AC3: Less than the sum

Posted at May 14, 2015

I like Assassin’s Creed games. I bought everything up to (and including) Assassin’s Creed 3 (AC3) in a steam sale several years ago, after I played through nearly all of the second game on my roommate’s PS3 at Fort Awesome. Recently I beat AC3 (actually the fifth game in the series, heh); here are some thoughts on the series and that game in particular.

Assassin’s Creed (the first) was a proof of concept, I think. The fundamental appeal is there: You’re an assassin, sneaking around these beautiful playgrounds of cities, fighting off guards and killing evil-doers. There’s something awesome about climbing to the top of a minaret and looking around (then diving into one of many conveniently placed haystacks). Likewise it’s fun sneaking around unseen and taking out your target unawares.

But otherwise it’s rough. The story is repetitive, building up to an end-of-game plot twist that was visible early on. The actual gameplay boils down to a couple different types of missions, endlessly repeated. As the game continues it gets frustrating, not challenging. In particular there are nuisance NPCs, beggars (all women) and lepers (all men), who spawn in increasing numbers and only target your character. (Video games have politics, and this one wants me to hate the poor.)

I just brutally slaughtered your men. Let’s rap. I just brutally slaughtered your men. Let’s rap.

Its sequel, Assassin’s Creed 2, is still my favourite. The gameplay is the same essentially the same, but it’s welded to a stronger plot, the amazing settings of Renaissance Italy, and an entertaining protagonist. You run around Florence and Venice, and in the end you try to kill the pope. What more do you need?

Pretend I have a better screenshot. Venice! Pretend I have a better screenshot.

After that I went straight into its immediate sequel, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. It’s Ezio again, a little older, running around the streets and countryside of Rome. The plot was weaker, but it added all sorts of extra stuff: liberate the city by taking out Borgia towers, rebuild the Assassin Brotherhood, go through the thief / mercenary / courtesan challenges, complete the challenge dungeons, and (of course) buy up every piece of real estate available in the city. It’s still largely the same game as the very first, but it’s loaded with content.

Rome! Great setting. Better than Venice, 'tho it pains me to admit it. Rome! Great setting. Better than Venice, ‘tho it pains me to admit it.

I still like that game, but that’s probably why I burned out on the series. It took a few years before I hopped back in, played the first game, and finally played AC3.

(I skipped over over AC: Revelations. Ignoring mobile-only games, AC3 is the fifth in the series. Yep.)

There’s a lot to like about AC3. I don’t particularly care about the revolutionary war in the US, but playing as Connor, a half-Mohawk man trying to protect his people, is a good take. There’s the “Frontier”, a large area with forest and villages that you can explore freely. The two primary cities, New York and Boston, are huge and varied. Several missions take place during big events, like battles or bombardments — entirely scripted, but dynamic. Plus you get to command a boat, and it’s awesome.

But the game didn’t click for me ‘til very late. Partly because you start as Haytham, Connor’s father, and he’s a vastly more compelling character. When you switch to Connor’s boyhood in a Mohawk village, the game grinds to a halt.

But the biggest problem is that the game doesn’t come together at all. You’re given a wide assortment of weapons and tools that you can completely ignore. There are hunting and trapping mechanics that you have to learn, but are never asked to repeat. You can recruit assassins, and they’ll give you extra tactical options, but you’re never pushed into doing it. There are military forts to be destroyed (which I quite enjoyed), but only because they’re there. There’s a whole crafting subsystem that I used long enough to make a nice dagger, then gave up on. And there are brawling challenges, hunting challenges, all sorts of optional things to chase down that I couldn’t be bothered with.

The only optional content I particularly cared for was the homestead missions. At several points in the game Connor invites various NPCs to settle around a manor he shares with his assassin mentor. These missions are pretty much the only ones in the game where you get to relax and help other people out, usually peacefully.

Which brings me to another complaint I have. Yeah, it’s a series of games about assassins. There’s always been a disconnect between the pile of bodies lying around you and the NPC thanking you for rescuing them. In this game it was just too much. A couple of times I helped out a lowly farmer by protecting him while he’s harvesting his crops, meaning he puttered around a field while I slaughtered dozens of redcoats who are attacking because the game says so. And then he thanks you graciously. I recognize that the primary verb of the game is “kill”, but that’s not what I want. I like playing non-violently as much as possible; if I’m fighting off the guards, it’s because I failed to be sufficiently sneaky.

I can see what they intended. There’s a lot of new stuff and content to keep players busy. But it’s bloated and lacks focus.

At least it’s pretty.

Haytham is up to evil, no doubt Haytham is up to evil, no doubt

Connor was so cute when he was young. Connor was so cute when he was young.

I'm on a boat! I’m on a boat!

He knows he isn't going to win. He knows he isn’t going to win.

This is what I wanted. It just happens to be a sidequest. This is what I wanted. It just happens to be a sidequest.

It could be worse. it could say It could be worse. it could say “Press X to mourn”.