Sep 032014

I blame Daniel Day-Lewis. I watched Last of the Mohicans and got a hankering to play a game set in the Colonial frontier, one of many periods of history poorly covered by games. In fact, in a reasonably extensive library the only game that really addressed this setting was Assassin’s Creed III, a game that, to put it mildly, I did not like very much. Shorn of its only real virtue, the multiplayer component, I felt reasonably certain I would still hate the game virulently. I’ve given second chances to games I formally liked less, though, so I booted up some flintlock-and-tomahawk action. Spoiler alert—the game is still junk, for largely the same reasons I identified in my review. There is, perhaps, a bit of perverse genius in a game design that systematically expresses the Templar view of the world with the aim of infuriating the player, but it’s difficult to believe this was really the intention of a game that is so incoherent, stupid, and poorly made.

It may seem strange to talk about focus in an open-world game, especially one made by Ubisoft, but it’s worth remembering how very pared-down the original Assassin’s Creed was. That game didn’t even have money, and aside from the viewpoints and a few collectibles there was very little to do aside from story-oriented missions. Money and a loose sort of base development were innovations of Assassin’s Creed II, which kicked off a progressive expansion of both protagonist abilities and potential side-missions that teetered on the edge of real trouble in Revelations and tumbled right over the edge and shattered at the base of a cliff in III. We have hunting, and a homestead, and naval missions, and brotherhood development, and territory to capture, and fistfights to get into, and missions to acquire goods, and sewers to explore for some reason, and also, oh hey, these missions associated with Connor’s actual storyline, not to mention Desmond.

Most of this stuff is half-assed and little of it really fits into a coherent whole. It’s never clear why Connor builds his little homestead or even his brotherhood. He’s a grade-A heel and quickly disillusioned with the Patriots, so his desire to help out these (white) people who need letters and goods delivered feels unmotivated, at best. The hunting and fistfights at least fit his character and personality, but they also just exist off in their own little world without seriously playing into the game’s main storyline or themes. The naval missions are the only legitimately good part of the single-player experience, but I’ll be damned if I understand how they really fit in to the rest of it. As for the Desmond missions…

Ugh, Desmond. I have always hated him, and his only saving grace in this game is that he is actually less of a shithead than Connor. Also, Nolan North doesn’t shout all his lines the way Noah Watts does. I get that Connor is supposed to be seething with barely-suppressed rage, but since this only comes across in the voice acting and a few non-interactive scenes it’s kind of a failed depiction. As with so many open-world games, once an actual mission starts it’s time for helpful!Connor rather than the actual character that has been depicted for 10 hours.

This is not actually the game’s biggest narrative problem, and neither is its bizarre choice not to take the opportunity to free itself forever from the Animus and the horrible frame story that goes with it. Instead, the problem is a change in attitude. Assassin’s Creed, and especially the Ezio trilogy, had previously presented stories that seemingly intended to make history more interesting and exciting than it actually was. One got the impression that the developers had looked at the actual events and asked, “how can we make this more awesome?” That’s how we ended up with Leonardo’s creations coming to life and actually working.

Assassin’s Creed III seems to take the opposite approach: the developers seem to have had the desire to make the real history look as dumb as possible. The emblematic example of this is when Lance recreates Leonardo’s flying apparatus and it fails embarrassingly, but this attitude manifests throughout. I’m all for deconstructing the founding fathers, but Assassin’s Creed III goes out of its way to make these men look like bumbling fools. Thus, Benjamin Franklin shows up only to show off his lechery, Paul Revere is reduced to a goofy backseat driver, and Washington shows up as a bad general but not as a good politician (which even the game admits he was simultaneously). Sam Adams gets a more sympathetic showing, but disappears halfway through the story.

Maybe this is just what you should expect when you ask Canadians to make a game about the Revolutionary War. Still, it seems like the least interesting thing one could possibly do with the conflict, especially when one considers the number of key players belonging to “secret” societies, the intense debates over the proper nature (republic vs monarchy, federalism vs home rule) of the new government, and the personal conflicts (e.g. Jefferson v Hamilton) between the founding fathers themselves. Much fertile ground was ignored in favor of Revere riding double with Connor.

Even those who can ignore the poverty of the narrative shouldn’t forgive the game for being junk on a fundamental level. The addition of free-running in trees is neat, but hardly any salvation given that free-running in the cities is a dull chore thanks to discontinuous buildings, a failure to address climb-lock, and an overabundance of rooftop guards. The repetition of the exact same goddamn tree throughout the wilderness still grinds my gears, especially since it doesn’t include a safe leap of faith from the viewpoint, and of course one cannot mention the viewpoints without pointing out that finding all of them does not reveal all of the game’s absurdly bad map. That’s just one outcropping of the mountain of garbage that is the game’s hideous user interface, which seems to have been designed with the motto: obtuse, obscuring, obstructive.

At least this time a bug didn’t take out a whole district’s worth of assassin missions in New York, but the notoriety system was still thoroughly broken there. I also got to experience a cute bug in the forest where the game spawned something like 9 wolves in a row and then got stuck in combat mode because one of them clipped to the inside of a rock. Naturally this led to a desynch since Connor can leave no dead animal unskinned.

And there you have it. Years later and I still can’t forgive ACIII for being such an utterly dumb, shambolic pile of garbage. Sure, there’s some fun to be had running through the woods shooting deer or sailing on the ocean shooting boats, but the core of the experience is rotten, and it infects everything else. There is not one single aspect of this game that is well-designed, solidly coded, and reasonably well integrated into the whole. In retrospect, my 6/10 score may have been too generous.

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