22 min read

The best multiplayer no one played

An attempt to underline the qualities of the now abandoned competitive multiplayer mode of the Assassin's Creed series, and why no one played it. Well, not no one, there still are people playing it, but not 40 million.

It's a nice sunny day in Florence. There are crowds of people everywhere, walking around, chatting in a corner, about a tenth of them look exactly like me. How fortunate. So I slip into a moving crowd, blend in, pretend to be just one of the gals, and let them drive me on, while I observe the scenery. There's a compass at the bottom of the screen, telling me my target is somewhere ahead, and a small, red indicator on top, telling me that one of these figures shambling about, I don't know which one, is out to get me. It could be the guy walking round the corner, he looks shifty. It could be that woman that just stood up from the bench when I passed by. Stay calm, don't break cover, wait for her to approach, maybe she'll get one of the clones, maybe I can slap her upside the head before she sticks a knife in my back. Neither. She walks away, in the other direction, and passes through a shimmering wall that only NPCs can cross. It could be just my paranoia, this game will make you develop quickly, or it could be the guy on the rooftop with a gun aimed at me. Odds are it's the guy with the gun aimed at me. But here's where the “one tenth of the NPCs looking like me” comes in. Unless my assailant had the Templar Vision ability, which is exactly like Eagle Vision, only you also glow, thus giving yourself away, there was no way, at that distance, for him to tell which of the identical specimens in the group of civilian walkers was me. So he shoots, hits the wrong one, and loses my contract. He can no longer attack or harm me. They monumentally mucked this up in the last two Assassin's Creed games, by letting the assailant continue the contract after that failure. I hit the taunt key, letting him know how close he was to actually hitting me.


For the time, I am safe, there's still one lookalike left in the group, and I am getting closer to my target. I know what he looks like, his general appearance that is. There are some game modes that obscure even that, and the Game Lab feature of AC4 lets you remove as many hints as you want, which is amazing. You can't actually set up servers that use those features by default, which is awful. The reason I know he must be hiding there, is, for one, the compass is a full circle and glowing, I can also hear his heartbeat, and there are five identical individuals standing still, looking at a talking background NPC. Like the criers in Assassin's Creed 2, the ones you could bribe. They're just for decoration here, you can't bribe him, stab him, or pretend to be him. What a twist that would have been. The reason there's five of him is that he used a Morph ability, which changes the aspect of nearby NPCs into his own. Now, how am I going to figure out which one of them is him, before he spots me? Because he knows I'm there, he can hear whispers if I'm near. If I just break away from the group, he's bound to get jumpy, as NPCs don't do that too often. If I just move with the group away, he'll suspect I was in there, probably one of the two courtesans, because players generally travel with their lookalikes. If I rush him, my incognito meter will go down, and even if he flinches and tries to bolt, thus revealing himself, my score gets lowered to a measly 100 points. I'm not out for a cheap kill, there's no value in it, no thrill, no flavor. Also, if he sees me too soon, he could punch me in the face, revoking my contract and leave me prey for a few seconds to anyone that's on my case. Or he could run away, dive through a gate, close it behind me, and hide in a haystack until the trail gets cold, and I lose the contract again. They have removed this functionality as well in AC3 and AC4, meaning you can chase someone for hours on end if you wanted to ruin the game for everyone else.


I could come around back, climb up unto the roof of a nearby building, hope he doesn't look up, wait for him to start moving to his target, and jump him, thus getting an acrobatics bonus, and maybe building up a nice variety combo for later on. That's how you get over 1000 points without resorting to the silly kill streak perks. But there are no buildings near enough to pounce on him, just a high fence I could climb up on, and be easily seen. So I hatch an evil scheme. A cunning plan, if you will. I go with the group, behind a pillar, obscuring him from my line of view. The compass goes dim. Meaning he could be one of two NPCs that were directly blocked by it. My group passes next to another one, going in the other direction. I switch groups, blend in, my passive morphing ability turns one of the walkers into a copy of me, and I target lock one of the suspects. I have no ranged weapons to use on him, so even if it's the right one, I need to get closer. The group goes around a corner, I stop, using the third person camera to peek at him without being seen. I'm still targeting one of them. At this point in the series, you could only have two abilities, the later games added a third one, dedicated to ranged attacks. I felt that sort of negated ranged combat as an optional tactic, and made it mandatory.


One of my abilities is called Decoy, it turns an NPC into me, a very paranoid me that runs away instantly. The other is Disguise, that lets me assume the appearance of a random character for a few seconds. So, what do I do? I disguise myself, taking on the figure of a knight in semi-shining armor, I don't approach, instead, I wait behind the corner for the ability to expire. Why? Because if I use Decoy while disguised, the decoy will not look like me, it will look like the knight. So Disguise starts ticking, faster and faster, indicating that it's about to expire, and I use Decoy at the last moment, and then move forward. The Decoy takes effect on the targeted character, meaning that wasn't the player. So I quickly target the other one, and walk faster, without going into High-Profile. I'm not running at him, just moving at a brisk pace, that won't attract suspicion or move my stealth meter down. The decoy does its job, runs away knocking aside the lookalikes, the player is startled, he looks like he's trying to make a run for it, but he doesn't see any knight coming to get him, so he pays no attention to me. He only has one pursuer, and to him, it's not the courtesan, it's the knight. Why else would the knight use that decoy on the NPC right next to him? Why else but to expose him. The knight must be near, waiting, aiming a shot, planning something nefarious. So I walk into the crowd, and before he can bolt out of there, I cut his throat with a bladed fan, gaining the kill score, the incognito bonus, for being completely inconspicuous, and the hidden bonus, because I was obscured by the crowd of clones. No focus bonus, since my passive morphed one of the clones, and tipped him off, he would have bolted out of there in second. But it is still a significant achievement. At this point, I am so smug and proud of myself that I don't notice the red dot, telling me there's someone new on my tail. I barely even notice a Smuggler, walking swiftly in her white cloak, which you unlock at a fairly high level. I pay no mind to when she bumps into me and walks away. But a second later, instinct kicks in, and I turn around to knock her head in. I do and get a stun credit for disabling my attacker. It is, however, too late. My screen turns green, my character starts walking slowly, grasping at her throat, choking, coughing, gasping for air, and then falls over, dead.


That little bump, that was all she needed to poison me. Doesn't matter that I stunned her after the fact, she still gets full credit for the kill, the incognito bonus, and a hefty 150 points for poison. Up until I unlocked it, I wished they never added it into the game. But after hitting level 30, I often don't see myself leaving home without it. So before respawning, I select a different set of abilities, Poison and Morph. I'm on top of the leaderboard, tied for first place, so I'd best remain hidden. But next time, I should take Firecrakers to counteract other players using Morph. Or maybe Bodyguard to knock out pursuers. Smoke Bomb wouldn't hurt to get out of a jam, or get someone else into one. Charge has its uses too, they rarely expect their prey to steamroll them. And how better to get someone down from a wall than by throwing a Knife in their leg? And watching them trying to limp away.


Only 50 seconds have passed since the match began. A round will last 10 minutes, and in that time, there's an infinite amount of possibility for fun and creativity. Well, infinite is perhaps too much, but more than you'd expect.


You can't change the duration, ever, which is at times quite sad, because when you find the right map, the right players, that understand how the game is played, you just wish it could last forever. This summary has been more of a remembrance of several different sessions rolled into one, on account of not being able to find a match in Brotherhood at this hour. Even though it's the oldest one, and has a multiplayer infrastructure that does its best to obfuscate the presence of other players, as it whoever made it hated me on a personal level, on the week-ends you can usually still find people around. And I find that amazing, that this niche multiplayer mode, released 4 years ago (3 for my PC version), that everyone wrote off, still has players.


Though you've got better chances to find them in Revelations. This added so many wonderful things, like Corruption, which is a mode where, instead of killing your opponent, you turn them into one of you, and then they need to go after the others. Death is inevitable, the pressure is palpable. But outlasting everyone else, having the entire server hunting you, evading them at every turn, that's a feeling so few games manage to create. Think of it like what it would be if the other players in Left 4 Dead turned into zombies after going down. Or, well, you know, No More Room in Hell. Then there's my absolute favorite feature from Revelations, the slapping. You can slap anyone, anywhere, anytime. It comes as an extension of the stun mechanic, with a dedicated button, so you can preemptively stun someone. Or, my favorite use, slapping the lights out of every NPC. I find it very cathartic, being able to slap the nearest NPC after one of your carefully constructed plans was foiled by someone running at you and stabbing you for 100 points, depriving you of a masterwork kill worth 1700 points. They have, sadly, removed that in later games. Along with Corruption, and a bunch of other things. Though the Game Lab feature of Black Flag was actually neat, were it implemented in a game with dedicated servers. And they finally fixed Assassination, whereby getting stunned will teleport you to a random place on the map, instead of letting you fall victim to the ability spammers and hate that game mode for all eternity. Because, yes, although I will state below that spamming isn't a valid option to play, they have, over several iterations of the game, added a lot of abilities that just ruin careful tactics, actual stealth and make everything less fun. They have kill streaks that just let you kill anyone at will. They have loss streaks that show you where your opponent is, even through walls, they have poisoned blow darts that eliminate the actual risk involved in getting close to someone in order to poison them.


Yet still, the multiplayer was the most fun part of Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag, for me. Ubisoft quietly announced a few months ago that it would axe competitive multiplayer, in a Twitch stream from E3. The news was recently picked up by everyone, and the reaction has sorely disappointed me. It was a definitive “meh”, and sometimes cheers, because the multiplayer is dead. That truly saddens me. I've seen comments from fans of the series and articles from journalists that just wrote off the multiplayer since the start. They either never tried it, or went in it once, didn't understand it and never bothered with it again. What's worse people have dissuaded others from trying it, based on their initial negative reaction. “Oh, it's just a Deathmach where you just run after others and try to stab them, there's nothing to it.”


But there is so much more to it. In the most simple way possible, I would describe it as an extreme version of Hide and Seek. A timeless childhood game that wouldn't be at its first adaptation into a video game. I distinctly remember the Atari 2600 game, where we kept trying to hide under the bed, in the closet, or just go outside of the house. Think of that, but infinitely better. This is the kind of multiplayer I wish and beg that more mainstream games have. A mode where you actually have to put some effort into out-thinking your opponent, not just spamming a grenade, camping on top of a crane, or running around blindly with a flamethrower. Now, it did have its fair share of balance issues in Brotherhood, the Assassination mode was widely abused by people that found loopholes in the mechanics, and Ubisoft did try their best to drive half of it into the ground in Black Flag, but it was still better that every other tacked-on multiplayer mode ever conceived. And it owes a lot to a game called The Ship.


If you haven't played it. It is a game where you are assigned a random character aboard a cruise ship, that's actually a great big battle royale run by a lunatic. He doesn't just want everyone there to kill each-other, he wants them to do it in a particular way. Namely, every round you are assigned a target that you must eliminate, while still in the pretense that you are nothing more than a passenger on a cruise ship. One that has guards that discourage violence, that has security cameras, jails, and that has at least one other person trying to murder you as well. The game has a lot of layers, with your character needing to eat, drink, have a wash now and again, and in general, being encourage to blend in, to look like another NPC, and thus avoid being detected by your pursuer and by your victim. Spy Party is based on the same idea, but on a smaller scale. That is a game for two players, where one is a spy trying to accomplish an objective in a room filled with NPCs, and the other player is a sniper, constantly scanning the room, looking for you, and only you. In The Ship, you started out with just the clothes on your back, so you had to scour around for a weapon, the taskmaster even offering a bonus to anyone that used a certain weapon to claim the life of their prey. Now, a game such as this can be easily destroyed by people just running around and killing everyone with an axe, who is not in a protected zone, then again, that's why you don't play chess with pigeons. Although, I did manage to kill someone with an axe, by throwing it at them, when they were in front of a guard, while I was still outside his cone of view, about 5 seconds before the match ended. To celebrate, I danced a little, on the inside.


The Ship was made by a small studio named Outerlight, which has, sadly, fallen on hard times in the past years. They also made a followup, initially called The Ship 2: Hollywood Murder Party, which was then renamed Bloody Good Time, that was published by Ubisoft, and released a moth before Assassin's Creed Brotherhood. The first Assassin's Creed game to feature a multiplayer mode. This exact multiplayer mode. Coincidence? Or conspiracy? It'd say it's rather obvious where they got the inspiration. I don't know for sure if Outerlight had any direct input on the multiplayer mode of Brotherhood, but they were, at the very least, indirectly responsible for it.


Brotherhood brought a simplified version of what The Ship had to offer. Had this been the recreation of a classic gem, from the olden times, you would have no doubt heard things such as “dumbed down for consoles”, or “simplified for the masses”. But in this case, not a lot of people actually played The Ship, which is still available on Steam, so is Bloody Good Time. Come to think of it, the drama would have helped it get more attention. Brotherhood removed the need to find a weapon, you always had it on you, just the one, for the most part. It removed the needs system, you were never hungry, being an Animus simulation of a person and all. And it removed the guards, so everywhere you could get a kill, you could get a kill without going to jail. But it balanced that last part out by not being a round based game. You were a target almost the entire time, with maybe four pursuers at the same time, so doing your job unnoticed was paramount to your success. And my word, what manner of marvels could be achieved. In removing these features, Brotherhood made a more action-oriented version of The Ship, one that was less cumbersome, easier to get into, instantly fun and rewarding, but by no means shallow. I have spent, I'm not even sure how much time in this multiplayer. It was the only reason I kept Brotherhood installed for an extra two years after finishing it. And that's only because I moved on to Revelations. For most of the time, I had only finished the first sequence of the campaign, having spent the better part of a year just playing the multiplayer.


What keeps bringing me back to it is the notion that someone like me can win. I'm not a twitch gamer, I don't have good reflexes, I don't have amazing aim, and my coordination skills rival those of an ice skating hippopotamus. And that's fine, because Brotherhood didn't require those. It relied on observation, on cunning. You had to outwit your opponent, trick them into thinking you're just a simple NPC, someone to ignore, unworthy of attention, pay no mind to the blade I just jammed in your spine. And not just that. To get the really high scores, to excel at it, you needed to be quite creative at getting the enemy to come to you, to walk right in front of you, and stay there, long enough for you to get the perfect, maximum scoring, incognito, hidden bonus, variety bonus, poison bonus kill. I've won matches with only 3 kills. Gathered more points this way than people with 10 kills. Certainly, I did get a lot of points from evading my enemies, stunning them, escaping, hiding in the hay like any other assassin. And that's the fun of it. Never a dull moment, you're both hunter and hunted, prey and predator, constantly keeping one step above the others. There are even team based modes, where you're rewarded for hiding with the others, for working together to eliminate the enemy.


At its most basic, it is a stealth based game, that encourages subtlety and cunning. To have that, in a mainstream game, a game with more players than The Ship would have, even if it was free, is amazing. A multiplayer mode that's thoughtful, that they put effort into making, that can exist on its own as an engaging experience, and not some tacked on shooter. That's an amazing achievement. One which, sadly, seems to have been wasted. And I put the blame mainly on one issue, the marketing.


Now, there comes a point when we just say “enough is enough”, “we know”, “you don't need to push this game anymore, everyone knows about it”, when it comes to game marketing. But how do you market a game about sitting on a bench, with your heart racing, wondering if the person casually walking on a rooftop is after you? Ubisoft didn't. In terms of marketing, they dropped the ball on the multiplayer, on all the multiplayer. Unity is a fine example for this. To someone that doesn't know that the game has one character and then pallet swaps him to represent other players, like the old Sub Zero-Scorpion-Reptile-Smoke solution, they would think it has four customizable multiplayer characters. All of them male, for some reason, in spite of the large amount of female characters in previous games. Communicating the essence of a subtlety isn't something the Ubisoft marketing has been good at. I've seen presentations of the AC4 multiplayer, that focused on people running around, jumping everywhere and getting awful 150 point kills. That's not the Assassin's Creed multiplayer, that's not The Ship. But that's the only thing you can show in a limited time. How do you promote a game of chess to people that don't understand chess? How do you sell it to the masses? By showing a scene of people quietly playing it, one move every minute? Can you do that in a 30 second TV ad? No, you can not. And Ubisoft did not find a way to properly market the multiplayer of Assassin's Creed to the tens of millions of people that bought the games. That have access to that multiplayer, and are ignoring it. And you've probably also noticed that I kept referring to my character as a “she”. That's because the multiplayer has had, since the get go, a large amount of female characters. Highly detailed, customizable, playable female characters, inspired by secondary characters you may have met in the singleplayer campaign. They've been there since 2010. And now they are all gone. My favorite character, present in both Brotherhood and Revelations, was the Courtesan, with a close second being Vlad Țepeș from Revelations, because you could finally play him as a not-vampire, for the first time in any game ever made. Though in Corruption, the faction of "vampires" uses that caracter, and victims are represented by Fiora Cavazza, the Courtesan

I really do hope it comes back as its own game, they can not let this multiplayer mode die out. AC4 already had all the groundwork for it. It was as separate of a game as it could be, and came with built in micro-transactions. So, Ubisoft, a free version of this, letting players buy characters, buy costumes, even let them buy early access to abilities. Heck, let people buy entire levels, that doesn't matter, I can still outplay most people by using no abilities.


I also hope that the singleplayer designers learn something from the multiplayer. Like having characters of multiple genders as an option when it comes to co-op, even if it's just seen by other players, and the animations don't work that well. Or, how about this, giving you a mission that tells you that at a certain hour of the day, at a shop in town, you'll find a man of a certain height, wearing a red hat, with a scar on his face, that you must kill and hide the body. And then the game doesn't give you any guidance at all, it just lets you go about town, finding the right place, the right individual matching the right description, tailing him around until the proper moment to strike, or letting you create circumstances by which he winds up going down a dark alley, with a single bench, upon which a robed figure sits quietly. You know, things that actually require some creativity, some imagination, rather than repeating the exact same eavesdropping mission for the tenth time in a row until you feel the need to fling the game out the window. Not that you would, at least the multiplayer is nice enough. In some measure they addressed this in Unity, with their new mission design. Hopefully it meets my expectations, especially since they killed the multiplayer.


Therefore I encourage you to give it a go. The Assassin's Creed series has sold over 70 million copies, at least 40 million of those had multiplayer, if you've glanced over it, try it now. If you did, and couldn't get into it, because you treated it like just another tacked-on Deathmatch, make an effort to see it as something else, something where creativity, observation, actual stealth and the notion that you can outwit your opponent, can and will make you the best player, without ever sacrificing fun. It's also a great excuse for grown adults to play hide and seek over the internet, without it being weird.




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