As of the time of this writing I have played Asassins Creed III for either thirty-two hours, or five hours. Neither number comforts me. I’m sixteen percent of my way through the game, as declared by the game’s own engine, and I suspect the game seeks to make reloads and deaths ‘not count’ against the time total, perhaps to smooth out the experience a little. I tell you this because the defining characteristic of Assassins Creed III at this point is how much of the game I have to endure before I can find some part of the game to enjoy.
Tools Of The Trade
In the original Assassins Creed, after a single mission to establish the tone of the game, I was given a target, and clues to find in a city that would enable the murder of that target. The plot unfolded as I listened to those clues, exposed and connected in the gameplay. These things were woven together to form a solid whole, and the only truly weak part of the game was the conclusion, where the game became narrow, linear, and forced me to use combat mechanics that were a little lacking.
If you’ve followed my reviews of the subsequent games in the franchise, you might be aware that Ubisoft have chosen to take the game in what I can politely call a different direction. The franchise has chosen to abandon a free-roaming problem-solving design of assassinations and by Assassins Creed III it has opted to focus entirely on linear mission-based problem solving with clearly delineated goals. It introduces a dozen new mechanics, each one putting more and more distance between Assassins Creed III and the high water mark of its genesis. If you want, in Assassins Creed III, you can go do naval missions to blow up boats, you can hunt for almanack pages, you can hunt for animals, and if you really, really must, you can go to some town or other and complete a number of missions to hopefully set up an assassination. I assume. I haven’t reached an assassination yet.
What’s stranger than this, though is that the game has made the existing mechanics of Assassins Creed II: Revelations, which were the Assassins Creed II mechanics polished to a mirror shine, suck. The inventory is just as bloated as it was, the hook climbing and the body-rolling is gone – everything I could find that I had enjoyed from Revelations is gone, to instead give us access to guns (that are worse than Ezio’s), whistling at people to lure them into another kind of assassination, the ability to pull enemies into the line of fire, and a bow and arrow. It’s also given us smaller cities with less inter-connected parkour options and wild open forests where climbing a tree is apparently an inexplicable challenge for a grown man who can see the handholds.
There’s also loading screens all over the place. Seriously, you can have a conversation with two loading screens in it. Every time you fail at a thing, you’re treated to a loading screen for a loading screen. Assassins Creed III is noteworthy by being the first Assassins Creed game to not actively be a mechanical improvement over the prior game. This is remarkable, because prior to now I’ve always been able to say something nice about these games.
What about the story, then?
The Greater Narrative
It’s pretty clear by the conclusion of Assassins Creed II: Revelations that the plot of Desmond had run around in tight enough circles that it was running out of places it could go without coming to some conclusion or other. If you don’t remember, Assassins Creed II’s framing device was that they were going to travel through the story of Ezio Auditore to teach Desmond how to fight, to parkour, and any other skills Ezio had along the way. That’s why the story arc of Assassins Creed II was, essentially, a classical story of becoming. Ezio spent the game learning, developing, and becoming, with the conclusion of the story being where Ezio had become an Assassin officially. That was it! His story was done.
The framing device of the Assassins Creed franchise is one that offers the writer the opportunity to shake up what they’re working with, to tell new stories every time. You can travel to a new location, explore a new period of history, see the world through a new set of eyes, every time. The first game was a redemption story arc, the second a story of becoming, and then the story started to spin its wheels. Assassins Creed III didn’t seem to remember that Assassins Creed II already was a Story Of Becoming, and so it tells a story better designed for a late-game twist through Haytham Kenway in the opening story arc, then jumps to Connor’s Story of Becoming.
Interspersed in this overall badly structured mess, however, is the story of Desmond, and his own father, and his friends, as they contend with a Solar Maximum that will destroy the world and speak to enigmatic, riddle-filled gods. In this story, we’re presented with a Hollywood-style narrative, and by that I mean a story where the protaganist is selected to be a protaganist, and becomes a protaganist, and achieves his ends as a protaganist through absolutely no merit of his own. It even tries to make the player feel responsible for actions performed during a cutscene – no matter what happened, you killed Lucy, then Desmond has an anguished little moment talking to his dad about how much that matters, how sad it made him to do it. This is more Hollywood style storytelling, where rather than convey meaning or emotion, it tells you it has meaning and emotion.
The defining quote of the whole game, for me, is You Can’t Escape Who You Are. The story has chosen you, Desmond, to be important, and therefore, you are important. You have a problem with that? No. The choice has been made.
Within The Animus
Your introduction is the most vital part of a videogame. That’s why I started this review by making sure you know I’m good and mad at this game. Assassins Creed III starts with a slow exposition by John DeLancie, explaining who Desmond is, and why people should give a damn about him, at least hypothetically. Then there’s a sequence in a truck; then you have to walk down a corridor, see a loading screen, a short cutscene – maybe fifteen seconds – then a loading screen, then walk further down that corridor. At the end of the corridor? A loading screen, a cutscene, a loading screen, and you open up more corridor.
This is one of the least effective introductions to a videogame I’ve ever experienced. The game then carries on by introducing us to Haytham Kenway, the answer to that great question How can we make Desmond look good? A man so stoic and lacking in personality, so stereotypically unperson that even when he’s skulking past George Washington and listening in on the drama of the Seven Years War, he still seems less interesting than the bushes he’s hiding in.
That comparison problem persists when you slip into the soft leather booties of Connor, where everything around him is more interesting than he, himself, as a person. His mother is a total badass. His mentor is equally ridiculous. His outfit is a uniquely-designed set of Assassins’ gear, and Achilles refuses to disclose where it came from – which means now Connor has to compete with whoever used to wear that gear. Connor, our eye level character, our power fantasy, is never as interesting as the people around him. And oh boy howdy, this game wants to tell you how interesting its surrounding characters are. Did you know Sam Adams didn’t like slavery?
Originally, I had a paragraph here explaining how utterly obnoxious the game’s attitude towards the positive power of Being A Revolutionary Father was, and the gameplay weirdness about Sam Adams being able to fight his way through regiments of soldiers, or the way that one square kilometer of land in Boston was home to basically every single person history told me was important. After some consideration though I came to realise that it was just the same old problem as any depiction of the Founding Fathers has been. These people are just as important to their world as Billy Hughes and Alfred Deakin are to mine, it’s just that thanks to years of cultural imperialism and international media prominence, the United States’ founding fathers are obnoxiously over-exposed. What I’m saying is that America ruined the American Revolution for me, and I hope it’s sorry.
It’s not all dire. I really like the way the story uses the Mohawk language, as well as Mohawk names, and Mohawk actors. I like the way the game looks mostly, and the animal models move nicely. Individual animations for Connor’s fighting style are bad ass. Yet, here I am, hours into this game, and my laundry list of reasons to care about the game is so small.
Buy it if:
- You’re a completionist who loves the Desmond story arc.
- Your love of the Founding Fathers borders on the creepy.
Avoid it if:
- You enjoyed Assassins Creed’s core gameplay of killing people.
- You don’t inherently hate the British.