Warning: spoilers ahead. As I leapt into the fire, dying for the 28th time, I didn't feel anger or frustration; I felt resignation and a little bit of wonder. How, I asked aloud, to no one in particular. How on earth does something this awful wind up in a big-budget video game in the year 2012?
I was playing through the final chase sequence of Assassin's Creed III, wherein the protagonist chases a man across the dockyards of Boston. Trying and failing, again, and again, and again, forever and ever, amen.
Really, it's just the final leg of a chase sequence of sorts that's been going on for what feels like the back half of the game. I lost count of the number of times Connor grunted, "I need to find Charles Lee" at someone, usually upon arriving somewhere Charles Lee wasn't.
Eventually my search led me to a tavern in Boston, yet another place where Charles Lee wasn't. But there was a guy there at a table, and some light torture later, he told me Lee could be found at the docks. So, I go to the docks, and there he is, ready to run away. And we arrive at the worst video game sequence of 2012.
My discussion of it here is not intended as a walkthrough. It's at best a post-mortem, an attempt to slowly drive back past the car wreck, stare down the wreckage and attempt to attain some sort of closure. With the hope, however futile, that the healing can begin.
As with many missions in Assassin's Creed III, this one begins with a guy moving away from you with a glowing marker on his back.
Chase him! the game instructs. OK, you think. So you begin to chase him, and three seconds later this happens:
These explosive barrels just sort of happen to explode in your face, sending you flying backward, arms pinwheeling, lurching away from your target.
1) Why did the barrels explode?
2) No, seriously. Why did the barrels explode? Did someone make them explode? What happened? Why?
The upshot is that the chase begins with what amounts to a giant middle finger right in your face. Something of a sign of things to come, as it turns out. You think you're gonna chase this guy? The game says. F**k you, you are. First, we're going to slow you the heck down, buddy!
If you don't fall down and fail the chase right there (Again: This happens like three seconds in), you then have to get around these guys:
And it's much harder than it looks! You'll have to slip around to the side, but don't cut back too quickly or this will happen:
You'll get knocked down and fail the chase. OK, so, now the game has put two obstacles in your way in a matter of seconds, either of which can make you fail, and neither of which is particularly easy to dodge. I played this sequence around 30 times (or more, it kind of all became a blur). Each time something different would happen.
That can be a good thing, right? This game is unpredictable! No. That's not what's going on here. The controls are just inconsistent and dodgy as hell. So the only inconsistency is that I have no earthly idea what Connor's going to try to do this time.
Alright, so, you get pretty good at slowing down before the barrels explode and going to the right to get around the first dudes, and then you hit these dudes:
Who are easier to dodge, you just have to go to the left and run alongside the water.
And that's when you notice that the game has given you two optional objectives: Stay within a certain distance of Lee, and don't shove anyone. DON'T SHOVE ANYONE.
It's easy enough to ignore these objectives, but when you do, you get a big flaming chunk of red text and an "X" on the screen to tell you, you know, that on your 26th try of this godforsaken travesty of a mission you've fallen short of the lofty goals the game has set for you. Oh, you will not be getting 100% synchronization! Nope! Because you shoved a guy in a high-speed chase.
Alright so back on track. You'll play this part of the chase a couple of dozen times at least, so you'll get pretty good at it. I actually got good even at not shoving people. But believe it or not, this 100-yard stretch of hell is not even the worst part of the chase. Now comes the second part, the burning boat.
You'll run into the boat to see Lee standing still and waiting for you, which is just insulting on so many levels: The game is rubber-banding you, there is no way to catch Lee before this point or after it, you're basically running through a totally scripted cutscene. It's a movie in which the director hasn't told you where to go.
So now, you'll run forward and in the grand tradition of annoying-ass video game chases, the fire causes a pathway to become blocked just after Lee passes through it:
So you'll probably die here once or twice before figuring out that you have to go up and around. Then, you'll get to the end of the ship and you will encounter a moment I have come to think of as THE ENTIRE PROBLEM.
It looks like this:
It's another moment when the roof collapses right after Lee passes under it. You're thinking, based on what you did when the exact same thing happened five seconds ago, that your answer lies in turning to the left, jumping across the fire, and following Lee. Who you can see heading that direction anyway.
And so, bless your heart, you will try doing this. Again and again, you'll try. And you will fail, again and again.
Here, watch me fail, a lot:
It isn't that you know what must be done and lack the skill, you likely have no idea what to do. And you run straight into it the fire, and every time you fail, and you knew that you were going to fail, because you had no idea how to proceed when you started. It becomes a special sort of hell, and you begin to have real thoughts about life, and death, and the passage of time.
And then eventually you crack and do what I did: You turn to YouTube, and you find a guy who has finished the game and you watch him. And then you play through the rest of the hateful sequence and are rid of it forever.
Many things in Assassin's Creed III feel thrown-together, but this chase, those five minutes of gameplay that somehow stretched into hours, stands apart. It feels as though it was thrown into the game at the 11th hour with no playtesting or second thought.
Of course, some of you will have sailed through this sequence on the very first try. And to you I say, with no ill will: Well done. Good show. We're all very impressed. (Okay, maybe with a little bit of ill will.) But given how many people I've heard talking about this mission elsewhere, I have a strong suspicion I'm not the only one who had this much trouble with it.
Yes, the rage will fade; the frustration with this chase and the rest of the game's interminable, unsatisfying ending will evaporate. And yet this document will stand as evidence that a multi-million dollar video game can still contain moments so truly awful that all you can do is sit, gobsmacked, staring at your television and shaking your head.