Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Assassin's Creed III

Post-Launch Review
Assassin's Creed III (PC)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Released: October - November 2012
Played: 100% complete in 54 hours


Desmond Miles and his team race to find the key to protecting the world from an apocalyptic solar flare by searching the memories of his ancestor Ratonhnhaké:ton. Nicknamed Connor, this half-Native American Assassin fights the Templars during the American revolution, making allies of necessity among the bluecoats while he pursues his course of revenge.

At Launch

Assassin's Creed III earned average review scores of 84%. Reviewers praised the visuals, story, combat, hunting, and homestead and naval missions. The primary criticisms were bugs, too-strict mission objectives, and pacing issues with the story. Some reviewers thought the homestead missions detracted from the main themes of the story.

Post Launch

Several patches were released to resolve bugs and crashes.
A three-part DLC pack, The Tyranny of King Washington, is a what if scenario where Washington acquires the Apple of Eden and goes mad with power.
The Hidden Secrets pack adds a handful of short missions and new weapons to the main campaign.
The Benedict Arnold pack is a four-part PS3 exclusive story add-on where Connor exposes and prevents an officer's betrayal.

I've read a lot of reviews or opinions on how Assassin's Creed III is the worst of the series, for a variety of reasons - the long intro, the cities being boring, the frontier being too much work (these were mostly retrospectives some time after launch; early reviews were pretty positive). But I'm going to be that guy and disagree with the consensus: I loved Assassin's Creed III, including the parts that a lot of people didn't like, and wasn't all that thrilled about some of the parts that people loved. Overall it may be my favourite Assassin's Creed (though I'll need more time to decide between II and III). I do have some nitpicks and complaints, but they're mostly about ways the formula could be improved rather than actual major issues.

Apparently, before the game originally came out, a lot of people were worried that Assassin's Creed III was going to be very pro-American. But between the Templars, the bad stuff the Patriots did, and Shaun's snarky database entries, I was impressed with the nuance. There's quite a lot of emphasis that the British really did have some valid issues, and that in their own time the Patriots weren't patriots, they were traitors and rebels. I also like that Connor doesn't truly pick a side. Connor is all about freedom, so his goals often align with the Patriots', but if he ever really believes they're fighting for freedom for all, that notion is dealt some harsh blows. Though, as an aside, it did strike me as a little weird that Connor happened to be around for every major event of the revolution.

A lot of people took issue with the length of the intro, where you play as Haytham Kenway, Connor's father. I actually quite liked it. Without spoiling anything, Haytham and his allies play major roles in Connor's story, so I thought it worked very well to get so much depth on their history, experiences, and outlook - it makes Haytham much more sympathetic. The impression I got from him was that he's intelligent, fair, open-minded, skilled, and patient - and that great impression makes the transition to Connor way crazy.

The naval missions were the most widely praised element of the game. People loved them, and that's why we got the Assassin's Creed IV that we did. Personally I thought the naval missions were good but a little sparse. There were a couple of naval story missions, but other than that the rest tended to just be "blow up X number of ships" followed by "surprise, ambush, blow up X more ships". While it was fun to drive a ship, the missions were short and the mechanics didn't have that much depth to them, so I feel like the hype was centered around the novelty of sailing a ship and firing broadsides, since as far as I know it hasn't really been done before in a AAA title.

What I really loved was the frontier. I grew up in the Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence River in southeastern Ontario and spent some time in the forests there and a bit farther north, so while the wilderness between Boston and New York isn't quite my backyard, it's close enough to be extremely familiar. The landscapes are just gorgeous. If you get too close to the foliage you can tell it's all sprites, but when you're in motion it's not apparent. When you get a long sightline, or when the snow is falling gently in the winter, the frontier looks amazing. I had to force myself to stop taking screenshots.

Hunting was fun, and I enjoyed filling out the hunting map by finding every animal in every region. Stalking through the treetops, setting baited snares, and leaping from bushes at surprised animals is a neat addition to the series. That said, I wish there were more you could do with the "loot" (sell or craft, where most crafting products are just for selling), and I wish it were just a little more challenging. You don't even need Eagle Vision to find clues, and in hindsight it's pretty strange that a game about a Native American really didn't do anything with a magic power called Eagle Vision other than occasionally making you turn it on to identify a person in a crowd. Actually, ACIII kind of stayed away from Native American spirituality entirely, which actually turned out to be a good thing:  it didn't reduce them to tropes or stereotypes and kept the focus on the people and their concerns.

I also enjoyed the homestead. This is an element that a lot of critics praised where a lot of players disagreed. It's actually like a frontier version of Assassin's Creed II's Monteriggioni: a home base that you can explore and expand, earning rewards and improved production. You can bring in and improve settlers by accepting homestead missions, which tend to be short and easy without bonus objectives. Each settler or family has a little side story that develops over the course of their missions, and I found it quite rewarding (both narratively and mechanically) to follow everyone's progress. It also helps to give some perspective on the life of the average folk who were just trying to make a living and not taking part in the revolution.

Now with all that positivity, I do have to mention some flaws. A somewhat valid part of the complaints about Haytham's long prologue is that there's really not a lot to do, mechanics-wise, until Sequence 6 where you finally play Connor as an adult and access the open world. Now I did take my time during Haytham's segment and you could get through faster, but it took me 8 hours to clear the 5-sequence intro. I'm an explorer, and was a little bit frustrated to discover that there wasn't much to discover while playing Haytham.

The other complaint, also valid, is that the objectives tend to be stricter and more guided than in previous games. Whereas early-series assassination missions told you "kill this guy however you choose", ACIII often says "you need to kill this guy, so go here, do this, then do that, go there, and kill the guy in this specific way". The upside is that you get some cool focused segments or chases that would've been harder to pull off in a more open format, but the irony is that in a game where the biggest theme is freedom, it doesn't give you that much during the story missions.

I did run into some bugs and glitches that haven't been fixed, but they weren't too much of a concern - most were problems with initiating missions and could easily be fixed by quitting to menu and re-loading the game.

And finally, the really big sticking point with the story's finale. Highlight for spoilers:
Desmond dies, sacrificing himself to protect humanity while unleashing a trapped ancient. This is... not what I expected, and I'm still not sure how I feel. I think it would have been a satisfying conclusion to Desmond's story if we'd ever actually gotten to play a full game as Desmond and really saw how much he learned and how far he'd come. As is, well, I don't know. Could've been worse, but I'm not satisfied.

After finishing 100%-ing the game I decided to get started on the DLC, and that's where the headaches began. I own the Deluxe version on Steam, which says it comes with all DLC, but I couldn't access it in-game, it asked me to redeem a key. After tons of headache and research and multiplayer crashing (which I never managed to play) it turns out that, for some reason, there were blank phantom characters in the product key entry box. I mashed Backspace a few times, then entered the keys in the single player client, and they unlocked. Ugh.

With my completion at 100%, the Hidden Secrets pack was rather unexciting. While the Mayan temple in the jungle was a cool new setting, it and each of the naval missions were only a few minutes long, and the bonus weapon unlocks weren't as good as the top-tier stuff I wielded. Though, to be fair, I would've found these missions more interesting if I had punched in the code before I started.

The Tyranny of King Washington is quite an interesting bit of DLC. Connor wakes up, very confused, in an alternate reality where Washington has the Apple and has gone mad with power and declared himself king, enslaving followers and mercilessly crushing any who stand in his way. In this alternate reality Connor's tribe uses a magical tea to unlock spirit animal powers, giving you some cool new abilities to play with. There's stuff to do in the open world map, but really, with the animal powers you get, it's completely unnecessary to scavenge for upgrades. I didn't feel the urge to 100% the DLC since it's so separate from the main game, but it was fun to play through, with the powerful new abilities at your disposal. A lot of the cutscenes felt... off, compared to the main game. Might have been the composition: a lot of shots wasted a lot of space. Was probably also animation to an extent. Production value felt a bit lower. Anyway, the story gets to pull some surprising twists since it's out of continuity, though it does tie back in the end in a clever way.

Recommendation: play it.

You'll probably be a little confused with Desmond's story if it's your first Assassin's Creed, but the Connor experience is standalone.
I loved the frontier setting. Sure the cities might not be as vertical and diverse as previous ones, but the frontier and the homestead are the unique features of ACIII and I thought they were phenomenal - though some of that is bias because it's (physically) close to home. There are some polarizing elements, and my opinion is different than most, but it's definitely one of my favourite Assassin's Creed games.
The DLC didn't stick out to me. You might as well get the deluxe edition if it's inexpensive, I guess. The Washington DLC was pretty good but didn't really stick out to me, and you'd get more use out of Hidden Secrets if you remember to punch in the code before you start the game (unlike me).

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