Assassin’s Creed is a good story.
The first Assassin’s Creed game was compelling from the day of its announcement. It was a completely original idea when the industry was increasingly trending towards sequels and sameness. The setting was territory that games don’t often cover and allowed for stories not often told. And also some strange people really, really liked the way Jade Raymond smelled.
The consensus on Assassin’s Creed was that it was interesting, but not incredible. It was an interesting if dense story; the combat was satisfying but simple and the Assassination missions were excellent, but all other missions were a repetitive cycle of tail, pickpocket, eavesdrop, pick a bale of cotton.
The series really hit its stride with Assassin’s Creed II. Ezio Auditore was a much more compelling protagonist than Altair the Amazing American Accented Arab, and Ezio’s story of loss, revenge, and growth was far deeper and more enjoyable than Altair’s. Compared with Ezio’s story you realize how much of Altair’s was “go here and kill this guy, he’s bad we promise.”
Assassin’s Creed II upgraded almost everything: the combat was improved and given a variety of weapons, there was a higher degree of customization, and the cities of Venice and Florence were well realized and beautiful to behold. For many this was the high point of the series.
Ubisoft announced later that Assassin’s Creed would become an annual series and fans worried Ubisoft couldn’t maintain this quality with a title every year. To an extent they were right; Brotherhood and Revelations were iterative more than innovative but they were solid titles, no one really expected them to reinvent the wheel. But when Assassin’s Creed III was announced there was hype; many saw it as an opportunity for innovation, for a step forward like Assassin’s Creed II was.
When Assassin’s Creed III was released, it seemed like Ubisoft didn’t understand what exactly fans liked about the series.
Fans liked navigating the architecture of beautiful, sprawling cities. So Assassin’s Creed III gave us the sparse cityscapes of colonial New York and Boston, with no buildings over 4 stories.
Fans liked the open world urban stealth. Hiding in plain sight, slipping away from the man who just dropped and blending into the crowd. Assassin’s Creed III gave us the frontier, a massive, empty overworld the game’s engine wasn’t built for.
Fans often recommended interesting settings for the series. Ubisoft seemed to think this meant that Assassin’s Creed fans just really loved history and made AC III play like a choose-your-own-adventure Revolutionary War documentary.
Assassin’s Creed III isn’t a bad game, it’s just much less than it could have been. It’s the mix of good ideas executed poorly and outright bad ideas that make AC III such a disappointment.
The twist that you’re playing as a Templar in the beginning is a great idea, but it lasts about 2 hours longer than it should and every second of it is painfully boring. Haytham is about as compelling as a manikin in a tricorne hat, so the reveal that he’s really our Big Bad is a massive yawn. You’re supposed to feel like a jerk for doing all this work against the Assassins, but we don’t know who these characters are so we didn’t care.
Connor isn’t much better. As the son of a Mohawk mother and British father, there’s potential for a deep story to be told. But like father like son because Connor gives Altair a run for his money as most boring Assassin’s Creed protagonist. The situations he finds himself in are interesting, but Connor suffers too much from “video game character syndrome”; he’s just a blank slate for the story to happen to. Thats not a problem in RPGs, where the player defines the character, but AC III wants Connor to be this tragic character torn between two worlds, and it just never comes across.
From a gameplay perspective, Assassin’s Creed III didn’t bring a ton new to the table. You still spend a lot of time countering enemy attacks, trailing bad guys, and rage-resetting when you miss one of the full synchronization mission objectives. When Assassin’s Creed III does innovate, its usually a case of “cool, but”. Hunting is great for characterization of Connor but immediately becomes a tedious distraction from what you’re there for. Tomahawks and Rope darts are great for flavor, but don’t feel different enough from the typical Assassin arsenal for me to care.
Tree-running feels great, with smooth animations and satisfying progression, but the path is usually mapped for you, making the trees feel like an obligation rather than an option. I recall when an Assassination mission plopped me in front of a series of trees, culminating in a long reaching branch over my target. As if the game was saying “yeah you could try and figure out a stealthy, organic approach to this kill, or… you could climb the goddamn tree.”
Naval combat is possibly the best new feature in AC III; it’s fun and surprisingly deep as a mechanic, but its inclusion just makes no sense. At some point in the development of a game in a series based around stealth in densely packed urban environments, we moved to a setting with barely any cities and found ourselves captaining a ship into broadside battles. Many people said that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was a better pirate game than an Assassin’s Creed game, and they’re right, but that game was at least logically consistent. This feels like someone at Ubisoft programmed the mechanic and they just couldn’t wait another year to put it in the right game.
I mentioned earlier that Ubisoft seemed to think we came to Assassin’s Creed for the history, like we’re a bunch of middle schoolers watching the Demi Moore movie to get out of reading The Scarlet Letter. More than any other entry in the series, Assassin’s Creed III seems to trip over itself to have us meet historical figures or be at important events. Look there’s a man missing pages from his almanac, Whoa! Its Ben Franklin! No way! Connor Kenway seems unable to avoid the most important events in American history. He is present for the signing of the Declaration of Independence, instrumental in the Battle of Bunker Hill and does the lion’s share of the work on Revere’s Midnight Ride.
It’s great to use the setting for cool moments, but the historical pandering comes at the cost of its plot, leaving Assassin’s Creed III’s story feeling like a framing device for a bad history lesson. When Assassin’s Creed is using its historical setting well, it’s weaving its own story into history, making recognizable figures into villains and allies. Assassin’s Creed III takes history and tries to retrofit a story onto it. Creative Director Alex Hutchinson even commented about how difficult it was to use the era saying “it’s super difficult … no one famous dies.” When you’re this penned in by your choice of setting, it’s entirely possible your choice was just wrong.
Assassin’s Creed III is not a bad game, it’s just a manifestation of wasted opportunity. It feels like the product of “the boss’ ideas,” like nobody on the team wanted to say “hey this really isn’t what the series is about.” Its setting is one that really doesn’t fit the series, with gameplay that doesn’t make sense for the setting, with wooden characters and a ton of energy put into rewriting history to give the player the pen.
Assassin’s Creed is possibly the video game series with the most freedom within its own walls; utilizing the genetic memory plot device they can really go anywhere and do anything. They’re always going to get a rough ride from fans who wanted feudal Japan or Ancient Egypt in this entry but as long as what they do is interesting and compelling, we can’t complain too much. Assassin’s Creed III took all the potential the series carried with it and crafted the logical opposite of an Assassin’s Creed game, removing a massive chunk of the series’ appeal to cater to someone’s fascination with the American Revolution.
That’s why Assassin’s Creed III is the most disappointing game of the last generation.