Saturday, 6 April 2013

Assassain's Creed 3 - Less knives then forks

While Playing AC3 I got the distinct impression that the developers are fed up with it. It seems they would have preferred to do ANYTHING, rather then another game in this series. I say this because preforming actual assassinations was a rare game-play element next to hundreds of activities that ranged from manufacturing goods to ship combat. I spent more time selling beaver teeth knives then murdering people for vague political goals. But while the gameplay suffered from this "everything but the kitchen sink" approach, it was the treatment of the story that really depresses me.

Sins of the Father
AC3 has all the right cards, thematically speaking. The earth is on the verge of a cyclical catastrophe and Desmond must venture (again) into the past of his ancestors, seeking the final key to the salvation of mankind. Desmond must work with his domineering father, solving the riddles of a precursor civilization, while playing the role of a native American called Connor, caught in the colonial revolutionary war. Connor himself must also face his father who now leads the Templar faction while working under a mentor father figure.
It's a three layer theme cake: Desmond vs father, humans vs first civilization, colonist vs British and Connor vs father. It's all there. And AC3 doesn't do ANYTHING with it.
Instead we are treated to the usual underdeveloped personal conflict motivations I have come to expect from the series. Conor is after "revenge!", what else. And his involvement in the revolutionary war seems flimsy even at the best of times. The game establishes that he hides his Indian identity to circumvent racism by impersonating a person of Spanish or Italian decent. Except that every character seems to see through this rouse effortlessly. Even random guardsmen shout "Halfbreed" at you. So that whole racism angle flounders as Connor isn't hindered by prejudice. A similar mess is felt when Connor swings from defending the colonists he is aiding to condemning their hypocrisy regarding slavery. One moment he risks everything to protect George Washington, only to rile against him a mission later. This bi-polar behavior really robs Connor of any sympathy I might have felt for his plight. One minute he berates his fellow conspirators with cynic eyes, only to defend their ideals with embarrassing naivete half an hour later.
Things outside the animus don't fare much better. Desmond is still a pretty bland character despite the tragic back-story injections he seem to have been receiving. He killed the person he had the most interaction with, two games ago and now that we have time to dwell on it, the plot decides it is not really all that important. No, now his real conflict is with his father, a character introduced at the last few minutes of the previous game. He ventures out on missions of his own, and faces an arch-enemy I never knew he had two times before killing him unceremoniously. His conversations with others reveals that they had more involved relationships with his father, each other and his arch-nemesis then he himself. All this time Juno, a first civilization figure appears to the cast and even starts sending them e-mails. She goads them to hurry while insulting and antagonizing Desmond and the rest. She does all this just to foreshadow the revelation that she is EVIL!
It's so frustrating, because the seeds of good storytelling are there. Unfortunately the game seems obsessed with throwing these seeds around and forgetting about them only to really focus on a character or element that had very little spotlight so far. And then act as if these minor bits were the focus all along.

The Eye of Heaven
Another clue to the reluctance of the development team towards the game is its slow start. And it is a very slow start. You spend ten minutes introduction as Desmond. then at least two hours as Connor's father, then another three hours as Connor during his childhood. All the while you are basically playing a glorified tutorial. Because you can hunt, and sail and ride and sell and buy and lay traps and take aim and play "hide and seek" and climb trees and do a hundred other things not connected in any way to assassination. You'll find the bulk of the gameplay focused on growing a small community which manufactures goods you can sell. It's another one of those activities that demands a lot of attention for very small value. Even without trying I amassed a small fortune with which I had very little to do. I could buy new weapons but quickly found one or two that served me well enough. I could manufacture goods to sell, but what was the point? I could upgrade my ship, but naval battles are optional and only reward you with more avenues to sell stuff. It's a very weak and ill designed economic model to base a whole game around. And I was frankly surprised how far I had to advance in the story for elementary equipment upgrades to unlock. Since you can only manufacture them if you have grown your community large enough. And you can grow the community only through optional missions that open based on your advances in the main story. And so I had to wait for the last act before I could carry more then eight bullets at a time or carry two guns.
These side missions themselves are arguably the highlights of the whole game, since the characters composing this community enjoy the most steady interactions with Connor. Helping a local couple with the rigors of childbirth or helping a young man woe a a young huntress, seem to bring out the best in Connor's character. He still seems a bit autistic in his interactions, but at least he doesn't comes off as bi-polar as he does while interacting with the revolutionaries.
The game really shines when it examines the hypocrisy of the revolutionaries towards slavery and the native Americans. The game touches upon this point several times and each highlights the problem well. The colonists talk frequently about "freedom" and "equality" but these moments reminds you that these lofty concepts will be denied from non-whites, even used to enslave them. It is a shame that the game does not do more to dwell on this issue, since it seems it is the one issue it knows how to tell a story about.

Thus always to Tyrants
Everything that made the previous games in the series fun, is still there somewhere. But it's buried under layers of uncomplimentary gameplay elements. The ability to traverse tree branches is well implemented but the colonial cities are just not as fun to traverse as the high towered Italian cities from previous games. NPCs become even less useful or distinctive as it seems that only guards contribute to gameplay in any meaningful way. You can still try to sneak around to achieve your objectives, but the lack of vision cone indicators and the fast escalation of alerts make such approach very challenging. The combat on the other hand works well in that you will triumph easily over small numbers of enemies but large groups will be a hassle. Either way you will find yourself relaying on parrying through most encounters.
The game is littered with collectables, that frankly offer the only reason to explore the world. But the prizes they offer aren't worth the hassle. And once they are gone, traversing the outdoors area of the game becomes a chore.
The supporting cast is weakly characterized, relaying on your familiarity with American history. While this flashes out some of the secondary characters, it does leave the few genuinely interesting original characters (Achilles for example) with little screen time.
In conclusion, AC3 is a game that seems to have lost its way somewhere. It lacks focus, trying to tackle several issues at once and falling short on all fronts. I spent more time selling knives then using them. And most of all the story just suffers from weak characters with weak motivation and a very thin plot. Blandy Blanderson (aka Desmond Miles) finally gets his moment in the sun. It is a short moment, a fact that seems awkward after the series spent more then three games teasing it. I made my feelings about Desmond as a character quite clear in the past, and although he was less bland this time around, I was glad to spend as little time with him as I could.
Ubisoft already announced a sequel. I'm hopeful that now, released from the bonds of the plot, perhaps they will be able to manufacture a more involving story. But I'm kinda doubtful.

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