Hindsight : Assassins Creed 3
Cart: Assassin’s Creed 3
Cab: Xbox 360 / PS3 / Wii U / PC
Coin: Ubisoft Montreal
The Assassin’s Creed series is all about duality.
On one hand you have the character of Desmond: trapped in the future accessing his ancestors’ memories through the Animus device. A man so interesting, most players actively wish for him to sleep for most of the game so that they can play the exciting bits and avoid hand-holding platform sections, ponderous conversations with mystical space ghosts and interactions with digital recreations of Danny Wallace. On the other hand, you have the ancestors themselves: historic assassins who get to enjoy all the cool bits like running along rooftops and killing historical mentalists with knives.
The original Assassin’s Creed game was lauded for its technical presentation, but once players made their way through the first section of the game it was revealed to be as hollow a simulation as the Animus itself. The wash>rinse>repeat style of researching your victims, killing them and escaping became tiresome and repetitive – despite always being beautifully presented. It was good-looking, sure – but there just wasn’t much going on upstairs.
Mindful of this criticism, the developers expanded on the range of tasks an assassin must complete to rise within the mysterious order in the predictable sequel. These included racing and interior decoration along with courting ladies and punching minstrels in the face. ACII had more character and swagger, as evidenced by its colourful protagonist Ezio Auditore – essentially a Venetian Fonzi from Happy Days who, if alive in this era, would either be a lecherous waiter or one of those oddballs who stand outside Rome’s Coliseum dressed as a gladiator.
ACII’s Renaissance-era game world is one of the most fully realised I’ve ever explored, boasting a fantastic sense of place and a wonderfully refined set of traversal mechanics. You’re never really bored within ACII as a new mission, new area or new plot development is (to misquote the Rolling Stones) just a kill and a hay-bale jump away.
“Halt! Those shoes don’t go with those pants!”
AC: Brotherhood followed a year later and added an assassin management mode where you would recruit young upstarts and mould them into merciless killers. In this game, Ezio channelled another English-speaking Italian archetype: the cheeky patriarch Tony Danza in ‘Who’s the Boss?’ – although with a slightly more violent bias. Many suggest that this is where the game peaked. I must admit I found it a little too repetitive and checked-out before the now de rigueur ‘space ghost cliff-hanger ending’. AC: Revelations followed about two weeks later. I didn’t play this one at all so I’m not sure what the revelations were, but I assume they included checking timesheets, union management and a lot of meetings about hygiene in the assassins’ canteen.
Which brings me, in appropriately bloated fashion, to Assassin’s Creed III.
Lacking the series’ most iconic protagonist and set in a time when firearms were more prevalent and the natives were more willing to use them; ACIII is undoubtedly a bigger revelation than Revelations, with a host of new mechanics, options, animations and bigger story than ever before. Ezio is long gone and we now play a mysterious Native American called Connor. He’s not really all that mysterious to be honest, but as with most portrayals of America’s indigenous population, he’s fairly stoic and spends a lot of time looking into the middle distance whilst talking about cougars to the accompaniment of eagles crying in the distance. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see him on the cover of Pan Pipe Moods or emblazoned on a market stall fleece between a picture of a wolf and a dream catcher.
It’s initially jarring to play as someone essentially devoid of personality. It also seems that the developers agreed in some way to use a different character as a gateway into this new world and protagonist. In a move that seems to have angered many (yet strikes me as being an admirable decision borne of a studio filled with confidence in their abilities), the first few hours of ACIII play out in the company of Haytham: a British gent voyaging to the New World in search of a mysterious macguffin. It’s through Haytham that you experience some of the game’s new additions. And, though he’s more likely to kill your girlfriend than steal her, he’s as well drawn a character as Ezio. He’s just not as much fun.
After the Haytham sections you take control of a young Connor as he learns the basic skills required to survive the game world. The first few sections offer hiding and hunting tutorials along with treetop traversal. Assassin’s Creed III goes to great pains to make sure you’re comfortable with the basics, then piles on the options with loads of new equipment types, game modes and missions. It does a fairly poor job of introducing all of these new additions though. You’re allowed four slots of equipment but the game gives you about twenty different tools to hunt, kill and get around the world with, so you’re continually altering your quick load-out. Which, y’know, kind of negates the need for a quick load out.
Combat too has a long way to go. While the world traversal is so streamlined that all you really have to do is press one button and a direction to move around the map, manually aiming an arrow requires the kind of patience and dexterity you’d need to thread a needle after five espressos and a slap in the face. Some of the introductions to the larger mechanics are equally vague. You can improve your homestead, which gives you new artisans, who can then craft things, which you can then move and sell. Each of these steps receives a cursory introduction and then you’re free to guess what the hell you’re supposed to be doing before wondering why they didn’t call it ‘Accountant’s Creed’ or ‘Barrelcraft’. The wealth of options really is astounding but in a game about coming of age, it’s not unlike waking on your 18th birthday to find your present is being kicked out of the house.
Thankfully, not all additions are quite so baffling. The new ship missions are solid and their introductions are well-paced. The only question you’re left with is ‘Why is a Native American teenager now a sea-captain?’ Thankfully, such questions dissipate when you use a cannon volley to sink a battleship or duck incoming fire and plunge headlong into a boat, condemning its crew to Davy Jones’ changing room – or whatever they called the sea in those days. The variety and fun of these maritime sections suggests that it won’t be too long before Ubisoft release a stand-alone naval game. As long as it doesn’t also contain an artisan peg-leg crafting component.
The seed-planting mini-game was finally bearing fruit. And vegetables.
The downside of these new additions to the series – beyond a prolonged period of head scratching – is the bugs they cause within the game world. If history is really told by the victors then with millions of sales of the series, it’s clear that Ubisoft are doing all of the talking. My only concern is that future tales of the American Revolution will be filled with passages on infinitely re-spawning Red Coats, flying bears, tree-climbing wolves, triple-headed mutant soldiers, invisible drums, floating rifles and a mysterious protagonist who – when not taking part in every key stage in American history – was launching himself into space or trapping himself in infinitely looping animations.
It’s a great shame, but not completely surprising, to find Assassin’s Creed III is more bug-riddled than the aforementioned assassin’s canteen. When combined with the confusing new gameplay additions, you’re not really sure what is intentionally confusing and what is just plain broken. Despite lots of support, letting them build pubs and slightly sinister coaxing to encourage them to breed with each other, my homestead artisans seem reluctant to do little beyond greeting Connor and sitting about in the woods. Likewise, I’ve accepted a few courier missions only to wonder just who in the Samuel Hell I’m supposed to be delivering them too.
Despite these flaws, it’s testament to the rest of the game and its new additions that AC III provides a highly involving and richly rewarding experience that I’ve spent more time than is probably healthy getting familiar with. Although it’s often lumped in with fellow yearly cash cows like the COD series, it is still a very unique (not to mention completely bat-shit crazy) experience that provides a colourful and accessible history lesson. It also allows you to throw people into the sea, stab bears in the neck and create barrels if you should so desire, for which it should be lauded. I only hope Ubisoft get their shit together post-haste to try to iron out some of the kinks in this iteration and think more about the user-experience in next year’s inevitable follow-up. Oh, and if they could get rid of the annoying orphans, that would also be great.
Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed III over-reaches, but did not alienate me in doing so. There’s a huge amount of things to do with a lot of optional side-quests. That said, despite these progressions, you can level some of the key criticisms of the first game against its descendant. Ubisoft seemed so preoccupied with the graphical and technical achievements they were creating that the player becomes something of an afterthought: left to explore the unfinished bugs, glitches and under-developed ideas while, in fairness, not having an immense amount of fun.
So, there you go: In a series famed for its duality, I’ve had the best of times; I’ve had the worst of times.
This article was originally published here on VoxelArcade as a Review in 2012
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Lancaster based writer, blogger and digital navel-gazer. Opinions are, sadly, all his own. Favourite games include: Streetfighter II, Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye, Tenchu, Red Dead Redemption, Deus-Ex and Granny’s Garden.