Thursday, November 15, 2012

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed III.

Games of Chance
Very Long Review

If a review could be an entirely objective exercise (which it can't), Assassin's Creed III would be a solid eight out of ten, leaning towards a nine.  It is grand in its scope, luscious in its presentation and ambitious on a scale that only Rockstar or Bethesda would dare match.  It's a game one wants to love, but not... much...

There's some.  Oh man, some of it is amazing.  It's built on an entirely new engine which keeps a slick framerate.  It has these naval battles which are best described as grand and lush, the combat system is the best the series has ever seen (now just a few inches shy of the Arkham City standard, though performing combos still feels completely wiffy), and instead of just getting cash money delivered to your base every twenty minutes, they've turned it into a minigame, which...

...uses this absolutely horrible menu system.  The homestead crafting and trading mechanics utilizes the worst user interface I think I've ever seen.  A (gorgeous) system of inefficient, input-intensive, totally inelegant and counter-intuitive crap which operates at a level of suck I cannot recall ever being subjected to previously.

That is, all on its own, pretty impressive!  Making money is now interesting - which is good! - but tedious, frustrating and far too time-consuming.  Assassin's Creed III is just so, across the board.  It puts one bold foot forward in some areas while taking an amateurish step back in others - and stands there, legs splayed, trying its darnedest not to look silly.

Which is quite a feat for a game whose screenshots look so damned cool.

I love the way Connor will lean comfortably against a trunk, when standing in the nook of a tree.
And yet there is much to love, here.

Similar to II and Brotherhood, ACIII's scope is best described as - that old standby - epic.  It takes you through decades of 1700s America, from the time the colonies were simply called The Colonies to the aftermath of the revolution.  It's charming and illuminating to sneak aboard a huge ship in New York's harbor, for example, and then open a menu to discover the ship's genuine, terrifying history.

Honestly, I wouldn't know half of what I do about the crusades, the Borgias, and now the American Revolution, were it not for Ubisoft's flagship franchise.

The rogues' gallery of AC has always been a bit on the maniacal side, but the backdrop of the colonial days allows your enemies the sort of cartoonish super-villainy that's easy to digest and hate, while simultaneously being disturbingly grounded in the reality of the time - when atrocities like slavery and "gifting" the natives smallpox-riddled blankets were matters of course.  That works well.

'Cause fuck those guys.

The game surprises and delights in ways we could have never anticipated.  It features visually stunning, emotionally thrilling naval battles, the camera placed behind our hero at the wheel of a gorgeous, sleek ship (with an eagle figurehead), calling out "full sail!" when speed is of the essence and "fiyaaah!" to deliver a shattering broadside into an enemy dreadnaut.

You can switch between round, chain, fire and grapeshot to tailor your salvos to your foes - and when the rain is pouring and the seas are heaving and you tilt your ship off the crest of a rogue wave just as your enemy appears hard a-port through the fog...  It's delightful.

Also, hunting is awesome.  Less random-feeling than the encounters in Red Dead Redemption, our hero mentally bookmarks what species flourish in what area of the game's vast frontier - if you require some deer pelts for a new saddlebag (super-handy), the game tells you precisely where to go. Each quarry often requires drastically different strategies, and rewards experience as you learn the behaviors of each animal.

You'll creep through low brush, a slender blade in hand, or slip unnoticed through the treetops, crouching on a limb and waiting... just waiting for Bambi's mom to pick her way towards you, dumbly stepping into killing range before you spring from the boughs to fell it with one perfect strike.

Connor leans down, pulls out his knife and says "nia:wen".  That's Mohawk for "thank you."

Nice touch.

I live downtown in a Canadian city with a huge native population.
If you get a native Americans wrong, I will call you on that shit.

Speaking of Connor, he's not as immediately charming as Ezio - I would have appreciated it if he'd shown weakness beyond the occasional angry outburst - but he's easily more endearing and engaging than Altair ever was, equal parts wide-eyed naïveté and grim confidence.  Additionally, Ubisoft handle Connor with equal parts reverence and fun - never cheaply exploiting his heritage, slowly growing the character from an angry, headstrong boy into... probably the most tenacious, committed and brave/crazy hero the series has ever had.

His arc has few high points - most notably his father-son relationship with the last living Assassin in the colonies, Achilles Davenport.  I loved Achilles' introduction, as a young Connor arrives at his manor, begging to be trained in the ways of an order knows nothing about.  It echoes the three-day wait of a disciple before entering a Buddhist temple - charming - but over the course of the game, I found myself wondering when our hero would ever stop killing Templars for long enough to get a life.  Seriously - I can't be the only one who did Myriam's first mission and thought "now this is the girl for Connor."

And then he sets her up with a Frenchman who can't be bothered to do his own courting.  Sigh.

While Connor's story may often feel disjointed and ill-paced, at the very least it resolves itself with an incredible, wordless scene in a bar which is probably the single best cutscene of the entire franchise.

The story of Assassin's Creed isn't just Connor's, of course.

Once again, some of the more tedious sections of the game involve Mr. Desmond Miles.  Regularly, when you're looking forward to chasing after some Homestead missions or Peg Leg trinkets, you'll be yanked from the 1700s and forced to play through some mission or another as Desmond - which tend to be either scrambling around a precursor temple (terrible level design - the folks who put together the excellent linear sequences from Brotherhood and Revelations must have been on holiday) or hunting an artifact down in the modern day using Assassin-style freerunning and stealth.

A lot of lost potential, there.

These missions could have been real opportunities to allow the player to feel empowered by and involved in Desmond's narrative, but nearly all are disappointing, poorly-constructed affairs that seem to have no concept of how to offer visual cues to player.  There's one, I should note, that is frickin' awesome simply by virtue of what Desmond is permitted to do.  It's the mission we've been waiting to play since we first met him and Altair back in 2007 - the one in which he finally becomes absolutely badass - even as it suffers from the inelegant design of his other missions, and feels a bit patronizing when you realize he can't be killed during it.

When Desmond's story and the five-game Assassin's Creed arc come to a close, it's a real "what the fuck" scene.  And not in a cool way.  More of a you-didn't-set-this-up-at-all, why-on-earth-should-we-swallow-this-crap, I-feel-sort-of-robbed way.  Like if The Princess Bride ended with George Carlin walking into Fred Savage's room and explaining that Peter Falk was, in fact, Hitler - having survived all these years in the 'States by adopting a fake accent.

Just... what?

I barely cared about Fred Savage and Peter Falk to begin with.  That's no way to end a series.

So, while there is much to love, here, I must admit I feel there's far too much of the game that's worthy of disdain - discoveries made all the more distressing and disappointing given the shimmering delights they encumber - like running your hand along a smooth-shaven cheek and feeling that one goddamned spot you missed with the razor.  Just... damnit.

It could have been exemplary, if only...

If only their new engine were more reliable at the whole free-running thing.  Y'know, if that single mechanic their entire game is based on wasn't prone to making Connor come to a full stop when he nears a three-foot obstacle, the likes of which he's effortlessly scaled a thousand times before, and now refuses to climb.

When this happens to you - and it will - during a chase sequence, during a mission, during anything important, you will feel nothing less than robbed when you fail that mission.

If only the platforming - with all its slick new animations - felt as solid and comfortable as it did in Ezio's shoes, where things felt slightly more analog and a lot less... drunken.  I miss pressing circle to reach out, and grab a ledge as I sail past.

If only your horse weren't almost-useless at best and a total hassle to control at worst.

If only ninety per cent of the menus in the game weren't locks for the Worst User Interface of the Year Award (which is totally a thing).

If only the mission design had anything approaching a consistent level of quality, instead of objectives and designs that felt like they were constructed, tested and approved by two (or three, or four) teams of vastly different levels of skill and insight.

If only the game wouldn't regularly bug out, removing all weapons from your inventory during combat, rendering you incapable of doing anything but deflecting your enemies' attacks and standing there like a hooded dunce.

If only someone, at some point, had suggested it was perhaps a bad idea to force the player to aim their arrows with the right analog stick (right thumb) while simultaneously keeping the triangle button held down (right... second thumb?)

If only you could open up your inventory to switch weapons mid-combat without a load screen.

If only we could still target enemies, and so perform those awesome, classic Assassin's Creed chases and aerial pounces.

And who the hell came up with the "exploring the undergound" thing?  Who approved that?

The only way I can picture the series of unfortunate events that conspired to form this new "gameplay" feature is through some sort of ultra-cynical Penny Arcade-esque conversation.

"How's the fast travel system coming, Bob?"

"I'm not sure... I think it might be too fun."

"Hmm... that does look a little fun.  How can we make it stupid, and not-fun?"

"Well, y'know how the fast travel system is supposed to be a bunch of underground tunnels?"

"Mmhm." (Sips coffee.)

"Well I thought it would be a real dick move of us to force the player to navigate a seemingly-random, pitch-black underground maze with a little lamp in order to open up the fast travel stations."

"Hmm... so you run through the tunnels?"

"Oh God, no.  You're forced to walk.  If you hold down R1, the fastest you can go is a kind of trot."

"Ooh, that sounds tedious as all get-out."

"It is!"

"And so they find their way out of the maze, and they unlock all the fast travel stations?"

"No, no - God, no - you have to go through a maze for every fast travel location in each city!  So like, twenty times."

"Bob... I think that's the stupidest, most insipid bullshit I've ever heard of.  I want an alpha version ready in eight weeks - you've just added hours of valuable gameplay to Assassin's Creed III!"

"Gosh thanks, Mr. Hutchinson!"

I unlocked about three fast travel stations.  After that, I refused to drink the Kool-Aid.  And that's my real problem with Assassin's Creed III: I can't describe enough of my experience with the title as "fun."


I like Connor.  I love the game's visual beauty, I love the weather effects and the frontier, I love the slick new animations and the improvements to the melee system and the Homestead missions (even if they often suffer from Fetch Quest syndrome) and the naval combat and that one Desmond mission... but a game doesn't somehow become fun just because its presentation is gorgeous - and I wonder if Ubisoft decided to forget that, at some point.

What's most aggravating is that some of it is wonderful.  The mission where Connor meets Myriam, for example, is a tutorial that sees you stalking poachers through the woods surrounding your homestead.  It is beautiful and atmospheric and elegant and uses the game's old and new mechanics to wonderful effect, layering and building on them so well... but AC3 can't maintain that level of quality.  Anywhere.

No facet of this game - save the naval missions, which were separately developed by Ubisoft Singapore - manages to be consistent throughout the experience (except the terrible fast-travel thing - which is consistently terrible).  It is a smooth-shaven cheek with the constant threat of stubble breaking through, and ruining your day.

If only...

If only they had realized that if there's a button your player is pushing for 98% of their time with your game (R1), that needs to not be a button press, but the player character's default state, with R1 instead being used as a modifier of the default state to slow your hero to a stealthy walk.

They've had five games to figure that out.  They've had five games to figure out a lot that Assassin's Creed III either ignores completely or consciously decides to make even worse.

But sometimes... sometimes you're in the trees, slipping from one branch to the next, resting in the nook of two branches... in the rain... and a redcoat wanders beneath you.  And it's all okay.  It is, in fact, cool as Hell.

Sometimes.  But not enough for what should have been the best game in its series.  What could have been one of the best games of this generation.


  1. Reading your review, I came to a conclusion: It's too big.

    I said earlier that, MMOs aside, Assassin's Creed 3 is probably the biggest game I've ever seen. There are games with larger sandboxes sure, but I can't think of a game with more facets to it than this one.

    But it's TOO damn big.

    There's a lot of stuff that this game either doesn't explain or doesn't do a good job explaining. Like how you level up your artisans. Or the fact that you can use ranged weapons to do counter kills. Or how the hell the Liberation contracts and missions work.

    But you know what? I managed. I figured it all out at some point or another, and it wasn't a big deal. I've been playing this game for probably over a dozen hours now, I thought I knew everything, even if I had to look some of it up.

    But when you started talking about exploring the underground, my mind was drawing blanks. I had NO idea what you were talking about. "Exploring the underground? What?"

    And then you mention that that's how you expand the fast travel system, and I'm like ".....holy shit, really?" I had been wondering why I could only fast travel to Boston, despite having uncovered most of the map for New York.

    And that's the problem right there. This game is just too big. It's like at some point they literally lost track of all the mechanics and systems in the game that they needed to properly explain to the player.

    It just didn't need to be as big as it is.

    On a side note:
    "If only someone, at some point, had suggested it was perhaps a bad idea to force the player to aim their arrows with the right analog stick (right thumb) while simultaneously keeping the triangle button held down (right... second thumb?)"

    This isn't the first time I've heard the aiming complaint, and I don't quite get the criticism. You only need to get the reticle onto the target; if you're in range to shoot that target, the game will automatically keep the reticle trained on it if it moves.

    So, say you're tracking a deer. You only need to aim at that deer once and let go of the stick. The game will handle aiming from there, and make sure the reticle is still on that deer by the time you've got an arrow notched and ready to fire.

    Unless you're trying to kill a target who is literally running (in which case you're probably better off using the pistol), there's no reason to keep your finger on the stick. The right stick aiming is only for setup work, if you're in a stealth or hunting situation, whereas it sounds like you're trying to jerry rig it to work like a 3rd person shooter or something.

    1. Also, I kinda dig the "walking by default" thing. I know that's pretty much a matter of opinion and such, but I'm alright with having to hold R1 to go places quickly, when in the meantime I get to stride down the street like I OWN the street.

      As long as Ubisoft keeps making the protagonist's walking gait look badass, I'm alright with having to press a button run.

    2. But what if the default was "safe free running" and R1 was the Badass Walk button?

    3. Well then I would never use R1. Mapping walking to a button is kind of a waste of a button.

      I could see the complaint if Assassin's Creed was 100% a fast paced game, like say Bayonetta or Kingdom Hearts. But it's not. Climbing is a large part of the gameplay, but it's not all of the gameplay. Sometimes you're blending in with crowds, or tailing guys, or stalking prey. Or just being a badass, walking down the street with maximum swag.

  2. If I want to fell that deer/wolf/elk in one shot, it needs to be a headshot, not an auto-aim.

    And you're right, the game does a terribad job of explaining a lot of its mechanics (I've seen screenshots of ranged counters, but never performed one.) Kayla reports she had to Google the method for completing Achilles' Encyclopedia of the Common man - I looked at the explanation in-game, couldn't figure out what it was talking about, and that entire sidequest is at 0% completion for me.

    I feel you're quite right in that ACIII may be too big - I think the dev team was spread across so many studios the central vision and quality standards were lost - but what troubles me most is that nearly all the things it gets wrong, it got right in the Ezio trilogy - and the things it does amazingly right are the things the franchise never attempted previously.

    It's a real WTF. But man is it good-looking. Those weather effects are incredible.

    1. Why not just jump it from above with the hidden blade? That's how I hunt; take to the trees, and if I see anything interesting down below, I descend upon it from above before skittering back up the trees. Since the game is pretty clear that the hidden blade does the least damage to the goods, I always try to use that over anything else when hunting. It's also the easiest and fastest way to approach prey without them seeing you.