A Confident Epic: Some Thoughts on Assassin's Creed III

Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

Since the Xbox 360/PS3 release of Assassin's Creed III a few weeks ago there's been sort of a backlash against Ubisoft's latest open world action adventure, and by now the conventional wisdom seems to be that AC3 is somewhat of a disappointment and possibly even the worst game in the series (if only by a little). I have always had a love-hate relationship with Assassin's Creed - more of the latter than the former, to be honest - and playing through AC3's campaign in the console version I definitely had many of the same issues with the game's restrictive, dull level design and superfluous side activities as a lot of other players have struggled with. However, there were also parts of the epic if uneven storyline as well as the detailed, sprawling game world which truly impressed me, and it would be a shame if those strengths were ultimately overshadowed by the comparatively lukewarm reaction (i.e. by the insane standards of much-anticipated AAA releases) to the game as a whole.

In particular, Haytham Kenway is one of the best-written and most memorable acted anti-heroes I've ever encountered in a video game, and Adrian Hough deserves a medal or something for the bone-chilling voice work which brings this fascinating character alive. For narrative purposes his motives and behavior becomes more distasteful and cartoonish as the story moves on, but at its best the writing portrays Kenway as a mysterious, complex and multifaceted personality with an uncompromising and provocative but still uncannily ethical (or at least principled) vision of man's place in the world. Throughout the Assassin's Creed series there's always been this annoying, unconvincing vagueness about the supposed central philosophical division between Templars and Assassins (for example, what do the terms "freedom" and "tyranny" being thrown around by the good guys really mean in this context?), and even if AC3 doesn't exactly resolve this issue it becomes a lot more manageable due to the clear ideological presence of Kenyway. At least to me, the snarky and scheming Brit resembles some spirited caricature of a Straussian neo-conservative more than he does a stereotypical Manichean video game bad guy...and that's definitely a step in the right direction (not to mention curiously seductive to people like me who occasionally exhibit small-c conservative and elitist tendencies). Indeed, even though there have been attempts to blur the moral lines between Templars and Assassins before it's only with the introduction of Kenway that I truly felt a desire to abandon the romantic idealist fools and join the Devil's party for the good of mankind.

What saddens me the most about the AC3 bashing is that so much vitriol has been directed at the game's deliberately paced prologue, which takes about five hours to complete before the player gets to control the grown-up main protagonist Connor and do all the hunting and assassination stuff being advertised in Ubisoft's pre-release trailer campaign. While the tutorial sections which constitute the actual gameplay parts of the introduction do grow tiresome over time, I think Ubisoft should be applauded for their painstaking efforts to set the scene for the upcoming Templar/Assassin struggle and make very significant narrative investments for the story's second and third acts. In a MTV-primed media world which have made attention deficit disorder freaks of us all, there's something refreshing and bold about a game developer which insists that, yes, you're going to have to invest some time and effort and get to know the world and its characters since doing so will make you invested and immersed in a way that's simply not possible with, say, a mere half hour of semi-interactive intros. Furthermore, the game's prologue is arguably more focused and compelling than the entire rest of the game, which - with the exception of a hilarious Kenway-oriented "buddy film" section about two thirds in seems too preoccupied with retconning the American revolutionary war by inserting Connor at every historically important moment to bother telling a compelling, coherent and seamlessly integrated story.

That being said, once AC3 opens up it does offer what's arguably the most enjoyable game world to explore since Skyrim (although I have a feeling the upcoming, warmly received Far Cry 3 might soon steal the show in that regard), and the bar has definitely been raised as far as depicting interesting non-urban areas to roam around in. Too bad, then, that the actual main missions are so rigidly constructed and infuriatingly unforgiving and the combat remains as dumbed-down as it is meticulously animated. On a purely analytical level I do agree with the majority opinion that Brotherhood is the best AC game thus far in terms of game mechanics and overall structure, but from a personal perspective I simply had more fun playing the original Assassin's Creed (which, despite its flaws, was at least fresh and innovative for its time) and the latest problematic yet staggeringly ambitious installment in the series.

#1 Edited by Egge (446 posts) -

Since the Xbox 360/PS3 release of Assassin's Creed III a few weeks ago there's been sort of a backlash against Ubisoft's latest open world action adventure, and by now the conventional wisdom seems to be that AC3 is somewhat of a disappointment and possibly even the worst game in the series (if only by a little). I have always had a love-hate relationship with Assassin's Creed - more of the latter than the former, to be honest - and playing through AC3's campaign in the console version I definitely had many of the same issues with the game's restrictive, dull level design and superfluous side activities as a lot of other players have struggled with. However, there were also parts of the epic if uneven storyline as well as the detailed, sprawling game world which truly impressed me, and it would be a shame if those strengths were ultimately overshadowed by the comparatively lukewarm reaction (i.e. by the insane standards of much-anticipated AAA releases) to the game as a whole.

In particular, Haytham Kenway is one of the best-written and most memorable acted anti-heroes I've ever encountered in a video game, and Adrian Hough deserves a medal or something for the bone-chilling voice work which brings this fascinating character alive. For narrative purposes his motives and behavior becomes more distasteful and cartoonish as the story moves on, but at its best the writing portrays Kenway as a mysterious, complex and multifaceted personality with an uncompromising and provocative but still uncannily ethical (or at least principled) vision of man's place in the world. Throughout the Assassin's Creed series there's always been this annoying, unconvincing vagueness about the supposed central philosophical division between Templars and Assassins (for example, what do the terms "freedom" and "tyranny" being thrown around by the good guys really mean in this context?), and even if AC3 doesn't exactly resolve this issue it becomes a lot more manageable due to the clear ideological presence of Kenyway. At least to me, the snarky and scheming Brit resembles some spirited caricature of a Straussian neo-conservative more than he does a stereotypical Manichean video game bad guy...and that's definitely a step in the right direction (not to mention curiously seductive to people like me who occasionally exhibit small-c conservative and elitist tendencies). Indeed, even though there have been attempts to blur the moral lines between Templars and Assassins before it's only with the introduction of Kenway that I truly felt a desire to abandon the romantic idealist fools and join the Devil's party for the good of mankind.

What saddens me the most about the AC3 bashing is that so much vitriol has been directed at the game's deliberately paced prologue, which takes about five hours to complete before the player gets to control the grown-up main protagonist Connor and do all the hunting and assassination stuff being advertised in Ubisoft's pre-release trailer campaign. While the tutorial sections which constitute the actual gameplay parts of the introduction do grow tiresome over time, I think Ubisoft should be applauded for their painstaking efforts to set the scene for the upcoming Templar/Assassin struggle and make very significant narrative investments for the story's second and third acts. In a MTV-primed media world which have made attention deficit disorder freaks of us all, there's something refreshing and bold about a game developer which insists that, yes, you're going to have to invest some time and effort and get to know the world and its characters since doing so will make you invested and immersed in a way that's simply not possible with, say, a mere half hour of semi-interactive intros. Furthermore, the game's prologue is arguably more focused and compelling than the entire rest of the game, which - with the exception of a hilarious Kenway-oriented "buddy film" section about two thirds in seems too preoccupied with retconning the American revolutionary war by inserting Connor at every historically important moment to bother telling a compelling, coherent and seamlessly integrated story.

That being said, once AC3 opens up it does offer what's arguably the most enjoyable game world to explore since Skyrim (although I have a feeling the upcoming, warmly received Far Cry 3 might soon steal the show in that regard), and the bar has definitely been raised as far as depicting interesting non-urban areas to roam around in. Too bad, then, that the actual main missions are so rigidly constructed and infuriatingly unforgiving and the combat remains as dumbed-down as it is meticulously animated. On a purely analytical level I do agree with the majority opinion that Brotherhood is the best AC game thus far in terms of game mechanics and overall structure, but from a personal perspective I simply had more fun playing the original Assassin's Creed (which, despite its flaws, was at least fresh and innovative for its time) and the latest problematic yet staggeringly ambitious installment in the series.

#2 Edited by Mento (2415 posts) -

Yeah, one of the three positives of AC3 (at least from my own experience) was that - as you said - deliberately paced first act, which felt more like being locked in a linear narrative and less open-world faffing about, which wasn't quite as anathema to the format as anyone could've reasonably anticipated. I think if there's any issue people are taking with it, it's how so much of it layers in the requisite tutorials on how to fight and stealth and everything else, which due to its nature as a straight line of story missions is practically unavoidable. Most Assassin Creed players would be entirely familiar with the unchanged mechanics of the game, and no-one really ought to be joining the series here either because of how labyrinthine the overarching story has gotten.

I'm not sure if this is even a problem normal people deal with, but I often felt the need to take a break from Assassin's Creed 3's story missions (ditto with Brotherhood and Revelations) at times because I always insist on doing those ridiculous full synchronization conditions, regardless of how bullshit they are or how ineffective the problematic free-running engine is at making them attainable. In a sense, I kind of need the free-roaming to let off steam and do something that isn't impossible for a while. I'm not sure how much of a calming effect chasing those darn obstinate almanac pages actually provide, but not having any of that stuff there for most of the first five sequences was kind of rough.

Since the second positive is Haytham himself, I'm in agreement with you there too. Such a great, nuanced character. I'm kind of hoping there'll be DLC that covers what he's doing between conceiving Connor and becoming the murder-happy cynic you bump into years later. (The third would be the ship, which people may be hot or cold on. I'm not sure. I loved the change the pace and that it was completely new, unlike almost everything else.)

Moderator
#3 Posted by AhmadMetallic (18955 posts) -

I want to read this blog but I'm 9 hours into the game and don't want to read any spoilers. Do you spoil anything about Haytham or anyone/anything else?

#4 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@AhmadMetallic: I'm assuming you're past the prologue by now, and there are no spoilers in this blog except for the big early game reveal about Haytham's factional affilitations.

#5 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@Mento: I have a feeling most AC players (myself included) feel roughly the same way about needing to take frequent breaks from the absurdly narrow confines of the synchronization-oriented main missions (for the sake of sanity, I ended up abandoning the completionist urge much earlier in AC3 than I did in Brotherhood, which frustrated me to no end since I stubbornly clung to the meaningless 100% success rate for more than two thirds of the game). I thankfully could never figure out how to chase down those impossibly erratic almanac pages in AC3, so at least I didn't have to bother with that...

#6 Posted by Doctorchimp (4067 posts) -

@Egge said:

While the tutorial sections which constitute the actual gameplay parts of the introduction do grow tiresome over time, I think Ubisoft should be applauded for their painstaking efforts to set the scene for the upcoming Templar/Assassin struggle and make very significant narrative investments for the story's second and third acts. In a MTV-primed media world which have made attention deficit disorder freaks of us all, there's something refreshing and bold about a game developer which insists that, yes, you're going to have to invest some time and effort and get to know the world and its characters since doing so will make you invested and immersed in a way that's simply not possible with, say, a mere half hour of semi-interactive intros. Furthermore, the game's prologue is arguably more focused and compelling than the entire rest of the game, which - with the exception of a hilarious Kenway-oriented "buddy film" section about two thirds in seems too preoccupied with retconning the American revolutionary war by inserting Connor at every historically important moment to bother telling a compelling, coherent and seamlessly integrated story.

So you like Kenway, and you think the tutorial is alright. But you admit it drags on...other than that you think the game is meh...

A confident epic indeed.

Also dude I don't think people have a problem with Ubisoft's grand vision and the artistic integrity it had to saddle a player with a lengthy tutorial, it's the feeling that it didn't really need it. Are the systems that complex and overbearing that it warranted such a tutorial? If anything it sort of hints that Ubisoft has the opposite of confidence that people would be too dumb to pick up on stuff.

#7 Edited by JoeyRavn (4946 posts) -

@Egge said:

@AhmadMetallic: I'm assuming you're past the prologue by now, and there are no spoilers in this blog except for the big early game reveal about Haytham's factional affilitations.

Dude.

If what I think so far proves true, that's as much as a spoiler as an actual, explicit spoiler. I'm still playing as Haytham (I started yesterday on PC), but from the very first moment I've known something weird was up with him. No Assassin logos anywhere on his clothes? I wonder if that's a first for the series... or something else entirely different. Be as it may, saying that there's something to be revealed about his allegeancies is the same as saying that he's not what he appears to be... not very subtle, if you ask me.

Don't get me wrong. One should come to these topics expecting spoilers. But if someone asks you if there's a spoiler on the OP and you answer with a spoiler... Even if it doesn't break the game, since it happens very early on, it does take away a bit of the surpise.
#8 Posted by Fredchuckdave (5182 posts) -

@Doctorchimp said:

@Egge said:


Also dude I don't think people have a problem with Ubisoft's grand vision and the artistic integrity it had to saddle a player with a lengthy tutorial, it's the feeling that it didn't really need it. Are the systems that complex and overbearing that it warranted such a tutorial? If anything it sort of hints that Ubisoft has the opposite of confidence that people would be too dumb to pick up on stuff.

That's the thing though for the things that there aren't really proper tutorials for (Homestead, Capture missions) people bitch about how obscure they are. Similarly the lack of completely comprehensive viewpoints really aggravates people even though its fairly realistic and I think adds to the immersion. People want their hand held through games these days, especially reviewers.

#9 Edited by Ghostiet (5209 posts) -

@Egge: Dude, there are two main factions in the series - there's a third one, but it hasn't been given much attention apart from the Da Vinci Disappearance DLC. The game is called "Assassin's Creed". You control an Assassin in every game. Your post is essentially a fucking spoiler at its very core.

@JoeyRavn: He's got one on his right bracer, but it's broken. It's fairly subtle foreshadowing.

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#10 Posted by Fredchuckdave (5182 posts) -

The foreshadowing is not really that subtle, particularly if you talk to Benjamin Church in the tavern (which I thought was awesome relative to Connor's relatively not fleshed out supporting cast). That said I guess it could be surprising and it's fairly surprising that you're playing with Haytham in the first place. Also surprising: How brutally difficult Nine Men's Morris can be.

#11 Edited by MEATBALL (3020 posts) -

I loved Assassin's Creed 3, I loved the way the game opened and slowly unfurled its story, setting and main protagonist. I loved the changes to the way the game controls in basically every regard (returning to Assassin's Creed Brotherhood feels extremely clunky by comparison). I thoroughly enjoyed Connor's story (though it petered out a little bit towards the end before coming to a satisfying conclusion) and the way it treated the Assassin/Templar conflict in much greater shades of grey than Ezio's trilogy and contrasted this with Connor's naivety and sense of right and wrong. I really enjoyed the wealth of side content, the homestead side missions and the frontier. The first time the sails unfurled while standing at the helm of the Aquila I got chills, I thought the naval missions were a tremendous addition. I really enjoyed Desmond's part of the game and getting an insight into the precursors and their efforts through Juno (though the ending fell flat).

The main story missions themselves were not so great half of the time, though, at times what would and wouldn't get you desynchronised wasn't nearly clear enough. The game was also lacking in side missions that involved the sort of platforming you would see in side-missions in the Ezio Trilogy - they were there, but there weren't enough of them for my taste.

Assassin's Creed 3 is flawed, but for my money it's not nearly worthy of the sort of abuse I've seen flung its way by both some critics and the internet at large. Nice to see some positive talk about the game, it's one of my favourites for the year.

#12 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@JoeyRavn: Sorry, I don't care that much about spoilers and certainly don't go out of my way to avoid them, ever. For what it's worth, I got the Haytham stuff spoiled myself by watching Giant Bomb's Quick Look...

#13 Posted by JoeyRavn (4946 posts) -

@Ghostiet said:

@JoeyRavn: He's got one on his right bracer, but it's broken. It's fairly subtle foreshadowing.

Uh, I haven't noticed it. That's cool :O

@Egge said:

@JoeyRavn: Sorry, I don't care that much about spoilers and certainly don't go out of my way to avoid them, ever. For what it's worth, I got the Haytham stuff spoiled myself by watching Giant Bomb's Quick Look...

Don't worry. I think it's pretty obvious if you pay attention to the game (especially after knowing what said. I avoided most of Giant Bomb's coverage of the game, but I saw the twist coming a mile away...

#14 Edited by Egge (446 posts) -

@Doctorchimp: Unlike you, I don't think the critics of AC3 have shown conclusively that they are able to make a distinction between the good parts (storytelling, scene-setting) and the bad parts (excessive tutorials). The complaints about the introduction/prologue are often very sweeping and the mere objective fact that it takes 5 hours for the game to "open up" is used as a criticism in and of itself. That's the kind of sloppy thinking I'm objecting to, since it threatens to overshadow Ubisoft's narrative accomplishments here (which, at least in my view, are far more interesting for the industry as a whole than the admittedly annoying but much more mundane problem with tutorials).

#15 Posted by AhmadMetallic (18955 posts) -

@Egge said:

While the tutorial sections which constitute the actual gameplay parts of the introduction do grow tiresome over time, I think Ubisoft should be applauded for their painstaking efforts to set the scene for the upcoming Templar/Assassin struggle and make very significant narrative investments for the story's second and third acts. In a MTV-primed media world which have made attention deficit disorder freaks of us all, there's something refreshing and bold about a game developer which insists that, yes, you're going to have to invest some time and effort and get to know the world and its characters since doing so will make you invested and immersed in a way that's simply not possible with, say, a mere half hour of semi-interactive intros.

I agree. When we learn that Kenway is what he is, and then Connor becomes a teenager and gets the vision and draws the Assassins symbol on the sand, THAT IS when I realized what the point of the boring, tedious prologue was. And then my dissatisfaction completely disappeared. I was blown away by Kenway's twist and, shortly after, extremely excited by Connor's revelation.

But you see, that's the problem. When you start a new Assassin's Creed game, you don't expect the focus on the story and the required investment in it from the player to be that big. You expect someone to die, then for you to become an assassin, and then the action ensues. The fact that Ubisoft, while very commendable of them, tried to expand in the aspect of story and atmosphere and copy the style of RPGs that do that, is very disorienting because that is not the Assassin's Creed M.O.

Simply put, Ubisoft should've aspired to innovate and evolve the franchise, yes, but not like this. Their execution is confusing and lacking, and right now this franchise is confusingly floating between the two worlds of focused, concentrated games (previous AC games) and the world of open-ended, effort-demanding sandbox games (RDR, TES, The Witcher, etc..)

It's just uncomfortable and weird.

#16 Posted by Egge (446 posts) -

@AhmadMetallic: We clearly have very different views on the introduction (as long as you're not just talking about the tutorial dimension of it, which nobody liked), but I do take issue with your suggestion regarding what's reasonable to expect from an Assassin's Creed game at this point. The earlier AC titles had comparatively slow introductions as well, after all, and all entries in the series require a significant investment in the convoluted and ponderous narrative (both the contemporary and historical parts of it). For better and worse, I see AC3's introduction as a somewhat unexpected but still logical extension of Ubi's earlier work.

#17 Posted by adam1808 (1358 posts) -

@Egge said:

@AhmadMetallic: We clearly have very different views on the introduction (as long as you're not just talking about the tutorial dimension of it, which nobody liked), but I do take issue with your suggestion regarding what's reasonable to expect from an Assassin's Creed game at this point. The earlier AC titles had comparatively slow introductions as well, after all, and all entries in the series require a significant investment in the convoluted and ponderous narrative (both the contemporary and historical parts of it). For better and worse, I see AC3's introduction as a somewhat unexpected but still logical extension of Ubi's earlier work.

I think the particularly methodical character-development of AC3 is more indicative of the fact that this was the AC2 team. While the other games had drawn-out introductions, they were very much tutorial. AC2 and AC3 are similar in the sense that they are also building important characters within those tutorials. As Assassin's Creed 3 introduces Haytham and Connor I think it's reasonable that they take the time they do in developing both of them.

#18 Posted by AhmadMetallic (18955 posts) -

@Egge said:

@AhmadMetallic: We clearly have very different views on the introduction (as long as you're not just talking about the tutorial dimension of it, which nobody liked), but I do take issue with your suggestion regarding what's reasonable to expect from an Assassin's Creed game at this point. The earlier AC titles had comparatively slow introductions as well, after all, and all entries in the series require a significant investment in the convoluted and ponderous narrative (both the contemporary and historical parts of it). For better and worse, I see AC3's introduction as a somewhat unexpected but still logical extension of Ubi's earlier work.

Then why was I continuously sighing, scratching myself, or alt-tabbing out of the game every 15 minutes (and still do btw), whereas I went through the first 4 hours of AC2 without stopping? I'm not even burnt out on AC games, last one I played was Brotherhood in early 2011! (I played Revelations briefly and got that thing off my hard drive).

#19 Posted by jillsandwich (762 posts) -

Yes, Haytham is a pretty fantastic character, but the game kind of sucks overall.

#20 Posted by Tennmuerti (7957 posts) -

Good read, and well put, I agree with everything you put down in those first three paragraphs.

#21 Posted by pyrodactyl (1856 posts) -
@Egge Can't believe you didn't mention the homestead arc in a post defending the story and character building in ac3.
#22 Posted by cannonballBAM (579 posts) -

I really have enjoyed everything in AC3.

I have a few gripes though:

  • Viewpoints not unlocking the Map
  • Underground shortcuts unlocked after completing the giant maze
  • Secondary objectives still in the game. (I have never cared for these ever)
#23 Posted by Roger778 (953 posts) -

Until Conner was introduced, I was convinced that Haytham was the lead hero. As a result, I spent as much time as I could exploring the world, and finding stuff to do, while I played as him. By the time, I got to sequence 5, I had already spent around 20 hours playing as him.

I too, thought Haytham was great. He was intriguing, and strangely charismatic at the same time.

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