Assassin’s Creed is losing what helped define it — parkour

Assassin’s Creed games have relied less and less on movement and traversal as a core gameplay component over the series’ 11-year history. In Assassin’s Creed games, parkour is a fundamental tool in the player’s toolbelt. It’s useful for identifying enemies from a high vantage point, avoiding unwanted attention from guards and scaling tall structures to reveal more of the map. It’s also just plain fun to leap from roof to roof.

Parkour is the traversal from one point to another using obstacles to be more efficient according to the World Freerunning Parkour Federation. In previous Assassin’s Creed games, parkour involves the player scaling buildings from various periods of time, from Italy during the Renaissance in the late 1400s to Victorian-era London during the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s.

Over time, the series has introduced new features of the parkour system, such as running across trees and smoothly sliding over or under obstacles in Assassin’s Creed III and a one-off feature with the rope launcher allowing players to quickly scale up structures in Syndicate. However, modern incarnations of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Origins and Odyssey have all but abandoned parkour as a core gameplay feature. Instead, they speed up and automate the climbing to such a degree that it might as well be like the player has a jetpack.

Assassin’s Creed II provided the foundation for the series’ parkour, allowing players to climb up buildings and run across supports. Players need to spot obvious handholds to grab on to and pull themselves up. These are pretty obvious in that they protrude out from the surface of the wall. Things like window sills and jutting bricks are pretty easy to spot, although they may be spaced too far apart for the player to reach. In that case, they have to find a way around to another side of the wall if it’s a tower or look for another way up.

Climbing strange iron bars that are protruding out of towers is common in Assassin’s Creed II. Screenshot by John Novotny.

The climbing feels deliberate, with the player deciding each movement. It’s slow and the character animations emphasize that there’s actual weight when he pulls himself up to a roof or grasps a neighboring handhold. Even though there’s not much visual variety in what the player is climbing, it feels like a core part of the gameplay. There are racing missions that have the player race through checkpoints before a timer runs out. Running across roofs is also a good way to avoid guards when in a restricted area and get a good vantage point. Plus, running and jumping across rooftops is just plain fun.

Unfortunately, it’s exactly what makes Assassin’s Creed II’s parkour weighty and meaningful, which also makes it feel like a slog at times. When the route up a tall structure such as a tower is obvious and there’s not much thinking required, it can feel like it takes forever for the character to swing across a gap or grasp the next handhold up.

The last entry in the Assassin’s Creed series, before the gameplay overhaul, was Syndicate. It was released in 2015, six years after Assassin’s Creed II and several sequels later each augmenting the parkour and adding new ways to get around the environment. Syndicate’s one-off addition to the parkour is a rope launcher that acts as a mechanical grappling hook. The player can look at a nearby roof, press a button and the rope launcher propels the character up the wall. Instead of running across roofs, the player can also use the rope launcher to create a zip line and zoom across it.

The rope launcher in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate makes a satisfying “thwip” sound when activated. Screenshot by John Novotny.
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The actual parkour has also gone through several updates that resulted in it being faster, smoother and easier to get around. Because of the leap in time, there are horse-drawn carriages that are the fastest way to travel by far. The downside to the added convenience is that traversal and navigation around London becomes trivial and ends up taking a back seat to the combat. The time the player spends actually climbing is minimal and only occurs inside buildings where the rope launch is of limited use. It’s a shame there isn’t more climbing, because the way the character leaps across buildings and obstacles looks amazing and physically impressive.

Assassin’s Creed Origins and Odyssey negate almost any reason for parkour. The towers that reveal more of the map are still there, but the addition of horses and a much larger world with sparser buildings make it much less common to be running from roof to roof. Climbing is also simplified to being essentially a single button press and choosing which direction to go. There’s no thought needed as to which handhold to move to next.

Over the series, there’s a clear progression from parkour and traversal to combat and RPG being the main focus of gameplay. I don’t think Assassin’s Creed II or Syndicate’s parkour is the best. However, I vastly enjoy and prefer them over recent games in the series as a result of their focus on parkour. It’s a major part of what defined Assassin’s Creed that I’m afraid is being lost.