Assassin’s Creed: The Complete Visual History, Reviewed

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Let’s get something straight. I’m the guy who buys the DVD Collector’s Edition. I have a 6-disk version of “Hellboy” sitting on my shelf at home. I purchased “Avatar” four separate times (once for each release, and then once after I misplaced the disk). What I’m trying to get at is that I love to learn about the behind-the-scenes of a movie. Some people just don’t get that. They don’t get all misty-eyed hearing a director discuss the whys and wherefores of a scene. I think people like that are missing out.

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Video games are no exception to this rule. When Valve released Half Life: Lost Coast, I lost my freaking mind. It was a playable tech-demo, but with director commentary. In a game! Hearing the creators of this beloved franchise discuss key elements of story and design just makes me smile. It still does to this day. Try watching the behind the scenes for Mad Max: Fury Road without gaining newfound respect for every single person who has ever been involved in cinema, including the pimply 14-year-old tearing your ticket stub.

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I remember the first time I ever saw Assassin’s Creed. It was a lonely video showcasing some pretty impressive CG (first from Ubisoft, later courtesy of the incredible Digic Pictures), but it didn’t reveal much of what this game would become. Over a decade later, the magic of the series is somewhat muddled, and fans are concerned for the future of the franchise. Enter Assassin’s Creed: The Complete Visual History. This hardcover collection of artwork and commentary delivers a behind-the-scenes look at the creation, evolution, and domination of the landmark series.

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Game journalist Matthew Miller pulls back the curtains at Ubisoft to learn the secrets of creating Assassin’s Creed. From its humble origins as a “Prince of Persia” sequel, to the concerns of over-saturation with “Syndicate,” the book takes a loving look at the development of the games. Artwork, both conceptual and visualizations from the game, adorn the glossy pages in gorgeous color spreads. Without a doubt, the design team at Ubisoft is one of the best in the industry, and it takes only a single page to see why. If you purchased this book for the stunning imagery alone, you would not be disappointed.

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There is a magical quality to the concept art for each game. Watching the team develop the unique look and feel of a character, and their environments, is something to behold. One feature they only glance upon is the concept of true-to-life deaths. As an Assassin, the player kills any number of random people throughout the story. However, every set-piece killing is of an actual historical figure, and more often in the location and manner in which they actually died. I remember, in the run up to Assassin’s Creed III, the developers were concerned that the real decedents of the “targets” would take offense to being asked to kill their ancestors.

Miller does have a look at the artistic choices that were defined by story and technology. Why was Elio’s tale stretched to three full-length games? Why go back in the timeline for “Black Flag,” which was arguably the best pirate game ever made? What did the next-gen really offer for “Unity?” The answers are not always shockers, but there is a joy in revelation that I found on each page.

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There are certainly rose-covered lenses looking at the creation process, as no time is spent on the criticisms of the recent releases. Assassin’s Creed III is hailed as a wild success in deviating from the mold, while most fans remember it as the series’ low point in both storytelling and character development. Rogue is described as a chance to play from the other side of the conflict, when it remains one of the most forgettable gaming experiences of the series.

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This back-patting is most evident when looking at Assassin’s Creed: Unity. The first Next-Gen (OK, Current-Gen. It’s been long enough) release in the series was plagued with bugs, glitches, and game-ending crashes across consoles and PC. What’s more troubling is developer Ubisoft’s reliance on the pay-to-win model of gaming, with micro-transactions affecting even the single-player experience. Phenomenal graphics lose their luster when paired with a frustrating interface and regressive gameplay.

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AC:TCVH contains some of the most striking artwork from gaming’s last decade, and explores a franchise’s roots in a fun and exciting way. The commentary is a bit self-serving, but the book never claims to be something it is not. This isn’t the “Complete Dissection of Ubisoft’s AC,” this is a visual history of a monument of the industry. I was taken on a journey down memory lane with this book, and I learned a few exciting tidbits about the series that I hadn’t known before. The guide is well worth the price of admission, as this is one history tour you do not want to miss.

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