Last week I spoke of the characterisation in the Assassin’s Creed series and since then, thanks to a very generous if not controversial Steam Sale, I managed to complete my collection of the main series, meaning I bought Assassin’s Creed Rogue and Syndicate.
As I played Rogue, and having written the article last week, I started to think about the many Assassin’s Creed sequels and spinoffs and realised that the Kenway Saga is perhaps the most influential sequel in the series or at least tied with the Ezio Trilogy. They added new elements to the gameplay, expanded on the universe and created characters that we’re still talking about today. I’m a massive Ezio Auditore fan, he’s still my favourite character in the series and perhaps the most influential of all protagonists in Assassin’s Creed, but as a whole, I think the Kenway Saga tops Ezio’s in innovation, risks and variety.
Let’s take a look at what the Kenway Saga brought to the series, what it added to the mix.
It’s true no one has many fond memories of Connor and his surly demeanor—I mentioned what I would’ve done with the character had I been writing him—but the rest of the family and Rogue’s protagonist Shay Cormac are all brilliant characters, and that’s without mentioning the secondary cast.
I will say though that Haytham is the most influential character in the Kenway Saga. For starters, he’s part of arguably the most successful twist in the Assassin’s Creed series. We all think we’re controlling an Assassin, another one in a long line, but then it turns out he’s a Templar! How many people played that part and said “Holy Crap”? You don’t see it coming and it’s a fine moment of storytelling, it sets a villain with heroic qualities, someone who you’ll like as much as hate.
Haytham was also a risk, one that paid off enough that they pushed it harder on the following games. That risk was making the Templars reasonable, making them sensible people and not just power-hungry lunatics. Haytham, George Monro and Laureano de Torres y Ayala are all powerful members of the Templar order, ruthless when they had to be but also incredibly charismatic and above all, honourable. They believed in the Templar’s purpose but weren’t zealots, they didn’t let the order’s goals and priorities change who they were at their core. They’re the Assassins’ enemies but you can’t hate them, you can’t even dismiss them as corrupt or evil, instead it’s easy to find common ground with them. Laureano (the Templar Master of the Caribbean in Black Flag) even admired the strength of the Assassins’ conviction, and as he died, he commended Edward Kenway on it.
The Kenway saga, through these characters, their associates and their enemies showed us a new side to the Templar order. They expanded on their code, their beliefs and their goals, evolving the order as a whole. The Revolutionary era’s Templars became fascinating as they and the Assassins shared the same goals, to see the American Colonies freed and independent from the British Crown, though they differed on their methods. Still, it’s only in the Kenway saga that anyone even considers bridging the two organisations, noting on these similarities.
The Ezio Trilogy did many things, brought a ton of mechanics on board that continue to influence the series, such as the Smoke Bomb—that it then turned to 11 with Revelations.
The Kenway Saga on the other hand brought several mechanics into the series that didn’t make it beyond the four games it had, at least not intact, but managed to revitalise an already tired formula. These mechanics made things new and fresh again, added new layers to the Free Running and even made the stealth more complex and tactical.
The biggest change and the greatest success in the Assassin’s Creed series was Sailing and Naval Combat. No one expected the sailing to be that fun or the ship-to-ship battles that engaging. But they were. They are exciting, a completely new style of combat, one where you don’t just spam counterattack or use smoke-bombs to cheat your way out. In these, position was everything, using the waves for cover was sometimes a necessity and upgrading the ship was extremely important. Building up the ships—the Jackdaw, the Aquila and the Morrigan—was also above all other upgrade mechanics in the series in terms of fun, because whatever you did you could see the result immediately. The games still had the typical “settlement improvement” stuff, but they also contributed directly to your arsenal and didn’t just give you money.
Because you have a ship you could also sail wherever you wanted, enjoying the sea breeze and some nice shanties. Assassin’s Creed III had the most limited of naval missions because they tied to the revolutionary story. Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and Rogue on the other hand gave you massive maps to explore, with hundreds of islands and secrets to find. There were even hidden treasures you could only find with treasure maps—and X marks the spot every time!
The Kenway Saga also properly introduced ranged weaponry into the Assassin’s Creed series and I say properly because as much as I love the Renaissance James Bond gun and crossbow that Ezio had, they were completely and ridiculously overpowered. Starting with Assassin’s Creed III, the guns had benefits and drawbacks, and it was the same for the bow, blowpipe and rope darts, but the best thing about them was that you could freely aim wherever you wanted, instead of having to lock onto an enemy. This added a new layers to the fights and let you us your ranged weapons for stealth, and I think everyone who’s played the Kenway Saga Assassin’s Creed games loves the darts, be it poison, berserk or the firecracker ones from Assassin’s Creed Rogue.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue and Liberation deserve special mention. The former turned the tables on the series, making you an Assassins hunter. You have to be careful of your enemies using concealment and crowds against you, much like you’ve done as an Assassin in many games. But as long as you’re carful, you can exploit your inside knowledge to take them out efficiently.
Liberation on the other hand added costumes and different personas and social statuses to the mix. Aveline has her Upper Class persona, the Slave one and then the Assassin persona and they each have their own rules that make the missions new and interesting every time.
Finally there’s crafting. Since you collect animal hides, bones and other things from the wilderness, you can use it to improve your character, adding holsters, upgrading equipment and giving you more reasons to explore. You still have the secondary side-quests for the best weapons and armour but now you have another reason to stalk the wilds, looking for that elusive white leopard to craft that one belt you need for ultimate badassery.
These are but simple examples—and I didn’t even go into the convenient Fast Travel options, stalking zones or specific secondary characters—but you can see how much the Kenway Saga made the Assassin’s Creed series feel fresh again. While it’s a shame that the mechanics didn’t survive the move to the French Revolution and Victorian London, there is still hope we might see them again, and I hope we do because they are superb, as is the characterisation for the villains, something else that didn’t quite make it across to the new Assassin’s Creed titles.