The Time Machine: Where Assassin’s Creed 3 Went Wrong

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The following article is massively out of date.

It’s a big ol’ rant I wrote well over a year ago on Assassin’s Creed 3, fresh off the back of having finished it. Despite having spent quite a lot of time on it, the half-finished article has been my drafts box for ages, mostly because finishing it would’ve involved going back to play more of the game, and I’d had quite enough of that.

Recently, though, I’ve been playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag which is, thankfully, really quite good. I then remembered that I’d written a good thousand words or so on how much I’d disliked AC3, and didn’t want them to go to waste. So, before I write up my thoughts on AC4, here are those ancient words, tidied up and made all presentable like those Christmas decorations you’ve been using for a few years too many.

Get ready to party moan like it’s 2012!

Cue wibbly time-travel effects…

Whenever people mention Assassin’s Creed 3 to me, I inevitably respond the same way – I huff, mumble something about not being worth the disc it’s printed on, and quickly change the subject.

This isn’t a review, exactly – there are plenty of those already, and I really want to discuss the game’s story, methods and mechanics in much greater detail than would be appropriate in a consumer review. Instead, here’s something more like a critical analysis. There will be story spoilers throughout, so if you’re in any way interested in the plot I suggest you finish the game before reading on. Not that that’d be in any way worth your time, but…

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Ok. Fine. I’ll stop mumbling now. Regular followers of my blog will have no doubt deduced that I’m quite a fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. I enjoyed the original, despite its repetitive nature, and the Ezio trilogy – AC: Brotherhood in particular – lifted the series higher still, introducing a cast of characters that I genuinely cared about, in a setting that I was desperate to explore. AC: Revelations may have been little more than a rehash of Brotherhood, with some additional bells and whistles, but it was still enjoyable, and even managed to retcon AC1‘s relative non-entity of a protagonist, Altaïr, into a character I actually liked.

I was genuinely quite excited for AC3 when the news first broke. A new protagonist, in a new setting, with plenty of room to expand on the game’s strengths. In theory, AC3‘s plot should have been great. A half-British, half-Native American assassin, rebuilding the order in revolutionary America whilst interacting with all the famous names of the period. It even promised to portray the subject matter fairly, rather than just giving the “Fuck yeah AMERICA” crowd even more to shout about.

Instead… Well, the first word that springs to mind regarding the plot is ‘predictable’. Others might be ‘pointless’, ‘nonsensical’, ‘disappointing’ or possibly even ‘ludicrous’. It begins surprisingly well, actually, with the interesting twist of having a different playable character for the first few hours. Haytham is a suave, charming British assassin (with a little ‘a’) in whose company you spend the first few hours of the game. But, like so many things in AC3, what initially appears interesting and full of promise turns out dull, disappointing and massively over-inflated. This introductory sequence lasts nearly five hours, when it really needn’t have lasted more than, say, two. Inevitably, having knocked up a native woman, Haytham turns out to not only be Connor’s father, but also a Templar, setting the scene for the conflict that will obviously define the rest of the game. “This’ll be good” I thought, “A nice healthy bit of dramatic irony, where the player knows all along who Connor’s father is, knowing that the big reveal will test his character in new and interesting ways”. I remember loving this plot twist when it first happened. I imagined the plot carrying on with Connor as an Assassin (with a big ‘A’) being unaware that the Templar agent he is struggling so hard to defeat is, in fact, his own father. Sure, it might have been a bit Star Wars, but there’s a lot that could have been done with such a setup, given a little imagination.

Except, this never happens. For no apparent reason, both Connor and Haytham are fully aware of their relationship with each other from the very beginning. Not even so much as a ‘that’s your father’, he just knows. Instantly, the dramatic tension is killed. It’s as if the writing team took one look at the implications, possibilities and potential outcomes of letting the plot develop in a natural and interesting way, and decided not to bother. This is just one of many examples of Connor’s complete lack of meaningful character development, or indeed any real personality. Ezio’s tenure as the series protagonist was driven by clearly defined goals – first he wants revenge for the death of his family, then for the murder of his uncle, and finally he simply wants answers to the questions that have plagued his whole life. Connor, meanwhile, doesn’t really seem to want anything. He becomes an assassin pretty much because somebody told him to in a dream, and begins killing templars because an old man who lives on a hill said it would be a good idea.

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It’s quite depressing, really – Connor could have, should have been a great protagonist, with a unique, darkly fascinating backstory. Instead, what we got is a strange mix of personalities, moralities and reactions, seemingly depending on the whims of the writer at the time. It’s almost as if there are scenes missing, like the writing budget got cut short halfway through, as Connor’s mood never seems to stay the same from cutscene to cutscene. At the very least, all the best writing has clearly been front-loaded into the abysmally long introductory sequence, which has the infuriating effect of making Haytham, the principle antagonist, a much more interesting and nuanced character than Connor himself. Now, I’m certainly not a die-hard Ezio fan – yes, I enjoyed playing as him, but I agree that the series needed to move on – but to find that his replacement is utterly without charm or charisma is really quite depressing, and makes me miss the old bearded womanizer more than ever.

Incidentally, there’s a fascinating look at some different interpretations on Connor’s character by Grant Howitt over on The Average Gamer, which I thorougly recommend reading.

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Nearly a thousand words in, and I’ve not even really mentioned the present-day sections. In fairness, they’re far better than they ever were in previous games, sending everyone’s favourite plank, Desmond Miles, around the world to find various bits of guff in order to progress the story. There’s even a nice bit where you get to go back to the room that Desmond was awkwardly shuffling around in back in AC1, but with a gun, and fuck some shit up. So that’s okay, I guess.

One of the things I remember being told about the transition from Revelations to AC3 was that the development team were keen to cut back on the so-called ‘feature bloat’ present in the earlier games. By the end of his trilogy, Ezio was practically a walking tank, with guns, daggers, swords, poison darts, throwing knives, crossbow bolts and a million different kinds of bomb all stuffed inside his TARDIS-like cloak. But looking back, I’m not entirely convinced that this statement of intent wasn’t just a figment of my imagination, born from the part of the brain dedicated to imaginary games industry rumours, because this is absolutely the opposite of what they’ve done.

Sure, Connor doesn’t have the same arsenal as Ezio – instead, all the AC3 dev team seem to have done is extend the bloat from abilities to activities. there is so much stuff for Connor to do and the vast majority of it is fairly dull. There’s a set of five or so, interesting, well researched period-appropriate board games, that you’ll play exactly once before realising that there’s a reason you bought a games console rather than a set of draughts. You can get into random fistfights, if you’d like. There are underground tunnels to explore, which are boring, and random pages of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac to collect, which you won’t read. Everything’s had so much work put into it, which is a real shame, because it’s all really quite dull. The zone liberation missions are quite nice, an update of the old tower climbing from Brotherhood onwards, but that’s really about it.

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Basically, the overall feeling I get from Assassins’ Creed 3 is one of disappointment. I do quite enjoy the AC series – yes, they’re mostly just big, dumb fun without any real depth to them, but sometimes that’s all you want from a game. And I’ll probably still continue to play them, because they’re well researched and quite atmospheric, and I enjoy exploring the various time periods. I just wish they’d take some more risks.

3 responses to “The Time Machine: Where Assassin’s Creed 3 Went Wrong

  1. I couldn’t agree more with this article. :)

  2. Pingback: Assassin’s Creed Ezio Trilogy EditionGamer Chimera | Gamer Chimera

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