Among the throng of upcoming games, jostling for space in an increasingly busy release schedule, there’s one that doesn’t want to be seen. Every time it catches your eye it seems to melt away, retreating into the crowd like a wave at low tide, but you’re sure it’s there: a stealth spin-off for Assassin’s Creed, codenamed Rift.
First reported on by Bloomberg (opens in new tab) and still to be confirmed by Ubisoft, Rift apparently began life as yet another expansion for Valhalla, but became a standalone game late last year. It’s said to star Basim, the assassin who first teaches Eivor how to wield a hidden blade, and to be less sprawling than recent entries in the series. For Creedheads of a certain age, that’s a thrilling concept. With a generation’s distance from the franchise fatigue that led Ubisoft to pivot towards Witcher-esque exploration, the idea of returning to busy streets in a cramped city sounds like bliss.
Assassin’s Creed is often talked about as a stealth game that, over time, became an RPG – but that’s an oversimplification. In the beginning, going wholly undetected was impossible. While Altaïr’s peers preached subtlety in approach, they never gave him the tools to follow through, leaving him bereft of smoke bombs, poison darts, coin bags, or any of the other gadgets that might have made it viable to distract his enemies. Investigating a target often involved fighting openly in the streets, and crowd-blending was only doable when a scholar’s morning walk happened to converge with your own.
Haystacks and benches? These were means of escape, not of getting in and out unseen. Even if you were to somehow reach a target quietly, a cutscene might be deployed to uncloak you, cueing up a messy chase sequence in the aftermath. Anything to get you back on the rooftops – the only place where the game truly made sense. Of course, 2007’s Assassin’s Creed was a commercial success despite its shortcomings. And in its immediate sequels, Patrice Désilets and team developed novel stealth concepts that better delivered on the fantasy of killing unnoticed. Assassin’s Creed 2 introduced air assassinations, as a way of conferring a covert advantage to players who found a path along the gutters. And it declared that three was a crowd – allowing Ezio a kind of conditional invisibility so long as he could find a few fellow Italians to brush shoulders with.
Most brilliantly, it traded the scholars for prostitutes who, with a small monetary incentive, would surround and cover Ezio as he stalked the streets. A shrewd reimagining of Halo’s shield, this barrier was slowly stripped away as the women peeled off to occupy nearby guards, leaving Ezio all-but naked if alternative shelter wasn’t found. This, finally, was social stealth as Ubisoft had first pitched it.
Over time, more traditional forms of stealth bled into Assassin’s Creed too – ideas crossing the membrane from other nearby Ubisoft games, as they so often do. By the time Unity came out, the cover stealth system that had defined Splinter Cell: Conviction was present and correct – as was the indicator that rendered your last-known-position as a translucent ghost. The influence of Far Cry’s outposts was clear, too, in Black Flag’s plantations – stealth puzzles which required you to study the patrol paths of your opponents, before picking them off in the correct order to evade detection.
Yet Black Flag’s swashbuckling premise ultimately became the turning point for the series – proving the potential for Assassin’s Creed as a broad action-adventure. With Unity launching in a buggy and finicky state, and the audience palpably tired of familiar stealth mission formats, Ubisoft recognised an opportunity – allowing the Black Flag team to double down on RPG action with Origins, and directing its other Assassin’s Creed studios to follow suit.
Infinity and beyond
Ever since, the publisher has distanced itself from the social stealth fantasy it once sold to the public. It must have been a relief to leave behind the unsolved problems of a premise that was, necessarily, fuzzy. Just as all social interaction is opaque and subjective, so too is the stealth derived from it. When is a person hidden in plain sight? What does that look like, exactly? These aren’t questions that naturally lend themselves to the binaries of player-facing game design. Yet, in Ubisoft’s absence, others have moved the form along. IO Interactive has folded Assassin’s Creed 2-style crowd-blending into the toolset of Hitman’s Agent 47 – alongside poisons, overheard conversations, and disguises that act as keycards, allowing access to forbidden areas. The resulting World of Assassination trilogy has shown that social stealth can be both a commercial prospect and critical catnip. Surely, Ubisoft has taken note.
With Rift, it has a chance to capitalize on that appetite – as well as the nostalgia of fans who, by this point, miss the distinct style of the ‘00s Assassin’s Creed games. These are time-poor 30 somethings who would fall over themselves to play a fully featured stealth game with a 20 hour runtime, just the way they used to make ‘em. Unity was already leaning towards Hitman, with main missions that offered various scripted angles of approach, and IO could do with a true competitor to keep it hungry.
If Rift turns out well, then Ubisoft could have a subseries on its hands – which would suit it perfectly. As an enormous global company which handles development internally, one of its biggest problems is ensuring every team has something to work on. Rather than continuing to oversaturate the likes of Valhalla with samey expansions, it could dedicate some of its workforce to a parallel vision of the Creed. If the mysterious online service Assassin’s Creed Infinity will indeed tackle more than one historical setting simultaneously, as Bloomberg has reported, then surely it can encompass more than one genre too. That way, Ubisoft can more easily avoid the repetition that forced Assassin’s Creed’s developers to abandon social stealth in the first place.
“Have you forgotten the meaning of subtlety?”, Jerusalem bureau head Malik once asked Altaïr. Rift is Ubisoft’s chance to prove that it has not.
The best stealth games will keep you concealed in the shadows.