Review by DDJ
"A failure on its own, and an even greater failure for its franchise."
Review in Brief
Game: Assassin's Creed goes to the Revolutionary War, starring Connor as an Native American assassin caught in the middle of the Revolutionary War between the British and the Patriots.
Good: The series' best melee combat; a strong naval sidequest; fixes to the notoriety and health systems; an interesting reinvention of the Brotherhood system; an impressive dynamic world.
Bad: Everything else; ridiculous, unforgivable, distracting glitches; borderline-glitchy elements of intentional game design; overly conflicted between being an open-world game and being plot-driven; completely squanders opportunities for historical connections; a boring, meandering, anticlimactic plot; a loss of the series' gameplay, themes, and appeal; a boring, forgettable cast; far too many distracting, irrelevant, pointless sidequests; the series' easiest battle system with absolutely no challenge whatsoever; none of the series' typical magic.
Verdict: A failure on its own, and an even greater failure for its series. Basically no redeeming value whatsoever.
Recommendation: Unless the only reason you enjoy the series is for the slashy stabby action, take a pass. Better yet, forget it ever existed in the first place.
"A failure on its own, and an even greater failure for its franchise."
You wouldn't know it looking at my review scores, but I'm a big fan of the Assassin's Creed series. It's likely one of my favorite ongoing series, and while I've criticized many of the games in the past, my criticism is largely born from how much potential the series as a whole has. The underlying concept of the series is so interesting, so unique, and so strong that even when the execution is flawed, the product is still special. That was true in Assassin's Creed, where the overwhelmingly repetitive and formulaic plot and gameplay structure was still able to illuminate the gaming industry's most interesting original property in the past ten years. That was true in Assassin's Creed II, where an abundance of unnecessary changes that distanced the game from its predecessor's foundation failed to doom the transformation of that franchise into a compelling, deep, and engrossing game universe. That was true in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, where glitches and plot weaknesses remained secondary to a collection of fascinating gameplay mechanics and an increased attention to that all-important gameplay-plot symbiosis. That was even true in Assassin's Creed: Revelations, where, for all its weaknesses, the game was still engaging to play and provided valuable expansions on the plot.
Assassin's Creed games, in my mind, have a clear modus operandi: poor executions of ideas so brilliant that we almost gloss over the poor execution itself. Assassin's Creed III holds up half of this tradition: it's still poorly executed, but the underlying ideas aren't so great anymore.
I didn't enjoy Assassin's Creed III. That's perhaps as plainly as I can put my criticisms and critiques: with the previous games in the franchise, even though I had enormous criticisms, I still enjoyed the gameplay experience. I wish it could have been better, but it was still fun. Assassin's Creed III was not fun. Assassin's Creed III was a glitchy, aggravating, forgettable chore to get through, an experience so bad that I find myself mentally planning to replay one of my favorite games (something I hardly ever do) solely to wash the bad taste of the game out of my mind.
Of course, the game had its high points, as all big-budget games always do, but the high points are few and far between. The same old glitches and design problems are present, but there's no redeeming underlying qualities behind them to save the game. There's no fascinating backstory, there's surprisingly no satisfying play on history, there's none of that special intrigue that has in the past made the series what it is. There's nothing but a glitchy, forgettable game with a weak cast and only passing loyalty to the series' great past and lore.
The latest release in Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series, Assassin's Creed III takes us to colonial times. Playing the role first of Haytham Kenway and later of his son, Connor (all of which is made very clear from the start of the game, as well as in the pre-release material), you find yourself knee-deep in the Revolutionary War, witnessing and participating in several of the most notable events. As you go on, you find out that the Templars are behind several different elements of the war's ongoing progression in an effort to conquer the new world and form it according to their agenda, and as the only assassin in the New World (so it seems), it is your job to stop them, no matter who that forces you to ally with throughout the game.
Gameplay-wise, the game is pretty standard Assassin's Creed fare. You exist in an open-world environment spanning Boston, New York, Davenport, and the wilderness in between. Across the world map are mission icons, either for the main mission or one of the game's several sidequests. Once in battle, the attack system is heavy on the counter-attacking, with an icon appearing above the heads of each particular enemy as they prepare to attack you. There are, of course, changes: they now hold muskets and will fire in tandem at you in the middle of a sword fight, for example. Still, when all is said and done, the gameplay hasn't undergone a major renovation.
As mentioned in the introduction, it's nearly impossible for a big-budget game to have absolutely no redeeming qualities, and indeed, Assassin's Creed III does have some high points. First and foremost, it preserves most of the combat and game structure from the earlier games, and that in and of itself retains the same appeal it's always had. I'm not going to give the game adamant credit, though, for not screwing everything about the series up, but it's worth noting that it does still have the same free-running, ledge-assassinating fun that the other games have provided, as well as a few new tricks as described below.
Series' Best Melee Combat
Before starting this section, let's make it clear that I'm referring narrowly and specifically to head-to-head melee open group combat. I'm not referring to any stealth element, any of the assassinations, any of the projectile weapons (bow & arrow and pistol), or any other element of the combat. Of course, considering the melee combat makes up a significant portion of the actual gameplay time, this is still a pretty notable improvement.
One of the knocks against the previous games in the franchise, and more broadly against many recent releases as a whole (I'm looking at you, Batman: Arkham Asylum), is that combat has increasingly become overly reliant on counter-attacking. In the previous Assassin's Creed games, it was often borderline suicide to ever attack an enemy in open combat when they haven't just attacked you. Enemies light up when they're about to attack, ensuring that you can block effectively, and out of the block can come your counter attack. This allows for brilliant and entertaining animations, and it solves some of the issues that would otherwise be inherent to one vs. many group combat. Still, though, it has a strong tendency to get boring, redundant, and tedious very quickly. There is no challenge to it, and the only real test comes in seeing how many enemies you can counter-kill into oblivion without making a mistake.
Assassin's Creed III's combat is still very heavy on counter-attacking, but it does so in a much smoother and more natural way. First and foremost, it is no longer suicide to bother ever attacking an enemy unprompted. In past Assassin's Creed games, every enemy type had a specific type of counter-attack that would successfully best it; in Assassin's Creed III, that's still true, but most also have a way of being defeated that does not rely on counter-attacking. Many of the basic soldiers in the game can very easily be attacked head-on until they die painfully, and for others, there are ways of breaking defense that actually work on the majority of foes. On top of that, the game has finally perfected the franchise's chain-killing mode. Immediately after killing one enemy, you can move directly on to another one nearby for another kill, even if usually that new enemy would have been more difficult to fell. And as if that wasn't enough, there is also a pseudo-counter attack that can be used when an enemy is targeting you with their musket or pistol; pressing X grabs another nearby enemy and uses them as a human shield against the gunshot. That particular counter-attack can be used against any type of foe, even the most difficult ones.
Even when relying on counter-attacks, however, the combat is still significantly more smooth and flowing than in past installments of the franchise. In past games, when Ezio or Altair was executing a counter-kill against an enemy, all the others would simply stand around and wait; after the kill was completed, the combat would pause for a moment before another enemy would attack. In Assassin's Creed III, the enemies will attack halfway through the counter-kill; the original foe is still killed, but the player has to actually react immediately to the new attack or risk losing health. That plays into another improvement on the game's counter-attacking system: it is no longer sufficient to simply hold down one button and guarantee your character will block every attack. Instead, you need to press the button as the enemy is attacking to initiate the slow-motion counter-attack. In practice, it doesn't lend any challenge to the game, but it certainly makes the battle system more involved and active.
One of the reasons why battle systems built almost entirely around counter-attacking have become so prevalent in modern video games is because by requiring certain events to take place before a kill happens, the developers can be more narrow in how they script kill animations. Even though the system is loosened up a bit, Assassin's Creed III still provides some of the best attack animations in the series' history. Part of this is because many of them are very specifically activated under certain circumstances, such as the camera moving to a cinematic view when you successfully initiate a counter-attack against two foes attacking simultaneously. Whatever the reason, though, the animations are brilliant and engaging, especially considering the overall speed of combat no longer slows down to catch up.
Engaging Naval Sidequest
One of the major promotional clips shown before Assassin's Creed III's release showed the player character steering a Revolutionary War-era warship, engaging in combat on the high seas. The good news is that the sidequest gameplay is as spectacularly implemented as the promotional hype would have had us believe. The bad news is that the feature is tragically underused in the game, relegated to nothing but a sidequest in all but two instances, but at least the sidequest missions are there.
The structure of the naval sidequest gameplay is relatively simple. You steer a ship with the world's worst turn radius (okay, it's a ship, it's excusable) in battle against other ships. You are armed with two types of projectile weapons: the traditional cannons on either side, useful for launching sweeping attacks against other ships, and smaller cannons (called "swivel cannons") more like turrets, useful for targeted attacks against weaker foes. In battle, you find yourself pitted against a small variety of enemy ships, from small gunboats that can be picked off by the swivel cannons to giant Man of War ships with an abundance of durability and an excessive number of guns. You can also ram ships, and as you learn later, there are definitely missions where that comes in handy.
Battle is carried out primarily via the L1 and R1 buttons: pressing each preps one of the kinds of cannons to fire, starting an aiming process that sees the cannon firing range narrow and glow (or the swivel crosshairs zeroing in on a foe), and releasing completes the firing process. The targeting of both kinds of cannons nearly seamlessly follow the camera's motion in an incredibly intuitive way; it is never confusing which side of the ship will fire at a given time, and switching between the two is a breeze. The cannons also come with four kinds of cannonballs; one is for wider-area damage against weaker ships, one for heavier damage against larger ships, and one for incapacitating ships without sinking them (when the plot dictates). There's also a mission where you target a fort rather than ships, but unfortunately, that's the only one.
In terms of defense against the enemies, there is only one defensive move that can be made: when enemy shots are anticipated (or when a particularly massive wave is coming), the player can press to send the ship crew to cover. This doesn't remove the damage done to the ship, but it does cut it about in half, helping to save health. Other than that, there is no real other gameplay element to the sidequest: left control stick to steer, right control stick to move the camera and aim, shoulder buttons to shoot, square button to duck. It's an impressively simple, intuitive system.
The simplicity of the gameplay in the sidequest leaves room for some impressive graphical and cinematic work as well. Without a doubt, the best points of the game graphically are in the naval sidequest areas. The large crashing waves, the rainstorms, and the other ships are rendered beautifully, and the weather effects especially feel truly dynamic. These effects play into the gameplay as well, changing the strategies: in storms when waves are crashing, waves can often interfere with cannon shots or provide cover against incoming attacks. The rain can limit the range of the swivel cannons, forcing the massive ship to wait until the gunboats are close enough to fire back before taking them on. Terrain in many places plays a role as well, limiting how much the ship can move or forcing it to move more slowly to avoid damage.
As mentioned above, though, the naval sidequest has one significant weakness, and that is that it is not well-integrated into the storyline. Like the tower defense game in the previous Assassin's Creed installments, there is one mandatory mission near the beginning of the game to teach you the system, and one mandatory mission at the end to remind you the mode is there. Outside of those, though, there are several other missions; I lost count of how many total, but I believe around 20, with most grouped into sets of three. Defeating one set of three missions will sometimes unlock another set of three until you've defeated all of them.
It's an impressively designed, visually spectacular sidequest, and it marks arguably the first time Ubisoft's ADD approach to game design has actually paid dividends. It's certainly better than tower defense or city-building.
Fixed Notoriety and Health Systems
Two of my most significant critiques of the Ezio trilogy of Assassin's Creed games was regarding the notoriety and health systems. The health system lost everything that made the original Assassin's Creed's system special and unique; it provided no plot symbiosis and instead introduced some rather strange questions. The notoriety system, while well-intentioned as a way of making the high-profile/low-profile distinction from the original clearer, ended up just being a chore requiring an ongoing scavenger hunt for wanted posters. Neither system worked well in the Assassin's Creed Ezio trilogy.
Assassin's Creed III fixes both of these... sort of. To start with the health system, the health system finally answered several of the problems with the system in the previous game. No longer are potions required to recover health every time you jump from too high a point, nor can a strong supply of them save you in a difficult battle. The health system instead has been made almost identical to the prototypical systems from first-person shooters and most other modern games. You have a certain amount of health, and getting struck by enemies, falling from high points, or getting shot reduces that health. Then, when you're back in safety, the health auto-replenishes. That way, the health is never really a measure of your overall ongoing health points the way it was in previous games, but rather it's a measure specific to a certain battle. Of course, I don't like that as much as the health system in the first game, which gave an absolutely remarkable plot justification for an HP-based system, but it's still certainly an improvement over the Ezio trilogy's.
In the original Assassin's Creed, one of the unique elements was the notion of hiding from guards, blending into crowds, and remaining hidden, but the game had a problem in that it was not always clear why guards would pursue sometimes and not others. Assassin's Creed II and its sequels attempted to fix that by introducing the notoriety system, which makes it concrete how much the guards are looking for you at a given time, but it had its flaws. Reducing your notoriety was tedious, and there was never any reason to actually let yourself become notorious in the first place. There was clear feedback on when notoriety was a risk, and there were posters hanging everywhere. The result, then, was just that it discouraged the player from enjoying the game world and playing around, and it forced the player into those tedious segments pulling down posters before continuing.
In Assassin's Creed III, the system is broken into three increasing levels: at the lower levels, guards will just be suspicious of you, and if you let them stare at you too long, they'll attack; at higher levels, they'll attack you on sight. Notoriety, however, is sort of like health: it's based on encounters rather than an in-game long-term memory. If you kill a handful of enemies all at once, your notoriety will rise to Level 1; however, if you kill several individual enemies separately in time, it will not rise. The presence of multiple levels of notoriety, and corresponding multiple types of reactions from enemies, is a positive feature, too; you can maintain a low level of notoriety without it majorly influencing your gameplay decisions. Increasing notoriety takes a significant activity as well compared to the previous game; you can kill several enemies and still remain somewhat under the radar.
The notoriety does have two major problems: when your notoriety is high, it becomes nearly impossible to get rid of it, and there are frequent places in the game that frustratingly require you to raise your notoriety. However, neither of these are particularly elements of the notoriety system itself, but rather are issues of the way it is used in the broader game.
At the most fundamental level, my biggest criticism about Assassin's Creed III is that it loses all of what made the series special. It's lost the real-world tie-ins, it's lost the alternate history/conspiracy edge, it's lost any semblance of the stealth focus. The Assassin/Templar dynamic has been relegated to an afterthought, the modern-day plot has gone off the deep end in a major way, and there's so much irrelevant and distracting side content that it almost doesn't feel like an Assassin's Creed game. But even despite all those deep complaints, the remarkable thing is that the top thing I'll always remember about the game is how it's so damn...
Assassin's Creed III is without a doubt the glitchiest game I have ever played in my life. It's hardly possible to play through a mission without encountering some kind of glitch. The game doesn't often freeze or anything (it froze once on me in my playthrough), but the glitches can no less be very distracting, annoying, frustrating, and at time, game-breaking.
It became clear that the game had a glitch problem from the very opening scene. The camera pans over a scene with a horse carriage, but nothing is visible because an NPC is standing between the camera and the carriage. Later in that same cutscene (at least, I think it's the same cutscene, it's been a while), the dialog fades out halfway through. It's clear from the characters and camera angle that dialog is supposed to still be occurring, but the audio is gone. That's actually a persistent problem throughout the game. In many cutscenes and many eavesdropping segments, the audio dialog just randomly drops out altogether. It's always clear that there's supposed to still be dialog, but it's not there. In at least one instance, that dialog was key in understanding what to do next; with it dropping out, I had to run around lost until I figured it out.
Many of the glitches are cosmetic (still distracting, but not outright in the way), but at least a couple really get in the way of the game. For one -- and I'm still not totally sure if this is a glitch or just terrible design -- several times in the game, while strolling around incognito with no reason for a guard to even be suspicious of me, out of the blue they instantly started an all-out pursuit. I'm inclined to say this is a glitch because it occurred nowhere near a restricted area, and the pursuit is begun even more quickly than if I had been at the maximum level of notoriety. The problem with this is that if you turn around and fight them, it raises your notoriety, meaning that afterwards, they actually are supposed to instantly start chasing you. The notoriety system works because it makes it reasonable to try to keep your notoriety low without completing tedious tasks, but this glitch basically forces you to raise your notoriety. Running away is an option, too, but it's an annoying option: there are so many enemies in the cities that basically everywhere you turn, another one is there, preventing you from finding a hiding spot. Even when you do find one, you're likely far away from where you were originally heading anyway. It's irritating as hell and halfway ruins the quality of the new notoriety system on its own (and I only say 'halfway' because another poor design element, covered later, finishes ruining it).
There are other issues that actually interfere with the gameplay as well. For one, there is a fighting sidequest called Boston Brawlers, but the icon for the final portion of the sidequest does not actually appear on the map for no reason whatsoever. After unlocking it, there is absolutely no indication given of where to finish the sidequest, and there is no reminder on the map screen that the sidequest has an unfinished task; the only place to notice it is on the progress screen. In another scene, you're tasked with chasing down a man who has seemingly gone insane, but the game is ultra-finicky about when it will let you actually kill him; at one point, I stopped chasing him, assuming I was just mistaken in thinking the goal was to catch him. Ten minutes later, after wandering around the entire area trying to find something else to do, I found him again and this time was allowed to kill him. On several missions as well, as soon as the mission starts, you receive a warning to stay in the area or reduce the distance to the target, even though the mission has just begun and you haven't even had a chance to willfully stray too far yet. On at least two occasions, I "failed" the mission right away for these reasons. On a third mission, the target I was supposed to kill left the area I was supposed to remain within, forcing me to choose whether to be desynchronized for being too far from the target or for leaving my area. On one mission that requires you to stop a man trying to break into a house, the game wouldn't actually let me punch the guy; I had to restart the mission to complete it. On another, I was desynchronized for losing my target while I stood literally underneath her. In others, I found signs taped to trees that I could rip down to reduce my notoriety, only to find that the game doesn't actually let you rip marked signs off of trees. As my wife can attest, this game made me very aggravated with all these glitches.
There's even more glitches that aren't game-breaking, but sure are distracting. The top one is that after acquiring an item called the "Shard of Eden", I was alerted that I had acquired it every single time I entered a new area or acquired a new item for the rest of the entire game. That means about every minute that dialog popped up, letting me know I'd acquired that item I'd already been alerted about a thousand times before. In another instance, a man was standing around performing an animation reminiscent of hammering in a nail with no sign or wall anywhere near him. Several places in the game, heralds or newspaper boys come in twos: there are two standing next to each other, mirroring one another's movements 100%. At one point, you're tasked with participating in a major battle between thousands of Redcoats and Patriots, and in the middle of the battlefield is a regiment of Redcoats just aimlessly marching amongst the Patriots; their patrol route takes them through that area of the game, and the game doesn't think to redirect or remove them when an enormous battle is going on. In that same mission, you're tasked with taking cover behind obstacles, but the game rarely seems to recognize when you're actually standing near one. In one of the forts, there were several Patriots beating up a Redcoat. The fact that the Redcoat was spawned inside a Patriot fort is stupid enough, but on top of that, when I took the liberty of killing the Redcoat for them, they all decided to attack me; it's odd enough that the game makes both Redcoat and Patriot soldiers your enemies, but it's even odder when one side turns on you for killing the enemy they were already attacking.
Now, let me give one caveat for all of these glitches. Glitches are usually the sign of a rushed release, and rushed releases usually come from a company wanting to capitalize on the holiday season or some other milestone. For Assassin's Creed III, that milestone actually isn't profit-motivated, but rather comes from inside the game; as you learn early on, the game ties into the December 21st, 2012 lore, and thus the game had to be released before then to retain that appeal. That's not to say that they get a free pass on how absurdly glitchy the game is (they should have started earlier, dedicated more releases, and maybe delayed it just a couple weeks), but it's worth mentioning that at least it appears that the motive to hurry the game out was motivated by the game's internal criteria, not factors external to the game itself.
...and Borderline Glitchy Intentional Design
Even when the game isn't being glitchy, it sometimes feels glitchy. These are things that clearly aren't actually glitches, but that are such bad design decisions that they almost feel like glitches. Another way to say it is that these are glitches where the software is working perfectly, but what the programmers and designers tell the software to do is ridiculously flawed.
The first of these plays into the notoriety system again. As mentioned, the strength of the new notoriety system is that it gives the player the adequate level of control over their notoriety. The problem is that there are many side missions (and even main missions) that mandate increasing your notoriety in order to complete the mission. That, again, takes the player's notoriety out of their own hands and forces them to either flee or find notoriety-reducing individuals as a punishment for completing side missions. There were times I actively opted to ignore a side mission because I had gotten so sick of being notorious after the previous glitch or a previous mission. The system can get so bad and fleeing can be so annoying that there were times when, rather than finding the game-prescribed way of reducing notoriety, I either just let my character die or Fast Traveled to another location; both those reduce notoriety, and are easier than trying to enter a shop in broad daylight on a street patrolled by dozens of enemies to lower my notoriety. Again, when the player has full control over that notoriety, this all works fine; it's when that control is taken away that things can get frustrating.
One of the systems that I'll discuss later is the crafting system. The crafting system basically lets you choose a "recipe" for a new item and craft it based on what individuals you've recruited to help you and what items you have on hand. The system, however, is terribly designed. First of all, each recipe has ingredients, and many of those ingredients are available for purchase in a separate menu; however, there is no tie between the two menus. Even if all the items are available for purchase, you must pull up the recipe, write down or mentally note what items you need, go to a separate menu and purchase those items, then return to the crafting area, reselect the recipe, and then complete the crafting. On top of that, on the crafting screen, there is no note as to whether those ingredients are available for purchase or not, so you may not even be able to buy all those ingredients. There's no excuse for there not to be a quick function to "buy ingredients and craft item". On top of that even, the only way to check the items required for a recipe is to select the recipe; however, if you discover that the recipe cannot be crafted, you're sent to the very beginning of the recipe list, a menu with ten submenus and a dozen items in each. Navigating back to where you were to explore all the different items to craft is a ridiculous pain.
The game also has a major issue of disappearing items and weapons. Several times throughout the game, I found that significant portions of my inventory -- arrows, bullets, animal traps, bait -- had disappeared. There was no plot reason given for why these things would disappear, but they were gone and I was forced to buy all-new inventory. The same thing happened with weapons; on several occasions, I found I had somehow lost my sword. If I had dropped it in battle, no indication was given, but at this point I would have to go back to a store or my home to re-equip the sword I had apparently dropped. The same can happen with equipment, too; one piece of equipment available is a double holster, allowing you to effectively carry two guns and fire twice as many bullets before reloading, but at one point in the game my double holsters just disappeared. And speaking of reloading, the game tells you to press R2 to reload, but fails to tell you that if you're completely out of bullets (as opposed to have 1 of 4 left loaded or something), it's actually the triangle button that reloads. I played half the game mashing R2 waiting for it to reload my gun with no success.
There are several other instances of very bad game design as well. Items and events appear on the main map too soon, far before the plot gives any explanation for what you're doing. The trees that the game uses as high points in the wilderness area are all identical copies of one another. When you're getting closed to a destination you've marked on the map, it temporarily completely disappears. Missions like some of the eavesdropping missions are completely arbitrary in their success conditions, leaving the player confused as to the proper way to go about completing the mission. High points throughout the cities no longer reveal the whole map, meaning that it's not possible to be certain if you've completed all the optional side missions without manually running around the entire map. On the sea missions, there are still Animus-induced "area not available" areas, but the ship's turn radius is so bad that if you see these alerts, you're guaranteed to get desynchronized for venturing too far out of the area. The game employs a quick-travel system, but only within areas. To go from Boston to New York, for example, you quick-travel to the gates of Boston, take two steps through to the Frontier between the cities, quick-travel to the New York exit from the Frontier, and then take two steps into New York. If you're going to be quick-traveling all the way, why not just provide a function to quick-travel directly into the other city? I understand that making travel harder is good in some ways, but by allowing it via a chain of quick-travels, all you've done is quadruple the time spent staring at the loading screen.
Indecisive between Open-World and Plot-Driven
This is going to be one of the more difficult sections of this review to write because it reflects an overall problem in the gaming industry as a whole, something that goes far past an inherent problem with Assassin's Creed III. I've noted it in Batman: Arkham City and also in previous Assassin's Creed games, and I'm sure it's more widespread than that even. If what I write here doesn't make much sense to you, I apologize; a dedicated article on this might be following soon.
The modern trend in video games is to give every game an open-world structure; it's up to the player character to decide what to do at a given time. You can pursue sidequests, interact with some of the miscellaneous available tasks, or just play around in the world rather than always being on some part of the direct mission path. Open-world games, when they're done well, are great. The problem, though, is that it can be very difficult to tell a good, compelling story in an open-world structure because while good stories mandate a strong game-driven narrative, open-world games naturally thrive on giving maximum control of the narrative to the player. Open-world games thrive by allowing the player to effectively live a virtual life of the main character, but life can be boring sometimes. Good narratives thrive by providing tension, pacing, and observable impacts on the outside world of the game. While a game can certainly accomplish both (see Red Dead Redemption for, in my opinion, the all-time best example of an open-world game with a strong plot), it takes paying very special attention to how the plot must be structured.
Part of this is a problem of tension. My main problem with Batman: Arkham City is that throughout the game, there is a high tension surrounding getting to the next location; either someone is about to die, a hostage is being held, or there is some other reason your character should be hurrying. When are you supposed to pursue the sidequests, then? There is no natural place where it makes sense for your character to divert attention from the problem at hand and go around solving riddles to pick up trophies. Assassin's Creed III suffers from this problem as well (although not to as large an extent). A significant portion of the game is spent with a pressing need to get to the next mission, yet pursuing such missions as would be natural for the character cripples any participation the player might have in the sidequests.
The real problem with Assassin's Creed III in this realm, however, is two-fold. First of all, the more clear and easily articulated issue is with the game's control of the player characters and time as a whole. The game starts out with the player taking the role of Haytham Kenway, followed by a young Connor Kenway, followed by the adult Connor Kenway. As Haytham, the player can start to participate in the sidequests, but that participation carries over to Connor. One sidequest, for instance, involves gathering almanac pages that have been lost around Boston and New York. Any almanac pages gathered by Haytham get carried over to Connor. Not to spoil anything, but the relationship between the two is such that there is no logical way any items could have been passed from the former to the latter. In another example of this same concept, one of the sidequests provides the player forts to liberate from British control and hand over to the Patriots. However, the sidequest allowing you to liberate those forts is available long before the Revolutionary War actually begins. You can liberate a fort and hand it over to Patriot control before the Boston Tea Party, the Intolerable Acts, or any of the actual events that led to the Revolutionary War. How does it make sense for a Patriot army that does not yet exist to take control of a fort from the British army years before the war starts, and yet have that event not itself spark the war? To put this succinctly, the open-world structure of the game provided a sidequest, but the plot-driven element of the game made this sidequest make little sense at all.
Granted, those issues could have been fixed. Almanac pages should have been inaccessible until you begin playing as Connor, forts should have been locked down until after the memory sequence corresponding to the beginning of the war, and just like that, the issue is resolved. But a more serious and similar issue emerges with regard to the time pacing of the game. At several points in the game, as dictated by the plot, the game jumps forward in time by months or even several years. All told, the game covers over 50 years in American history, and yet you only play a small subset of points in time throughout that larger window. At the same time, though, you're supposed to be effectively living Connor's life. In addition to running around participating in the Revolutionary War, you're also managing a homestead, developing new items, sending out convoys, and building wealth. Are we supposed to believe that Connor just completely puts everything on hold for nine months while the plot jumps ahead? That nothing at all changes during that time, but as soon as the player is given control again, suddenly the area roars back to life?
To provide an even more humorously nonsensical example, there is one particular sidequest in which an individual asks you to meet him in Boston to provide safety as he visits his old store (I believe, anyway -- the details are fuzzy). I triggered that request, then continued with the plot, planning to complete the sidequest when I was next in Boston. As it turned out, the next visit to Boston was a couple large plot segments away. By the time I finally got to Boston, the game stated that it was over five years later, but yet there was the man, ready and waiting for me. Am I to believe he waited there for five whole years just to walk a few blocks with me? Of course not, that makes no sense; but that is the kind of awkward conflict that arises when a game paints itself as an open-world endeavor while also trying to let the plot take significant control of the game world.
The other part of this problem is that it also forces certain game mechanics to remain consistent regardless of the plot progress of the game as a whole, which itself leads to some ridiculous oddities in the game world. This happens when the plot dictates that some change must happen in the game world, and yet the game world, in the interest of preserving its open-world structure and flexibility, has to remain fundamentally the same. The major example of this is that throughout the game, both the Patriots and the Redcoats are actually Connor's enemies. The Redcoats make sense, but for the Patriot troops to attack Connor, to be suspicious of him and investigate him, or to be valid targets for his own attacks is never adequately justified. The game does give some passing plot explanation for it (which I won't spoil), but it's never really an effective justification. It leads to some extremely strange occurrences as well. In one instance, I entered a fort I had liberated for the Patriots. For some bizarre reason, a Redcoat had spawned inside, and he was fighting the Patriot troops. That by itself was cool; what is strange, though, is that when I killed the Redcoat, the Patriots all turned on me. These are troops that were just trying to kill that Redcoat, and troops that are only residing in this fort because I liberated it; yet, they turn on me, because the game dictates that they are enemies, and whenever an enemy witnesses a kill, he attacks Connor.
The entire dynamic of Patriots being enemies is one of the more difficult issues the game encounters. Again, plot justification is provided for it at one point, but it isn't very satisfying or compelling. More importantly even, it isn't provided until longer after the gameplay has made it clear that Patriots are enemies. They appear as red dots on the map, they are valid targets for your attacks, and they have their own notoriety account of you -- even those residing in the forts you liberated for them. The plot explanation for Patriots being enemies doesn't arise until one of the very late sequences, but it has already been clear throughout the gameplay that they are rendered as enemies in the game. But the reason is simple: the gameplay and open-world structure dictates that at all times, there must be an enemy faction at war with Connor. Therefore, even though Connor is involved in the Patriots capturing Boston (actual American history doesn't count as a spoiler, sorry), those same Patriots have to be his enemies in order to preserve the game's stated structure.
Those are the conflicts that arise when a game tries to balance an open-world structure with a significant plot focus; if it isn't done right, things just break down altogether. The open-world tasks start to make little sense and the plot-driven elements start to become very contrived as they have to internally justify why the world does not actually seem to change in response to catastrophic or revolutionary developments. Again, none of this is to suggest that it isn't possible to balance these things correctly. Red Dead Redemption does it brilliantly. There is a strong overall plot goal that has a compelling tension, but not such a strong tension that the player feels the character would be persistently compelled to take care of the plot progression immediately. The plot never demands a fundamental and far-reaching change to the world as a whole. The player is left to feel like they are playing a virtual life, and the story emerges from that life.
In actuality, though, the failure of Assassin's Creed III (and, more broadly, the Assassin's Creed series as a whole) isn't that it fails to adequately balance these competing drives. The failure is that it tries to in the first place. None of the stated appeal, goals, or style of the Assassin's Creed series relies on an open-world structure. The majority of the game's appeal could have been preserved with an entirely mission-based structure, taking the player directly from mission to mission. I'm not saying the entirety of the content could be stripped out as-is leaving only the main missions to buoy the game, but rather that if the game was designed from the outset to be more linear (like Uncharted, for example), it would still retain much of its same appeal, while allowing it to go even further in enhancing what actually makes the series special.
Enormous Missed Plot Opportunities
My best friend and I were ecstatic when we heard that the next Assassin's Creed game was going to be set in the Revolutionary War. The idea of seeing the Founding Fathers as characters in the game amazing, especially considering what the series had previously done with Leonardo da Vinci, the Medicis, and other real historical figures and families. Adding to it, there seemed to be an ample amount of lore to draw from: stories of the Founding Fathers as Freemasons and Templars and members of other secret societies and conspiracies are already far-reaching, inspiring dozens of books and movies already. It seemed like there was an absolutely enormous amount to draw from to make the game particularly special.
And then... nothing. There's no reference to Freemasonry. There aren't very interesting liberties taken with the allegiances and motivations of the Founding Fathers. George Washington figures heavily into the game, but not in a very compelling way as it turns out. He plays essentially the historical role we learned about in history books, the leader of the Continental Army with some controversy on the side. The game does an admirable job of portraying the events in a neutral way, painting Washington not as the borderline deified father of our country present in popular culture but rather as a flawed, realistic person, but it does not move toward truly involving him in the Templar-Assassin macro-plot. The historical figure it does involve in that plot, Charles Lee, is a relatively unknown disgraced former General in the Continental Army. It's a convenient selection that allows them to play into some internal strife within the Patriot cause, but given how little is popularly known about Lee, it isn't a very interesting selection.
Aside from that, there is hardly any leveraging of the Founding Fathers at all. Several are present in some form in the game -- Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and several others -- but none are truly injected into the game's plot. Rather than painting a sort of alternate conspiracy-laden history the way other games in the series do, the game seems extremely hesitant to paint new motives for known events, and instead simply suggests that there was an ongoing battle underlying the conflict that was suppressed and eradicated. While we see many historical events, we are merely spectators; they are not incorporated into the Templar-Assassin dynamic. This fact is especially frustrating considering that, if I recall correctly, there were glyphs in the past games that suggested a prominent Templar influence on the Founding Fathers. Regardless of whether the glyphs suggested such or not, that was what made the prospect of a game set in the Revolutionary War so compelling. Which Founding Fathers were Assassins? Which were Templars? Were Adams' Federalists, who lobbied for increased federal government control, actually the prominent Templar faction, put down democratically by Washington's and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans? Were the Articles of Confederation originally an assassin-driven document with their emphasis on states' rights, and was the following Constitution actually a Templar creation, foretelling the earlier games' predictions of a heavy Templar presence in the nation's highest offices? There was an enormous amount of potential here for a strong connection between the Templar-Assassin war and American history, but unfortunately, nearly every opportunity was left unrealized.
Meandering, Anticlimactic Plot
The above section may read as a complaint that I didn't get exactly what I wanted out of the game. It's of course entirely possible that the game could be very good while still not delivering exactly what I expected or desired. Unfortunately, it's not. The plot that it provides in the place of the potential outlined about is meandering, lazy, and anticlimactic. There's no strong overarching goal to it, and at times it has a strong tendency to appear as a tour of significant Revolutionary War events.
Because the game takes such an effort to railroad you through these significant battles and events, there's little overarching plot device to motivate anything that actually happens. Somewhere in the back of the game is the idea that there are seven Templars you must eventually kill, but that motivation is inherently lazy (Assassin's Creed II did the same, and did it better), and what's more, the game never really brings it up as the driving force. Instead, it plays more as an unrelated string of missions tiled end-to-end -- which, actually, would be a decent plot structure for an open-world game, but the game still screws that up by allowing this meandering plot to take significant control over the process and flow of the game world as a whole. At no given point in the game could I really give any indication of what my goal was beyond, "Kill [insert name here]." Even that wouldn't have been so bad if every mission proceeded with a clear tie to that overall plot goal, but that isn't the case either; many seem arbitrary and as if they're just there to fill in the mission tree.
On top of all that, the game is anticlimactic in several ways. The game sets up tension surrounding a few different eventual events very well, most notably the eventual confrontations between Connor and certain enemies. You know that such confrontations are guaranteed to take place, and while there is little overarching narrative to the story, you still find yourself exciting about eventually witnessing these battles... only for them to come and go entirely anticlimactically. They're entirely dissatisfying, and give the player far too little actual playtime in what could have been the most epic encounter in the series' entire history.
Unfaithful to the Series' Gameplay, Themes and Appeal
The fact that this point is so far down in this section is perhaps itself one of the saddest reflections on Assassin's Creed III there could be. If this were the top criticism I had of the game, it would still be an enormous problem. It's all the way down here as my sixth-most significant criticism. That does not bode well.
One of the biggest problems I have with Assassin's Creed III, even despite all of the above, is that in the end, it really isn't an Assassin's Creed game. Sure, it has all the superficial similarities; it has the hidden blade, free-running around rooftops, stealth kills, eagle vision, vantage points, and the Animus, but those aren't what defined the series. The series was defined by the two words in the title: Assassin's Creed. The game was about assassins, and the game was about the underlying creed that differentiated them from their arch-nemesis, the Templars. Assassin's Creed III is about neither.
For starters, assassinations play very little role in Assassin's Creed III, itself an enormous problem. While the previous games went to great lengths to set up the "correct" way to kill certain targets (and the Ezio trilogy went the extra mile of awarding extra synchronization for performing the kills in the proper way), none of that is present in Assassin's Creed III. The stealth component as a whole is entirely deemphasized; there are missions where "remain undetected" is still an optional objective, as well as others where it is not optional, but it isn't woven into the fabric of the game as a whole. If anything, the game seems to emphasize Connor's skill as a face-to-face killer, going to great lengths to initiate open combat as often as possible. Eagle vision, the bedrock of the original game and still an important feature in the Ezio trilogy, is essentially completely irrelevant, used only occasionally to pick a target out of a crowd. All of this combines with the prevalence of an absurd variety of other gameplay tasks to radically reduce the importance of the "assassin" in "Assassin's Creed". "Errand Boy's Creed" might be more appropriate.
But all that was only half of the Templar/Assassin plot. The other half happened in the modern-day portion. Is that still preserved? Not at all. The original games painted the Assassins and Templars as two organizations that persist to the modern day, with the Templars taking the form of a massive company called Abstergo while the Assassins are forced into seclusion in the farthest corners of the earth. In Assassin's Creed III? The Templars are portrayed as out-of-the-loop idiots that really have no idea what's going on in the world. They're no longer the enemy at all, except that they hold the pieces necessary for the Assassins to achieve the true objective. Our modern-day crew spends their time trying to find a way to save the world from an impending solar flare (all details revealed at the end of Assassin's Creed: Revelations), reading prophecies and messages from an ancient race of supernatural goddesses. None of that is in the least bit necessary. The plot of the entire series would have been perfectly fine revolving around its original direction toward an eventual Templar plot to control the minds of all humanity. Instead, the Templar/Assassin dynamic is relegated to nothing but an afterthought in the modern-day plot as well.
Making this problem even worse is that the unique symbiosis between the ancient and modern sections is essentially absolutely gone. One of the things that made Assassin's Creed so interesting is that there was a constant communication between the present and the past. Vidic actually spoke to Desmond as he played the life of Altair, and even into Assassin's Creed II, there was still a lot more back-and-forth between the modern day and ancient times, both in the dialog and in the actual structure. In Assassin's Creed III, though, there's none of that. There is literally no communication from the modern-day individuals with Desmond while he's in the Animus. Even the reasoning behind getting into the Animus is contrived and phoned-in; Desmond randomly faints, and of course, their response is to pop him into the Animus. There's no real back-and-forth between the Animus and the modern day either; there are three (or four? I'm not even sure, they weren't very remarkable) linear platformer missions in the modern setting that get completed in between memory sequences under the guise of looking for a "power source", itself something clearly created solely to justify doing something in the modern time. Aside from those missions, the only modern-day interaction is with a series of conversations with those goddesses, basically just telling the history of their civilization and their own demise. There's no back-and-forth, no symbiosis, no real relationship between the two.
The series has basically lost all loyalty to its own origins, themes, and appeal. If it weren't for the clearly iconic superficial Assassin's Creed elements (including the Animus), it could easily pass for another game altogether. That wouldn't be so bad if the original themes had little potential, but they did; Assassin's Creed III is deeply disappointing in its failure to explore them.
No Assassin's Creed Magic
Finally, the last criticism I have of Assassin's Creed III is a bit more amorphous, but it's also among the most serious. It plays into what I said above about the game losing any faithfulness or loyalty to the series' premise or structure. Put simply, Assassin's Creed III has none of the magic that the series typically has.
By "magic", I mean those extra features and sidequests that really set the game apart. The glyphs from Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood are the best examples. These were puzzles that leveraged historical photographs, documents, and real modern history to weave a complex, dynamic, and downright engrossing picture of how the battle between the Assassins and Templars played out through the ages. It was, at times, creepy, haunting, mysterious, and eerie, and it set the series apart as something more than a video game series. These things were, in my opinion, what helped Assassin's Creed, for all its flaws, transcend its natural limitations and become something truly special. These were something no game had tried before. These really connected the game to the real world. These were special.
The glyphs weren't the only example of these. The mystery surrounding Subject 16, the previous Animus occupant, and his cryptic messages left on the walls of Abstergo played into it as well. The mystery surrounding the Apples of Eden, devices that for whatever reason have become effectively irrelevant in Assassin's Creed III, was part of it. The connections with real history, from the Crusades to the heart of the Catholic Church to any number of U.S. Presidents, Supreme Court Justices, and other world politicians, were part of it. These were the elements that set Assassin's Creed apart as a series. These were the things that made the series special.
Assassin's Creed III has none of those things. The best it can muster is an attempt to leverage December 21st, 2012, the supposed date of the end of the world, but even that falls horribly flat. The modern sections, while well-designed as video game levels, completely fail in their attempts to deliver the same kind of intrigue as the previous games. Not even the immediate connection between the game's events and the current calendar can salvage it. The previous games in the series, for all their flaws, set Assassin's Creed III with the potential to be one of the most magical game experiences of all time, and the game falls flat in every single conceivable way.
Assassin's Creed III is a deeply, deeply unsatisfying video game experience. It's unsatisfying as the third installment in its acclaimed series, it's unsatisfying internally due to its own glitches and weak design decisions, and it's unsatisfying as a whole due to its incredible squandering of unbelievable potential. What limited appeal it has in its engaging naval sidequest and its classic Assassin's Creed gameplay is wasted on a glitchy, disloyal mess.
As a game, Assassin's Creed III fails first and foremost due to its glitches. The game was not ready for release by any metric. A massive patch was released only two weeks after release, and I didn't start the game until after that patch, and the game is still glitchy as hell. The glitches aren't minor, either. They're frustrating, aggravating, and break any semblance of flow that the game could have developed. And when the game isn't being glitchy, it's exhibiting dozens of highly suspect design choices. For a company with so much game design experience, you'd never know the game wasn't designed by amateurs. Basic principles of usability and design are violated left and right, and the overall structure fails to deliver a cohesive experience. All that is before the game's internal conflict between its open-world structure and its plot-driven elements, and even that comes before the wild weakness of the game's plot and cast of characters. All this failure mapped against a rich historical background that could have been leveraged is unforgivable.
And that's not even the half of it. Not only is the game dissatisfying on its own, but it's almost insulting to the series from which it comes. Assassin's Creed II was disloyal to many of the elements that made the original Assassin's Creed good, but at least it was still a fun game that preserved the series roots. Assassin's Creed III does neither. It's not a fun game, but it also doesn't even stay true to the series. It completely loses the Assassin/Templar dynamic on which the series is built. It has little or no connection with the modern day world the way its predecessors did. Where Assassin's Creed II told an incredible story about the history of the world from the Renaissance all the way to the present with its glyphs and hidden documents, Assassin's Creed III, a game built on the origins of the very country that those glyphs dwelled on, provides no such substance. Instead, it gets incredibly distracted by veritable montage of iconic Revolutionary War moments and a series of utterly irrelevant sidequests in a needlessly open world. It's not a good game, it's not an Assassin's Creed game, and it has hardly any redeemable qualities whatsoever.
Most of my criticisms run a bit deeper than the things that will annoy many fans. If you like the franchise just for its slashy stabby action, then you might still find Assassin's Creed III entertaining. Even then, though, the glitches and lack of challenging gameplay remove almost any appeal the game could have. For those that appreciated the series for its plot, engaging story, and unique structure -- or basically for anyone that appreciated the game for anything more than a slashy stabby visual spectacle -- avoid Assassin's Creed III. You're better off forgetting it ever existed. It supplies nothing of value to the series whatsoever.
Reviewer's Score: 4/10 | Originally Posted: 01/04/13
Game Release: Assassin's Creed III (US, 10/30/12)
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