Review: Assassin’s Creed III (* stars)

TL;DR – Assassin’s Creed III is, quite honestly, a mess of a game. Ubisoft Montreal’s attempts to innovate and refine, from the combat to the running controls to the economic systems, all fall flat. A host of technical problems exacerbate these issues all the more, making many missions a frustrating bout of trial and error from misinterpreted commands to huge glitches that sometimes break the game. Finally, the game’s story doesn’t even bother to end, endlessly stringing along the player in some convoluted sci-fi plot. All of this comes down to a lack of focus and increasing gamification. This I say: I’ve had enough, and so should you.

Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks.

Ecclesiastes 10:18

Oh boy.

Assassin’s Creed always shows such great potential. Who doesn’t want to perform a part in some historical fiction? At the very least, these games generate interest in the original subject matter and show a great attention to historical detail. The Revolutionary War, then, almost BEGS for a game in the series; it’s new, interesting, and frankly amazing the level of detail that went into forging a new aesthetic style. I’m truly impressed, in this respect. I am not impressed with the game as a whole, unfortunately. Assassin’s Creed III stumbles all throughout; it’s incredibly obvious that the game’s conception, development, and implementation moved on a tight schedule and hard deadline.

For example, the story never goes anywhere interesting, though it shows hints of promise. In all the previous games, the Assassins versus Templars conflict remained predominantly one-sided: As are good, Ts are bad, no exception. In this installment, Connor shows divided loyalties – he’s an Assassin, sure, but he’s also an Iroquois warrior who wants to protect his people from encroaching settlers. As well, his (PLOT SPOILERS) father Haytham Kenway leads the Templars in the region. Heck, they even work together on a few missions, wherein they discuss the fate of his mother (killed by the Revolutionaries he serves, no less!) and truly showing Connor he can’t trust either side. Well, until he does by sticking with the Assassin mission until the end. Frankly, it doesn’t make sense, but apparently Corey May (the lead writer) assumes I’ll just accept whather the protagonist does after the introductory sequence. At base, that strikes me as unbelievably lazy writing.

I don’t think I need to divulge information about the “Desmond” subplot running through the whole series – ACIII shows that the subplot exists for no reason other than to provide arbitrary cliffhangers. I’m getting tired of this model; there’s no reason why we can’t have a definite conclusion and the series can start anew without these science fictions trappings that have constrained the series from fulfilling its full potential. Desmond provides an easy out for the developers and the writers – now pay us 29.99 for the privilege to see the rest of the story! What a grotesque and horrible cash-grab. (SPOILERS OVER)

A further problem in the narrative comes from the game’s open world nature. To put it simply: a linear narrative and an open world don’t computer – Grand Theft Auto IV taught everyone this harsh lesson, yet no one seems to understand it yet. Connor in cutscenes looks conflicted, stubborn, and natural all at the same time. He’s a real person that exists independently of the player. Contrast this to the Connor under the player’s control, who runs around rooftops like a maniac and kills whole patrols of guards at will. This still DOESN’T WORK; it breaks the immersion of the game entirely! What’s the point of me being a conflicted Iroquois tribesmen IF I can still do what I want? Assassin’s Creed could stand to become a fully “open world” game, without all the narrative trappings.

Even if these elements fused together into a perfect harmony, that wouldn’t fix the game underneath. Somehow, the free-running controls became worse. In the first four games, both Ezio and Altair had a slow run/fast run buttons. Hold one button (RB or R1, depending on your system) would initiate a kind of jog. In situations where you run around people on on the street, this was immensely effective in providing more precise manuverability in tight corners. This also prevent either character from running up a wall face or object at the wrong time; they would only run, and thus wouldn’t do anything stupid. Hold that button, along with the jump button, would put you into an all-out sprint that would allow you to climb, knock people out of the way, and generally run fast.

For whatever reason, the developers removed the slow run option – now, there’s only one button for freerunning – either you’re walking or running full=sprint. This is, as you might imagine, incredibly annoying; it makes some missions hilariously awful, as Connor climbs up objects that you never intend him to climb. One sequence involves chasing a man through the streets of New York – you need to remain close to him, or else the mission ends and restarts. It shouldn’t surprise you that this chase takes place in narrow corridors, meaning Connor runs up the walls or any stray object. I was pulling my hair out on these sections, not only because of the control, but also because it wasn’t my fault! That should never be the feeling in any game, but Connor’s stupidly dumb running controls ruin the experience. For such an imprecise system, ACIII frequently requires precision, and the game’s all the worse for it.

That’s not all! Sometimes, Connor can climb onto objects the game never intended; this involves getting stuck on an object as Connor, three feet from the ground, perches on a table as if he’s on a skyscraper. Enemies sometimes have eagle vision, and sometimes can’t tell whether or not you killed their friends STANDING RIGHT NEXT TO THEM. Five games in, and the detection AI still makes no sense – seriously? Tutorials pop-ups, necessary to understanding certain mechanics, don’t stay on the screen long enough for you to read sometimes – this caused more than my fair share of trouble, as these are sometimes required to find out what’s happening. The same mission described above required tackling, a move not required anywhere else in the game and NOT EVEN DESCRIBED AS THE MISSION OBJECTIVE, which simply told me to chase him. Is this a gaping flaw or what? Good luck on missions with horseriding and shooting at the same time – that horse doesn’t have any momentum and comes to a magical dead stop when he hits rocks, walls, or other objects. And why does the game strip you of certain items before missions? I’ve had more than one where the game gets rid of my arrows, trip mines, and other usefully stealthy weapons – this annoys me to no end!

Combat received some improvements. Copying Batman: Arkham Asylum and making it less enjoyable probably wasn’t their plan, though. Unlike that game, the camera angles perpetually cause problems – the indicator for counters, more often than not, appears above your current camera direction. This gets substantially worse inside of tight alleyways, and you’ll need to run away from fights to obtain a better vantage point. It doesn’t help that Connor’s response to button inputs appears sluggish at best. It’s as if the game prerecords your button presses – sometimes, I would frantically jam on the counter button, only to find Connor contiuning attacking. Frankly, it’s a little weird why it works like this. Add enemies who, when you counter them, don’t take any damage (and harm you instead) and this gets old really quickly. I suppose it forces you to use guns, but that’s a poor excuse for bad game design.

Not that the objectives on the left hand side of the screen help any. Those “optional” objectives suddenly appear any time you’re on a mission – why? I don’t know. Apparently they provide you with ‘full synchronization” or some-such thing, but their commanding presence meant I didn’t play the way I wanted to play. Rather, even with all my tools, I’d still try to do it so I wouldn’t have to go back to said mission ever again. I’m not sure if this was intended (and, I should note, you can turn these off in the HUD section of the options), but it dampens the experience while also highlighting a bigger problem: gamification.

Everything in ACIII produces some kind of currency, whether it be pounds (the English kind), trading good, weapons, ammunition, or otherwise. Everything produces some kind of result; collecting something might unlock something else like a costume. It was bad before, but ACIII has ratcheted the useless tasks quotient WAY beyond anything reasonable, to the point of creating entirely new game types. You’ve got hunting, ship battles, homestead, bacchi playing with George Washington, and anything else you can think. How many tasks can you provide a player before his brain explodes at the sheer enormity of it all?

But – and this is the key – none of it matters. You can finish and play the game without actually doing any of them. You miss out on things, sure, but it’s obvious they are meant to waste your time. Heck, some of them still don’t make sense to me – how does trading work, and why would I want to do it? How do I get enough craftsmen so I can make my own arrows? I’m fine with complex resource systems that actually matter (See: most strategy games on the planet), but this? Why must I search for the exact cost of beaver pelts, taxes, risks, etc.? An action game like this doesn’t need such a level of abstraction, diving through menus to figure out how to make money in the game. What is wrong with us that we need these kinds of elements to keep a game engaging? Do we demand so little of games that a few menus and numbers going up make the pain of all the aforementioned problems go away? Apparently!

Tim Rogers has it exactly right: this incessant kleptomania’s going to kill video games someday. As he says:

We’re all Stockholm-syndromed, halfway in love with videogames; we grew up learning that videogames were awesome, and the makers of the most awesome of all games grew old constantly trying to “recapture” the “roots” of their former glory. The thing is one thing can affect a million people a billion different ways. You can’t trace glory back to one root. So through sequels and remakes and demakes and remakuels demakuels and reboots and rebooquels, time and again, the makers of games presume that each element of a thing is some different someone’s favorite part of that thing. The hardcore gamers, in their fondest appreciation, have left clues littered here and everywhere, pointing even the most uninitiated toward the universal facets of electronic games that most directly touch our brains — that here are things whose chief criticism is that they are “repetitive” and “anti-social” gives the clever people the idea to remedy one thing while amplifying the other.

That is exactly the problem with Assassin’s Creed III – not enough focus on the mechanics, too much stuff to do, and no real reason to do it other than massaging the pleasure center of your brain to trick yourself into “fun”. This isn’t fun; it’s manipulative, underhanded, and demeaning. ACIII gives us the epitome of video games as a product, and it’s all the worse for it. Imagine, I could be doing nearly anything else than wandering around looking for a bear in the woods inside of a game. This kind of idleness only serves a hedonist instinct akin to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. God didn’t make us for this; He made us for Himself and others. All the aesthetic appeal and kleptomania in the world can’t make up for lost time.

Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.

Ezekiel 16:49

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.