Assassin's Creed 3: So Close, So Far

Last year around this time I wrote a blog about how Ubisoft could course correct Assassin’s Creed after Assassin’s Creed: Revelations; a fun, yet mediocre follow-up to the excellent 2010 game Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

Assassin’s Creed 3 came out a few weeks ago and with it came a new time period and a new protagonist. Did the change in setting fix what ailed the series? No. While some of the issues I pointed out last year were addressed, some weren’t, and a host of new ones were introduced.

Just like AC:R, I still had a great deal of fun playing AC3, but it could have been much better. It reminded me a lot of the original Assassin’s Creed in that it had a ton of potential and some really cool and impressive technology. It just doesn’t all come together in a way that fulfills that obvious potential.

I’m going to make some suggestions on how they could fix the series. Ubisoft didn’t listen to me last year--shocking, I know. I obviously knew what I was talking about. So, hey, Ubisoft, do these things:

Assassin’s Creed 3 has a painfully slow start. It’s not all bad, it’s just slow and deliberate, and maybe a little unexpected. You don’t play as the guy on the box for a good five hours, and even then, you don’t wear the cool costume the guy on the box is wearing for another two. While the long setup does drag a bit, it does a great job of building the world, characters and setting. Too bad there’s very little follow through or pay off. Just as things finally shift into drive, the game wraps up. Right after sequence 10, things start to fall apart and feel disjointed. It’s as if they ran out of historical events to throw Connor in, so they said, “Well, I guess that was all that was keeping people playing, so let’s wrap this up.” You know how there weren’t any real Revelations in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations? And how you felt kinda bummed about that? Guess how you’ll feel at the end of AC3?

Hundreds of people spread across multiple countries and continents work on the Assassin’s Creed games, and it shows in this one. There are so many random elements that don’t click together in any meaningful way. The game presents you with an absurd number of activities to do--from chasing lost pages of Ben Franklin’s almanac, to hunting an assortment of animals in the wild--and very few, if any, have an impact on your character or the story. There’s no reason to do them, at all. It’s like they saw Skyrim, thought “People like when there are lots of things to do” but missed the part about what drives people to do them.

In Skyrim, you explored caves, chased down bandits and hunted wildlife in the pursuit of loot or materials that could directly affect your character. You can get some upgrades for Connor’s weapons in AC3 if you craft a bunch of stuff, but you don’t need them. What’s the point in taking the time to craft an item that let’s you carry more bullets when you’ve already got arrows, poison darts, a rope dart and mines? It’s so frustrating, because there’s so much cool stuff in AC3, but it feels like they didn’t put any thought into connecting it.

For example, everyone knows how cool the naval warfare stuff is, but no one online seems to be talking about the Peg Leg Trinkets. If you collect trinkets scattered around the world, you can turn them in to Peg Leg back at the homestead and he’ll give you a mission. These missions involve the mysterious Captain Kidd and an artifact he went to great lengths to hide. Think of these like the one-off Da Vinci missions in AC:B. They contain some of the most visually diverse and technically impressive moments in the entire game, and some people will never see them because they’re hidden behind collectibles. If you collect one thing in AC3, go for the trinkets--the missions they unlock are a lot of fun.

I know the sci-fi part of Desmond in the real world was Ubisoft’s way of pitching a game set in a time and place few marketing people and investors would get behind (the middle east during the crusades). But I’ve seen the commercials for AC3, they’re all about the revolutionary war. There’s nothing sci-fi about them. The Desmond stuff has been consistently underwhelming for a while now and this game is no different. The real draw of the AC games is the historical stuff. The present day parts have always felt tacked on. Maybe they should just not tack them on at all next time.

I mentioned this one last year, and Ubisoft totally ignored it. Revelations had a feature bloat problem. There were too many tools in Ezio’s arsenal and little incentive to use them. AC3’s toy chest is even bigger and it spills over into other parts of the game--the (useless) crafting and convoy system, the admittedly cool, but not particularly important naval sections, and all of the hunting stuff. Here’s my suggestion from last year, it would still work for the next go around:

I would love to see my play style rewarded and the inventory simplified through a Deus Ex-like leveling system. Instead of giving me everything, let me choose what I want. Then let me level up the things I like. Instead of just buying a bigger pouch for knives, make it a perk on a knife skill tree. Revelations gives you a zillion different options, but when the stuff introduced in AC 2 still works so well, there’s little incentive to branch out. I think a RPG-like leveling system, complete with perks and cool unlocks, would do just that.

As the AC series marches on, it has less in common with the linear stealth action games that inspired it and more in common with sprawling action RPGs like Skyrim, Fable or even Darksiders 2. And yet it hasn’t adopted any of the carrot-on-a-stick leveling stuff from those games. Instead it fills the world with collectibles, like a late 90s platformer. Look what adding RPG elements did for Saints Row 3. Purchasing upgrades to build a nearly unstoppable character was fun. It gave you an incentive to participate in activities you might not have cared to do otherwise. Adding a character leveling system would both streamline and deepen the AC experience. Get on it Ubisoft!

Despite these issues, I had a good time with AC3--it's still just plain fun to play. I plowed through the story and now I’m picking over the systems to see what I missed--the Peg Leg Trinket missions, infiltrating and liberating forts, and more. Like I said at the top of the blog, this game is technically impressive and absolutely gorgeous. There’s just something about tearing through the forest, running up trees, bounding across chasms and diving off cliffs that feels so cool. AC3 takes the varied (in terms of geometry and elevation) environments of Skyrim and layers them with a level of interactivity unlike any other game. Trees, rocks, streams and hills are all there to be used, run on. It makes for a tangible, alive world. So it’s a bummer some of the stuff wrapped around it isn’t as good as it could be.

I tweeted my gut reaction after finishing the game the other night, and I think it still stands:

I'm so conflicted about Assassin's Creed 3. I loved a little, liked a lot, didn't care for a bit, hated a small portion. So...3 stars?

— Austin Light (@austindlight) November 11, 2012

Maybe next year Ubisoft.

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