In Assassin’s Creed, the protagonist is always portrayed as a Master Assassin. His allies respect him. His enemies fear him. In the later games, he recruits new Assassins, trains them, and presides over their “graduation.” He’s clearly the leader, and he’s clearly a capable leader. But as the combat changes from game to game, so do the character traits that it implies.
The one-hit kill counter system that has been in place since the first game says a lot about the Assassins as a group, since this seems to be their default fighting style. It’s defensive in nature, emphasizing technique and technical mastery over aggressive flailing, which is to say: button timing over button mashing.
Altair rarely attacks directly. Instead he spends most of his time countering, using the enemy’s own momentum against themselves. To pull this off, we have to hit the counter button just as the enemy is attacking, and we’re rewarded with an easy kill. This need to wait for a proper opening in the enemy’s defense shows us a fighter who is patient, and the ease with which we can pull off the counter suggests that he’s very skilled as well: The timing for the counter is easy because the act of countering is easy. Altair can also block and deflect most attacks (if not all attacks—I don’t believe the “brute” enemy was introduced until the sequel) with similar ease: All the player has to do is hold down a trigger button. As long as we’re holding “block,” Altair will block; it doesn’t matter where the attack comes from. All of this proves that Altair is a better swordsman than most (if not all) of his opponents, and he is a better swordsman because he has a better understanding of the techniques of combat. He’s not stronger then the men he fights. He’s smarter.
What is particularly interesting about these combat controls is how they represent the Assassins’ greater philosophical beliefs. The Assassins are humanists. They believe an individual should make decisions for him or herself, that any faith one puts in a person or object should be based on experience and trust; blind faith is unacceptable. So naturally their fighting style revolves around not jumping to conclusions. They fight rationally, never attacking when it’s unnecessary, and because they always wait for the enemy to attack first, their fighting style puts a lot of faith in the individual. When Altair is surrounded by guards, outnumbered ten to one, the world is tempting him to act emotionally, to panic and flail and attack without reason, but if he gives in to that fear, then he’ll surely be killed. The Assassins’ combat emphasizes the strength of the individual, and the benefits of technical rationality over brute emotional strength. In essence, if you lose your cool, you’ll get killed. Remain calm, and you’ll slaughter everyone.
Ezio fights similarly, he is an Assassin after all, but his style goes through some telling changes over the next three games. Assassin’s Creed II adds “brute” characters that can break through our one button block with a large lance or axe. This naturally makes combat more difficult, but more importantly, it shows that a fighting style from the 12th century is not entirely adaptable to the 15th century. These new dangers force Ezio to use new tools of his own—smoke bombs, poison, and a hidden gun. It’s interesting that this is accepted by the Assassins. Using technology to better ourselves is not demonized, it is embraced. This shows the liberalism of the Assassin beliefs: They’re governed by general ideas rather than strict rules, and this allows them to evolve with the times. Ezio still fights like a typical Assassin, waiting for an enemy to attack and then using his superior skill to counter, but he now has a means to defend himself against the new weapons of the Renaissance.
Brotherhood adds a mechanic that allows Ezio to chain one counterattack into multiple attacks. This represents a major shift in the Assassins’ attitudes, but it accurately reflects where they are as an organization and who Ezio is as a person at this point in time.
As the newly appointed leader of the Assassins, Ezio is more confident than he was before. He’s no longer just a man out for revenge like he was for most of Assassin’s Creed II. He’s now a figure of authority and his fighting style changes to reflect this. The core of his combat is the same—wait for the enemy to expose himself; fight with patience rather than recklessness—but now his attack doesn’t end with just one person, he takes a greater initiative and moves from kill to kill.
The Assassins as a group are also on the offensive. In Assassin’s Creed II they spent most of their time hiding, working from the shadows. In Brotherhood they take a more active role in overthrowing the Borgia. They actively recruit people to join their cause, they create alliances with multiple guilds in Rome, and they team with the French to fight the Pope. Under Ezio, the Assassins are no longer just reacting to the Templars but taking proactive steps against them.
By the end of Brotherhood, the Borgia are no longer a threat, so it makes sense that in Revelations Ezio is willing to leave the city on a personal quest. His old age defines much of this fourth game. It’s integral to the plot, his character arc, and the new combat systems.
Revelations introduces another new enemy, the Janissaries, who can actually block our counterattack. That means a Janissary can pretty much stand toe-to-toe with Ezio. Based on the combat of the previous games, we know that Ezio should be better than this. The fact that he is not shows us that he is not the swordsman that he once was. His age has caught up to him. It’s best to not attack a Janissary directly. Instead, you attack an unarmored guard that you can easily kill and then use the chaining system to take the Janissary by surprise, killing him in one strike. Since Ezio can still kill them in one hit, it’s obvious that he still knows how to fight, but he can’t easily defeat the Janissary through sheer technical superiority. He has to take them by surprise, which again shows his age.
And once again, the combat also reflects the state of the Assassin organization in Constantinople. In this new city, the Assassins are on the defensive, so it makes sense that Ezio would have to fight more defensively. That status, along with Ezio’s age, results in the most complex and difficult combat of the series (which is not to say that it is actually hard, but it is pretty complex). This is first time in the series that Ezio is not naturally stronger than his opponents, so he again embraces a new technology to make up for any inadequacy: bombs. The combat in Revelations gives us more killing tools than ever before. Mechanically, it’s a natural extension of the increasingly complex combat but that complexity makes thematic sense as well since Ezio is in a unique situation that should encourage him to use all of those other means of killing besides his blades.
It’ll be interesting to see how the combat changes in Assassin’s Creed III. With a new character and time period, there’s no need to bring back the same mechanics and systems that defined Ezio or Altair. Those men were products of their time. Connor shouldn’t fight like a 15th century Italian, and I’m curious how an 18th century Native American adapts the Assassin combat to his own unique threats.