effectively. While running, you can press one button to climb up, and a different button to climb down. You’re shown a white ring around your character that indicates—somehow?—when an enemy is nearby. You’re given a grappling hook that significantly improves the game’s flow by removing a large percentage of the climbing you used to have to do.
As interesting as some of these ideas may be, none of them changes the fact that I’m regularly leaping in the wrong direction, bumping into people and objects, and getting stuck hanging from ledges. At their most effective, they introduce creative ways to bypass that stuff, a la the grappling hook. At their least effective, they add confusion and visual clutter, making it even harder to deal with the fact that I just accidentally walked into a room full of guards and am now stuck running into a corner.
Ubisoft employs approximately seven kajillion talented people. Their various development studios have been responsible for some fantastic third-person control schemes, too. Most of the 3D Prince of Persia games work well, and occasionally brilliantly. Watch Dogs, for all its flaws, had a sturdy control scheme and handled open-world stealth efficiently and intuitively. Splinter Cell has always controlled well and has smartly evolved over the years. Rainbow Six Vegas introduced a hybrid first/third-person control scheme that I still think ranks among the best in any modern shooter.
I can’t tell you why Assassin’s Creed’s control scheme sucked in 2007. Nor can I tell you why it still sucks now, eight years and as many sequels later. I can only lament that this is the case and dream of a day when someone at Ubisoft finally says enough is enough, clears the table, and starts fresh.