SSHKK. SKTCH, SKTCH. THUKK.
That's the sound an assassin's retractable blade makes when it's drawn, thrust into someone's chest, then jabbed into his gut. Or at least that's how these sounds-which millions have heard countless times in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed games-have been interpreted in Assassin's Creed: The Fall, a new graphic novel mini-series under production by Montreal's UbiWorkshop.
Penned and drawn by a pair of Canadians-Karl Kerschl, who previously worked on classic DC Comics superheroes Superman and Flash, and multiple award-winning writer and artist Cameron Stewart-it imagines a new chapter in the battle between the freedom-loving Assassins and control-seeking Templars. The action centres around a man living in early 21st century America who experiences hallucinatory memories of a Russian ancestor who fought to keep his country free in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It was conceived as a promotional tool for the recently released Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood , and this less-than-pure origin may lead comic book and video game fans to scoff at it. That would be a mistake-especially for those who enjoy the games' complex and gratifying fiction.
Like the games from which it draws inspiration, The Fall offers modern-day intrigue mixed with lengthy action sequences set in the past. It provides insight into the warring sects' centuries-old feud, gives us sympathetic characters who are filled with self-doubt but are nonetheless obligated to act, and features gripping battles. The writing nails the franchise's vibe while the art-crimson and earthy-toned panels set atop brightly bleached pages (memories within the barren white confines of the animus?)-cleverly evokes the games' computer-generated imagery in hand-drawn style.
The first issue is out now and available in comic shops across the country. The second is due next month, with the third and final chapter slated to arrive early in the new year.
Unfortunately, Assassin's Creed: Ascendance, a seven-minute animated short that's supposed to fill the gap between Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood by showing how the latter's primary villain came to be, didn't move me in quite the same way. It sports a great aesthetic-Renaissance paintings come to life in a layered 3-D world-that isn't quite like anything I've seen before. It's not animation so much as it is a series of pictures placed one on top of the other to create a convincing illusion of depth. The effect is quite compelling. Sadly, its story is short and without climax. It feels like a protracted, artsy teaser trailer rather than its own complete and distinct tale. I don't believe it's worth the 160 Microsoft Points (about $2.00) Ubisoft wants for it on Xbox Marketplace (it's also available on iTunes and through the PlayStation Network). Like all ads, it should have been free.
Ascendance might be a misstep in Ubisoft's media convergence strategy for the Assassin's Creed brand, but it is a rare one. The studio has wisely made available franchise assets to artists working in other mediums, including novels (a paperback adaptation of Assassin's Creed II came out earlier this year and one based on Brotherhood will be released next week), limited edition prints of the games' concept art, and even a series of live-action short films in the form of last year's Assassin's Creed: Lineage, a surprisingly slick trio of downloadable episodes that told the story of series hero Ezio Auditore's father.
Clearly, these offshoots are meant first and foremost to publicize the games, but they tend to be a cut above traditional promotional products. I attribute this not only to the people who work on them-talented artists, writers, historians, actors, and other creative types looking to legitimately ply their craft rather than simply create another piece of promo junk-as well as the depth of the source material. Assassin's Creed's plots, characters, and settings have a richness that few other games can match. They aren't just games; they're interactive stories and art. Hence the property's capacity to flourish outside the medium of games.
So does this mean a trip to the silver screen is the next logical step? Given the dismal quality of pretty much every game-turned-movie I've seen (this spring's thoroughly mediocre Prince of Persia-sprung from another Ubisoft franchise, coincidentally-was the best of the bunch), I rather hope not. Hollywood has yet to prove it can deliver an adaptation of a game as compelling as anything Ubisoft's peripheral content makers are coming up with right now. Until it does I'm perfectly happy picking up the occasional comic book to sate my appetite for new Assassin's Creed stories.