WARNING: This article contains major spoilers for the Assassin's Creed series, up to and including Black Flag.
The secret Assassin-Templar War has been war has been waging for untold ages, all the way to the present. In that time, we've seen the Assassin's Order go through a number of changes, while the Templar Order rose to become an almost unstoppable power. As players know, the Templars have unlimited resources, and its agents work with the best technology the era offers. Although the Assassins have historically managed to get by and even win a few major victories, what are their odds for winning the war? Let's break down some of the major things the Assassins have going against them.
History Has Spoken
At the early phase of its development, Assassin's Creed was supposed to be a new Prince of Persia game based on the life of Hassan-i Sabbah. That is, until the developers realized that the assassin character was far more interesting than the prince. Sabbah was a missionary who seized a fortress called Alamut in northern Persia, led an insurrection against the dominant Seljuk Turks, and founded the Nizari Ismallis Order, sometimes referred to as Hashshashin or Assassins. So, it's no surprise that Assassin's Creed draws much of its inspiration from the novel Alamut, written by Vladimir Bartol, which tells the legend of how the fortress was built by a king who saw an eagle fly up and perch on a rock (a good omen), and carries the maxim, "Nothing is an absolute reality, everything is permitted."
The Hashshashin conducted well-planned covert strikes against high-profile political and religious rivals. Their preferred weapon of choice was a dagger, usually dipped in poison. Being vastly outnumbered, they became masters of disguise, and were trained in various skills, disciplines and languages to blend strategically into key areas. When striking, they would kill targets in public spaces, often in broad daylight, which earned the group a fearsome reputation. However, they weren't the only faction to use these tactics.
In the decades leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, there existed an extremist group comprised of Jewish zealots called Sicarii (dagger-men). As their name suggests, agents carried small daggers (sicae) concealed in their cloaks. They would attend public gatherings and kill the occupying Romans and Roman sympathizers, then blend into the crowd to disappear.
What these two real-life history groups have in common, besides bearing a remarkable similarity to Assassin's Creed tactics, is that both were ultimately destroyed by a greater power. The Hashshashin were effectively wiped out by the Mongols after hundreds of agents were dispatched to kill Möngke Khan in his palace during his conquest of the Middle East. A decree was sent out ordering the eradication of the sect, and Ismallis started to fall, including Alamut. Although the Order managed to retake Alamut for a short time, it was clear that their power as a political faction was gone. The remaining Syrian branch was taken over by Mamluk Sultan Baibars in 1273, and they effectively became paid government assassins, called upon when needed. Remaining survivors were forced to dissimulate, hiding their belief system until it ultimately died out.
Despite committing a number of atrocities (or perhaps because of them), such as destroying Jerusalem's food supply, so that the population would be forced into war instead of negotiating peace with the besieging Romans, the Sicarii became the dominant revolutionary Jewish party and set up base in an abandoned fortress in Masada. That success would be relatively short lived, because by 73 CE, the Romans had had enough. In a sweeping wave of extermination, the Roman Empire chased the Sicarii all the way to their Masada stronghold, where the defenders (about 960 in total, including civilian families) chose to commit mass suicide rather than surrender and be turned into slaves. Unfortunately, the Sicarii's impact didn't end with their deaths. The Romans held the remaining Jewish population with an iron grip to help ensure that another faction like the Sicarii wouldn't rise again.
As history shows, a large standing army and unlimited resources can completely eradicate minority factions, even those trained in the art of assassination. This is even demonstrated in Black Flag, as the British use their overwhelming strength to destroy the pirates. Although the Templar don't always believe in (or even like) the leaders they align themselves with, these powers are merely a means to an end. The Templars take advantage of their ambition, and (more importantly) their armies to further their goals, which includes the destruction of the Assassins.
Defectors and Fratricide
Things are ridiculously bad when a leader, Al Mualim, ends up sharing the Templar philosophy and betrays the Brotherhood in the first game, but things actually get worse. From what we've seen in the games, there are more Assassins switching sides than the other way around, and they rarely go quietly. More often, as either proof of loyalty to the Templars or a final "screw you" to the Brotherhood, Assassin's try to do as much damage as they can upon their departure. It's kind of like quitting a job by stealing all the money from the safe and burning the building to the ground.
At the start of Black Flag, a rogue Assassin named Duncan Walpole is on his way to Havana to sell secrets to the Templar when he is killed by a the pirate Edward Kenway, who assumes his identity and jeopardizes the Assassin's Order in his place. Assassin's Creed Rogue features Shay Patrick Cormac, an Assassin-turned-Templar who makes it his life mission to hunt down and kill his former comrades. His Assassin hunting is so prolific that he effectively eliminates all the Order from the New World, allowing the Templar influence to grow unimpeded.
Perhaps the most shocking defector is Lucy Stillman, who was indoctrinated into the Assassin's Order as a child, and was sent in to infiltrate Abstergo's Animus Project. It was while working deep undercover that her allegiances began to shift. Years of isolation, and William Miles (the Order's new leader) drove her to become a double agent for the Templars. She set forth a chain of events, starting with handing the Assassin Clay Kaczmarek's (Subject 16) genetic memories over to the Templars, which alerted them to the fact that Ezio Auditore da Firenze knew about the Apple of Eden and where one of the First Civilization Vaults is located.
Afterwards, her orders were to gain Desmond's trust, make it look like she orchestrated his escape, then keep tabs on him until the Apple of Eden was found. Then she was to bring the Apple back to the Templars. She would have been successful if Juno hadn't seen Lucy's true motives and used Desmond's body to kill her.
While we're counting points on the betrayal scoreboard, let's not forget about Daniel Cross, a Templar sleeper agent who infiltrated the Assassin's Order and successfully killed its revered and almost mythical leader, the Mentor.
The Templar's best spy and the Brotherhood's worst enemy? Desmond Miles. Or, at least his DNA. Despite using his familial history and connection with prominent members of the First Civilization to save the world from cataclysm, the information his genetic memory holds remains a threat to the Brotherhood even after his death. The Templars were able to recover Desmond's body and continue to use it to recover First Civilization artifacts.
A Deeply Flawed Philosophy
Although the Assassin's Order's goals have changed during the course of its long history, the goal has always been to fight for freedom, individuality, and the growth of new ideas. Total freedom for all people. This is why their targets tend toward tyrants and oppressors, although modern Assassins are more preoccupied with thwarting the Templar, which seek to create a perfect and ordered world by robbing everyone of free will. Although total freedom sounds like a high ideal, the truth is, the philosophy is rife with contradictions and the approach toward ensuring freedom is deeply flawed.
As Haytham Kenway points out in Assassin's Creed 3, the Templar Order was born from a realization about society's truth. The Assassin's Order, on the other hand, is born out of reaction. Tyrants will always rise to power, even with Assassins cutting them down. Templar realize that the people never really have power, only the illusion of it, and they work with the system instead of against it. That's why they don't need a creed or any sort of indoctrination. The only thing they require is that the world be as it is. It's a truth that's repeated at the end of Assassin's Creed 3, when Desmond learns that even if everyone were freed from the shackles of society and he led them onto a path of enlightenment, his teachings would only become twisted to suit those seeking power. The nature of freedom is also talked about frequently in Black Flag, when Edward reconsiders his views on what a utopian world, where people were free to live without rules.
The Creed's three original tenants (1. Stay your blade from the flesh of an innocent. 2. Hide in plain sight, be one with the crowd. 3. Never compromised the Brotherhood) focus specifically on a code of conduct, which could just as easily be adapted to suit the Templars. In fact, Templars have copied many of the Assassins' tactics, including the hidden blades and free-running.
With the exception of Altair, Aveline de Grandpre, and possibly James Kidd (aka Mary Read) among a handful of other noteworthy Assassins, it doesn't seem like many are brought into the Order to fight tyranny. Many become Assassins for selfish reasons, usually because of a dead parent. Ezio Auditore, often credited as being one of the best Assassins in all of history, initially became one to pursue vengeance for his family. Similarly, Arno Dorian in Unity seeks to redeem himself by avenging the death of his adoptive father. Connor (aka Ratonhnhaké:ton), who happens to be the son of Templar Grand Master Haytham Kenway, became an Assassin as a means to both find a way to protect his people and to avenge his mother's death. Edward Kenway came around after trying to undo some of the damage he did to the Order... and after spending some time trapped on a deserted island, discovering the Templar plot to rule the world, and being told off by his quartermaster, Adéwalé. In the modern era, most Assassins are born into the Order. Rebecca Crane and Shaun Hastings happen to be one of the few that are recruited.
The irony here is that an organization that represents freedom and peace fights for it through indoctrination and assassination. Initiation originally required the removal of the ring finger, both as a show of commitment to the Order, and so that the hidden blade could come out more easily. That was before Leonardo da Vinci upgraded it. Afterwards, branding the ring finger became the mutilation of choice.
Altair reconciles this by saying that the world is an illusion and that, ".. our Creed does not command us to be free. It commands us to be wise." A sentiment that is echoed centuries later by Mary Read, who says, “We’re Assassins and we follow a Creed, aye. But it does not command us to act or submit... only to be wise.” But wisdom seems to be really hard to come by, and it's a cold comfort when you consider the costs of being an Assassin. Even Ezio dies under mysterious circumstances. Many Assassins, like Connor and Edward, lose almost everyone they old dear, and Mary Read died in great pain during her rescue attempt from prison. Anne Bonny, an Irish pirate, former barmaid and once quartermaster of the Jackdaw, admitted that she lacked the conviction needed to stay with the Assassins. She, like many, lost everything she held dear after getting tangled up, however briefly, in the Assassin and Templar war.
Lastly, there's the Creed famous maxim: Nothing is true, everything is permitted. No matter what changes the Assassin's Order goes through, the maxim remains relatively unchanged, and it is often discussed across different games. Sophia, Ezio's sister, called it cynical. Both Edward Kenway and Desmond Miles question the maxim, and both ultimately become comfortable with how it's an incomplete idea.
On the other side of things, the Templar seem to have a high retention rate, despite its rather indifferent attitude towards oppression and death. There are a number of characters in Black Flag, many of whom former associates of Edward Kenway, that proclaim their love of the Templar and how the Order is like a family. Even Clay Kaczmarek, while spying on the Templars, observed that its philosophy is tantalizingly simple. It offers "easy solutions to complex problems. Just do X, Y and Z and all your problems disappear…" Templars understand that most people don't want to ponder the deeper meaning of a Creed or search the world for a sense of purpose. With them, they have a purpose handed straight to them.
Assassins Lost the Tech Race
From the dawn of the conflict, both Templars and Assassins have been fighting for control over ancient artifacts, called Pieces of Eden, left behind by the First Civilization - a race so advanced that they were once revered as gods. This tech race also underscores each Order's philosophy. The Templar prefer to study and find uses for First Civilization technology to further their goals. Assassins, on the other hand, often prefer to lock the technology away so that it can't fall into dangerous hands.
Wars are often won through manpower and technologies, like guns or the atomic bomb, and Templars have the advantage in both fronts. At the start of Assassin's Creed 3, William Miles admits that the Templars have recovered more artifacts than the Assassins have. Using its unlimited resources, the Templar Order set up a front company called Abstergo and used it to research the Animus Project and set up a global satellite communications network. Desmond Miles saved the satellites, along with the rest of the modern world, from destruction when he used a planetary shield to protect the planet from a catastrophic solar flare. Although it's nice to not be sent back to the stone age, Desmond inadvertently preserved the Templar's biggest advantage.
With the satellite network in place and a powerful cloud computing system behind it, the Templars remain one move away from checkmate. They just need to plug the Apple into it to gain control over the world. So far, the Assassins have kept the Apple, a mass mind control device, out of Templar hands. But how long can it stay that way, with the Templars using the Animus to search through the genetic memories of untold numbers of people with Assassin ancestry? We've already seen the terrible power the Apple brings across multiple games, and The Tyranny of King Washington DLC. Even if they cannot procure an Apple, they may be able to get an artifact that is just as powerful and dangerous. Not to mention, the satellite network is still being used to search the world for Assassins and root out their activities.
Do the Assassins Stand a Chance?
In Assassin's Creed 2, Rebecca Crane states that the Templar Order's biggest problem is that they lack conviction. They have no compassion or competitive edge. That's why, even with all the resources it has at its disposal, anything they do, Rebecca can do better and faster. She demonstrates this by engineering a better Animus for Desmond to use. While that's all well and good, the Assassins could still use a dozen more like her. The truth is, there's no big reason for the Templars to act competitive when it has a massive advantage in so many areas.
But don't count the Assassins out yet. Rebecca and Shaun managed to fully infiltrate Abstergo's cloud computer system in Black Flag, and even recruited an inside agent equipped with high security access. Together, they have the chance to copy and improve some of Abstergo's technologies, like they did with the Animus, or find ways to sabotage the system. If they're smart, they'll quietly siphon funds from some of those fat bank accounts.
However, the tipping point will most like come from Juno's freed digital ghost. Even as the First Civilization faced possible annihilation from a coming solar flare, Juno made moves to seize control over all people. Her digitally copied consciousness is hiding in Abstergo's global computer network, and she's trying to gather enough strength to break out and use a human as a host body. No one knows what her plan is, but her attitudes towards humans were laid out by the Sage in Black Flag. The First Civilization created humans to be a docile workforce, and she regards them as tools. This attitude, and her cunning, is demonstrated by how she manipulated the Assassins into setting her free. It doesn't matter to Juno, whose consciousness has been trapped inside a computer for millennia, that the First Civilization has been wiped out and that humans are the dominant species. She probably has a plan, set in motion thousands of years ago, to make her escape and take up a role as a god-like ruler of the planet.
It's likely that she will become a threat too great to ignore, and the Templars will have to join forces with the Assassins to combat her. While that wouldn't exactly be a win, it wouldn't be a loss either. It might not even end the long-standing war, but it could create a temporary cease fire so that the Assassins might regain an advantage.
Whatever the case, the future of the Assassins Order remains grim. They're outnumbered, outmaneuvered, and outgunned. Their only hope is literally from a deus ex machina, who may prove to be a bigger threat than the Templars. But, as we've seen, if there's one thing that Assassin's have, it's conviction, and support from some unexpected places. It gains members by giving power to the powerless. So, as we travel back in time to relive history, we'll also eagerly wait to see how the present plays out.