Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Final review of Assassin's Creed 3

After making an extensive recap of the Assassin's Creed 3 game that covered almost exclusively the story of said game, it is time to do a proper review of the title. It is no secret that I really wanted to play the title, and I preordered it a year before it came out in some special super special duper edition. I gave it enormous credit beforehand, because of the previous titles that managed to really mean something (opposed to, say, the Modern Warfare series). However, Assassin's Creed 3 left me really unsatisfied, both on a storytelling and on a game mechanic level. At first, let give me a brief summary over my grievances with the story, which you can read in great detail in my recaps.

Looking at his nemesis: a critical review

There are two main problems. The first is the structure of the story itself. It starts with a really great idea, letting you play the main antagonist for quite a while before allowing you to do your own training. But in the end, it comes down to the character and how he interacts with the world. Connor is a hollow shell and doesn't possess many character traits that made Ezio such a compelling figure. Even Altair had much more character development, growing from a youthful hothead into a somber, responsible man. Connor is a youthful hothead when the story requires it, and he is somber at the same occasions. Worst of all, he's never responsible. The deeds you commit as Connor, such as helping a cook slaughter about two dozen guards because he grieves over the Quartering Act, or the murder of several dozen soldiers at the Boston Tea Party just to hit the enemy's purse don't breath any of the thoughfulness behind the previous assassin goals. At no point in the game can Connor coherently articulate why the Assassins should prevail over the templars. That the historic events of the period are slapped into the story degenerates the whole thing to a tour-de-force through the history of revolutionary America.

Bam! Boom! Explosion! Never mind why.

The other problem is the means by which the story is executed. The game heavily relies on lengthy cutscenes to deliver its dialogue. Even things that can be told by the environment and gameplay, which is after all the superior technique in a video game, are delivered by heavy-handed expositionary dialogue. Everything is spelled out exactly and in so many lines, the whole storytelling just becomes very bloated. It's not the cutscenes per se - if the dialogue would be written well, I wouldn't take so much beef with it. I refer you to Assassin's Creed Revelations as an example of how it can be done. But alas, the dialogue is very poorly written. The over-exposition seeps into it way too often, and worse, the dialogue was conceived to be the number one medium to tell you what to do next. This leads to people explaining to you just how stuff works - in game terms, more or less. Any immersion in the world gets blown by this.

Connor and Washington, presumably talking
But again, read detailed critique of this in the recaps and let's move on to the gameplay. It's Assassin's Creed, so you climb stuff and kill people, right? Yes, and no. There's way too much other stuff. The game never exactly delivers on the assassinating part. Since many assassinations are woven deeply into the story, you don't have any agency of how to perform them. This is most laughingly executed in the execution scene, where your only element of interaction is to walk a few steps before the next lengthy cutscene cuts in, in which the assassination is performed. The path is set out for you. This doesn't extend to the assassinations only. In fact, the game details almost every step for you, taking away most agency you might have. There are almost no choices.

Connor's favorite choice: how to kill a redcoat?
 Now, in a straight shooter like Call of Duty, this lack of choices doesn't matter because the game wants to make you feel like the protagonist of an action movie, and it delivers on that part. But Assassin's Creed 3 is supposed to be about assassination attempts and, most ridiculously, it's designed as a sandbox game. It does seem like the misperception was lost on Ubisoft, so let me spell it out: if you have a sandbox game with huge environments to discover, discovering them should somehow be part of the game. In Assassin's Creed 3, there isn't any need at all for discovery. The game doesn't even promote it, because following the main storyline gets rewarded with big shiny quest markers on the map. There are so many elements in this game - minigames, a whole economy system, naval battles, ... - but none of them connect to the main game. It feels like there are two seperate games at work simultanously.
Depicted: a scene from the better of the two games
This negative impression is tied together by the fact that the game poses almost no challenge. It is ridiculously easy. When you get frustrated with it, then because you run into one of the many glitches that plaguen the game since the first installment: your character runs across a fence instead of jumping down, you suddenly jump from a rooftop into thin air instead of grabbing the next ledge, you auto-target enemies randomly instead of being able to focus, and so on. This adds to a rather dismal view of Assassin's Creed 3, which fails to live up to the high expectations. Much wasted potential here, unfortunately. Let's hope the inevitable add-on will make amends for it.

I have an idea for a protagonist.


  1. Long comment with my thoughts on the story...

    When I heard that the main character would be half Mohawk and half English (rather than all American), it gave me hope that the developers were not going for the easy Americans=good=Assassins, British=bad=Templars. When I actually played the game, it seemed they did basically go for Americans=good, British=bad, since Connor pretty fully latches himself to the revolutionary cause. So I was disappointed. But the epilogue mission at the Mohawk village crystalized something for me: the Americans were never the good guys of the game, and Connor was being used by them the whole time.

    Connor is driven by his two goals of revenge against Charles Lee and protection of his people. He is basically naive, which leads him to let nearly everyone he meets know exactly what his goals are. Finally, he has almost completely confused his personal hatred of his father and his institutional hatred of Templars with a false hatred of the British.

    These three traits, plus his obvious skill, make him the perfect target for exploitation by the revolutionaries. Sam Adams and company are basically using Connor for their own ends and never really intend to help him except when it suits them. Connor is suspicious of them, but never quite catches on, hence the seeming failure of the game to explore some of the more interesting ideas some of the Templars raise.

    Basically Connor is like Ned Stark, a noble but naive man who gets caught up in a political game he can't hope to understand being played by people who perceive him as a means to an end.

    In the end, Connor's monomaniacal focus on revenge cause him to choose the allies and the course of actions that will lead to the worst possible consequences for his people (the game only gives us the beginning of those consequences, but with the benefit of hindsight we know how bad it will get).

    If I'm right, I think that's a pretty ambitious and interesting story for a video game too try to tell. I don't think AC3 told it particularly well. I wonder whether the developers realized late that players wouldn't enjoy playing as a character that ultimately had little agency of his own, being almost completely puppeted by others, and decided to back off some, resulting in a less coherent story. Or if it's simply not possible to tell that kind of story with this kind of game.

    1. If you are right, it is pretty ambitious, but the simple fact remains that the game failed to tell this story, unfortunately. But it would at least make the intent better.

  2. First-time visit to your blog but a huge fan of the Boiled Leather podcast. Also, as someone who's worked in TV, I really appreciate your balanced thoughts on the Game of Thrones series. Anyhoodle, had to squee when I saw you had a few posts on Assassin's Creed.

    I agree with you on the weakness of the main character, Connor, but I think my thoughts on the overall story were more positive. As an American who's also a history nerd, I get especially irritated when I see our historical figures painted in idealized strokes. George Washington, Paul Revere, etc. They were people, not mythical figures (the John Adams HBO miniseries and 1776 musical film did this well). So, I was giggly when Paul Revere was an overexcited fratboy, Washington was capable of brutality, and everyone saw Connor's usefulness and exploited it to their own ends. The British weren't villainous, just the opposing side--Pitcairn's death showed this, for example. I found the end, with Connor realizing he's done nothing to help his people, as quite melancholy. (There's a deleted audio piece that's essentially Connor's epilogue, and it's easily the best thing Connor says in the game)

    I am inclined to agree with the poster above--I see the ideas outpacing the execution. It needed more work done to get the themes across, and a stronger protagonist. I was fascinated by Haytham, who I thought was a super interesting character. I wasn't entirely happy with how they killed him off, but his dialogue was my favorite in the game.

    Well, fingers crossed for Black Flag. At least for that game the naval battles are tied in with the story.

    1. I'm not necessarily predjudiced against the story ideas themselves - I'm a big American history nerd myself, I bought the special edition because of this cool statue of Connor with the Betsy-Ross-Flag, I have the Declaration of Independence framed at my office desk and a big Join-or-die-flag hanging over my table, so no fear on that count. What I was so disappointed with was the execution. It made the game feel like on rails, with no meaningful chance of interaction, and the forced nature of all this dialogue to rely on instead of transporting the message through the game.
      But thanks for commenting!