American history as a bloody, uncertain battleground: PAR plays Assassin’s Creed 3
Assassin's Creed 3
There are things that are frustrating about Assassin’s Creed 3, and I’m going to front load my thoughts with them. The chase segments can be frustrating and based more on trial and error than skill. The Desmond sequences feel oddly unpolished, especially a scene in a large sporting event that features an anemic crowd. The game’s rhythm is often frustrating; there are sections where you walk a few seconds between loading screens, leaving you unable to get a feel for what’s going on. The game’s ending is going to cause an intense discussion. NPCs sometimes walk through each other, or seem to float above the ground.
The game has flaws, some serious, most simply annoying. There were some sections of the game that almost caused me to walk away, especially during late night sessions where I was almost looking for an excuse to quit. Those are the times when you find out just how much a game can pull you in, and you’re the most in danger of a design flaw pulling you out of the experience. This isn’t the smooth, glossy, perfect triple-A game we’re used to this time of the season. I’ll also note that I played pre-release code, and have yet to try the retail version with the day one patch. Many, or at least some, of these problems may have been fixed, or will be soon.
Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, we can move on to what the game does well, and why it’s one of my favorite releases of the year.
History is written in blood
What’s surprising about Assassin’s Creed 3 is how much of the game has been hidden from both players and the press. I don’t want to even hint at some aspects of the story for fear of ruining them for you, and I suggest you stay away from reviewers you don’t trust, walkthroughs, or anything else of the sort. There were multiple moments of the game where a surprise, twist, or reveal almost caused me to drop my controller. I’m not going to spend much time talking about the core game play, as you know what you’re getting into with an Assassin’s Creed game, more or less. Those that are new to the series may need some help here and there, but reading plot descriptions of the past games will get you ready to jump in with this game if you’re not familiar with the series.
Ubisoft has placed much faith in the players, and their attention span. Some of the best moments in the game take place when two characters talk to each other, and since they’re discussing famous historical figures and well-known events in American history as they happen, those conversations are fascinating. This isn’t a game that cheerleads its way through American history, and many hard questions are asked about the early days of the United States and our relationship with the British. Hearing a character go into a long, passionate monologue about the failings of George Washington as a military leader and a man is something that you don’t often see in a game with this sort of budget and pedigree, and those moments are amazing.
Connor has to fight on and across multiple battlefields, and we’re so used to futuristic scenes and fully-automatic weapons that the rhythm and cadence of Revolution-era warfare seems alien. Men lined up in large numbers to fire at each other, and rows of them fell at the same time as they absorbed fire from the opposing side. Cannon balls are terrifying weapons that maim and rend flesh. Leaders and men from the upper class sat on their horses and watched men die for them, and for their country. You can use guns, but they take time to reload, and it’s much easier to dodge the first shot from an enemy’s gun and then feed them your tomahawk.
The game offers historical data on characters, events, and locations throughout the game, and you need only tap the start button to learn more about the real-world history of what’s going on. It’s a nice touch, especially since these entries are written by a character in the game, so they’re lively and easy to digest. Watch out, you may actually learn something. I found myself often leaving the game to do my own research. How flawed were Washington’s strategies? Is it possible he’s seen as a great leader simply because he won and history has successfully swept his character flaws underneath the rug? These questions are asked, and some of them are answered, but Ubisoft takes full advantage of the game’s setting to dig into our own history, and there may be times you don’t like what you see.
Are The Templars right?
The best villains are the ones who believe that they are doing the right thing, and Assassin’s Creed 3 allows the Templars to tell their side of the story. Connor, the game’s hero, is half British and half Native American. His journey is one of revenge, but he exists outside much of the game’s story. He’s a player in a number of much larger struggles that may or may not ultimately concern him. He watches the American Revolution through the eyes of an outsider, and is able to see more than either side for that reason.
It’s interesting for a mainstream video game to point out that a group of wealthy, white men deciding what direction the country will take can seem like trading one form of control for another. There is always the creeping theme in the game’s background about human nature being a much more powerful enemy than the Templars.
The story unfolds in a leisurely, measured pace. Assassin’s Creed 3 is filled with side missions, economies to explore and exploit, and people to meet and help. I “finished” the game in around 20 hours, I believe, and I saw a small percentage of the game’s content. My playthrough of the game’s main campaign was largely constrained by my need to play other games in order to write about them, and I don’t think it will be rare for players to spend 30 or 40 hours in the single-player sections of the game. I’ll be heading back in as soon as I have extra time.
Assassin’s Creed 3 can operate on multiple levels. Some are going to see it as an action game, and the majority of the time it operates as a wonderful action game. Others are going to be fascinated by the layers of history and fiction that work together to create the game’s setting and story, and seeing these events from the point of view of characters with boots on the ground adds a fascinating level of intrigue to the game. In school we get the sense that the Revolution was something that happened with a dry sense of inevitability.
In reality it was a time of great discord, violence, and uncertainty. It’s refreshing to see that reality treated with such respect. Assassin’s Creed 3 is also a meditation on much larger topics, such as what it means to be free, or even if that is something that is possible. It often feels as if Connor is fighting to make sure people are free to tie their own noose, instead of allowing the Templars to do it for them.
Anyone playing the game with even a passing interest in history knows that one of Connor’s most important goals is doomed. His success in this area was never possible, and nearly everyone but him knows it. This aspect of the game is treated well, and with a sense of sadness. He can be willful, almost petulant character at times, and the game is often anchored by a surprisingly complex mentoring relationship.
The naval battles prove just as enjoyable to play as they were to watch during the announcement videos, and there are a series of side missions that allow you to upgrade your ship, among other things. This is an enormous world with more than enough to see and do, and it definitely ends a major section of the Assassin’s Creed story, while digging deeply into series lore and real-world history. It’s a satisfying game on many levels, and it proved to be much more cerebral than expected. We’ll write more once you’ve had a chance to play, but I have no problem recommending the game, despite its (sometimes serious) flaws.
It’s common for people to say that critics overthink blockbuster video games, and they’re not supposed to be about the mind. Assassin’s Creed 3 becomes better the more you discuss it and what it’s trying to say about both people in general and American history. It might be controversial. People may not care. For my money the fact that one of the biggest games of the season isn’t afraid to spend as much time on the characters and writing as it does on the action is exciting. Video games are getting better at telling stories, and I’ve already had long discussions with other critics and industry folks about our feelings about Assassin’s Creed 3.
This isn’t an action film by Michael Bay, this is an action film by Michael Mann. While some may watch Heat and only remember those beautifully shot gunfights, my favorite scene is still when the two lead characters sit down in a cafe and talk to each other about what came before, and what comes next. More games need to learn from Assassin’s Creed 3 and deliver on the cafe, we have the gunfights handled.