Every Assassin’s Creed game tells two intertwining stories. One is of an Assassin and their adventures in the past, and the other is of a person in the present who’s experiencing that Assassin’s “genetic memories” through a device known as the Animus, or more recently as Helix. While the historical Assassins inhabit mostly self-contained stories that link together across centuries, the present-day storyline has continued in a more or less linear fashion since the series began.
In case you’ve missed any of the previous games, we’ve put together a condensed version of each game’s modern-day plot to catch you up on what’s happened since Desmond Miles was first imprisoned by Abstergo. There are huge spoilers ahead (although we’ve left the plotlines of the comics and other media for you to discover), so consider yourself warned.
In 2012, a young bartender named Desmond Miles is kidnapped by operatives working for Abstergo, a giant multinational corporation with its fingers in a wide array of industries. Confined to a laboratory with an adjoining cell, he’s forced by Dr. Warren Vidic to use a device called the Animus to relive the genetic memories of his ancestor, Altair Ibn La’Ahad, an Assassin who lived in the Levant during the Third Crusade.
Desmond, it turns out, was raised by modern-day Assassins at a desert compound, in cultlike conditions, and was scooped up by Abstergo not long after he fled. As Vidic’s assistant, Lucy Stillman, reveals, Abstergo is actually a modern front for the ancient nemeses of the Assassins, the Knights Templar, who want to find the mysterious “Apple of Eden” and use it to enslave humanity.
During Desmond’s sessions, he forms an uneasy rapport with Lucy. Reading her emails and the veiled threats she receives reveals that she’s almost as much a captive as Desmond is. He finds notes on Abstergo’s previous, deceased test subject, Subject 16, who appears to have been driven mad by the “Bleeding Effect,” a side effect of prolonged Animus use that causes genetic memories to become indistinguishable from perception of the present. And he listens as Abstergo security kills off a squad of Assassins who were sent to rescue him. As Assassin’s Creed’s story concludes, Desmond returns to his cell and discovers that the Bleeding Effect has awakened his latent Eagle Vision, and he can now see a series of arcane symbols painted in blood by Subject 16.
Beginning seconds after Assassin’s Creed’s ending, Assassin’s Creed II opens with Desmond being broken out of confinement by Lucy. As they fight their way through Abstergo’s security guards, Lucy reveals she’s a double agent, sent by the Assassins to spy on Vidic – and now, to retrieve Desmond. Stuffing him in her trunk, she drives him to an Assassin safehouse, where he meets two other modern Assassins, historian Shaun Hastings (who writes Database entries on historically significant people, places and events) and technician Rebecca Crane, who’s improved considerably on Abstergo’s Animus design.
Over the course of his first adventure as Ezio Auditore, Desmond discovers mysterious Glyphs hacked into the Animus by Subject 16, which gradually reveal that nearly every notable person and event in modern history has been part of a secret war between the Assassins and Templars that predates the Crusades by thousands of years. They also reveal that the Templars, fronted by Abstergo, are now the de facto rulers of the world, with the Assassins putting up a ragtag resistance following their near-eradication in 2000.
Desmond also picks up Ezio’s Assassin skills while in the Animus, and as he practices them in the real world, ghostly images of Altair’s Third Crusade memories begin appearing over his surroundings – the Bleeding Effect in action. As Ezio’s quest for revenge draws to a close, the holographic projection of Minerva – a scientist of the First Civilization, who created the Apple of Eden, and whose lingering DNA is the source of Eagle Vision – tells Ezio to shut up and speaks directly to Desmond through the Animus, charging him with averting a new apocalypse caused by an impending solar flare. Soon afterward, Abstergo’s security goons raid the safehouse, and Desmond, Lucy and company fight their way through goon squads as the credits roll – only to watch Vidic escape just as they catch up to him. Shortly afterward, the Assassins flee as well.
As the modern-day Assassins head to Monteriggioni, Ezio’s ancestral home, Desmond’s Bleeding Effect manifests itself as ghostly afterimages of Ezio, which lead him through an underground passage and into the ancient vault underneath Ezio’s villa, hidden from Abstergo’s global cellular-signal surveillance. As Ezio explores Rome, Desmond uncovers a cryptic hidden message left behind by Subject 16, who now haunts the Animus as a sentient AI copy of the original.
While Desmond can now leave the Animus at any time to explore the modern village of Monteriggioni at night (and find a few ancient belongings of Ezio’s), his story doesn’t really kick in until near the end of the game, when he discovers where Ezio hid his Apple of Eden: under Rome’s Basilica di Santa Maria in Aracoeli. Desmond makes a beeline for the landmark along with Lucy, Rebecca and Shaun, where he encounters another First Civilization projection, Juno. Seizing the Apple of Eden, Desmond becomes helplessly transfixed as time freezes around him, and – seemingly losing control of his body – he stabs Lucy before blacking out. As the credits roll, a pair of voices argue about shoving the now-comatose Desmond back into the Animus.
Lucy’s apparent demise was a big cliffhanger, and Assassin’s Creed Revelations resolved it quickly: She died, making Shaun extremely suspicious that Desmond might be a Templar agent, a notion Desmond’s father William rejects. For his part, Desmond was still outwardly in a coma, but his mind was now trapped on a virtual island inside the Animus, along with a copy of Subject 16, also known as Clay Kaczmarek.
By exploring all of Ezio and Altair’s remaining genetic memories, Desmond overcomes the coma caused by the Bleeding Effect and gains access to the Nexus of the Animus – but not before Clay’s avatar shields Desmond from deletion by the Animus, imprinting Desmond with Clay’s genetic memories in the process. Those memories in turn reveal that Lucy had in fact been turned by the Templars, had purposely driven Clay to suicide after he found out, and planned to betray Desmond and the Assassins from the start – something Juno understood well in advance, and revealed to Desmond when he took the Apple.
In the Nexus, Desmond meets Jupiter, another First Civilization representative (or Precursor), who shows him how – in the middle of a war between the First Civilization and humanity (which was created by the Precursors as a slave species) – nearly everything was destroyed by a solar flare similar to the one Desmond is trying to prevent. The key, he reveals, is in an underground First Civilization temple hidden in New York. Desmond wakes from his coma, his Bleeding Effect under control and his path now clear.
Meanwhile, a Templar recruit named Juhani Otso Berg rises through the order’s ranks as part of the Animi Training Program (which is to say Revelations’ multiplayer), quickly becoming one of Abstergo’s most important agents under the auspices of Vidic and high-ranking Templar Laetitia England.
Along with William, Shaun and Rebecca, Desmond makes his way to the New York temple, unlocking it with the Apple of Eden. Inside, he speaks with Juno’s sentient projection, who guides him toward reactivating the ancient temple with Precursor power cells. To find these, Desmond has to venture out into the modern world, retrieving the treasures from a Manhattan office building and an MMA match in Brazil. At every turn, he runs afoul of Daniel Cross, the Bleeding Effect-damaged Templar agent responsible for the Great Purge of the Assassin Order.
While searching for a third power cell in Egypt, William is kidnapped by Abstergo, and Vidic demands the Apple of Eden as ransom. Desmond brings the Apple to the same offices where he was confined in the first Assassin’s Creed, but puts up a fight, eventually facing Daniel Cross for a third time. Cross becomes overwhelmed by the Bleeding Effect at a crucial moment, however, enabling Desmond to chase him down and easily kill him. Confronting Vidic in his office, Desmond at last produces the Apple – and uses it to force Vidic’s guards to kill everyone in the room, starting with Vidic himself.
After uncovering the final key he needs to activate the temple, Desmond is confronted by projections of both Juno and Minerva. Juno wants Desmond to activate the temple and save the world, but Minerva urges him not to, revealing that this would also free Juno from imprisonment, a fate Minerva views as worse than the near-annihilation of human civilization. Desmond disagrees, choosing to turn on a planetary shield at the cost of his own life. The world sees only a strange green glow in the skies, unaware that it’s protecting them from the apocalypse.
Assassin’s Creed III Liberation
While there wasn’t a full modern-day storyline here, Liberation’s conceit is that it’s the first Animus entertainment product marketed by Abstergo, letting players experience the (edited) genetic memories of New Orleans Assassin Aveline de Grandpre. The mysterious Erudito hacking collective isn’t about to let Abstergo do this unopposed, however, and adds code to the program that reveals the unabridged versions of Aveline’s memories, showing the Templars’ methods to be as cruel and ruthless as ever.
Building on the idea of the Animus as a game-like consumer product, Assassin’s Creed IV casts you as a never-seen analyst mining the genetic memories of pirate-turned-Assassin Edward Kenway. Guided by John Standish, an IT technician secretly working with the Assassins, you gradually discover that the memories you explore came from Desmond, whose body was recovered and dissected by Abstergo following the events of Assassin’s Creed III.
As you uncover this and other nuggets of classified information (by hacking your co-workers’ computers), you periodically hand the information off to Shaun and Rebecca, who hang around Abstergo Entertainment’s lobby disguised as a barista and a messenger, respectively. After the disappearance of Abstergo’s Chief Creative Officer Olivier Garneau (whose fate is revealed in Watch Dogs), you’re caught up in a hacking investigation and locked in a cell, where you’re encouraged to continue your research.
Standish has other plans, however, and reveals himself to be the latest incarnation of the Sage, an individual who bears (and is gradually taken over by) the genetic memories of Juno’s human-hating Precursor husband. Juno’s consciousness, we learn, is freely traveling through Abstergo’s networks, and Standish wants to use you as her avatar. This attempt fails, however, and Standish is discovered and killed by Abstergo security, after which his Precursor-DNA-carrying remains are taken into custody. You’re cleared of any wrongdoing, and Shaun and Rebecca apologize – but ask that you continue sending them whatever information you can find.
Continuing in the vein of Assassin’s Creed IV, Assassin’s Creed Rogue’s present-day story put you in the shoes of a different analyst for Abstergo Entertainment, who triggers a virus while combing through the genetic memories of turncoat Assassin Shay Patrick Cormac. Alongside Templar agents Violet da Costa and Juhani Otso Berg, you work to repair the damage while uncovering Shay’s sordid history. After Berg orders you to send Shay’s story to the modern Assassins, you’re invited, more or less at gunpoint, to join the Templar Order.
Assassin’s Creed Unity
Assassin’s Creed Unity adds a new character to the present-day mix: Bishop, who works with Shaun and recruits you to the Assassin order through Helix, the latest consumer version of the Animus. The Assassins have destroyed Standish’s genetic samples and the facility that housed them, we learn, leaving Abstergo to scour the past for another source of First Civilization DNA. Arno Dorian’s story, then, is really a way for the Assassins to discover the location of a known Sage’s remains before Abstergo does – although as the ending of Unity reveals, said Sage’s skeleton is now indistinguishable from the millions of others entombed in the Paris Catacombs.
Where will the present-day plot go from there? Find out when Assassin’s Creed Syndicate launches for PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on October 23.
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