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Headshot of me wearing red lipstick Kara Babcock

Assassin’s Creed III and the delicate equilibrium

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I originally wrote this in March and have only now gotten around to publishing it. Go me.

I’ve already discussed my mad love for the Mass Effect series, so now let’s talk about another series that captured my fairweather gaming heart: Assassin’s Creed. I can’t remember whether I got the original before or after I tried Mass Effect, but those were the first two games I played all the way through when I bought my Xbox 360. And, like the other series, I’ve followed Assassin’s Creed through its various sequels. Back in January, I finished playing Assassin’s Creed III after wrestling with whether to continue it at all. It occurred to me that I have never really set down my thoughts about these games. So, before I pan that one, let me celebrate its predecessors.

How These Games Earned My Loyalty

I appreciated the stealth mechanic of Assassin’s Creed, as well as its devotion to sneaking up behind people and stabbing them. Even the original game’s very repetitive and linear storyline, as well as its flat frame story, couldn’t rob me of the enjoyment of hitting that button and sending the game’s world spiralling into chaos, while I slipped into the crowd and back into anonymity. Or at least, that was the goal. All too often, the guards nevertheless managed to get wind of my trail and pursue me in such numbers that it became far more efficient simply to fight my way out—i.e., kill all the guards—than it was to run and hide. Indeed, the game’s tendency to have guards randomly detect me—even if I was minding my own business and hadn’t stabbed anyone for several seconds!—was frustrating at times. Overall, though, Assassin’s Creed offered solid gameplay.

I eagerly anticipated Assassin’s Creed II. My initial reaction was mixed. I loved the change in setting—Renaissance Venice and Florence seemed ideal to the free-roaming, rooftop-climbing mechanics that made the game so much fun. I wasn’t as pleased with the change in character. It’s true that Altair was almost as whiny and disrespectful as Desmond, but at least he had guts. Ezio, on the other hand, was some kind of Italian prettyboy more vain than venerable. But that was all part of the plan, and over the course of the game and its two sequels, Ezio grew into something much more. By the time of Brotherhood and Revelations, Ezio is no longer the spry, overconfident young man we meet at the beginning of his journey. He is old—he has a beard with plenty of grey in it, and during our final mission together, he shows his age.

Assassin’s Creed II also improved heavily on the gameplay. It introduced more weapons, including bombs, and it made the mission structure less linear. As a completist, I tried to cover everything—scale every viewpoint, do every side quest, etc. I could never quite bring myself to finish the side missions involving recruitment of additional assassins and sending them on missions to other cities. But I enjoyed the variety of missions and sheer density of gameplay available to me.

Indeed, when I unwrapped Brotherhood at Christmas, I was under the impression it was primarily the multiplayer expansion to Assassin’s Creed II, with a single player mission or two tacked on, almost as an afterthought to make it more palatable. Since I don’t play multiplayer, it didn’t hold much attraction for me, so I let it languish while I flirted with some other games. But after I once again tired of Tomb Raider’s propensity for making me miss a ledge because of a poor camera angle, I decided to give Brotherhood a try. Well, I was surprised to discover that it was a complete game, with an extensive set of missions and an entirely new storyline. When Revelations came out with more of the same, I devoured that as well.

I think Ubisoft did something notable with that type of release cycle. So often, it seems like developers take forever with new games in a popular franchise—we are still waiting for another Half-Life from Valve. And I’m not implying that we are somehow entitled to sequels or that developers need to rush—that would be bad. But it was certainly a treat that Ubisoft managed to deliver two complete additional games in the two years following Assassin’s Creed II. Again, at times it felt like all the additional weapons and equipment and side quests threatened to diminish that core mechanic of stabbing people upside the head—but it never quite went that far, in my opinion.

Those games also had the desired effect for Ubisoft of keeping Assassin’s Creed well on everyone’s mind ahead of the release of Assassin’s Creed III. I was very excited for this game despite having relocated to England by this time. I went out and bought it on release day. I wasn’t too thrilled by its setting—sorry, American friends, but your little revolutionary war tends to bore me—but the series had enough credibility with me that I was going to give it a try. Also, I am a little ashamed to admit that Revelations had begun to sucker me into the frame story, and as annoying and pathetic as Desmond is, I wanted to find out what happened next.

Where It All Went Wrong

Almost from the start, Assassin’s Creed III and I did not get along. As Haytham, I felt as if the game were leading me along by the nose—not just in the sense of telling me exactly which mission I should pursue next, but literally leading me from spot to spot, directing me during each mission: go to this spot, now this one, now climb up here, now stab this person…. It was as if the game couldn’t trust me to achieve an object my own way and had to micro-manage the entire process.

Life as Connor wasn’t much better. From the first mission when I had to navigate through the burning village all the way to his climactic battle with Charles Lee, I never felt like the game fully surrendered control and decision-making to me. There were far too many cutscenes, far too much pontificating by Connor or his compatriots. The last mission, which should have been the most intense and impressive of the entire game, fell completely flat, because half of it was me sitting there, watching Connor do something in a cutscene.

There was also far too much bloat in this game. I know it is bloat because I didn’t do any of it and still managed to finish the game. I didn’t send any trading convoys or help anyone on my homestead. Hell, I barely purchased any weapon upgrades throughout the entire game! It gave me the best tomahawk from the start … I think I bought a replacement sword at one point, and that was it. I hardly ever used a gun, or the bow, relying almost exclusively on the hand-to-hand of my knife or tomahawk, with the occasionl rope dart for good measure. But the game never gave me the opportunity or instruction to really expand and upgrade as I had in the previous games. There was no Leonardo around to feed me new inventions every few missions. Aside from the occasional mission where, because I couldn’t be trusted of course, the game directed me to kill someone in a certain way, I managed to get through everything with a well-placed stab or a bloody tomahawk fight (once I learned how to counterkill in this game, which was much less fun than in the other games).

So, in general, Assassin’s Creed III was much less enjoyable than its predecessors. It didn’t trust me, so it didn’t earn my trust. I gave up on it a few times, not because it was too difficult but because it just didn’t captivate me and make me want to keep playing it. Going back to it, when I had the time, seemed like more of a chore than anything else: “Ugh, I’m going to have to play another overly-structured mission and watch more heavy-handed cutscenes.”

I Was Sick, So I Finished Your Game. Happy?

Of course, having two weeks off work can put a different perspective on things. And towards the last act, Assassin’s Creed III had brief moments of clarity. It got to a point where I was beginning to enjoy myself and looking forward to my sessions each day. Then it was over! And we counted our dead, the game and I, and took a tally.

I didn’t like the setting, and in particular the effect of the setting on the decisions made by the developers. Where is my free-climbing, rooftop-jumping Old World Europe? Why are the buildings so spaced apart? (No, I do not think that being able to jump along some tree limbs is adequate recompense.) Why couldn’t you set a game in Victorian London, and have me fight Jack the Ripper? But no, we’re stuck in eighteenth-century Boston and New York, and I spent most of my time running around or on horseback.

I didn’t like the main characters (any of them). Connor is self-righteous and dull, and his priorities shift whenever the game needs a new reason to get him into hot water. Desmond, as usual, has all the personality of a flattened nail. And Haytham is a smug, self-satisfied villain who talks too much. There is nothing endearing about these characters and precious little that is sympathetic.

And there is the ending. Oh, what an ending—or endings, I should say, since there is the conclusion of Connor’s story as well as Desmond’s. I have already complained about the frequency and usage of cutscenes in this game. Connor’s final mission and pursuit of Charles Lee is full of padding, including cutscenes, and it is ultimately one last, pathetic attempt by the game to get me to care for this character. There’s supposed to be something ironic about Connor pursuing Lee into a tavern, sitting down at the same table, and sharing one last drink with him before stabbing him. But it left me cold—mostly because I wasn’t the one doing the stabbing. Once again, the game had decided that I, the player, was not important enough to undertake such a task.

As for Desmond, I enjoyed his ending even less, but for much the same reasons. Minerva and Juno present Desmond with a choice, and it is literally the fate of the world. And what do I, the player, get to do? I get to watch. No one asks my opinion. There is no choice system here like at the end of Mass Effect 3. And, to be fair, these games have never been about letting the player make choices. But I still expect more than being forced to sit through a five minute movie called “Desmond Saves the World by Being Bland and Self-Righteous.”

I Never Thought I Would Say It: I Miss Ezio

Assassin’s Creed III ultimately did not impress me. I wish I could say was I looking forward to Assassin’s Creed IV and its inevitable new storylines, but the idea of pirates doesn’t enthuse me like it once did. (This might have something to do with the naval missions in this game, which soon became my worst nightmare.) I’m worried that this game has ruined my opinion of the series forever, not by being outright awful but simply by being bland. All good things end, and all good things should end. But whereas Ubisoft had the chance to go out with a bang, in every instance their choices earned them a whimper.

I still like this series overall. And I might end up playing the next game, depending on whether I have an Xbox at the time and what my schedule is like. Somehow, though, I suspect my heart will forever remain under the Tuscan sun, accompanied by an aged, well-travelled Italian assassin who has earned my sympathy and respect. Together, we will scale basilicas and towers; battle corrupt officials, knights, and popes; and revive an ancient and hallowed order sworn to safeguard freedom.

So long for now, Assassin’s Creed. Have fun getting that shark out of the pool.