- Assassin’s Creed 3
- CLR [rating:3.0]
Release Date: October 30th (X360, PS3) – November 30th (Win, Wii U), 2012
Platform: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Windows PC, Wii U
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft Inc.
Genre: Open World Swashbuckling Adventure
ESRB: M for Mature
Campaign Running Time: 25-50 Hours + Multiplayer
Auteurs Attached: Alex Hutchinson, Corey May, & the specter of Patrice Desilets
‘Lost’ in the Wilderness of Sloppy Execution(s).
Looking back, it’s been a decidedly depressing year for the number 3 in gaming. In March we had Mass Effect 3, a once-great trilogy concluding quite unexpectedly as a whimpering failure to an unprecedented level of ire. This was followed in May, with Max Payne 3, which was actually quite good but embraced depression (alcoholic in nature) as its primary theme, and then Diablo 3, which embraced World of Warcraft as its primary theme and was a categorical disappointment, at least compared to the prestige of its predecessors.
Not to be superstitious, but it seems the second prime number is cursed to herald woe, whether intentional or not. Now as we enter the final stretch of the year, a fourth third game is released (well, technically the fifth entry since Ubisoft pulled a Nintendo and milked their Italian protagonist for all he was worth), Assassin’s Creed 3. Considering both the ill omens, the fact that the last AC I played, Brotherhood, convinced me that the series was falling prey to creative stagnation faster than a Capcom franchise, and reports that its sequel, Revelations, only confirmed that suspicion, I can safely say my despondency sense was tingling!
Yet that’s a bit hasty, isn’t it?
After all Assassin’s Creed 3, unlike the previous two entries, is a full-fledged sequel rather than merely an oversized expansion pack. With a new protagonist, a new time period, and even a new engine called “Anvil Next,” (presumably better than the “Anvil Last” and “Big Rock We Hammer Stuff On” engines of the past) there was always a chance that Ubisoft would recognize some of the the glaring faults of the Renaissance Era Creed games. That they could follow the game’s fiction themselves and learn from the past entries rather than blindly dwell in their successes while charging forward intent on repeating them, right?
Except, well, “dwelling in the past” is pretty much the only thing the Assassin’s Creed games know how to do with any consistency . . .
Hmm. Well, at least I can try out for “America’s Next Top Soothsayer” next year!
For those not in the know, this series’ National Treasure by way of The Matrix plot is more than a bit confusing, so bear with me while I get through the synopsizing as quickly as possible:
Assassin’s Creed follows Desmond Miles, a modern day descendant of an order of Assassins (based heavily on their real-life counterparts) that have waged secret war throughout history against the Knights Templar since at least the Third Crusade. Forced to relive the genetic memories of his ancestors though a virtual reality device called an Animus by both the present-day front of the Templars, the Abstergo Corporation, and his fellow Assassins, Desmond has been racing around the world to find “Pieces of Eden,” powerful technological artifacts left over from a Precursor Race that created humanity and were worshipped as our old polytheistic gods before they were wiped out by an immense solar flare due to come again on December 21st, 2012! At the start of AC3, Desmond and his team arrive at an ancient Precursor vault that supposedly contains a device that will prevent the impending global catastrophe, but the way is barred by a giant electric Tron barrier, so Desmond hops back into the Animus yet again to live through the life of yet another ancestor, to find yet another artifact . . . essentially because humanity lost our key to the front door.
Whew! Still with me?
When you break down the plot all at once it comes across as nothing if not absurd. Yet the series has maintained a tone of believability throughout because, like certain Abrams/Lindelof productions, every individual note of the often wacky backstory has been shrouded in the fog mystery and parceled out in enough tiny, suspenseful increments that fans (including myself) become acclimated to each new reveal’s plausibility as they occurred. Besides, since each game is focused more heavily on Desmond’s historic ancestors rather than the “Days of Futures Present” framing device, much could be forgiven as a necessary meta-fictional weasel to get to the stuff we all really want to see, adventures set in major periods of historic upheaval that show us how it all “really” happened.
It’s been a long, weird, speculation-filled ride as the plot slowly changed a video game where players have played as a guy playing another video game into an Ancient Aliens farce, and it’s all coming home to roost in AC3.
Without spoiling anything, I’ll just say that the resulting conclusion to Desmond’s tale can only be described as . . . woefully inadequate. Though more time is spent with Desmond in the “real world”, most of the payoffs prove immensely unsatisfying. There’s little in the way of closure, plenty in the way of anti-climax, and few answers to the myriad number of questions raised by the precursor gods that show up. Basically, it’s the ending to Lost again, though a few of the specifically suicidal storytelling mistakes of Mass Effect 3 show up as well, as whatever future this series has seems thrown under a bus, in direct contradiction to the fact that we all know Ubisoft’s going to make a sequel (French Revolution here we come!).
But even (yet another) cruddy ending might not matter, since though he’s technically the series’ protagonist, Mr. Miles’ grand adventure in what is (quite literally at this point) the present day is still just a framing device for the games’ primary selling point: the historic retro Assassins. This go around, the role of secondary (but really primary) protagonist falls on Ratonhnhaké:ton, a half-Mohawk, half-English Assassin better known by his more pronounceable nom de plume, Connor Kenway, and who lived through what most have probably bought the game to see – and why I’m sure this was released at the height of Election season – The American Revolution.
This front of AC3’s story is thankfully stronger, weaving an interesting and refreshingly mature narrative about the nature of family, vengeance, and shifting allegiances during a time of great cultural tumult. It’s also set in the period when the Tri-Corner hat was at the height of its popularity, for you lovers of 18th century millinery. Especially fascinating is the opening, which starts us off not in the shoes of Connor but his father, Haytham, the English side of his heritage and who emigrates to the colonies during the French and Indian Wars.
While essentially a rather extended tutorial sequence, the chapters not only allow the developers to re-enact some of the best parts of Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans adaptation, but they also establish much (and in some cases most) of the context for Connor’s later involvement. It’s also just an interesting choice, as decoy protagonists fell decidedly out of favor in gaming after that whole Metal Gear Solid 2 thing.
Eventually Connor does become the protagonist seen in all the trailers, and his story heaves with all the betrayal, revenge, and conflicting loyalties we’ve come to expect from the rest of the series as Conner begins to unravel a Templar plot the only way Assassins know how: targeted murder. For a time, events unfold well and in some surprising ways. Connor’s mixed heritage isn’t shied away from, forcing him to confront Colonial hypocrisy toward his native people, there’s an extended series of side missions about building a homesteader community that prove genuinely heartfelt and give the game an earnest positivity in direct contrast to much of the cynicism, and of course, you get involved with the birth of the revolution – the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party – all the things you studied in 8th grade history class show up, including the lesser known Boston French Chef Who Stabbed A Bunch of Redcoats One Time.
However, shortly after the declaration of independence is signed the storytelling starts to break down. Events start occurring without the same context or buildup of prior chapters, and the pace gains relentless momentum with several jumps through time that make the lacking sense of what’s going on even worse. This culminates in a major chronological skip of three years, from 1778 to 1781, blowing past most of the actual war for no discernible reason other than that this prime DLC real estate to be paid for at a later date. The story wraps up shortly thereafter (Spoiler Alert! The colonies win) with an increasingly swift series of missions, but only after Connor yells “WHERE IS CHARLES LEE?” enough to make a drinking game out of it.
It’s a frustratingly curt conclusion extremely at odds with the excellent start and solid middle. At least it foreshadows the coming disappointment on Desmond’s side of things enough to inoculate the player to outrage!
Wait. That isn’t a good thing, is it?
All in all, the narrative fails rather uniquely, with both a bang and a whimper. With Desmond, there’s a sense that perhaps this was inevitable after so many years of hype. But with Connor, it really feels like a series of missed opportunities, avenues that could have been taken to beef up his third act simply . . .weren’t.
Some of this could be attributed to storage constraints. Assassin’s Creed 3 is a vast game, with gigantic virtual renditions of colonial Boston, New York, and a “Frontier” that represents most of the land between the two major cities, as well as several one-off locations. All are beautifully rendered (including seasonal changes and weather effects) with the superb visual craftsmanship Ubisoft is known for. But there’s a limit to how much they could cram on the disc, and considering the plethora of activities – from hunting on the frontier, to several board games from the period, and a series of naval battles – lines were inevitably going to be drawn through real history in order to serve the plot, even if Philadelphia and all of Virginia are conspicuously absent considering their importance and Washington’s spy agency, The Culper Ring, is barely touched upon despite how perfectly suited it seemed to be.
If memory limitations were the only cause, much could be forgiven. However, it’s really obvious that the game was quite blatantly rushed. If the sense of missing moments leading to a jarringly fractured third act wasn’t a dead giveaway, then the fact that most of the game’s actual gameplay elements are often poorly implemented or just buggy as all hell should be.
From the grievously glaring hunch that clips through Desmond’s backpack, to mission markers vanishing in the UI, to the disappearing dual pistols, or my favorite, the mission triggers that don’t trigger properly causing several missions to fail either once or permanently, I haven’t seen this many bugs outside of Klendathu. In the “good ideas, stupidly executed” category, there’s the unwieldy interface for crafting and trading goods, costume colorations that disappear in the game’s many cutscenes, and the Assassination and Letter Delivery mini-missions that lack either a timer or increased resistance to make them interesting. Then there’s the “simplified” control scheme that results in more imprecision when running near climbable surfaces – you often end up scrambling over a wall when you were aiming to hop over the crates next to them, and I’m not even getting started on what must be the loosest enemy targeting in town.
Even these are minor gripes though when compared to the “fashion show design” that’s pervaded the series: there are a hundred different bits of gameplay, each dressed up with the best possible presentation, and each as shallow as a supermodel.
Free-running and climbing are and have always been too automated to be involving; the now (over)simplified controls make this more obvious. Detection AI has far too few states and is easily exploited in the woods (though it breaks like it’s on cardboard in cities). Or take hunting animals for skins as an example: when attacked by predators, the most hated of game mechanics, the QTE, replaces actual combat (sigh). Once you get used to the prompts you’ll end up covered in more cougar fur than a twenty year old pretty boy on a pub-crawl.
Then there’s the game balance. In the standard risk/reward paradigm most games abide by, the folks making Assassin’s Creed 3 forgot to include the risk! Enemy aggressiveness seems toned down from Brotherhood, so the “wait around to counter kill foes while they take turns” from the first game is back. While the new double counters look really cool, there’s no drawback to necessitate strategic use. On top of all this, the two biggest game breaking elements I lambasted Brotherhood for – the ludicrously overpowered assassin recruits, and the easily resolved and poorly conceived notoriety system (though that’s originally from AC2) – return with tweaks, just not enough of them to be fair.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some bright spots in the often lackluster gameplay – there are. “Jager” enemies that hunt you down in chases are an excellent addition, though they only trigger when you reach maximum notoriety, a situation easily avoided. There’s a nifty new escape option for chases where you run through homes to add variety. The relatively unique hide ‘n sneak multiplayer returns, and it’s as fun an alternative to standard online shooters as it ever was. What caught me off guard though, were the naval battles.
It’s in this arena of ship-to-ship combat where the focus on simplicity actually works in the game’s favor. Captaining your privateer vessel lacks the complications and slow pace of a full simulation, but requires enough tactical foresight and timing to attack enemy ships that a robust arcade experience emerges, proving an excellent break from the main gameplay. These portions are good enough that Ubisoft should consider expanding the concept into a full-fledged pirate game; it’s seriously the best one I’ve played in a long time.
Oddly enough, it’s these moments of excellence that highlight the fundamental problem this game, and in fact, this entire series has: there are simply too many moving parts in the machine that is Assassin’s Creed. When you factor in the sixty different micro-gameplay shards, the AI crowds of hundreds filling the screen, and the humongous period locales, all while generally running smoothly and attempting to tell an interesting story, well it’s no wonder that all the different cogs and gears that make this game run have vastly disparate levels of quality, complexity, and this time around, completion.
The great irony of the titular Assassin’s Creed, “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted” is that while it makes an excellent mantra for the anarchistic Assassin’s to live by, it’s absolutely terrible as a design philosophy for the game that features them. Without a director bold (and dictatorial) enough to wrangle everything together into a cohesive vision, trying to coalesce so many wildly divergent elements to work together seems a Herculean challenge. I’m not sure any of the directors of the series have ever been fully capable of managing such a monumental task, and the end result has always been the same: a game hanging on the edge of true greatness.
Yet for all of the ills that plague this massive mess of a game, there’s still enough here that does work, that I can’t hate it. Maybe it’s my predilection to history, or perhaps it’s the fact that I simply appreciate when games go beyond the norms of military shooters or the medieval fantasy RPGs, but I find myself loving the game as much as I loathe it. Perhaps, like a mad romance doomed to failure, we all need to experience something convoluted, cluttered, and chaotic once in a while. Volatility can be refreshing for a soul trapped in complacency.
Besides, how often do you get to play a game starring a Native American-Pirate-Hitman who hangs out with George Washington?
No game with this premise could be all bad, even if it is cursed to mediocrity.