I thought I was going to love Assassin's Creed III. From everything I'd seen, it seemed like Ubisoft was doing everything in their not-inconsiderable power to push their flagship series into brave new territory.
Except… well, they didn't manage to pull it off.
Rather than taking the Assassin's Creed series forward in some bold new direction, Ubisoft has resolutely kept the series at the same level as before, and actually have taken several rather large steps back. Not everyone feels this way: The game has garnered plenty of positive criticism, including a mixed but generally positive review from our own Stephen Totilo. But try though I may, I just can't love Assassin's Creed III.
Of course, that's not to say I hate it -- I don't. But after about 10 or twelve hours with the game, I have to say, I think it could have been much, much better.
Coming up, there'll be some minor spoilers, including descriptions of a few missions from around the start of the Revolutionary War. Nothing too major. Here we go.
1. Nothing Really Works All That Well
That sounds pretty damning, huh? Let's just start with this one, then. Nothing in Assassin's Creed III works all that well. Good video games have a good feel to them. Think of it this way: it's not necessarily that every toy, trick, and game mechanic feels intuitive and smooth. But in an action game, the core mechanics, the ones you use over and over again, should.
Think of a game where you do lots of shooting, like Gears of War. Gears' shooting feels good. The active reload feels good. Slamming into cover feels good. These are the core aspects of the game, the things you'll be doing hundreds if not thousands of times as you play it.
It's almost as though Assassin's Creed III has no core game mechanics. It's all ancillary stuff. Nothing feels "right," nothing works that well. Running is weird at best, laggy, and often leads you charging up a wall or tearing off in the wrong direction. Swordfighting feels less like a kinetic dance and more like a drunken brawl. Fistfighting is laughably bad. Shooting a bow takes forever and feels light and unsatisfying. Shooting a musket is worse (Using the top face button, Y or Triangle, to shoot a gun feels like trying to screw in a lightbulb while standing on your tiptoes.) Targeting is a disaster (Really? The left trigger is dedicated to toggling a slow-moving reticle that highlights characters for auto-target? Whose idea was that?). It should not still be possible to climb up to one of the game's iconic vantage points, synchronise, then press "jump," and... leap to your death on the hard pavement next to the pile of hay. And yet it is. Even air-assassinations, the one thing that the series had gotten pretty good at, feel finicky and difficult to land in the new game.
It's as though Assassin's Creed III has no core gameplay; it's so scattered that there's nothing to hold on to. As a result, it's rarely if ever satisfying to play.
2. It's All Rough Edges
There is a sense throughout Assassin's Creed III that the game's eyes are just bigger than its stomach. It feels as though it was crammed onto an Xbox 360 disc, its developers sitting on top of the disc while they zipped up the sides, praying it would fit into the overhead compartment. I couldn't go five minutes on the Xbox version without encountering some sort of rough edge or bug. Ubisoft have long been masters of the way too-good-to-be-true screenshot (you'll see several of those in this very article), but the gulf between how those images look and how the game looks in action has never been wider.
Constant loading screens between interiors and exteriors, cutscenes and gameplay, and everywhere else. Strange, abrupt transitions from the end of combat to the end of a sequence, where music would be about to hit a crescendo and would suddenly be cut short, replaced by a silent animus loading screen. Terrible lip synching during in-game conversations. Long pauses between characters' lines of dialogue in overheard conversations, as if my console was leaving them to ponder the most recent sentence while it desperately searched for the requisite sound file. And all of this is not to mention the many, many, many bugs in the game, most of which are cosmetic, some of which will doubtless be addressed by patches, and all of which conspire to make the game feel like less than it should have been.
Overheard dialogue, replayed ad nauseum, again, and again, and again. The "Mah-nee, mah-nee, mah-nee!" guy from AC II sounds refreshing compared with some of your cohorts' battle cries and the freaky, played-on-a-loop clown laughs of the little children.
The rough edges leave the world feeling clownish and false, like a scary amalgamation of a video game version of the past. It's not just unconvincing, it's often weird. It's strange that a game this high-profile, which has been in development this long, feels this rough and unfinished.
3. The Music Is A Drag
I just don't like the music in Assassin's Creed III. This is largely a matter of taste -- when it comes down to it, I prefer Jesper Kyd's soaring, melodramatic themes from ACII and Brotherhood to Lorne Balfe's staid, dirge-like orchestrations and perfunctory ethnic wailing. It's all so serious and frowny, both in tone and in instrumentation. For a game that's ostensibly about freedom and flight, about leaping from rooftop to rooftop and tree to tree, the music feels lugubrious.
Put it another way: It's not a coincidence that several fan-made tributes to Assassin's Creed III have used music from Assassin's Creed II. Kyd's music is iconic, and nothing Balfe has created in the new game comes close.
4. The Intro? Also A Drag
The bait-and-switch opening chapters of ACIII have been a point of contention for many critics. I submit that it's not so much the nature of the introduction that bugs me so much as its design. Yes, you play as a different dude for the first four to six hours of Assassin's Creed III. (And yes, he is, oddly, a much more likable guy than the actual main character Connor.) I liked that; I liked the narrative twists and turns that this part of the story tossed out, and I enjoyed setting up the framework for the rest of the game.
What I didn't like was the actual way the prelude was designed -- it was, literally, a series of cutscenes separated by some walking. Almost every time. My guy would wake up, then walk to a room, and a cutscene would play. Then he'd walk to another room, where a cutscene would play. Then maybe (maybe) there'd be a swordfight. Then walk to a cutscene. Sometimes he'd walk across a vast, snowy forest to get to his next cutscene.
The last straw for me was when I finished a cutscene and was set loose on the deck of a ship, en route to America. Land, I was told, was visible. I was instructed to climb the tallest mast and see for myself. I began to climb, excited to crest the top sail and set my sights on Boston Harbor. The music began to build as I climbed and… suddenly the game took over, and awkwardly transitioned into a cutscene of my character looking out over the Boston Harbor. Man.
5. Basic Interface Fail
The interface in Assassin's Creed III is far too sluggish. Everything moves slower than it should. Weapon selection is a disaster -- like many games, you press RB to open up a menu that allows you to switch between your various tools. But instead of popping up an easy quick-select radial menu, the game pauses, zooms out to an entirely separate menu, then lets you move up and down a list of items, rather than around in a circle.
This is basic stuff to get wrong at this point -- Red Dead Redemption nailed it four years ago, and Saints Row got it right even before that. There are too many tools in Assassin's Creed III to use the D-pad shortcuts; I always need quick access to more than four things. The amount of time it takes to select a new tool, particularly while in the heat of combat, is a groove-killer.
The map is even worse. It's become a given that Assassin's Creed games have terrible maps, but that does not make it OK. If anything, it makes it less OK. It should't "be a given" that a massive, multi-million dollar AAA franchise just has one very important element that sucks, forever. They've had five games to get the map right. Why can't they just overhaul it? It takes forever for it to load, it's difficult to read, and it makes it navigation more confusing, not less.
6. The "Gump Factor"
I'm a little bit worried about Assassin's Creed's fiction as it gets closer to modern times. In the earlier games, Altair and Ezio spent a lot of time tied up with the biggest political and social movements in their respective points in history. But, and this may be hugely ethnocentric of me, those conflicts, characters, and events felt far enough from our own time that it wasn't too big of a deal to see my video game protagonist taking a small but vital role in them. Even meeting characters I knew, like Leonardo DaVinci in Assassin's Creed II, felt a bit goofy, but fun.
Assassin's Creed III takes place during the American Revolution, during historical events that most people, at least most Americans, are much more familiar with. As a result, the story starts to have a Forrest Gump-y quality that feels more distracting than cool. You say Paul Revere went on a famous ride? Well actually, Connor rode with him! You say the British won a bloody victory at Bunker Hill? Well actually, Connor was there, and snuck across the enemy lines! You say the Colonials held the British at the north bridge in Concord? Well actually, Connor commanded the troops and told them when to fire! Why did he do this? Because the Colonial commanding officer decided to trust this random guy with the task.
I loved this re-done version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" over at Crikey. A choice excerpt:
And so our riders went swiftly through the night
With Revere giving directions towards the good fight,
When suddenly, without sure prediction,
It seemed a bug emerged with strong affliction
Revere was stuck helplessly in a dialogue cycle;
"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"
"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"
"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"
"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"
It all feels contrived, and unnecessary. I'm not sure of the exact solution to this problem -- it is cool to read about and see the real story of Paul Revere's ride, and to see the events at Concord unfolding firsthand. But do I really have to ride on the horse with the guy? Must I command the troops, and if so, must Connor be the one to do it?
In order for a video game to occupy a place in history, it doesn't necessarily have to place characters at the very centre of historical events. It would've been possible to put Connor into Paul Revere's ride, or the Battle of Bunker Hill, without making him an integral part of each one. And I worry that as the series progresses into even more recent history, that the Gumpyness will only get worse. I want to live through history, but I don't need to rewrite it.
7. It's Time For A Control Overhaul
In addition to the basic interface stuff, I think it's time that Ubisoft reassess Assassin's Creed's basic controls. Combat doesn't feel good, targeting is a disaster, and free-running should probably just be labelled a failed experiment. On a fundamental level, the game does not feature a strong connection between the player, his or her controller, and the game. That's a big problem.
Since the first Assassin's Creed launched in 2007, the series has been so thoroughly outpaced by so many games that the people in charge would do well to pause, study, and go back to the drawing board.
For example: With each passing year, combat in Assassin's Creed is further overshadowed by Batman: Arkham Asylum. While Rocksteady managed to raise their own bar in Arkham City, Ubisoft seems content to stick with a combat system that feels positively stodgy at this point. It's unsatisfying, hectic, and despite all that far too easy. They can add all the canned kill-cam animations they want, it won't change the fact that their basic combat is one tenth as enjoyable, challenging, and punchy as Arkham City on an off day.
Free-running, too, could learn some lessons from other games. Sleeping Dogs added an interesting trick where you hold down "A" to run, then press it in time to climb and jump over obstacles. Infamous forced players to actually press the jump button to climb walls, but managed to make navigation into a mostly-fun skate-park kind of thing. Dishonored added a teleporting mechanic to make rooftop navigation thrilling and empowering. I humbly submit that Assassin's Creed's next developers rethink what can be fun about running and leaping over things. The basic idea is still strong. But the execution needs work.
8. For A Stealth Game, The Stealth Sure Is Jank
And here, maybe my biggest problem with Assassin's Creed III: The stealth. The Assassin's Creed games are, ostensibly, stealth games. One of their oldest gameplay pillars involves your character blending into the crowd, striking, then vanishing into thin air.
And yet it never feels that way. Stealth in Assassin's Creed III is broken, plain and simple. This is best evidenced by an early mission in which you must sneak into an enemy encampment and steal intel without being spotted. If you're spotted, the mission ends, and you must restart it from the beginning. I failed this mission a good 20 times before finally succeeding, and I'd imagine I'm not the only one.
Here are the problems as I see them:
- The camera positioning makes it difficult to see where everyone is, and despite the addition of an inconsistent corner-sticking ability, you mostly can't "stick" to cover and make yourself unseen.
- There's no "stealth" button, not even a crouch button, which means that you can't tell the game that you'd like your character to be stealthy. That means you'll frequently just stand right up while moving through the underbrush, immediately tipping off every nearby enemy to your location. It's maddening.
- Enemies don't appear to have a realistic line-of-sight, and can often see you from the strangest, most turned-around locations. I find myself playing more against the yellow arrows that have popped up at the side of my screen than against enemies I actually had any notion of when I started sneaking.
- Crowd-sneaking feels inconsistent to the point that I never even attempt it. The stealth feedback is just fundamentally flawed. I never attempt to sneak using a crowd, because it's almost impossible not to get spotted.
- Assassin's Creed III has also done away with the hireable helpers that made crowd-stealth more workable in past games. You can no longer hire courtesans and thieves to help you get past guards, giving you far less control over your work at street-level.
- Sneaking in the woods is almost impossible, as well. Everything is so spread out that there are rarely good "stealth pathways" between you and your target, and there's no good way to quickly traverse open areas without being spotted. Far more often, you'll have to kill everyone who spots you before proceeding. I wanted to be a ghost in the underbrush, and instead I'm a thug with a tomahawk.
I've been playing a lot of stealth games recently. From Dishonored to Mark of the Ninja to Hitman: Absolution, which I'll be reviewing next week. All of those games, with varying degrees of success, have built-in systems that dovetail with the level design to make sneaking empowering, interesting, difficult, and fun. By contrast, Assassin's Creed feels like it has a stealth game's punishments without any of its necessary tools. It feels so clumsy. Connor is a constantly-spotted rube, a guy standing on a rooftop being yelled at by a guard.
9. I Avoid Doing Things
I find that in Assassin's Creed III, I avoid doing just about everything. I want the path of least resistance. I don't want to even try to use the rope-dart to hang a guy from a tree. I don't want to try to sneak through a fort undetected. I don't want to go hunting, I don't want to try to use feed to summon animals and shoot them from a tree. I don't want to try to dodge a firing-line and use a guy as a human shield. It's all just so difficult to manage, so I don't bother. And really, that's because…
10. It's Just Not Very Fun
And here we get to the crux of it, I guess. This one's more subjective than all the other ones, but it remains true: I just haven't been having much fun with Assassin's Creed III. When I started playing, I was also playing Need For Speed: Most Wanted for review. (That game? Very, very fun) Considering how much I've enjoyed past Assassin's Creed games, I was honestly surprised to find myself saying, many a time, "Man, why am I playing this when I could be playing Need for Speed?" Then I figured out why: Need For Speed is fun, and Assassin's Creed III isn't.
It's interesting, and often smart. The story is cool, and I'm one of the people who actually likes that twisty, silly Desmond meta-narrative. I love the sense of place, the meticulously researched history, and think that this time period is hugely underrepresented in video games and is very fun to explore. But the game, as it stands, just isn't fun. I'm not one to stand on a mountaintop and declare that all games must be "fun," whatever that even means. But surely this blockbuster action/adventure series is intended to be enjoyable to play. And yet, here we are.
Despite all the disappointments I just listed, I still don't hate Assassin's Creed III. It's a game worth playing, and its basic setup, setting, and story are strong enough to overcome even that laundry list of complaints. And hey, the naval combat really is as cool as everyone says. I'm going to wait to play it to completion until it comes out on PC, largely in the hopes that my more powerful computer can remedy some of the rough edges that so turned me off of the Xbox version.
But on the whole, I just gotta say it: Assassin's Creed III, one of the biggest, most ambitious, and most hyped games of 2012, is a disappointment.