Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Assassin's Creed III Review

Running, Jumping, Climbing Trees, Killing Blokes While You're Up There

This should reveal enough about the new setting for you.
The Assassin's Creed franchise has come a long, long way since the first game came out in 2007. Still, it would seem rather strange to new players that with four previous console releases and three portable that the latest entry would carry the "III" on the end. Now that Ezio Auditore's adventure is finally over, Ubisoft saw fit to end the side stories and usher in a new assassin, Connor Kenway, to carry the adventure along to its first numbered entry in years. However, compared to the innovation Assassin's Creed II ushered in compared to its predecessor, this entry leaves me questioning if more couldn't have been done.

The story takes place in the colonial American countryside, particularly the area between Boston and New York, before and during the American Revolutionary War. As a citizen of the United States, I will admit I could not help but be charmed by participating in so many historical moments even though I am not much of a history buff myself. It is just nice to add the game's secret layer on top of things, I suppose. After a twist near the beginning of the game, Desmond, the overarching protagonist of the series, gets to control Connor in the past as he races in the present to find a way to prevent the end of civilization as he knows it on December 21st, 2012. Connor is motivated by the desire to protect his native American tribe from the dangers that threaten them, and finding out a Templar had a hand in a tragedy he experienced is enough to embroil him in the assassin cause.

Despite the set up of the previous few games, the assassins' brotherhood is all but dissolved, and Connor makes a lot of effort to rally the local colonists to join him. I do not want to ruin any major plot points, but by the end of the game, there isn't the same sense of satisfaction as there was present at the end of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood when Ezio gained the support of the beleaguered Roman citizens. This might be due, in part, to the fact the Connor's cause piggybacks on the colonists' cause and not vice-versa. Though early interviews suggested he would remain neutral, enlisting the help and ire of both sides, the story proves this wholly untrue by siding entirely with the colonists. While it doesn't make his cause more worthy of my time, the efforts of the writers to blur the lines between right and wrong ultimately shine as each Templar's death reveals more dogma highlighting the flaws in the assassins' and Connor's fights. For the first time, the Templars have something worthwhile to say, and the confusion they cause finally establish them as the perfect antagonists whereas they were just blindly evil in earlier entries.

Get in line. I have all day.
There are only subtle hints to this dilemma in the story that takes place during the present day. After the end of the previous game, Desmond and his rag tag group of assassin pals are on the last leg of their journey to stop end of the world. Demond's father also joins the team if only to provide the unbelievable trope story of the father who isolated his child for a higher cause but proves his love after being forced to work together. You will ultimately not care how these two feel for each other, and the other two characters, short their other friend since Brotherhood, still make no effort to be interesting despite the player's opportunity to talk to each while outside the animus. If anything, Shaun Edmonds, the English tech whiz who writes the database entries, manages to make himself utterly deplorable through constant condescension and double entendres written into each paragraph. Actually, scratch that, it ceases to be a double entendre once you write, "penis." Then, it's just crass and unfunny.

Off to gameplay, something new thrown into the fray is the ability to climb the many mountains and trees in each environment. After doing so for only a handful of minutes, you will quickly become convinced that there's no going back to simply climbing building facades. Navigation has also been streamlined to become much simpler, acknowledging both the actions you'll do often and the actions you'll intend to do in certain contexts. Running is made possible by holding the "high profile" button alone and a direction on the left thumbstick, no more holding the "feet" button. Connor also automatically will push people aside, showing the developers finally learned there is no time you will try to run into a crowd and purposely wish to trip over the people.

Combat has also been made a touch more interesting by adding more actions to perform to counter foes. Moved to a different button, the counter sequence allows players to kill, disarm, or throw enemies around, though not all enemies are susceptible to all actions...only most. New weapons have been added to the fray, including guns that require reloading delays, a bow and arrow, and a rope dart that allows Connor to hang enemies in various ways. Being a native American, Connor also carries a tomahawk at the outset, which peculiarly bears the assassin insignia, but that's part of a larger narrative puzzle. Like previous games, there are different classes of weapons to carry around, and the player has the ability to steal bayonets off of soldiers, which act both as firearms and the series' form of spears. It is easier to be more aggressive in battle, especially since your actions are no longer dependent on holding the "high profile" button, but you will still find yourself dependent on waiting as you are attacked one at a time by each soldier if only to watch the fantastic counter animations. It is both a shame and a constant source of entertainment.

What a nice hat, right?
My favorite new addition to the gameplay was a complete shock, actually. Connor is given the opportunity to command a frigate on the open seas replete with crew and weaponry. Not only does traveling on the water reveal some of the most beautiful and versatile environments in the game, but battles are awesome departures from what is mostly the same game you've been playing since 2009. Unlike the atrocity that the tower defense game of Assassin's Creed: Revelations was, you will not purposely do everything in your power to avoid completing these extra tasks. Like your character, the ship you command is fully upgradeable  and relatively easy to control. Of course, the rules are different out on the water than when fighting one-on-one, but the designers managed to take artistic liberties to keep battles fun and in the player's favor without being a cakewalk. It also comes with a reasonable backstory, something I've complained about before.

Assassin's Creed III carries over the optional objectives of the previous games' missions, but to add more depth, most missions, including some side missions, have multiple objectives to try to complete. I appreciated the majority of these because some of them compel you to play differently from how you intended, and they test out all aspects of the new skills the game has taught you. Moreover, not all optional objectives are revealed at the beginning of each mission. Instead, they are tied to checkpoints, so if you need to backtrack a little, you won't lose what you have already completed in the first half or third of a mission. Unfortunately, this new system is not without drawbacks for completionists (let's not kid ourselves to think that this has any bearing on anyone else). There will be a number of annoying times when a new objective is revealed during an action sequence with little opportunity to look in the corner of the screen to read them, resulting in missed opportunities and more backtracking. Also, a few missions carry optional objectives that are either insane or made practically impossible to achieve due to flawed design. While most of these task the player with thinking outside the box, all the ridiculous ones task the player with doing things no one, assassin or commoner, would do to achieve a goal, certainly not with such specificity. I did finish the last mission with 100% of these completed but a stupid amount of my time devoted to the effort.

In keeping tradition since Ezio threw his first punch, the game is loaded with additional activities to pursue. Instead of upgrading a village or city, Connor is tasked with rebuilding a section of the frontier, dubbed the Homestead. Instead of dumping money into every building type to gain a regular allowance, there are now characters to find, save, and invite to live and thrive on the once-forgotten section of land. Each mission not only has a small story attached to it, but eventually the stories intertwine as the citizens of the Homestead believably grow to care for and support each other. And it all comes to a head in a remarkably satisfying way for a side quest that is not downloadable DLC. Completing the Homestead missions results in material gatherers and artisans becoming available to Connor for a number of purposes, and fulfilling multiple tasks for the same villager results in him or her becoming more useful. Along with assassination and courier missions littered about the game's main areas, there are also delivery requests for items only the villagers can craft.

There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.
Furthermore, as you come across shops, you can utilize your Homestead to trade crafted items for additional funds. The interface for crafting and trading, unlike the rest of Assassin's Creed III's UI, is disappointingly clunky. The are many items to sift through, and every time you are done with whatever you have selected, either an item you crafted or an item assigned to a trading slot, going to select the next item requires going through all the categories and linearly arranged lists again. This becomes tedious almost immediately, but it is necessary to persist in order to make enough money to afford all the extra baubles and upgrades the game has to offer. I could go on forever, but there are also land convoys to attack (templar) and defend (your own), animals to hunt and skin (more convincing than Far Cry 3 by miles), treasure chests to loot (with a silly minigame), forts to capture for the colonies (available before you even know you're on their side), citizen missions tied to assassin recruiting, underground networks to explore (a weirdly compelling time sink), and tall buildings and trees to climb, of course. In addition to the activities the frontier has in store for you, Desmond's story features a handful of present-day missions to retrieve power cells to power the ancient machinations he comes across. Not only are they reasonably fun missions, but they test the player's skill by featuring confrontations without the useful icons and indicators that assist with countering.

All the features and activities come wrapped up in what is a pretty package in its presentation but mangled by its execution. Real weather is the shiny new coat on Assassin's Creed's familiar appearance, and it adds an enjoyable layer to exploration. On top of day and night cycles, the passage of time is represented through changing seasons with the most notable shifts happening between winter and any of the others. Rain makes surfaces credibly slick, and trudging through the snow not only inhibits on-foot navigation, but it does so convincingly despite the fact that our hero never freezes even if he takes a dip between land masses. For me, the time period's saving grace is the abandonment of terra cotta roofs covering buildings composed of boulders. Instead, brick and wood are welcomed materials to hear under Connor's feet as he tramples houses in pursuit of the next objective. Hopping between rooftops in the snow with the masses walking below you is sometimes breathtaking in its beauty and complexity. Animation continues to be top notch as characters move in astoundingly versatile ways, and the number of NPCs on screen has been increased enough that the cities really feel full of life. It also enhances the handful of missions that take place during large-scale battles in America's history, and navigating huge battlefields and countless soldiers is memorably exciting.

Regardless of how everything looks, there are still technical hiccups to surmount. The most egregious offender is the horrific texture pop-in that takes place upon entering almost any area. There were times I would just wait almost a minute as muddy stand-ins finally rendered into houses and trees for me to traverse, that is, if the game didn't keep me frozen in place while I waited. The fast travel system has been streamlined so that one need only access the map and zoom in and out to go practically anywhere, but all this waiting seems to counterbalance the new ease. Moving on, sometimes the AI just acts strangely, and this is excepting battle instances where Regulars more or less line up to die. You'll enjoy chasing someone who forgets you're trying to kill him when something walks in his way, people who talk to you without looking at you or staying nearby to be heard, soldiers who don't notice as you tear down your notoriety posters in front of them (this might be purposeful, but it doesn't make any sense), duplicating NPCs who speak and move in uncanny synchronicity, and of course, all those times your assassin either makes a stupid platforming decision due to imperfect camera tracking or when he just decides to run up a wall to no avail despite a nearby handhold. I want to defend the game for all its fun distractions and compelling missions, but you can't help but imagine what an extra year of development would have yielded. Let's not kid ourselves.

So badass, he can run through war unscathed.
But you're not playing the game simply to have fun. You are a fan and you want some resolution! Ezio and Alta├»r got theirs in the last game, and it's time for Desmond to achieve whatever's he's been working towards all this time, right? Well, his story along with the threat of the apocalypse do wrap up, but they do so in a manner that forces the player to ask too many new questions for it to be satisfying. I could've gone for a greater sense of accomplishment after all Desmond and I have been through together (including his weird face lift between Brotherhood and Revelations). Connor's story ends in a more fulfilling manner even if it does stretch the limits of credibility to get him to the conclusion successfully.

Sadly, the story surrounding Connor is more interesting than he is. Whether it is his voice actor, the script, or a mixture of both, he is a needlessly aggressive and argumentative protagonist given the opportunity to be the savior to an infamously oppressed set of people. His conversations with others are generally uncomfortable, and I couldn't help but feel annoyed that the first native American character I've had the opportunity of playing as becomes the first hero in this series I've had enough of after one game. I actually find it amusing that the spoiler-laden launch trailer for Assassin's Creed III features Connor stating, "It is time for the world to know my name," when in fact, his actual name is left at the beginning of the game due to its supposedly challenging pronunciation. The character is flawed, but not in a worthwhile way, and his rich heritage is never embraced in a respectable way. Thus, it's also a learning opportunity completely missed unless you peruse the exhaustive database.

All in all, Assassin's Creed III, is a fun time sink with many bothersome flaws. The added navigation possibilities, weather effects, NPCs on the screen, and other design features coupled with the more streamlined controls add up to a more enlightened game for fans of the series, but it comes with the added acknowledgement that all of these things belonged in the earlier games. Basically, compared to the leap the second numbered entry had over the first, the game we all waited for with a "III" in the title only adds some very nice and necessary touches to a familiar coat of paint with the only standout being the naval missions. It tries to get away with adding a new character while closing out the story of another one, but it ends up being a facade. Fans will want to know what happens and will still revel in the familiar gameplay, thankful for the tweaks. Newcomers will be baffled by the story enough to not want to bother dipping their toes in the pool, not that Connor does much to convince them otherwise. It adds up to a game I really, really enjoyed playing due to its familiarity but was continually aware that I've enjoyed other, more recent games a little bit more because of the new elements they brought to the table. I look forward to the next entry, and I can only hope with futility that Ubisoft will actually take the time to catch up.

All images obtained from Game Informer.
I'd also like to note that the subheading to this review is a reference to the amazing Dress to Kill comedy special by Eddie Izzard.

1 comment:

  1. This is a great review, but for those who want more detailed review, I would recommend reviewing this game by themselves by downloading this game. It's great and it is one of "must be played" games. :)