There will likely never be a better entry point to Assassin's Creed than Origins, released today. A prequel set a thousand years before the events of Assassin's Creed 1, Origins can be enjoyed as your first experience of the series.
And yet AC is built on history - upon its own history - and the experience of playing Origins will only be lifted by knowing some of the series' basics ahead of time. This year is Assassin's Creed's 10th anniversary, and Origins offers plenty for long-time fans in homage to its past.
Never played AC and don't know your Ezio from your Eagle Vision? Skipped a few games later on? We're here to help. Below lies a decade of story - condensed to the basics. If you aren't up to date with the series, there will be no further spoiler warnings.
Hey there, Assassin's Creed smartypants. Let's start really simple: tell me about the Assassins. They're the good guys although they also kill people - what's that about?
The Assassins have been around a long time - since at least the time of Origins, as the game's name sort of suggests. For a secret society centred around murdering people they are generally pretty benevolent. Assassins fight to overthrow tyranny and follow a strict code of honour - the creed - which among other things forbids the killing of innocents. They are supposed to only kill targets for the greater good, although various Assassins through history have bent the rules now and then when the need arises.
Okay, and the bad guys are the Templars?
Generally, yes. They're the guys who think humanity would be better being guided, or ruled - generally by someone who is also a Templar. This may sound clear cut - Assassins vs. Templars, good vs. bad, free will vs. living under an evil dictator/king/Pope - but the series does a good job of showing the downsides to each viewpoint. Total free will can lead to anarchy, which isn't great. And a little bit of control can be useful when humanity really needs to get its act together.
Have the two sides ever considered sitting down and chilling out? Maybe catching a Michael Fassbender movie?
Yes - most notably in Unity - but things tend to always go south thanks to the hundreds of years of killing each other thing and some pretty extreme views still on each side.
That's a shame.
Yes it is.
Wasn't there an Assassin guy named Desmond? What happened to him, exactly?
The first five games in the series featured modern day sections where you played as a guy named Desmond Miles. He was an average joe who was captured by Templars because his ancestors were super important Assassins. Templar science organisation Abstergo has a device - the Animus - that reads the memories of these ancestors (which are somehow stored in DNA).
Wait, memory is stored in DNA?
Think how humans and animals are born imprinted with innate instincts and behaviour patterns but a whole lot more detailed. These memories are what you spend each Assassin's Creed game playing: a virtual simulation of the past created by the Animus software. We haven't even got to the really weird stuff yet.
So, what happened to Desmond?
Desmond didn't have a great time of it, really. He was rescued from Abstergo by a potential love interest named Lucy (voiced by The Good Place's Kristen Bell) who later turned out to be a Templar triple agent. He joined up with the remaining modern day Assassins, but got stuck with an annoying British historian voiced by Danny Wallace. Des slowly became an Assassin himself after spending time living through the lives of his ancestors - such as Altaïr and Ezio (more on them later) - but eventually died saving the world (more on that later, too).
Desmond died? So how did the series continue?
Abstergo now has the ability to let anyone experience someone's genetic memories without an Animus, which is handy. It's especially handy for the Templars, who are scouring history for supernatural artefacts.
Like the Nazis in The Last Crusade. These artefacts, named Pieces of Eden, date from long, long ago and come in various forms with various powers. There were several "Apples of Eden", for example, spherical objects which let the wielder control the minds of others, plus various other things - rings, swords, even a Shroud of Eden which you might know better as the Shroud of Turin which could heal people from mortal wounds.
Wasn't the Shroud of Turin a real thing in history?
Assassin's Creed lore is deep, man. Pretty much all of human history has been tied to the Assassins and Templars from Biblical times onwards. Brutus stabbing Caesar? Assassin plot. JFK assassination? Templar plot. There is an extremely detailed Assassin's Creed wiki which chronicles all of the background information revealed throughout the various games and spin-offs. But we should be brief.
Who made these artefacts? I sense we're about to get to the really weird stuff.
Funny you should say that. So, these artefacts were all made before human history by an earlier civilisation - the Isu, also known as the First Civilisation or Those Who Came Before. They were technologically far more advanced than humans are today and in fact tickled the existing evolutionary tree to help create us as a species - as a handy slave race they could boss about.
Huh. I'm guessing this civilisation is not still around?
As evidenced by their lack of appearance in modern society, yes. The humans didn't like being bossed about, so we rebelled. Hurrah! And, while fighting us, the Isu were then wiped out by a solar flare.
So that was the end of them?
Pretty much, although one particularly nasty Isu member is still around.
Juno - who lived on by preserving her consciousness. (Again, just roll with it.) When another solar flare was due in 2012 and global disaster was again imminent, Juno engineered it so Desmond could avert the danger only by releasing her at the same time.
Sneaky. So she's alive again?
In a sort of pre-Philosopher's Stone Voldemort-like spirit state. But there's yet another secret organisation - the Instruments of the First Will - who want a full return of Juno and co. as overlords for humanity. The games haven't gone into a lot of detail on them, yet.
Phew. Enough weird stuff please. How about we go through some of historical stories to date?
For sure. The original Assassin's Creed explains the reshaping of the Brotherhood by a Syrian chap named Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad, back during the Crusades. He was a grumpy dude but left behind a big legacy. In short, Altaïr was given reason to feel pretty cheesed off by the Assassins as they were, and decided to reshape the organisation as a more reliable force for good.
Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations all tell the story of Renaissance hero Ezio, arguably still the series' most-loved protagonist. Over the trilogy you see him born and watch him grow, then watch as his family is brutally murdered by Templars. His journey of revenge pits him against the ruling Borgia family and even the Pope (who, of course, were all Templars too). Eventually he grows old and sets about researching Altaïr's legacy, before putting down roots and starting a family of his own. His very final days are revealed in the rather touching animated short Embers, which totally did not make me tear up.
What happened after Ezio?
After Ezio the series moved on to Colonial America, and a couple of stories about several generations of the Kenway family and their legacy. Assassin's Creed 3 followed Connor Kenway, a half-Native American Assassin stuck in the middle of the British and American sides of the US Revolutionary War. He has a really horrible life and he has to sit through a lot of US politics, which sucked for him. He also had a Templar father, named Haytham, who was a lot more interesting and was pretty much responsible for killing off the entire US branch of Assassins until Connor rebuilt them. Then, after that, there was Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag -
The pirate one!
You played as Edward Kenway, Connor's grandfather, got to meet Blackbeard and sail around the Caribbean. Ostensibly the game's story was about searching for an Isu temple named the Observatory, which allowed you to spy on anyone if you had a sample of their blood - sort of like hacking their webcam. But players spent most of their time being a pirate and kicking open chests full of treasure.
There was also AC: Rogue, which tells the story of an Assassin turned Templar named Shay Cormac. It fills backstory between AC3 and AC4, and also - along with one of the series' novels, Forsaken - includes lots more story on Haytham - enough that you wish there was a game centred around him rather than Unity's Arno.
Unity was the game no one liked, right?
Unity did not get a warm reception, no. Helpfully for our purposes it is mostly standalone, so ignorable. In its historical parts you played as an Assassin named Arno Dorian in French Revolution-era Paris who loved a Templar, Elise. It didn't end well. Unity's follow-up Syndicate, which had cockney Assassins fighting off the Templars in Victorian London, was a lot better though. You got to poke around the ancestral home of the Kenways and see the Assassins in their most modern day setting yet, including fighting Nazis with Churchill in a WW2 flashforward. It even gave us an update on the modern day Assassins, who after Desmond's death were still fighting Templars for those Pieces of Eden.
Are there any other games or books worth playing?
Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation is pretty fun - it launched originally for Vita, and then later for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360. It lets you explore Colonial New Orleans as Aveline de Grandpré, the series' first female protagonist, in a story that overlaps slightly with the main AC3.
There's also a couple of graphic novels worth reading - The Fall and The Chain, which are set in the Russian Revolution, and Brahman, set in India. Both feature minor characters which later pop up in the main game series, but nothing which demands prior knowledge.
Finally, there's an ongoing series with modern day Assassin adventures which has revealed Desmond fathered a son before getting killed off. It's unknown if this son will play a part in any future game storyline, though.
And the Michael Fassbender film?
It happened. And it is, apparently, getting a sequel.
Okay, I'm ready for Assassin's Creed Origins.