Assassin’s Creed 3

*Native american gibberish*

The Assassin’s Creed series follows the ancient conspiracy between the Knights Templar (bad guys) and the Assassins (good guys), as their intricate, shadowy, and Greek mythology-based plots converge around the protagonist, Percy Jackson – I mean, Desmond – who uses ill-defined technology to relive the memories of his ancestors through the medium of open-world, stealth-heavy RPGs.

The series is probably the perfect cross-section of how the notoriously fickle triple-A gaming industry has changed over the past console generation. The first game, a 2007 trip to the 12th century Middle East, was praised for its unique concept and excellent design, which was enough to overshadow its lackluster gameplay and confusing story. The sequel came out in late 2009, and iterated on the original concept by moving the time period to the more recognizable Renaissance-era Italy, while also shoring up the gameplay issues and having a more coherent and basic plot.

And then the critical and financial success of the series started to cause problems. I’ll say up front that I’m perfectly fine with supplemental material for sprawling franchises like this – providing more information or gameplay for fans who want it while not being necessary for the casual player’s enjoyment of the central games.

From what I can tell, Ubisoft have the first aspect down pat, but are still struggling a bit with the second. Between numbers 2 and 3 we’ve had no less than six tie-in games, with a seventh released alongside the latter (most of which contain pivotal story elements, and none of which I’ve played), in addition to a slew of novels, comic books, short films, and other mounds of Styrofoam packing peanuts, surrounding a package – the real, serious, numbered games – that I actually quite enjoy.

But the problem is that when there’s so many of these packing peanuts, it’s almost impossible to find what you opened the box for. The developers have lost sight of what most people actually like about Assassin’s Creed – a sprawling, beautifully designed historical environment, filled with opportunities for cathartic, stealthy murder.  I will say that there’s more than enough of this in number 3 to make it worth your while, but there was a richness to the earlier games that seems to be absent here. It’s as if Mystery Science Theater 3000 gradually focused less and less on making fun of bad movies and more on the Satellite of Love, until finally it was an hour-long puppet show with a few minutes of snarky comments thrown in.

Anyway, the game starts with an infodump from Sean Connery as Henry Jones Sr. – I mean, John de Lancie as Desmond’s dad – who tells us that the Greek gods were an ancient civilization, who left huge numbers of do-anything Macguffins scattered around the world, which somehow translates to Earth being burned up by solar flares on December 21st, 2012 unless the Assassins do…something.

I trust I don’t have to walk you through the connection.

De Lancie handles his fifteen minutes or so of actual screen time well, but I don’t like how little he’s used – it’s the same problem as using Liam Neeson in Fallout 3, we just don’t get enough of the big name actor to justify hiring him. As for the story element that he knew all about the conspiracy crap and didn’t tell Luke – I mean, Desmond – a word about it? I’ll call it what it is – hack writing. There was nothing wrong with the original concept from the first game: that Desmond was just a normal guy who happened to be a descendant of all these important people. This just smacks of Return Of The Jedi’s “Of course, everyone’s related to everyone else! Didn’t you know?”

After that, we join Arthur Dent – I mean, Desmond – and his dad in a van with their best pals, Death from Sandman and Yahtzee Croshaw. The gang discover a secret cave, which they open with one of their sacred Macguffins, and find…the ship from Prometheus!

Of course, it all makes sense! No wonder Michael Fassbender has been secured to play Desmond in the upcoming theatrical film – it’s a secret prequel!

I’m joking, of course. This isn’t Prometheus – it’s just a secretive, otherworldly race of ancient astronauts whose influence can be felt throughout history, whose visitations have mutated over the years into well-known myths and ancient conspiracies. See? Completely different!

The design is pretty generic, for a series with such great visuals.

Anyway, after the Engineer cave warms up, the gang finds out it’s only the antechamber for the real chamber, and they need an entirely different key to open it. Simba – I mean, Desmond – starts getting cryptic visions and blacks out. His pals take him to their shoulder-mounted Animus (Ancestral kNowledge Imager Mounted Under the Shoulder), because when all you have is a device to relive the memories of your ancestors, everything looks like…well, a problem that can be solved by that device. We get a trippy, ethereal movement tutorial as the Animus’ rendering software warms up (I really enjoy the sequence where the cloud of colorless, shiny polygons start to coalesce and form normal surroundings). Eventually, we slip on the tricorn of Haytham Kenway, colonial-era British nobleman and Nicolas Cage lookalike, with an unexplained aptitude for free-running and close combat. He puts those skills to use in a beautiful sequence at Covent Garden in London, jumping around the rafters before trading some cryptic dialogue and murdering someone, getting the Completely Different Macguffin our gang is looking for from their corpse.

Mr. Kenway takes the Macguffin to a shadowy council of people who might as well have “SECRETLY EVIL” signs flashing over their heads (And considering the in-story justification for your enemy-sensing ‘Eagle Vision’, it’s sort of surprising from a story standpoint that they don’t). For now, though, the council sends Kenway to America, to find the cave that our heroes found in the opening.

As Kenway sails across the pond, we’re introduced to one of the more out-of-left-field distractions of the game – an entire subset of controls, gameplay and upgrades focused towards ships and sea battles. My guess as to why? Someone high up in Ubisoft’s creative team actually comes from the Watchmen universe, where pirates have supplanted superheroes as pop-culture icons. It’s not just this game series that’s become strangely focused on pirates rather than, y’know, assassins – Ubisoft’s Far Cry 3 made them the primary and most visible villains, and even titles like their upcoming Watch_D0gs have swashbuckling rogues in the tech-heavy future. It’s not as if these ship battle sequences aren’t fun or exciting – it’s just that I wish they were in a different game.

“How does this constitute ‘assassination’, Captain?”

After Kenway lands in America, he finally gets to stretch his legs, getting down to the classic Assassin’s Creed stuff – running above the streets, palling around with famous historical figures, surviving quarter-mile drops by landing in haystacks. This is all good stuff, and some of the issues I had with the second game have been resolved. My only problem is that there are still quite a few flaws that could have been fixed, most of them having to do with this perennially console-focused series being poorly suited to keyboard and mouse controls. It’s still pretty much a coin toss whether or not guards will stop noticing you, and the combat is still clunky, unintuitive and hard to see.

And this is definitely a personal preference, but I actually really enjoyed the framing device for the first game, because of how thoroughly and humorously it drew attention to all the accepted breaks from reality in modern gaming. I didn’t mind how they cut down on that for the stripped-down second game, but now every single one of those little conveniences are presented absolutely straight, with nary a wink at the camera, and it just feels like a step back.

One aspect I can completely get behind, though, are the visuals – not the most detailed, or the most imaginative, but definitely some of the best in the industry: The late-18th century period has been heavily researched, and then that research has been largely discarded to provide something that looks good and is amenable to lots of parkour. Combined with modern graphics engines, the effect is dazzling, and if you spend all the time between missions exploring on rooftops, you can almost forget the stupid Dan Brown plot that brought you here.

For a while, all is well: Haytham settles in Boston and assembles a team of minor historical figures (headed by a literal mustache-twirler) to locate the cave. They go to the local Mohawk indian tribe for help, and Kenway meets a combative, snarky and experienced native woman. Within seconds, the two are bantering even as they plot to end the ongoing French and Indian War – banter being universal code for “true love”. Sure enough, Haytham is soon…putting Eagle Vision to some creative use. Ahem.

The spirits of our ancestors are watching over you...and so are the spirits of your descendants.

Logically, we shouldn’t be seeing anything past this point, as genetic memories as described here would stop at conception…oh, who am I kidding?

The two split apart, however, after it’s revealed that Haytham was a Knight Templar all along, and thus eeeeeevil! I had this twist figured out from pretty much the second scene, and had hoped that they would have taken the opportunity to call attention to the similarities between the Assassins and Templars. since Haytham plays identically to all the other protagonists. It’s not to be, though – Haytham and his crew are shown as horrible and amoral for the entire rest of the game, just because they’re the bad guys. They’ve attempted to cover this up by giving them introspective, questioning speeches throughout the game, but none of their actions really match up with what they say.

Years later, we’re introduced to the results of this Transatlantic tryst: Ratohnhake:ton (pronounced “Fanshaw”), living in a Mohawk village with this mother. His father’s lackeys attack the village, burning it to the ground, and he only escapes by using his airbending powers to freeze himself, before he’s discovered by Katara and Sokka…

…wait, I’m getting mixed up here. The next sequence is pretty much the same, Campbellian origins as Aang had, packed with even more Native American influences: There’s the militaristic settlers’ oppression, the aged shaman inducing an animal spirit hallucination, the ritualistic hunt, and so on. Unlike Avatar, every single moment of this is conducted in authentic Kanien’keha:ka, which accomplishes nothing except making it harder to connect with the characters emotionally. Yes, you did the research! We get it! When do we get to start stabbing dudes?

The answer to this is not for a while: we’re introduced here to the lengthy Frontier sections, where the game tries to make up for having only 2 cities by hiding lots of sidequests and challenges in the vast, untamed woods. It doesn’t really work: Swinging around treetops and hunting game just doesn’t bring the same primal thrill as the city-based gameplay does, and the addition of predators – or, as you’ll come to think of them, walking quick-time events – doesn’t exactly wow me. I think the reason this stuff is here can be traced back to Far Cry 3 – developed by the same studio, at the same time. It’s pretty evident there was quite a lot of cross-pollination between the two dev teams, and this game comes off worse for it.

After loading himself down with animal pelts and a wise old Assassin mentor, Ratonka… Ranto… Honk… Connor (as he is christened to save wear and tear on dictionaries) goes into Boston, where he begins taking deceptively large roles in historical events – trying to stop the Boston Massacre, becoming a founding member of the Sons of Liberty, starting the Boston Tea Party, helping Paul Revere on his ride…you get the idea. I know it’s a bit provincialist (and I have no idea how well-known events like the Bonfire of the Vanities from the second game are outside the US), but I honestly think this is pretty lazy as far as depicting history goes. The average gamer probably doesn’t know a lot about the Crusades, or the Renaissance, and the games had a well-understated educational aspect to them. Here, it’s pretty much retreading points every American schoolchild has known for years, and it can get a bit tedious.

“Oh, I get inquisitive time travelers from the future about once every month nowadays. Mostly kids.”

To spice things up, we occasionally return to the present, so that Agent Ethan Hunt – I mean, Desmond – can infiltrate enemy strongholds via linear parkour sequences, that feel like a cross between Deus Ex and Mirror’s Edge. I know how much I’ve railed against moving the focus to the present day, but I actually really enjoy the variety and character development that these sections bring – especially since the rest of the game has turned into Forrest Gump’s Creed.

Around two-thirds of the way through, though, things in the past get much better – you cut down on the Schoolhouse-Rock-caliber history to focus on more obscure and interesting events, you actually get to start assassinating people (Again, two-thirds of the way through the Assassin’s Creed game), and Connor reunites with Haytham, who convinces Connor that they both want the same thing, and team up. This estranged-father-reunites-with-son-to-fight-baddies plot feels a lot like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but I don’t mind that – They’ve been stealing the same tomb raiding sequence from that movie ever since the very first game. We also get some good story-driving character development on both ends, as Haytham persuades Connor that the rival ancient conspiracies should team up, and Connor is angry for the problems of the Colonies, which are Templar Grandmaster Haytham’s fault by proxy.

The first sign things might be going sour again is the second-to-last chapter – An extended pirate battle, that ends with Connor jumping out of an exploding English warship in slow motion. We take a quick trip to the present, where Eli Vance – I mean, Desmond’s Dad – has been captured by Dr. Evil, inventor of the Animus, who hasn’t been seen since the a cameo at the start of Assassin’s Creed 2. I thought it would be nice to revisit the nominal setting of first game, but it wasn’t at all – I enjoy controlling Desmond when he’s alone and doing the Mission Impossible thing, but controlling him in combat without the benefit of any HUD is even more annoying than regular combat.

Howdy, Subject 17! You're higher-resolution than I remember!

I’d be having Black Mesa flashbacks, if Black Mesa didn’t have much better combat.

Back in the past, Connor’s wise old mentor (Who’s been pretty useless to the story overall, which is why this is only the second time I’m mentioning him) dies of old age, getting a boring death scene where he implores Connor to kill his father. He does so, and it’s disappointingly easy – you’d expect the guy who we were controlling for almost a quarter of the game would have some better fighting skills.

Afterwards, we have to contend with your father’s mustache-twirling lackey, who has somehow managed to become even more generically villainous than before. He’s haggard, pale, and shouting about “Destroying all you hold dear”. Eventually, you chase him through Boston Harbor, in what has got to be one of the most annoying sequences since Battletoads – not only do you need pixel-perfect aim and timing, but trial and error doesn’t even work, since everything is blocked off by invisible walls thanks to modern design philosophies.

Eventually, Connor kills him, and buries his Macguffin – which Desmond and his pals immediately rush to dig up. When they insert it into the keyhole, they start a recording, or a hologram, or…something with scanlines, from the goddess Juno. This ancient contraption will shield the world from deadly deadly solar flares, you see. However, the goddess Minerva bursts in somehow, and start arguing. The gist of this is that Harry Potter – I mean, Desmond – either sacrifices himself to save the world, or allows most of the population to die and becomes Messiah to the rest.

Desmond, getting increasingly aggravated with this entire thing, elects the sacrifice option just to shut everyone up.

Don’t worry, everyone – he’s probably just become one with the Force, or something.

 

But over the credits, it’s revealed all is not well, as the Juno hologram gives a sinister declaration, that can basically be summed up as “At last, after ten thousand years I’m free! Now it’s time to conquer Earth!”

Assassin’s Creed IV came out yesterday, but don’t expect a review of it come next Halloween – I’m just not interested enough in the franchise anymore to shell out another 60 clams (Heh heh, maritime humor) to jump around on a pirate ship for fifteen hours. The franchise really suffers from a lack of focus, and there seems to be no antidote to this on the horizon.

To end on another topical note, Ubisoft’s wacky roommate Eidos Montreal recently announced plans for “Deus Ex Universe”, a continuation of the Deus Ex stealth RPG franchise, which promises to deliver “additional Deus Ex games and experiences available in other media such as tablets, smartphones, books, graphic novels, etc… “ And I don’t really want to say that Deus Ex should be sacrosanct, but… Deus Ex should be sacrosanct. If this is the trail Assassin’s Creed has blazed, I don’t want to see my personal favorite franchise go down it.

TWO THUMBS UP: The assassination and free-running, the visuals

THUMBS UP: The third quarter of the game, the ship battle and present-day sequences

THUMBS DOWN: Most of the gameplay, the plot

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The creative philosophy behind the game

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