Special Series Playthrough - Assassin’s Creed
Up next in FBT's quest to find the ultimate AC game and the best Assassin, he invents America.
Part three; Assassin’s Creed III
Whereas Ezio had just Italy to unite, our new hero Connor is caught between Patriots and Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War, while defending his tribe and way of life, while scuppering the Templars plans, getting revenge for the death of mother, establishing a community, reclaiming Boston and New York, re-starting the Assassin chapter in America and working through some daddy issues; meanwhile, Des has to avert the end of the world. Epic.
We begin as Haytham Kenway, who is in the Colonies to track down an Isu thingie. After getting in with the natives, one of them reveals a cave her tribe is sworn to protect. Haytham is unable to get in, so gets off with the tribeswoman instead. He also becomes the Grandmaster of the Templars. Whoa, a Templar?! We’re playing as a Temp - wait a minute, that’s it, we’re moving on? That was just a tutorial/intro?
Years later Haytham is an absent father to little Ratonhnhaké:ton. Templar toady Charles Lee burns down the village and orphans Rat; Juno pops up and sends Rat to Achilles, the last of the Assassin order in the US. You couldn’t have done all this in a cut scene?
Years later again and Rat, now ‘Connor’ is a young lad who’s Assassin training hasn’t quelled his desire for revenge against the Templars; especially after he gets blamed for the Boston Massacre and forced into hiding; I feel another Years Later coming on.
Years later, the Patriots and Loyalists are at war, and the tribes are being drawn in. Connor sides with the Patriots and their leader, George Washington while the Templars back the Loyalists. I think, I've kinda stopped paying attention, I just want to play the game not an interactive backstory. Oh, Connor's grown up, we're gonna begin the game? Nope; I forgot about Desmond.
Des and the modern Assassin gang find Haytham’s cave. Inside, they discover an Isu machine intended to deflect the solar flare that killed the Isu the first time around; if they can get it running, they can stop the flare headed for Earth now. Sounds thrilling. But it’s not.
I had really warmed up to Des, but this time he’s central to it all and isn’t really central at all. As he works through Conner’s memories to uncover the key for the machine, he’s occasionally roused out of the animus to go on adventures; I was excited about this, finally a modern assassin parkouring about, but they’re tightly linear, controlled mini-missions that rely on stealth – at one point he’s at a huge stadium and still gets spotted by guards in an instant. It’s just not very satisfying, especially after his grim determination at the end of ACR.
Once you’re into Connor’s era though, you suspect ACIII doesn’t really want to be an AC game; for starters, the Assassin’s Creed is secondary to Connor’s revenge. Now that’s fine, it’s largely what Ezio’s initial motivation was, but Connor’s not even really an Assassin, he’s protecting his village and helping the Patriots; that he's crossing the Templar's path is just coincidence really. And Des’s world-saving plot is a b-story – the modern era might be filler, but it underlined why we’re doing all this. Now it’s just rushed though in favour of Connor getting mixed up in the Revolutionary war, not the Assassin vs Templar one we signed up for.
I’ll admit I moaned that Ezio never really tangled with the Borgias, only witnessing their acts from afar. But this time Connor is so involved he should be up on Mount Rushmore; it was Connor who dumped tea in the Boston harbour, was at Lexington and Concord, gives Paul Revere a lift for his Midnight Ride – Connor was even there when they signed the declaration of independence! I’m all for experiencing history but he single-handedly wins the war. It is thrilling stuff and doesn’t paint the Patriots in any better light than the Brits but the game twists itself to involve Connor until you’re a Patriot not an Assassin.
I love the idea that the Templars are guiding history from the shadows, but ACIII’s insistence that Connor be in the thick of it strains logic – why am I the only one on the battlefield able to use cannons? Why am I’m commanding a battalion of troops across three posts and they can only fire when I tell them to? This is supposed to be a war within a war, not the war. And we're at war with the game too.
In an effort to be challenging ACIII invents scenarios that just don’t make sense; many are timed missions which is just lazy tension, and completely takes you out of the moment. One mission has him reach a hilltop surrounded by soldiers. Do we do the assassin stealth thing? Steal a uniform and infiltrate? Nope, he runs directly into gunfire. It’s not heroic it’s stupid.
The objectives are often fun, plausibility aside, but the unrealistic limitations remove any excitement at besting it. You’re just glad it’s over. And the Full-Sync tasks are idiotic; I’m racing to save my village and … I can’t touch the ground. Is it made of lava? And then you add in good old AC controls and a few 'bugs' …
Altair and Ezio’s sticking, dropping, leaping, randomness is still here, but Connor is navigating an incredibly complex environment, through trees or across rooftops – it’s thrilling but he’ll just stop dead, get stuck, fall or find some sudden-death option. The game gets gummed up by its own freedom. The branch was right fricking there!
There’s dodgy scripting too - I had to stop a thug shaking down a tradesman. Surrounded by other thugs, I shot him with a poisonous dart to avoid the fight. Smart, assassin thinking, right? I watched him die … then run off because that’s what he’s scripted to do, and somehow that alerted every guard, who converged on the hidden Connor and beat the crap out of him while the undead thug escaped.
Connor has an interesting arsenal but since you’re almost always notorious you can’t get from A to B without having an entire garrison chasing you so you're just brawling not assassinating. Fights are a lot more satisfying than Ezio - who was a lover not a fighter – but Connor gets battered very easily. Another infuriating thing is lock-picking. Moving a mouse sideways then up and down in perfect lines is fun? If I'm gonna be a tomahawk wielding thorn in the Templar's side let me get on with it.
Reclaiming Boston and NY are the game's highlights. Doing side missions like defending locals and helping street urchins catches the eye of a local rabble-rouser who sides with Conner once a district is under their control, and they can be called in as specialist Assassin Initiates to support whatever Connor is ruining.
If I can just get past the bait-and-switch that is ACIII’s story - which admittedly has some incredible twists and turns, and accept it’s an RPG it is a beautiful game. The frontier is incredible and a lot of my playtime was spent completely ignoring the main mission in favour of roaming the wilds.
Hunting animals is real tracker stuff, there’s nice random missions and Connor can investigate classic folk stories and legends of early America - I wind up being very conflicted about ACIII; I’m here to be an assassin but ACIII lets you build a ‘Homestead’ and I totally get into it. Connor invites folk who have fallen on hard times to set up on Achilles’ land and each needs Connor to do chores. It’s great but I kept trying to get Connor to focus – save the tribe, win the war, stop the Templars, get a hug off dad; helping a miner woo a Calamity Jane starts to feel like a distraction. I can ignore it of course, but you don’t. I’m a frontiersman not an assassin.
He can even run away to sea as if America wasn’t distracting enough. It’s a contained, empty ocean outside of missions, and ship-battles are fairly basic; it feels like a demo for Black Flag to see if gamers take to it. I kept forgetting it other than for a side mission searching for Capt’ Kidd’s treasure, an Isu ring hidden on the infamous Oak Island that deflects metal (bullets but not swords oddly enough) and it’s so powerful it also affects Desmond when out of the Animus … what’s he up to anyway?
Des is finally front and centre, taking the fight right to the Templars to rescue Dad and confront Vidic, his tormentor in ACI. Wow, Des’s story is more compelling that the main memories? Nope, it’s disappointing. Des fights his way through multiple guards, finally having some business, but then brandishes the Apple which gives him God-mode – Firstly, why did you bring it?! Second, if you can control it, which you never even hinted at before, why the hell haven’t we been using it all along?! Plus, his showdown with Vidic is a single cutscene. Des’ story is quickly being wound down here.
It’s an epic moment when Des puts everything together, with Juno and Minera basically fighting over Des’ soul – save the world but let lose Juno, who admits to planning on enslaving the human race as they always intended, or let the flare hit earth and send us back to the dark ages, where Des’ actions will turn him into the next generation’s Jesus (wait, was Jesus an Assassin?!) and restart the cycle - it’s a moral choice in the making, but we don’t make it. Des does, and the emotional reaction to his sacrifice isn’t sadness or bravery - I’m annoyed. After all that, Des, who grew into the role was just offed like that? It’s implied Juno has been guiding everything to this moment, and it’s a great ‘ohhh’ scene, but for Des, we’re done and that pisses me off.
Years later. At least, it feels like it. There’s 20 minutes of unskippable credits before we can see Connor’s final fate. WTF? I can’t even rage quit. When we’re finally returned to Connor, I have mixed feelings. Connor went through a lot, and much of it was compelling, interesting and emotional, but ending it with Connor only just realising he’s been had is disappointing; it just underlines what a weak character he is - ultimately, he did nothing; we always knew this was America’s fate so it was always going to be bitter-sweet, but Connor never even questioned how all this was going to go, or ever really get into being an assassin. I wish I could have stuck playing Haytham.
Haytham and Connor was the Templar vs Assassin story we’ve been after, and a father and son story that rivals Luke and Vader - but ACIII speeds through their interactions without really digging into the conflict beyond the obvious, and their showdown sees Haytham reduced to a typical sneering Templar. As they stand on bloody battlefields, you can see his point about controlling humankind for their own good as the Isu intended – yet an opportunity to mix it up, see both sides is missed. Haytham is a complex man, capable of horrible ‘greater good’ acts, yet was angered to learn of Mum’s death and occasionally showed kindness. Haytham is an exceptional character in the AC cannon who deserved more than this. So did we.
ACIII has recently been remastered, but that doesn’t make it ripe for rediscovery. The issues are with the experience, not how it looks. It’s just not AC – the series found its groove with the Ezio trilogy, I knew what an AC game was, what an Assassin did; and it wasn’t establishing new nations or a new style of gameplay.
ACIII feels like a reboot; Des is out the picture, the modern era has no relevance - Juno’s threat aside - and we’re in an RPG that gets stuck into a period rather than skirts around in the shadows. It’s a self-important, rather smug AC game but a starling RPG achievement when you’re stood out on the Frontier. Just not as an Assassin.
Ezio is my go-to Assassin so far, and Revelations the best AC game; but that might change once I’m back aboard the Jackdaw; how will the rascally Pirate Kenway compare to Ezio?
Join FBT in his next AC experience, living life on the high-seas. To be honest, his whole ‘experience AC’ feels like a gag to justify playing Black Flag again.