After finishing Black Flag, the thought of another Assassins Creed game, any AC game really, seemed like a prospect best left untouched for at least a few years. While the latest entry in the long running assassin series was a great game and a ton of fun, the repetitive nature of the inherent Creed game design wore me out completely by the conclusion of this swashbuckling themed adventure. As it stands though, new games were still months away and I had a copy of the much maligned Assassins Creed 3 sitting in my Uplay account, courtesy of a new Samsung SSD I had purchased several months prior. With much trepidation I finally caved in and decided to give the game a try, how bad could it be really?
The most interesting aspect of Assassins Creed 3 is how it’s a complete polar opposite to everything in Black Flag. Having played both in short succession it’s fascinating to observe how two very similar games play completely differently thanks to several key distinctions - and it’s this dichotomy observed within AC3 that ultimately drove me onward through a campaign I mostly didn’t care about and characters I felt no affection for.
Learning to crawl before you walk, again and again.
Right away the first major difference you notice is the pacing of these two games. Assassins Creed 3 takes a staggering 2-3 hours before you’re actually wearing assassin robes and are able to roam the land freely. The leadup intertwined with story exposition and basic tutorials is excruciatingly slow as you’re once again taught the very fundamental basics of the franchise. Understandably some people might choose this 5th game in the series as a perfect place to jump into the franchise, and naturally you can’t leave them in the dark about the inner workings of Assassins Creed - but to force everyone else who has played this series many times before to undergo the same slow paced and methodical tutorial on how to free run or do a leap of faith is tragic. More tragic still is that AC3 is a game that is drowning in systems and subsystems that aren’t even explained all that well, despite this entirely too long introductory phase. Many times over I desperately wanted to quit as I was forced to play hide and go seek, hunting mini games and an assortment of other side activities that could have been relegated until the world fully opens up.
In stark contrast, Black Flag handles this wonderfully. There is a small intro cinematic and you’re in it, you’re chasing a Templar and the game casually mentions that to chase him you have to free run without holding your hand too tightly. After the quick tutorial island that manages to distill the principles of free-running, synchronizing, leaps of faith, sneaking, foliage and the nuance of combat you’re off to explore the world. Black Flag does gate content through story progression, and you’re going to head directly to Havana in order to continue tutorializing, yet somehow this doesn’t feel as constrained and forced as it does in AC3. The game has fun with it, and you still retain a large degree of freedom in how you approach the subsequent missions up until you unlock your ship and the game really begins. In large part this is all made a lot more bearable because Edward is a lot more jovial than Connor, making your shared adventure that much more enjoyable.
Assassins Creed 3 is incredibly serious. There is very little charm here that was so often found in the wacky side characters of games past. The stage is set against a backdrop of the Revolutionary War, liberty and freedom of the people taking center stage to relentlessly assault you in every cutscene: a theme that simultaneously reflects upon the struggle between colonists and the British empire in the foreground, as well as the ongoing struggle between assassins and templars in the background. Similarly Connor is an intense individual, lacking any sort of charm or charisma, mindlessly pursuing a singular goal with all the intensity and grace of a rabid dog. Worse yet for all the time spent on cementing Connors heritage as a native American, it hardly plays into the game at all, as he manages to ostracize himself from society all on his own with a complete lack of humor and confrontational attitude towards enemies and allies alike. In short it’s hard to like him as a protagonist, and in turn to care about his plight. Connor is similarly clueless as all previous assassins we’ve played before him, but it’s his childlike naivette that perseveres throughout the entire game which really hammers home the image of someone completely removed from the world around him.
Once again Edward is the complete opposite: cheerful, charming, at once likeable and motivated rather than obsessed. You’re not out for revenge, you’re not saving the world, Edward simply wants to get rich and as far as he’s concerned the templars and assassins can do as they please. Unlike Connor who quite literally befriends no one throughout the entire game apart from the old man, Edward meets and befriends a lot of people who ultimately end up coming to his aid in a time of need.
As mentioned earlier, Assassins Creed 3 drowns in it’s own systems that the game glosses over. Every activity, collectible and challenge from past entries and the proverbial kitchen sink had ended up on a design document and for better or worse all was dutifully implemented for Connors benefit. Surprisingly the only thing omitted were the animus fragments, which true to my theory of opposites make a return in Black Flag. AC3 is thick with side activities. From various “clubs” that act as fronts for classic challenges, to Liberation missions in cities, Forts, Naval combat, bar games, letter delivery, fact gathering - the whole nine yards. They are all held firmly back by the utterly terrible map which does little in helping you find anything you might be interested in finding even if it’s something as banal as a General Store. At the heart of it all is the completely baffling homestead that continues the tradition set by Assassins Creed 2 of owning a home base which you can progressively upgrade. While in all prior iterations this was simply done by throwing money at it, AC3 goes the distance by instead relegating all upgrades with dozens of missions which appear all over the world for you to seek out. Tied into the homestead are other known quantities like sending out caravans and crafting, all made needlessly complex and tied into having done the proper missions.
Black Flag takes a traditional approach to all of this. You have money? Buy upgrades. The menu’s were clear, the systems simple. In AC3 you wanted an upgrade? Well you had to explore the entire world hoping to stumble upon a chest with a recipe, then you had to make sure you did enough side missions for the homestead in order for your workers to be skilled enough to produce the parts you needed. Then you had to acquire additional parts by hunting, but the game didn’t tell you where you could find the animals you needed.. In Black Flag everything is very black and white: you want a bigger pouch, well you need 2 monkey skins, you can find monkeys on this island, go. It was easy, it wasn’t a hassle.
A world worth the trouble to explore
Assassins Creed 3 obviously was very centered around exploration. Almost nothing was marked on your map and oftentimes if you wanted anything extra you had to go into the frontier and run around looking for it. Fast Travel points were limited in cities and had to be found first to be used, and apart from conquered Forts I never found Fast Travel locations within the vast frontier to which I could warp to. The problem was that the world of AC3 just wasn’t fun to explore. I’ll admit that it was the first time I felt a forest was properly represented in a video game with tree’s growing thick and criss crossing to form various pathways for Connor to traverse - but all the areas were simply so large and often devoid of anything but the trees that running in this dense vegetation from mission to mission quickly became a chore. You’re able to summon a horse at any time but the less said about these magnificently idiotic creatures the better; you were usually better off on foot unless the road was a flat, paved, highway..
Sailing in Black Flag was fun. The open sea would appear an awfully boring place to traverse but something about the physics, the shanties and the occasional sea battle along the way to your destination made it really entertaining. When you tired of sailing, you had a plethora of Fast Travel locations to choose from in order to quicken your journey. Likewise islands were just the right size - big enough to have something to explore, but not so large as to test your patience when getting from one end to the other. It was the Frontier from AC3 delivered in bite size chunks.
Is Assassins Creed 3 a truly terrible game? Well yes and no. There were plenty of times when it simply bored me, where I was tempted to skip cutscenes with stiff dialog, where I would sigh with exaggeration seeing that I’d have to once again traverse half the map through thick snow that added zero gameplay opportunities and only served to slow my movement. Yet, somewhere near the home stretch, for a brief moment I did feel something akin to enjoyment and even a small stab of regret seeing all the side activities I left untouched. The very first real world mission that tasked Desmond with climbing a skyscraper under construction was actually really fun as I experienced an epiphany in that these steel girders and trusses I’m running through are quite literally a modern day concrete jungle.
It’s not an awful game, but it’s poorly paced, overburdened with poorly explained fluff and based on a story that fails to hold interest unless you’re a history buff happy to laugh at clever ways the game-plot was interwoven into actual history - like Charles Lee ordering a retreat at the Battle of Monmouth because he was a Templar opposed to Washington’s success.
Assassins Creed 3 is not a game I could honestly recommend to any fan of the series unless as a novelty. For those curious about the fate of Desmond, his story could be experienced through YouTube and one would be better off for it as it’s a long buildup to an abrupt finish. I can only hope that the changes in Black Flag were a direct result of fan complaints and a lucky coincidence as that gives me hope that whatever Assassins Creed 4 turns out to be, it will be a game worth playing.