Whenever Assassin's Creed drags its collectable-packed frame over to the bedroom mirror, and mournfully contemplates the sagging, sweaty blob of game types, trivia, plot twists and digital initiatives it has become, I like to think a portrait on the wall behind catches its eye. The portrait of a younger, leaner man with an Aquiline nose, lips that bear the hint of an aristocratic sneer, and eyes that are all roguish twinkle and boyish charm. I like to think Assassin's Creed sighs deeply at this point, assesses its monstrous gut in profile, glances back at the portrait and says to itself: "Look at you. Look at who you used to be."
As with many an industry success story, Ubisoft's flagship action franchise began life as something completely different - a prequel of sorts to the company's last-gen colossus Prince of Persia: Sands of Time. "We were all under the illusion that we were making a Sands of Time spin-off," concept artist Khai Nguyen writes in an intriguing Facebook aside. "The assassin was supposed to be the little prince's bodyguard." Assassin's Creed 3 mission director Philippe Bergeron sheds a bit more light on the transition in a series retrospective, published in our latest issue. "We were working on Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones," he said. "And as we worked on it, it just became something bigger than Prince of Persia." Words that would probably have my corpulent opening metaphor crying into a family-sized bucket of chicken wings.
Tracing Assassin's Creed's ancestry hardly takes a genius, once you see it in motion. Ubisoft's improbably nimble blueblood taught Altair, Ezio and Connor everything they know about movement on the vertical plane, and for all the new systems, the younger franchise's chart-topping gambit remains the application of its forebear's slipshod acrobatics to a larger canvas. Assassin's Creed's bustling, raucous cities may look disorganised, but they're all composed of secret chains of handholds, vantage points and runways akin to classic Sands of Time levels, threaded over and around one another so densely that a trip to the tailor's becomes a breath-taking feat of ostensible improvisation.
But that DNA is getting harder and harder to disentangle, lost beneath the flab that appears necessary if the latest blockbusters are to justify their existence. Though entertaining enough once it gets going, Assassin's Creed 3 is loaded down with inessential experiential trinkets, its founding principles relatively unchanged but suffocated by the dross. A cynical inner voice suggests that this is the fate of all successful Ips, past a certain point, particularly given the industry's recent re-envisaging of games as "services" - enormous buffets of rich, texture-less "content" tied to persistent online revenue systems, that players then arrange for "personalised" consumption.
In Assassin's Creed's defence, the Prince has seen better days himself. Leaked screenshots (see above) of a next generation prototype featuring a slaphead protagonist, billed as "God of War lite", are the insult to the injury that was 2010's aptly named Forgotten Sands - a decent enough wall-crawler with fine art direction, but also one of the most timid specimens of iteration ever coded, rebooting the first game's premise with faddish new magical abilities heaped on top. Forgotten Sands is the final, fading tremor in a period of upheaval that began with the embarrassingly adolescent Warrior Within, a "gritty" sequel that turned the Prince into a brooding gothic caricature. The subsequent Two Thrones restored a little charm by recasting that smelly teenage phase as a "dark self", at war with the Prince's Sands of Time persona, but trod water in terms of level design and platform mechanics.