Earlier this week, I reviewed Assassin's Creed Valhalla: The Siege of Paris, and found myself walking away with a shrug. Like Assassin's Creed Valhalla and its previous expansion, Wrath of the Druids, The Siege of Paris has a ton of content, and it can start to feel pretty samey after a while. After assassinating yet another historical figure, and escaping yet another contingent of angry guards, and collecting yet another set of upgradeable armor, I had an unexpected realization:
I don't really want to do this anymore.
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After years of bloated playtimes and generic stories, I've started to view one of my favorite series as a timesink, at best, and a slog, at worst. While I mostly had a good time with Assassin's Creed Valhalla, I just don't know if I have it in me to sink another 100+ hours into a game with perhaps 30 hours of interesting content.
A lengthy history
When it debuted, Assassin's Creed was one of the most unusual series in gaming. It combined a meticulous eye for historical detail with tight stealth mechanics, and just enough open combat to keep things interesting. It also had an ambitious metastory with a daring central theme: Can you justify murder in order to combat religious fundamentalism? The whole story took about 15 hours to wrap up.
Now, having sunk 80 hours into Assassin's Creed Origins, 130 hours into Assassin's Creed Odyssey and 140 hours (and counting!) into Assassin's Creed Valhalla, I just don't know if I have it in me anymore. The games have gotten much, much bigger since 2007, but with arguably diminishing returns. There's so much stuff to do in each new Assassin's Creed game, it's hard to focus on a central theme, story arc or gameplay mechanic.
After Ubisoft finishes releasing new content for Assassin's Creed Valhalla (incredibly, there's still more on the way), it will bring out Assassin's Creed Infinity. As the game's name suggests, it will be an ongoing live-service game, with periodic updates to add new content, presumably for as long as players keep logging in. What started out as a pointed historical stealth series will reach its apotheosis as a kind of all-purpose historical action sim.
Clearly, there is an audience for this "100+ hours, no pressing central story" style of Assassin's Creed. Ubisoft has now made three games in this style, and while we don't know much about Infinity yet, even its name suggests that it won't be a concise, focused experience.
Last month, Stephen Totilo of Axios Gaming shared an eye-opening chart on Twitter. It catalogued the time required to complete both the main story and the optional content in each Assassin's Creed game.
"Please enjoy this chart that confirms what you thought," he said, adding that the chart doesn't account for expansions, which make recent AC games even longer.
The original Assassin's Creed took 15 hours to finish the main story, or 31 to finish all the optional content. Both numbers have increased steadily over time, to the point where Valhalla's main story requires 56 hours to finish, and a completionist playthrough takes 132. That's roughly a fourfold increase for both metrics.
On the one hand, offering more content for a similar price is hardly a bad thing. But there's something to be said for a 15-hour experience that knows exactly what it wants to be, versus a 60-hour experience that meanders for most of its playtime.
The rest of the story
When Valhalla first came out, I wrote a piece entitled "It's time for Assassin's Creed to end." In it, I argued that the longer, more repetitive games prevented the series from making any strong narrative or thematic points, as it did in earlier entries. In other words: "What happens when power corrupts religious institutions?" in Assassin's Creed II is an interesting question. "What happens when you're a Viking and get to do cool Viking stuff?" in Valhalla is not.
There's also a practical detriment to making the games longer and longer: fewer people finish them. Based on achievement/trophy statistics, about 50% of players finished the first Assassin's Creed game; about 25% of players finished Valhalla. That's a steep decline, and there's no reason to think that Infinity will reverse the trend.
Granted, not every player needs to finish every single game to get their money's worth. But it's much harder to communicate a cohesive theme if you don't expect 75% of players to reach the ending. Assassin's Creed can convey the message that each historical time period can tell us something about the modern world, or that each historical time period is a playground. I don't think it can do both.
That brings us back to The Siege of Paris, which tacks another 10 or 15 hours onto Valhalla's playtime. That's in addition to the main game, which took me 100 hours, the Wrath of the Druids expansion, which took me 15 hours, and all the various free DLC since then, which took me another 15 hours.
You can play The Siege of Paris at any time during Valhalla's final third. It doesn't wrap up any lingering plot points or add anything radically different to Valhalla's gameplay mechanics. It's just more content, in a game that's already packed beyond the brim with content. It delivers gameplay that’s enjoyable in the moment, and maybe that's enough. But that's also a pretty low bar to clear, considering how inventive and impactful the series has been in the past.
Video game franchises grow and change over time, and find different audiences than they initially courted. In that respect, I can't hold Assassin's Creed's success against it. If the series hadn't evolved, it would have stagnated, or simply ended a long time ago. However, Assassin's Creed originally grabbed me with its innovative gameplay and bold story. Those are still present in the newer games, but they're buried under a mountain of busywork. And I no longer think the tradeoff is worthwhile.
Assassin's Creed Valhalla will probably be my last game in the series, unless Ubisoft finds a way to streamline the experience in the future. If it does, I'll be ready to strap on my hidden blade once again - and if it doesn't, then I sincerely hope the new audience finds what it's looking for in Infinity.