Hey guys. I played video games once again for your sick pleasures. In this case, I continue my way down the magical path of questionable video games. Sure, I also played some Batman: Arkham Asylum , but you already know that game is good when you played it 4 years ago. I now know firsthand that game is great, and from what I've played of Arkham City it seems to be of a similar quality. But that's it. No one wants to read another write-up about how good the combat flow is in those games, or how they compare against each other (thus far, Asylum is winning out in my mind). Instead, let's talk about another game, one that I'm sure you've been waiting with baited breath for me to give a verbal thrashing.
Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood Assassin's Creed the Third.
I can now see why AC3 won Giant Bomb's “Most Disappointing” last year instead of Resident Evil 6. Unlike aforementioned RE6, I wouldn't call Assassin's Creed III a bad game. I mostly enjoyed my time with it. But it's also a mess, and that's even in starker contrast when compared to the rather slick open world stylings of AC2 or Brotherhood. It's a victim of its own ambitions; compartmentalized to the point of farce and that's not even getting into the part where the tutorial section is roughly 5-6 hours long. Its portrayal of Colonial America is one that is surprisingly great, far less “America Rah Rah” than I expected, though that is still hampered by the part where it's really all about ancient aliens and is a prime example of the “All-Story” that was so mocked during last year's GOTY deliberation. Deservedly so.
Assassin's Creed III is a game of systems. Climbing, combat, hunting, assassin's guild stuff, taking over forts, liberating cities from Templar control, assassination contracts, catching Benjamin Franklin's almanac pages for no good reason, Boats, exploring underground passages, petting animals that part where you can craft stuff and... I dunno. Desmond. While the previous games had a lot of these ancillary mechanics thrown upon the normal gameplay loop of climbing tall buildings, stabbing people in the face and neck and hiding from guards introduced in the first game... because it's not like that first game had much else. AC3 has all of these, but doesn't quite know what to do with them. When you upgraded your villa to make more money in AC2, you did it to get better armor and weapons, the direct benefits of which were fairly evident, especially where that extra health was concerned. Sure, you didn't really need to upgrade your throwing knife capacity all that much,and you certainly didn't need to be a completionist monster and collect all of those feathers, but extraneous, unnecessary upgrades are sort of part and parcel with what makes an open world game.
However, that's how everything that isn't the main quest feels in AC3. It's there, if you want to do it, but there isn't necessarily a useful reward for doing so. Take money. You probably will earn most of your money through trade caravans, selling goods that are generated on your homestead, crafting better items to make more money, or just getting rid of whatever Connor has randomly looted from the piles of corpses (or animal corpses) he creates. What can you spend this money on? Better weapons? I did just fine with the tomahawk the game starts you with. Boat Upgrades maybe, but there are like two boat missions as part of Connor's main journey. The boat side quests are quite fun, but they are also quite self-contained and you could very well ignore them. Same goes for city liberation (More Assassin dudes for your guild stuff), fort liberation (More money I guess), almanac pages (achievement points) and the frankly terrible optional objectives during missions (self-satisfaction, but really just self-loathing because you restarted that mission like 8 times to make sure you didn't get detected). Guess what? I'll jump through your video game completionist hoops if you give me a reason, video game. I got all 108 characters in Suikoden III and I enjoyed doing so, even beyond the rather satisfying epilogue story. Assassin's Creed triple fails to give the player a reason. It's not even like any of these systems are bad, or even un-fun (those boat missions are actually some of the best stuff the game has to offer). They just feel so... unnecessary.
But what I've harped on is icing, or at least the outer layer of this metaphorical video game cake. The core gameplay loop is still fine. The smart climbing button is a good addition. The changes to the combat on the other hand... aren't necessarily explained super well. If the game told me that I had to press an additional button after doing a counter, I must of missed it, because I didn't realize you could vary your counter-attacks until halfway through my merry adventure, or that certain enemies didn't respond well to certain counters. That isn't really the game's problem so much as it was my problem. But don't worry, Air Conditioning 3 has mission design that at its worst makes me wonder if anyone actually play-tested that segment. There's an almost crippling reliance on eavesdropping and chasing guys, neither of which which was fun in the previous titles, and then there's the occasional no-detection stealth sequence, allowing you to discover first hand how poor the sneaking mechanics are in the series as a whole. There are also more than a few set-piece moments, a lot of which are based on something vaguely resembling historical fact, like that time where you help your bro Samuel Adams throw tea in the Boston harbor, or that part where you run through a hail of gunfire during the battle of Bunker Hill (to stab someone, of course). These also suffer from inconsistencies in quality, with the worst easily being that egregiously terrible final chase and the best... I dunno. That part where you ride with Paul Revere is alright. Certainly no “Fistfighting the Pope”, but what is? Oh, and don't forget Desmond getting outside of the Animus, the final instance of which can lightly be considered something of a proof-of-concept if they ever decide to make a game fully set in modern times.
But let's sit back and get real: the modern/sci-fi part of Assassin's Creed is the worst part. I didn't always think that. It was a neat hook in the first game when they kept it all sort of purposefully vague, and that ending twist in the second where the ancient aliens directly address Desmond was a fantastic way to cap it off. But there's a point in 3 where I realized that I didn't like any of the characters and really didn't care for the part where Desmond is the chosen one who has to save the world with the help of “Those who came before”, and given the way that story hastily wraps itself up in a a way that left a bad taste in my mouth, I'm sort of glad that AC4 has reduced it to a sort of hilarious meta-joke about game development.
Connor has a much more interesting tale, though it also concludes in a rushed and unsatisfying manner, though his story cannot be mentioned without mentioning his father Haytham, who you play as for the first 4 or so hours of the game. I understand why they did it. It serves as a nice set-up for the primary antagonists of the story, tricks you into rooting for them and then... SURPRISE you were a Templar the whole time. That would've been fine on its own, but when the game transitions over to Connor there is still another two or so hours of tutorializing that could have been streamlined or averted. I feel like a lot of people dropped off there because of that, and I wouldn't blame them. Connor himself is the polar opposite of Ezio: serious, idealistic, and more than a little naïve, something of a wet blanket. However, this allows him to act as an outside observer to the actions of everyone else, and point out the occasional hypocrisies that are usually swept under the rug in elementary school-type history. To its credit, AC3 is a lot less pro-America than I initially thought it would be, especially in its portrayal of George Washington. It also plays devil's advocate with the Templars, first with the return of the “You probably shouldn't have killed me you idiot” speeches that were a longer-winded aspect of the first game that I liked and also the interactions that Connor has with his father once they meet up. It's right when all of these are coming together in a really interesting way that the game decides it needs to end and barrels towards the conclusion with reckless abandon. It hurts the modern side far more than the historical (especially in the way it sets it up as a choice, then proceeds to choose for the player) but both Connor and Desmond feel like they've been cheated out of a satisfying conclusion.
All of this makes it sound like I hated this game. I really didn't. Part of that is no doubt in part because I played this game with my brother and didn't have to do every single eavesdrop and whatnot, but there are plenty of individual parts in the game that are well-made and enjoyable, and aside from those last three hours I was quite enjoying my time with the story. The problem is, Assassin's Creed III is less than the sum of these parts, one that feels like it was made by 8 different studios (and it was) and in some ways crushed under the weight of its own ambition. I got Air Conditioning 4: Bigger Blacker Flag as an early birthday present, so you can expect me to tell you exactly how superior pirate fun time adventures are to this. At some point. XCOM Enemy Within comes out on tuesday, I'm getting lasik (!) on thursday and Desktop Dungeons is really hard. Until then, don't shove an electroshock game down your pants.