In a word: ew.
Assassin’s Creed 3 strikes me as a game with a lot of different parts that have been developed in isolation with no consideration as to how they’re going to fit together into a coherent whole. The developers have just thrown a bunch of stuff at a wall without even bothering to look at it to see what sticks, and they definitely haven’t bothered cleaning up the stuff which didn’t; it’s still smeared all over the game, turning it into a sprawling and self-indulgent mess that flat-out ignores the useful lessons learned in Brotherhood and Revelations.
For a series that’s had so much trouble with overlong tutorial sections – and AC 3 is by far the worst offender where this is concerned, as we shall shortly see – I thought the beginning of Assassin’s Creed 3 was actually pretty well done. For the first three hours of the game you don’t play the main character. Instead you’re placed in the rather suave riding boots of Haytham Kenway, a British nobleman who is basically an 18th century version of James Bond. The opening level of the game is set in a rather striking theatre that Haytham has to clamber around in order to reach his assassination target, during which you learn the series basics: running, climbing, jumping, murdering and so on. Then he gets packed off to the American colonies on board a ship where you’re taught the new fighting system, and then finally once he gets to Boston he has to gather his resources and contacts and put together an organisation capable of achieving his goals – again, all staples of the AC series.
There’s one immediately glaring problem with this sequence, and that’s that Haytham is not the guy on the front cover of the game. You’re fully aware that as likeable and interesting as Haytham is – and he is very interesting, since while he seems like a fairly decent bloke on the surface he also has a cruel streak that’s barely disguised by his pithy upper-class witticisms – at some point you’re going to be transitioning to the main character, and that Haytham’s presence in the game merely functions as its prologue and tutorial. The thing is that despite its length the Haytham segment is by far the most worthwhile tutorial the series has ever had, since it functions both as a teaching tool and as a very effective way of setting the scene for the rest of the story. Even though it’s three hours long I enjoyed every one of them instead of wondering when I was going to get to the real meat of the game (and this is quite the achievement considering I went straight from Brotherhood to Revelations to 3), and if after Haytham the training wheels had been taken off and the game had immediately transitioned to the real main character running around in the open-world environment the series is supposed to be known for then I would have said that they’d finally gotten an Assassin’s Creed tutorial right.
Of course that doesn’t happen. Haytham is inevitably replaced with Connor, the actual protagonist of the game, and this is where Assassin’s Creed 3 starts to veer wildy off the rails because instead of actually getting on with things it uses Connor as an excuse to subject the player to even more tutorials. When we meet him Connor is ten years old. He’s skipping through the forest playing hide and seek with his friends. I just got done ruthlessly massacring a whole fort full of British troops as Haytham, and now I am playing fucking hide and seek for twenty minutes. Then there’s a cutscene, and the game skips forward seven years, and now Connor is teaching his equally-boring friend how to run through the trees and hunt! The tree-running tutorial was broken and the hunting tutorial was unforgiveably long and dull, going through each of the many hunting tools available to Connor in excruciating detail and even asking him to, and I quote, “Air assassinate a deer.” I didn’t buy an Assassin’s Creed game to assassinate deer, for crying out loud.
Long story short, Connor eventually leaves his village, runs across most of Massachusetts and meets up with an elderly Assassin. This guy agrees to teach Connor how to assassinate things that aren’t deer, and so Connor starts a mission called “Training Begins” which is just a little bit laughable considering that by this point I’d been playing the game for seven hours. The interminable series of tutorials never seems to end, and it isn’t until Sequence 9 (of 12) that you’re finally free of the blasted things. They’re also incredibly lopsided: compare and contrast the hour you spend learning how to hunt animals to the thirty second tutorial you’re given about how to gather materials, craft new items and trade things for sweet sweet cash. If hunting was in any way a central part of the game this might be justified, but as it is my hunting was limited to murdering anything cute and fluffy that had the bad fortune to blunder into my path while I was trying to get from A to B. Meanwhile I was forced to subsist on whatever cash I could loot from the various chests scattered around the game world because the crafting and trading interface was so impenetrable and it had barely been explained at all.
So your first hours with Connor are spent learning how to do utterly pointless shit that has absolutely no impact on the central gameplay, and I have to say that this really set the tone for his character in general. Connor is a psychopathic baby with a memory span roughly equivalent to that of a goldfish. Things happen to him because he is the Main Character, not because he – or you — makes them happen. The things he himself does he does because the plot demands it, not because it’s something he as a character has a logical motivation to do. Indeed, Connor has no character, acting as a blank cipher who fetches and carries for the founding fathers without asking any questions whatsoever. There’s one point in the game (and I should warn you that there is a bit of a spoiler coming here, although honestly the plot of AC 3 is garbage so I wouldn’t worry too much) where Connor learns that the man he thought was responsible for the burning of his village when he was a child — and who he has spent most of his time in the game attempting to kill in a number of incompetent ways — was in fact not involved in the slightest. Does he admit fault? Does he acknowledge that the anger that’s been driving him throughout his entire adult life has been aimed at the wrong target? Does he say “Oh, maybe I should stop trying to murder this guy every time we cross paths”? Nope, he just carries right on trucking like nothing ever happened, because that guy is the game’s Bad Guy and he has to die at the end of it.
It’s funny in a way, because we meet the Bad Guy in Haytham’s portion of the game and he comes across as nothing more than an over-eager yet capable young man, yet as soon as the action switches to Connor’s point of view he does a complete 180 and turns into a raging asshole who threatens to kill children because he is now Evil. Perhaps the game was trying to make a point about different perspectives, but I don’t credit AC 3 with that level of sophistication, and anyway the end result was that I much preferred Haytham’s perspective to Connor’s since it made far more logical and narrative sense. I wanted to spend the rest of the game playing as Haytham instead of being lumbered with this angsty monotonal clot. Connor is an actual, literal idiot, not to mention being a complete personality vacuum in every single part of the game that isn’t a Homestead mission1, and this did far more to turn me against Assassin’s Creed 3 than anything else in the game.
The other gameplay elements are a grab bag of random stuff that aren’t really connected in any way. The Homestead missions work reasonably well in terms of just watching your village grow, but from a gameplay perspective it amounts to several hours of busywork at the end of which you might get a new pistol holster or a new sword. The boat sections are outstanding – and in fact I’d be more than happy to see a full game based around them a la Pirates! – but there’s no getting around the fact that they’re there just because somebody wanted this game to have a boat, and aside from two scripted missions the boat combat consists of a series of standalone combat encounters that have no effect in the wider context of the game world. Assassin recruits are back and they even have some new abilities such as pretending to escort Connor into an enemy-controlled area as a prisoner; however, the one time I tried to use this my recruits turned up dressed in Colonial uniforms when the area I wanted to enter was inhabited by Redcoats. The ability to use your recruits in combat is locked off during every main mission and whenever you’re in the Frontier (so about 80% of the game), so the only thing to do with them is send them off on contracts, and this is something of a problem because the contract system in AC 3 is indescribably awful compared to what we got in Brotherhood and Revelations. In those games the contracts were worth doing even if they were fairly one-dimensional since they gave your recruits new levels and gained you money. In AC 3 not only is the rate at which your assassins level up painfully slow, but it’s not even clear that levelling them up even does anything. In Brotherhood/Revelations they got new armour, equipment and combat abilities, slowly evolving into a group of hardened killers. In AC 3 they get nothing aside from a message saying they’ve levelled up. The contracts feature is there, but it no longer has any effect on the gameplay. Which I think sums up AC 3 rather neatly, really.
Okay, so that’s all the ancillary stuff, but what about the main game? We’ve already established that it’s locked behind hours of tutorials and that the plot is terrible; fortunately if you can get past that the free-running this time around is, if not good, at least passable as an AC game. Connor moves in a more natural way that involves less canned animation compared to Ezio, although he’s hobbled slightly by colonial-era Boston and New York being rather bland and samey. Getting out into the Frontier is a double-edged sword; it looks far nicer – just about as nice as an AC game ever has, especially when it’s snowing – but the lack of rooftops and the linear nature of the tree routes means that most of the time you’re just running from one place to another, and this can get awkward because the Frontier is sodding huge and has no fast travel nodes unless you can find and clear out one of the seven forts dotted around the place. 2 You do this by exterminating the fort’s population of soldiers, which basically means getting involved in a massive five-minute brawl. I did enjoy the combat in AC 3; for this fifth iteration they’ve tossed out the old mechanics and adopted something very close to the combat mechanics from Arkham Asylum, with timed blocks and counters dictating the flow of the fighting. There’s a decent array of enemies and while there are only really two methods of dealing with them – counter kills or breaking their defence – remembering which one works on which enemy can be tricky when you’re trying to fight twenty guys at once. Add in pistols and other firearms and you’ve got something that is consistently entertaining, which is more than I can say for the combat in the previous games.
Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t entirely bad news, then. It has a lot of good parts mixed in with the terrible ones. It’s just so unfocused, and given over to the worst excesses of the Assassin’s Creed series in general. Add in the fact that the resolution to the Desmond overplot is basically this, and that as a final parting shot once you’re finished the game locks you into a credits sequence that goes on for upwards of twenty-five minutes3 with no way to skip it aside from killing the process externally (I haven’t had a fuck-you from a game like this since Syndicate’s non-ending back in 1992), and I’m rather disinclined to give it a break. I’m certainly not looking forward to the next game — not unless somebody at Ubisoft has the nous to recognise that after the heyday of Ezio Assassin’s Creed 3 seems like a bloated mess scripted by a collection of twelve year-olds. Somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen, and so I’ll probably give next year’s4 AC release a pass.
- During which he inexplicably morphs from an angry dickhead into a softly-spoken, thoughtful character. It was a nice change, but it also reinforced my impression that AC 3 has been assembled from a collection of separate pieces that were constructed in isolation and then glued together in no particular order. ↩
- I only managed to find three of them despite criss-crossing the Frontier several times, so this isn’t easy. ↩
- Ubisoft loves to troll people by listing the name of everyone who works at Ubisoft, everyone who works at an Ubisoft subsidiary and everyone who works at an Ubisoft affiliate whether they had anything to do with the game or not. I mean if you take the credits at face value there were probably more people involved with the making of Assassin’s Creed 3 than there were in the Apollo moon landings. ↩
- Writing this in December, so by the time it’s published on the blog it’ll be this year’s Assassin’s Creed release. ↩