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I played all Assassin's Creed games up to "Black Flag". What I've read from the reviews so far, I didn't miss all that much from the games that came after. I don't want to talk about gameplay here (very repetitive and simple), but the story. The height of the series, in my book, were the ones with Ezio Morricone (Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations), and especially the last of those, Revelations.
Why is that?
It was those games that had the clearest message and best-pronounced ideas, although in the context of Assassin's Creed, that doesn't mean all that much, one has to say. ;) But Ezio was not only a decent person - unlike Altair or Connor or Edward - but he was also interested in ideas. He fought for something bigger than himself or simply the order.
Many people have remarked that the titular creed of the Assassins "Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." isn't actually filled with any meaning, which makes the Assassins pretty interchangeable with their Templar counterparts. I don't think this is true. In the Ezio games, this creed was actually explored, and an explanation was offered.
The idea is pretty simple. "Nothing is true", the first part of the creed, refers to ideology - any sort of ideology, be it Faith or whatever. This makes the Assassins into a pretty atheist bunch, which sure came in handy given that they let you play an Arab during the Crusades in the first game.
Instead, they emphasized reason. That of course makes them party to the Enlightenment, which is in itself an ideology, but that's something we're going to have to overlook here. So, any ideology is worthless, "not true", and every member of the order and of the free world they intend to build needs to make up their own mind. So far, so good.
"Everything is permitted", on the face of it, sounds like an invitation for a recreation of The Purge or something like that, but, as Ezio explains in Revelations, it actually means that since nothing is true, no one can fall back on an established system of morals. Saying "my leader told me to do it" or "the scripture says" doesn't cut it, since everything is permitted and nothing is true, and so - and that's the crucial part - the responsibility for your actions is yours and yours alone. Everything is permitted, yes, but not everything is permissible. There's a fine line to walk there, and the games sure as fuck stumble a great deal (you slay hosts of innocent guardsmen, after all), but at least they try.
I'm a bit surprised that it's never picked up on by the critics. It's true that the later games don't care about any of this in favor of the stabbing and climbing, but the Ezio games actually did. And they went even farther than that, in the case of Revelations.
In that game, you play in the city of Byzantium during the Renaissance. It's a hub of cosmopolitanism, with different faiths and beliefs clashing together and meshing together. The whole game is a celebration of tolerance, bringing together different persons the whole time and letting them accept their differeing beliefs. This is true not only to progressive ideals, which is of course a good in and of itself, but also to the creed: no character can know whether his religion, watered down as it may be, is true, so everyone has to permit everyone elses and search for their own truth.
Starting with Assassin's Creed 3, whose big disappointment I covered live on The Nerdstream era back in the day, those ideas fell on the wayside in favor of stupid minigames and the stabby parts. I don't know if the new Origins timeline does better by them, but I fear not. I'll always treasure the Ezio trilogy, but the rest of them, I don't care about.