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Review: “Assassin’s Creed III”

WARNING: This review contains minor spoilers for Assassin’s Creed III and completely spoils all preceding titles. It only covers the single-player game.

Assassin’s Creed III

Assassin’s Creed, with its five–don’t let the “III” fool you–marquee titles being merely the vertebrae of a mobile game/comic book/novelization franchise empire that makes Mass Effect look compact, spins perhaps the most elaborate conspiracy theory that people (hopefully) don’t actually believe. Behind history as such, it posits, runs the ever-ongoing battle between Assassins and Templars, the secret struggle between human freedom and authoritarian control. And even thatmight be part of some kind of meta-conspiracy by the ancient Greek gods; these being actually, of course, the aliens who created humans to be their slaves, and apparently never quite got over the fact that we rebelled and killed them all, although really they all got killed by a massive solar flare, which by the way is going to happen again, and the only way to stop it is to go back into your DNA memories–oh yeah DNA records your memories–and figure out where your ancestors hid little trinkets that the Greek gods told them to hide so you could find them later, because they (the gods) can, like, see the future and knew that you were going to go looking for their stuff later. OK?

Left Gamer Review is sharply divided on the Assassin’s Creed Question: the West Coast staff can’t stand the series, whereas the East Coast lends it critical support. In aesthetic matters there is, as we know, only one correct answer; and we are inclined to think that it lies with the comrades who have, you know, actually fucking played the games. Ahem. Assassin’s Creed III is really a fine game, but the player is constantly nagged by the sense of missed opportunities, and ultimately comes away disappointed. It’s rather like The Godfather, Part III: if they’d just named it Mobster-Vatican Corruption Movie Sui Generis, everybody would have said, “Wow, that was pretty good!” Instead we’re all like, “Damn…what happened?”

Exploring the genetic memories of the present-day erstwhile Assassin Desmond Miles, AC3 delves us (mostly) into the adventures of Desmond’s ancestor Ratonhnhaké:ton, aka Connor, the son of a Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) woman and a British man, during the events of the American Revolution. The promotional material–showing Connor giving the business to the first of America’s long line of Official Bad Guys, the Redcoats, while Old Glory flutters nobly in the background–might justifiably raise suspicions that we’re dealing with something like Call of Duty Black Ops 3: America Gets Born. Fortunately developer Ubisoft is a bunch of Frenchy America-haters who have no problem admitting that the American Revolution was kind of lame unless you were at least a white dude, and ideally a rich one.

Indeed, AC3’s frankness about the lacunae of the Revolution creates something of a puzzle at the heart of the plot. Connor, who rebuilds the Assassin Order in North America after a period of decline, puts himself more or less firmly on the Patriot side. But there’s basically no reason for a Native person to have supported the Patriots over the Loyalists; or if you want the real truth, there was plenty of reason to think that British control would have been the lesser evil. Sympathy with the colonists is one thing, but for an Indian to fully identify with their fight for “freedom”–as Connor seems to do–strikes us as abstract and naive, a kind of anachronistic modern liberal way of being on the conventional Right Side while still making “critiques.” The game’s perennial observations on the persistence of slavery have a similarly punch-pulling feel.

Although it’s essentially a counter-history, the series has always been clever about historical detail: you never assassinate someone before they’re “supposed to” have died in real life, for instance. AC3 weaves in and out through history more intricately than any other series title, which at its best is satisfyingly clever. Cumulatively, though, the effect is to render Connor a kind of 18th-century Forrest Gump–something one didn’t quite feel about his antecedents Assassins Altaïr and Ezio, who were a bit more aloof from “worldly affairs,” only intervening in them to the extent necessary to stop the Templars. Connor, on the other hand, is “in the mix” of everything, without quite being decisive to anything.

In addition to Connor’s adventures, you’ll spend a goodly amount of time playing as Desmond, who’s trying to stop the solar flare thing while dealing with the 21st-century Templars. Unlike apparently everyone else, we (ie, LGR East) actually like the “outer story” and enjoyed Desmond’s sequences on the whole. On the other hand, this is certainly also a function of Connor’s weakness as a protagonist–including the weakness of his setting.

While the AC games have never been “about” their environments in the way that the Grand Theft Auto titles are, they’ve always drawn heavily from the romance and mystery of their featured cities: Jerusalem and Damascus during the Crusades, Florence and Rome during the Renaissance. AC3 is set primarily in and around colonial Boston. Now if you made one of those fashionable word clouds out of terms people use to describe Boston, it is not likely that “romantic” or “mysterious” would appear (although “mystifying” might have an outside chance). Certainly in the 1770s, Boston was hotbed of political debate–but that doesn’t necessarily make it the most fun place in the world to do parkour and secret stabbings, does it? 18th-century Boston is simply more provincial than 15th-century Rome, in the same way that 21st-century Boston is more provincial than…well, 15th-century Rome.

We’ve sort of front-loaded the criticism in this review, but in fact there are many things that AC3 gets right. It’s the best-looking game in the series, which is quite an accomplishment. The gameplay mechanics have been substantially improved, and combat has been given a more Batman: Arkham Asylum/City flavor. (It’s well-known that all melee combat games eventually converge to the Arkham controls.) And while side-questing reaches an almost Amalurish level of excess, the best ones really are pretty fun. In fact the naval missions, which ran every risk of repeating the “tower defense” fiasco of Revelations, turn out to be surprisingly awesome.

So what’s the verdict? Well, if you’re like the hopeless bigots of LGR West and already hate the series, AC3 will only make you hate it more. If you’re already a series fan, you basically have to play it, like how Star Warsfans are more or less compelled to go wherever George Lucas or (now) Walt Disney’s cryonic brain take them.

If you’re a normal person, lord only knows what you’ll make of AC3’s zany plot, but you’ll probably enjoy the experience well enough–although the smart move is to get AC2 for cheap and see how you feel about the whole thing before continuing. (Under no circumstances should you play the first game, unless you’re deliberately trying to acquire a repetitive stress disorder.)

Assassin’s Creed III is available for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Windows PC, and Wii U (lolz).