During an intense struggle against boredom last spring, I visited my local Gamestop to pick up something to play. Since no new games were out that I was interested in, I figured I'd go back and play one of the many games on my “critically acclaimed but I never played it” list. So, I picked up Assassin's Creed II for cheap.
I enjoyed the first Assassin's Creed game in spite of its many issues with pacing, control, and poor mission variety. The story and setting of the franchise fascinated me but Assassin's Creed 1 was not a very good game. I heard that the sequel was better, and those reports were 100% correct. Over the course of 2012 I played every Assassin's Creed title, got very involved into the lore, and even attempted to get all the Achievements in the game. I would say that so far, Assassin's Creed is my favorite video game franchise of this current generation.
And because I enjoy the series so much, I am extremely worried about its future. I think Assassin's Creed III was possibly one of the worst Xbox 360 games I've ever played, and I have almost no faith in Assassin's Creed IV being good. So why did I dislike Assassin's Creed III so much? I can only explain that by first telling you what I enjoyed about the other games.
Assassin's Creed II
The most obvious compliment this game has been given is “it is better than the first game”, but I don't think that goes far enough. Being better than the heavily flawed Assassin's Creed 1 isn't exactly difficult. But what Assassin's Creed II did was build something really solid on top of the foundation already laid..
The story of Assassin's Creed II is much more impactful. You play through Ezio Auditore's birth and early life, seeing how good his life was and how tragically it all gets ripped away from him. Replaying the game recently, I empathized even more with him during a late cutscene. He's been chasing the men who killed his family for the majority of his life, but feels like he'll never get his revenge or worse, that it will not satisfy him. Ezio is much more humorous, charming, and emotionally tormented than Altair was in the first game. It makes you want to see him succeed and the sheer amount of his life that you see makes his motivations and actions incredibly clear. There are some moments where his rage gets the better of him, but it shows that he's a flawed, yet heroic character.
The big controversy about this game was the ending. It brought in the larger narrative of the series in a somewhat random-feeling infodump and ends on a cliffhanger. I found the ending oddly humorous in its absurdity, but there is more than enough foreshadowing about how things will turn out. The “Truth” segments in the game are optional, sure. But it's not difficult to do them and get some very revealing clues about where the main plot is going to go. Personally, I liked the ending just fine.
The gameplay received a major improvement from the first. Mostly, the free running is much more enjoyable and less prone to freaking out. In an open world game, having a significant amount of travel time can wear down on the player. However, if you can make the travel enjoyable in some way, you've solved the problem. I really enjoy how fluid free-running looks and feels in the Assassin's Creed series. I'd say at least half of my enjoyment of the games is free-running and observing the beautiful architecture. Also, there are sidequests EVERYWHERE to do, so I was frequently breaking up my travel time by stopping off to the side to do a race or pick up some flags. It never really felt boring to me.
The combat is much better but I find it difficult to go back to Assassin's Creed II because of how simplistic it is. The majority of enemies can be taken out by counter kills, and they attack you one at a time even when you are totally surrounded. Heavy enemies must be thrown off with a kick to open up for combos, or you can just fight them unarmed and win handily. I felt like the fighting itself got repetitive after a while due to lack of variation, but it stays somewhat engaging until the last stretches of the game.
Assassin's Creed Brotherhood
Most people would call this game the peak of the franchise. I'm not inclined to agree, but I see why it's so beloved.
The story might be why I don't care for this game too much. There is a goal (kick the Borgias out of Rome, get your revenge for your uncle's death) but it felt too much like a collection of random events than a plot. Mission threads lead you around seemingly unrelated incidents a lot of the time, leaving me wondering “when are we gonna get the Borgias?” There's some strange backtracking where you visit a major location for at least two missions and must enter it almost exactly the same way. It felt like padding there. Also, the end of the game locks you into a LONG string of missions that you can't quit from and barrels you toward the ending at an uncomfortably fast pace. I felt like Brotherhood lacked the emotional impact of II with the story of Ezio's slow build from a regular man to a trained killer. Sure, he becomes the Mentor of the Assassin Brotherhood in this game, but it is handled with little fanfare.
The ending of the game also felt like a cliffhanger for the sake of one. I can't complain too much because I was able to play Revelations immediately after finishing Brotherhood, but the cliffhanger ending felt nonsensical. Instead of making me excited to see the next game, I was just left cold and confused by this one.
The gameplay is quite an improvement. The combat has been made easier but more engaging. You can counter kill enemies in a row with one strike, but they are much more aggressive and force you to pay attention and time your counters better. You also get an absolutely HUGE amount of tools to use in combat like guns, poison darts, and the incredibly overpowered crossbow that you can use for long range stealth kills. I really enjoyed how the unique weapon classes let you fight how you want, and I switched between quick-but-weak knives or slow-but-powerful Heavy Weapons depending on what type of mission I was getting into. This missions have each been enhanced with optional objectives that really aren't good for anything but an Achievement, but are still enjoyable to pursue and give you reason to replay them.
The economy system was introduced in Brotherhood, and is much more engaging than this description will make it sound. You unlock new buildings around the area with money, and having more unlocked buildings lets you build cash faster. It's one of the few open world games with a very intelligently designed economy. I can't even call it “fun” to walk around buying buildings, but I also can't stop doing it. You want to have money to unlock new buildings or get new weapons, and so you do sidequests to get money, but then you spend it all again unlocking new buildings.
Brotherhood also adds Borgia Towers. You have to kill a specific Captain in order to “unlock” a tower/synchronization point to climb it. These made for some interesting experiences, because you can approach them several ways. Depending on how the area is laid out, you can either sneak in and assassinate the Captain, or hire a group of thugs to rush the front door and take out everyone. Because the layout of each Tower is different, it lets you experiment in completing them, making for some of the more enjoyable segments of the game.
Some of the worst segments of the game were Leonardo's Machines. You generally have to sneak into an area and destroy a paper before you're spotted. This part sucks because it falls into the worst mission type in stealth game history, the “Get Spotted and You Fail” mission. It doesn't help that every time you fail, you are subjected to a long loading screen. And the payoff for doing these missions isn't great; they all culminate with piloting the machine you were sent to destroy. The majority of these missions are not enjoyable because the machines are fragile and have very poor controls. It's an unexpected gameplay shift to go from third person stealth to piloting a mini-boat and sinking ships, but unexpected gameplay shifts are only cool when the alternate gameplay doesn't feel awkward and unfinished.
Basically, none of the Leonardo's Machine missions are as cool as the boat sections in Assassin's Creed III.
I didn't like Brotherhood as much as II despite recognizing all of its improvements. I enjoy these games mostly based on atmosphere and setting, and Rome just wasn't as nice to look at as Italy. There are too many large, open fields with nothing in them. The buildings don't look as impressive. The soundtrack is a major step down from Assassin's Creed II. And I didn't really care about the story this time around because it felt too impersonal and unfocused. I think Brotherhood is a better game in terms of gameplay, but I just didn't like anything else about it nearly as much as II.
Assassin's Creed Revelations
I'm in the minority here, but this is by far my favorite game in the franchise. Most people dismissed Revelations when it came out because it was the third yearly installment in a row. So I understand that they felt burned out. I probably view it more favorably because I paid less for it than most, but I also think it succeeds because it polished every previous mechanic from the series while adding a few more.
The story is much better than Brotherhood. Ezio is pretty darn old in this game, and you're playing through his last major quest as an Assassin. So there's an appropriate amount of references to previous events in the franchise, and some winks and nods at things only hardcore fans of the series will get. The main plot revolves around discovering a secret that Altair has hidden, and you do this by playing as him in flashbacks. These sequences give Altair more character development than the entirety of the first game and an accent that actually makes sense. Unlike Brotherhood, your goal is very clear from the start and the game does even more examination of Ezio's personality. It does nothing to advance the “main” plot of the franchise, but it brings Altair and Ezio's stories to a close in a poignant way.
The gameplay does one thing very right off the bat by rejuvenating the free-running mechanic. Since Ezio is so old now, he needs tools to help him move as fast as he used to. The Hookblade not only makes climbing and jumping easier, it also lets Ezio climb faster than he's ever climbed before. If you make a bad jump, you can even hold the right hand button to extend your hookblade and save yourself. Free-running everywhere through three games in a row could potentially get boring, but the addition of this simple tool (and the new scenery) made it as enjoyable as the first time I did it. It also helps that Constantinople is much more visually interesting than Rome. The buildings are designed differently as well, so you have to climb them differently. The change of scenery really was welcome here, and I like Constantinople more than Rome or Italy.
The sword combat hasn't changed dramatically from Brotherhood, but the introduction of bombs lets you approach combat situations differently. I think the interface for creating bombs is a bit too clunky, but using them is worth it. It's tough to assassinate a small group of guards, but it's very easy to throw a poison bomb in the middle of them and kill them instantly. In the middle of foot chases, you can throw down spikes to hinder people chasing you and aid your getaway. You can even replace the old “Throw Money to distract guards” standby with a Gold Bomb that explodes coins everywhere! Not every bomb is useful, but using them tactically will make the game much easier and give you an incentive to approach situations differently than “run here and stab all these men”.
The mechanics behind recruiting and leveling up an Assassin hit squad to guard your back have been made a bit deeper, but not all of the change is for the better. The Assassins are linked to several strongholds you have on the map, and they can defend them from Templar attacks when fully leveled. You can also go on multi-part sidequests with them that have unique stories, which I did enjoy.
However, the interface for assigning Assassins to a stronghold is clunky. So is the one for sending them out to complete missions in “Mediterranean Defense” and assigning them to certain countries after you take them over. I won't get too much into that because the design of this part of the game is very poor, and I don't want to waste 1000 more words explaining exactly how it works. Just wanted to note how it's not very well designed.
The only gameplay in the Real World are first person platforming sections where you can spawn your own platforms to run across. I felt like these were the weakest parts of the game because the controls aren't fit for first person. It's especially jarring after playing Mirror's Edge. These sections were not worth finishing.
Despite those few quirks, I enjoyed Assassin's Creed Revelations. It's still my favorite game in the series after going back to replay them all. The new setting and revamped free-running gives new life into the basic act of traveling, the bombs open up a lot of fun options in combat, and the story has a very satisfying arc and conclusion. Even if it doesn't really advance the Real World plot that everyone wants to know about.
So why I just spend so much time describing my experience with the other Assassin's Creed games if this blog is about III? I need to convey how much III disappointed me. I saw the series steadily improve and add more mechanics to benefit the player over time, culminating in Revelations being one of my favorite games of this console generation. Then, Assassin's Creed III took most of the good in the franchise and threw it away.
Assassin's Creed III
Initially, I wanted to play and beat every game in this franchise in the same year. I finished Revelations in August 2012 and waited patiently for III. I avoided most preview materials to cut down on spoilers, and all I really knew was that it would take place in America. Sounds cool.
So in November I rented Assassin's Creed III and played through Haytham's prologue in a few days. I was extremely unimpressed. At launch, the game was glitchy as hell. I would frequently fly off into space during random jumps, clip through people, voice/music cues would stop working, the AI was idiotic, and I had two hard freezes. Not only that, but the prologue was just boring. I knew I wasn't playing as the protagonist and couldn't force myself to care about Haytham's story. I spent that part of the game just waiting for it to truly start. So I finished the prologue and returned the game to Redbox after two days, not wanting to play it any more.
At launch, I couldn't justify paying $60 for a glitchy game with bad controls. I waited until July 2013 for a good sale and gave it another shot from the beginning.
After playing through the game a few more times, I've grown to appreciate the prologue with Haytham. This is because Haytham is FAR more interesting than the actual protagonist in the game. He's certainly evil, but Haytham and the Templars in this game actually have motivations that are more subtle than “blow up the world”.
What I really enjoyed about the story is that it shows the shades of gray in both the Assassins and Templars. The Assassins want everyone to be free but are accomplishing it with murder. Connor isn't a clear-cut hero because he does many things for selfish reasons and is short-tempered and naïve. In fact, Connor is significantly less likable than Ezio for more reasons than that. He doesn't seem to have much agency in his life and is just being pulled from conflict to conflict. His duties as an Assassin are consistently clouded and ignored due to his desire to drop everything and save his tribe. He also has none of Ezio's charm or humor.
The speeches given to Connor by the major Templars he slays makes him appear even less heroic. The post-death in this series were always a little silly because the majority of Templars were gloating villains, but in Assassin's Creed III very few people are fully evil or fully good, including the seemingly heroic Assassins.
Connor's story has a bittersweet, but satisfying end after one of the most climatic and cool “boss” confrontations in the entire franchise. The same cannot be said for the end of Desmond's story in the real world. It rarely makes sense, is anticlimatic, and has a truly egregious sequel hook. Say what you will about Mass Effect 3. Bioware had a clear vision of how they would end the series and did so.
Ubisoft continues to make Assassin's Creed go on further, get more confusing, and push the conclusion further out of sight. Assassin's Creed games have to come out annually, so they're afraid of wrapping up the plot because they can't monetize it anymore if they do so. I felt for the first time in III that I had been had. I played through a pretty significant arc to see how they would handle the “end of the world” scenario and so far all I have is “we'll solve it later”.
The gameplay in Assassin's Creed III is almost as bad as the first game. I could go over the little things like removing the "walk and talk" feature where you automatically walk with a group you're blending with, or how the HUD doesn't label how to use some of your items, or the Notoriety system being busted, but there's no time. Let's just hit the two big ones.
Free Running. It has been simplified for the worse here. You hold the right trigger to jog or depress it fully to sprint at full speed. Also, you are in "climbing mode" whenever you have the trigger held down.
In previous games, you sprinted with Right Trigger and went into "climbing mode" by pressing a different button. It was more complicated, but it also cut down on the amount of incidents where you accidentally climbed a thing that you didn't want to. Because you're ALWAYS in "climbing mode" while sprinting in Assassin's Creed III, there is much more room for error. And holy crap did I run into a lot of errors. I frequently would climb structures I didn't want to, jump off buildings to my death accidentally, and lose targets around corners because Connor decided it was more important to run up some scaffolding than chase his target.
Combat. This is actually an area that I felt was improved. The counter system has been reworked, so when an enemy is about to attack you hit the marked "Counter" button. Time freezes, and you can choose to either disarm, throw, or instantly kill them. Due to the time freezing mechanic, the combat in general feels much easier. They ramp it up by throwing a truly absurd amount of enemies at you, and varying their types. Some enemies must be disarmed before you can kill them, some are more vulnerable to punches than swords, and some of them will draw guns and shoot at you, forcing you to act quickly before you take a ton of damage. Combat is one area that I generally consider better in Assassin's Creed III.
I love the fist fight music too.
In Brotherhood and Revelations, one of the most enjoyable things to do was to call in your recruited Assassins. You whistle and wave your hand, and they materialize out of nowhere to stealth kill your target.
In III, you don't gain the ability to call in Recruits for a long time. You have to do a large amount of poorly designed sidequests to get them, and when you do, they're not very good. They have very low stamina and WILL be knocked out if you call them in a fight with two or more guards. It's nice that they are now only temporarily knocked out instead of killed permanently like previous games, but they are so fragile that it's not worth calling them. There are a few special commands to issue them like "Marksman" that works as a screen nuke or "Covert Escort" that allows you to sneak undetected into certain areas. The problem is that these skills are absolutely not useful. Marksman and Assassinate are for killing a small handful of guards, but the others either don't work as advertised or end up getting your recruits injured.
In the end, it's better to kill guards by yourself because Connor is so powerful. The recruits are little more than meatshields, even if you bother to use them enough to raise their levels.
Stealth. This game introduces more stealth elements on top of the old "hide in a haystack to escape" element. There are short bushes and shrubbery to hide in, and non-lethal stealth kills like bows and unarmed takedowns to lower your chances of detection. This is to support some truly awful stealth sections in this game. There are too many missions where you must tail a target without them seeing you, because if they do see you, the mission is over and you have to sit through an overly long load time to try it again. You have more options to hide because guards are much more vigilant in this game, sometimes initiating a chase against you if you were simply standing in the wrong place for too long. That is one of the larger issues in the game: being chased so often and for seemingly no reason. And despite the inclusion of more hiding spots, chases last much longer than they need to and can put you miles away from a mission you were about to start.
Economy. I don't want to spend too much time on this, because it's too much to speak about. The economy in this game is much more confusing and pointless than the previous games. You earn money by crafting and selling items with the worst user interface ever. You use this money to buy upgrades for your ship to do optional missions. If you don't enjoy the ship combat, then you have no reason to do this because there's nothing else to buy. Purchasing weapons is pointless because they don't vary combat significantly, and it is definitely possible to complete the game with your default weapons because combat is so easy.
The attempt to add complexity with the economy completely backfired because they made it too complex to the point that it's not enjoyable to use. The poorly designed menus and fact that they're nothing decent to buy only pours more salt onto the wound.
Sums up Assassin's Creed III very well. Doesn't explain how to complete it, isn't fun, and gives you a pitiful reward.
I could go into the numerous glitches I experienced while playing Assassin's Creed III, but those don't ruin the game. What did was the overly complex HUD, poor mission variety, frequent loading times, uninteresting story, and sequel baiting ending. I enjoy playing Assassin's Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations all the way through, but there are a few pockets of boredom in them.
Assassin's Creed III is mostly boredom, a large chunk of frustration, and contains a few nuggets of fun gameplay. It went from a series that is possibly my favorite of this generation to one I don't look forward to anymore. What I've seen of Assassin's Creed IV seems that they improved the beloved ship combat mechanic and left everything else with the game alone. Will they get rid of the glitches? Will the Current Era storyline be wrapped up at all? Will the missions not be incredibly boring and contain "mess up one thing and you fail and sit through a long loading time" fail states?
I don't know anymore and I don't think I care. I have no faith in this franchise being able to produce a good game again as long as the current cycle of "turn one out every year" continues. People complain about an annual franchise like Call of Duty getting stagnant, but stagnation is preferable to releasing a game that is not only stagnant, but significantly less enjoyable than the last.