Places: The Holy Land

by Matt Miller on Nov 19, 2012 at 11:00 AM

When Assassin's Creed released in 2007, most gamers had no idea what to make of the strange project. Set in the modern day, the game established a complex fiction about a machine that allowed users to stare back into their own genetic memory and experience their ancestors' lives first hand. As Desmond begins to explore the life of his ancestor, Altaïr, we gamers get to come along for the ride. We discover a richly imagined and researched land at the height of the Third Crusade. The chance to experience history in this new form was remarkable, establishing Assassin's Creed with of the coolest settings in gaming. 

In that first game, it became apparent right away that the developers at Ubisoft Montreal had done their homework. Historically accurate architecture and locales are everywhere in the game. The mysterious fortress of Masyaf, Altaïr’s home base in the game, is an actual site in modern-day Syria. In fact, it was the fortress home of the Hashashins, the group upon which the Assassins in the game are based. Venturing out into the vast open world kingdom, players find a landscape meant to echo the lands between Acre, Damascus, and Jerusalem. The northern part of the kingdom is dominated by lush green hills that give way to harsh deserts in the south. While in retrospect, this kingdom had a dearth of real mission content, at the time it was fascinating to cross the countryside on your horse, killing Templars as you went along, and climbing high towers and churches to uncover new viewpoints. 

Each of the three cities at the edges of the kingdom has its own distinct identity. Blue-tinged Acre is the classic port city, and it shows the signs of the recent conflict that had given control of the city to the attacking Christian armies. Damascus, with its bright colors and Islamic mosques, feels like a gem in the midst of the desert. Jerusalem feels like a clash of different cultures – a rich, cosmopolitan city with all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore. In each, the city is filled with people going about their business, and reacting to the way you run or walk through the world. As missions progress, you interrogate enemy soldiers for hints to your target’s location, or sit quietly on a bench to eavesdrop on a nearby conversation, deepening the sense that you are a deadly assassin hiding in plain sight. 

More recently, other entries in the Assassin’s Creed games have dramatically expanded the complexity of the locations you visit, from trips to Rome and Constantinople to recent adventures in Boston and New York. In addition, other game projects like LA Noire, Red Dead Redemption, and The Saboteur have further developed the potential of exploring a fictionalized historical setting. Nonetheless, Assassin’s Creed tapped the idea early on, showing the potential of an open world rooted in historical fact, and just how big and ambitious such a game world could be using this generation of console technology. 

Visiting Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus, and all the lands in between was one of the highlights that made me an early believer in the potential of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. As I think back on what made those locations so intriguing, I’m excited once again to see where (and when) the series will go next. 

What was your favorite Assassin's Creed setting? Or for that matter, your favorite historical setting in any video game? Let us know in the comments below.