Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review // Assassin's Creed III

Assassin's Creed III is the most dramatic overhaul in the series. It proudly features a new engine with streamlined controls, revamped combat, and reworked animations, among a host of other changes. It introduces a groundbreaking new setting with unflinching, unromanticized depictions of history. It promises to finally deliver on Desmond's potential and end his part in the overarching storyline.

Assassin's Creed III is also a total disaster from start to finish.

Many of the game's problems are subjective, just matters of personal taste. But many are not, as evidenced by the unbelievable notes for the game's upcoming second patch. Fixes range from "let's try and stop players from falling through the map" to "this mission is unreasonably hard. Let's do something about that." Plain and simple, Ubisoft released an unfinished game, and not even the substantial day-one patch could fix it all.

I encountered floating objects, disappearing civilians, scripting errors, broken AI routines, a grinding frame rate, and total system hard locks as I trudged through the game. Just watch as my Assassin recruit fails to kill two random guards for the fourth time:

It is a broken game, yet surprisingly enough, that's not even its biggest failure.

The game stumbles right from the start with a video that summarizes all the previous games and makes a strong case for why there's no reason for us to play as any more of Desmond's ancestors... just moments before Desmond literally says, "ah, not again," faints, and enters the memories of yet another ancestor. At best, it's just one more cheap speed bump on a road littered with cheap speed bumps that prevent the main plot from moving forward, and weak justification for the game's very existence at worst.

More frustrating than that, though, is how none of the characters in the present ever address how Desmond murdered Lucy at the end of Brotherhood until a couple of easily skippable, throwaway lines many hours into the game. Apparently, nothing you learned in Revelations was relevant at all to the main plot except its $10 "Lost Archive" downloadable content, which is pretty vital stuff if you played through Brotherhood and wanted to know how Lucy's death would be handled.

Similarly, the game barely introduces Desmond's father, the current leader of the Assassins, or Daniel Cross, a Templar sleeper agent who murdered the previous Assassin leader and is responsible for the near-complete destruction of the Assassin Order, neither of whom have been in previous games. Put it this way: if you don't know what "The Great Purge" is, you might want to do some homework before jumping into Assassin's Creed III to really get the most out of it. For all the game does to prepare players new to the series, it does a terrible job preparing veteran players.

From there, it's about six hours before you don the familiar Assassin hood and you're playing the game you probably assumed you'd be playing right from the start. There's an interesting twist early on that almost completely justifies how boring the introductory hours of the game are, but it's also an unearned twist that the game achieves by outright lying to the player during one mission.

I beat Assassin's Creed III in a little over 12 hours, and for the first six hours, I was being tossed from one tutorial to the next. Imagine that: six hours of tutorials. That's half the game. That's an entire Call of Duty campaign. That's The Dark Knight, twice.

This is a series in desperate need of focus. There's padding everywhere. It's an incredibly bloated experience full of all sorts of story beats and gameplay mechanics and mundane missions that simply aren't needed, would be laughed at in any other medium, and add nothing to the core concept of assassinating people.

For instance, you can build up your "homestead" by hiring different kinds of artisans, like a farmer, a lumberer, and a blacksmith, and level up each by doing favors for them. You can craft recipes for items that you trade through caravans to get more materials for crafting. You can engage in naval warfare to unlock new trade routes to make trading more profitable. You can hunt animals and collect their pelts to use for crafting and trading. These are whole systems that I avoided completely (with the exception of naval warfare, but only because those missions were marked by Templar icons, so I thought I was advancing the plot in some way instead of just wasting my time) because they have nothing to do with assassinating people.

I guess that's to be expected when you consider that the protagonist, Ratonhnhaké:ton, isn't even an Assassin. Sure, he'll eventually put on the hood and look the part, but he is not an Assassin. He doesn't believe in the cause or care about the Order. He barely cares about fighting Templars. Really, all he wants is to protect his village from all the encroaching white people.

And that's where the game gets really bad: with its haphazard, factually inaccurate, extremely judgmental depiction of history. When Ubisoft Montreal said that Assassin's Creed III is not a pro-America game, they weren't kidding. On a surface level, it absolutely is. You'll predominantly be killing British soldiers, working with colonists, and replacing British flags with American ones. But actually, there's a much deeper undercurrent of thinly veiled hatred toward America lurking just below the surface that's almost impossible to avoid.

Ratonhnhaké:ton is a fiercely self-righteous idealist through and through, but ultimately nothing more than a conduit meant to channel Ubisoft Montreal's disgust at America's history with slavery. The game comes back again and again to the hypocrisy of the colonists fighting for freedom while simultaneously engaging in slave trading. The game pathetically trots out historical figures like Samuel Adams to try to defend it half-heartedly with weak rationalizations, but eventually drops all pretense with a lengthy conversation between Desmond and his British ally, Shaun, where Shaun lambasts America's founding fathers and follows it up with an in-game email subtly titled "American Politics." I'm sure you can guess the content of that email.

Did you know that the Mohawk tribe to which Ratonhnhaké:ton belongs to in the game also engaged in slavery? You probably wouldn't if you trusted Assassin's Creed III's skewed version of history where all white people were bad and all Native American people were good. Then again, I don't know why anyone would trust a game that literally renames its protagonist "Connor" because his actual name is too hard to pronounce to not be racist itself.

There are plenty of other factual inaccuracies, like uniforms and flags being used before they would have been created or grossly modified versions of well-documented historical events. It all culminates in a mission that is both ridiculous and annoying where Ratonhnhaké:ton is literally on the horse with Paul Revere as he makes his famous Midnight Ride, tasking you with steering the horse in whichever direction Revere yells in your ear to go. Again, subtlety is not this game's strong suit.

Imagine that: six hours of tutorials. That's half the game. That's The Dark Knight, twice.

So yeah, on top of everything else, the game's not much fun, either. The controls have been simplified to the point that it feels like you have no real control over the character, which is the opposite direction the series has needed to go for a long time. It tries so hard to let you hold one button and go anywhere that it inevitably ends up being extremely clunky and constantly misinterprets your inputs. You'll scramble up the side of a tree or cling to the wall of a tight alleyway in the middle of a chase and lose your target. The game needed to segregate the running and climbing commands to different buttons, but instead, it interlocked them tighter than ever.

Combat is the same way. Ratonhnhaké:ton is a vicious fighter, and he doesn't really need your help to do it. There are tons of really cool, really brutal animations that want nothing more than for you to sit back, stop pressing buttons, and appreciate them like a museum piece. This is a game that resents player input.

But I can't think of a much better example to demonstrate how backward some of the game's systems are than to just show off how the fast travel works:

Assassin's Creed III is absolutely baffling in how poor the fundamental design can be.

After recently coming off of Dishonored, a game that encourages players to have a unique approach to each mission and gives them the tools and space to do so, Assassin's Creed III felt claustrophobic. There's nothing inherently wrong with taking a linear approach to mission design, but the missions here just aren't fun. Very few of them even involve assassinating a high-profile target, more often opting to have you eavesdrop on moving targets, perform busywork for other characters, or directly intervene in a historical event in whatever way makes the least amount of sense, like having Ratonhnhaké:ton command colonial troops in battle.

Ratonhnhaké:ton's story is rarely exciting, so I jumped at any opportunity to play as Desmond instead and advance the main plot. But even Desmond is a bust in this game.

Since the first Assassin's Creed, there's been an implied promise that, at some point, you'll play as Desmond in modern times, roaming a modern city, and assassinating modern Templars. And given that Ubisoft explicitly said that "you're going to see a lot of Desmond. More so than in any past game," I had assumed that meant that they were finally making good on that promise. Not so. Desmond gets a few missions, but only one of them is the least bit interesting, all of them are poorly executed, and his story wraps up in such a rushed, unsatisfying way that I could barely believe that the credits were already rolling.

If you do make it that far in the game, though, make sure to stick around for the heavy-handed epilogue after the credits so Ubisoft Montreal can bash you over the head one last time with its political agenda.

Assassin's Creed III is the weakest game in the series yet and a clear sign that it's time to give the franchise a break and refocus before it becomes completely irrelevant. There will be an Assassin's Creed game next year, but there shouldn't be.

Assassin's Creed III / $59.99 / PS3 [reviewed], 360, PC



  1. Finally, someone tells it like it is. I've been reading fanboy posts and reviews for months, and I was beginning to wonder if it was just me being too critical.

    1. You're definitely not being too critical. I really think people were way too lenient on this game. A lot of it is just personal taste, but if nothing else, this game should have been crucified for being released unfinished. I paid $60 for a broken piece of software. I feel cheated.

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