The key, in my humble opinion, to greatness in any form of art or media is empathy. Think about the novels you love and the chances are you love them at least partly because you see part of yourself in one of the characters and this, in turn, evokes emotion. The same goes for your favourite music, the reason that you like it is in no small way down to the fact that it speaks to who you are or where you come from.
This feeling of empathy is one of the many things missing from Assassin’s Creed III, the third main instalment of Ubisoft’s series of the same name. In it, you play Desmond/Connor, members of the Assassin’s, a shadowy group of vigilantes locked in an eternal struggle with the equally shady Templars. Desmond is a distasteful modern member of the Assassin’s. Connor, an Iroquois Indian real name Ratonhnhaké:ton, is equally hateable, a monosyllabic, disrespectful urchin, whose every utterance is almost wilfully annoying. (A quick aside here. It’s not often that a character from a minority is the main protagonist in a game. So, I personally found it borderline racist that Ubisoft decided to Westernise his name from Ratonhnhaké:ton to Connor, presumable because Ratonhnhaké:ton is ‘a bit difficult to say)
And by God, do you get to hear his utterances. The makers of Assassin’s Creed cannot get enough of cut scenes. In the first hour of the game, which provides a vaguely interesting back story to the events that unfold later in the game, I seemed unable to take a single step without everything stopping and the whole game being transported into a seemingly endless cut scene, replete with concerned looking faces and long and dribbly discussions about things I honestly don’t care about. And here’s another thing. If you’re going to spend a lot of time making long cut scenes, animate them properly. I would estimate that 60% of the words spoken during cut aways in this game do not correspond to the lip movements of what you’re seeing. It’s lazy, sloppy and unacceptable.
The game suffers massively from a lack of focus and a plethora of disparate elements that don’t feed in to the main story line in any way. Take the ‘homestead missions’, for example. In the course of the game, Connor and his Assassin trainer, Achilles, one of the only truly likeable characters in the game, start to build a small community around the manor house they live in. These missions provide a generally pleasing distraction but my problem with them is that they contribute precisely nothing to the main storyline whatsoever, You can finish the game (in the sense that you can successfully assassinate all of the Templars) without having to complete a single one of these missions. They serve no purpose other than to distract you from the main storyline. That wouldn’t be a bad thing if I felt that the main storyline had been invested with any care and attention. But I don’t. It’s repetitive, dull and, for a game with such luscious open worlds, incredibly linear. Every missions follows almost exactly the same pattern. Discover a problem that needs to be solved/person that needs to be killed. Follow NPC, either an ally or an enemy, to a place where the problem/person is. Solve problem/kill enemy. That is the game. For 20 hours.
It’s a real shame that Assassin’s Creed suffers from this because there are elements of it that are thoroughly enjoyable. The Iroquois clan mother is as enjoyable a character as I’ve experienced in games, her wit and wisdom a welcome relief from Connor’s awful adolescent brooding. Also, this was the first title in this series that I’ve played but I didn’t feel at any point like I didn’t understand the storyline. The writers obviously went to great lengths to ensure that you could pick up this title and not feel lost in a complex story line. The naval missions, while suffering from the same problems as the homestead ones (i.e. I don’t feel compelled to complete them), are very enjoyable. And the game looks beautiful. Cities of New York and Boston are beautifully rendered and the set piece battles you sometimes end up involved in feel massive.
Apart from that, however, there are numerous faults to be found with this title. Aside from the superfluous missions, hateable characters and endless cut scenes and the repetitive game play, the game has awful controls and the lack of a save feature is an insufferable annoyance. Having the run control being the same as the one that makes you climb buildings makes chase missions through tight streets a hideous nightmare of continued repetition when you wholly predictably lose your target for nth time because idiot boy decides to climb a building instead of running in the straight line. And, because no save feature is offered (at least, I couldn’t find one), failure means going back to the start again, meaning you can spend a good hour attempting the same 5 minutes of game play. It honestly made me want to throw my controller through the window. The 3rd person camera is also horribly done, unexpectedly switching view points in the middle of fights sequences, leading to me to be ‘desynchronised’ more than once purely because I couldn’t see anything other than a wall/other piece of scenery.
The fights sequences themselves are another element of deathly dull repetitive game play, button bashing of the lowest possible order. No attempt is made at any point to vary the nature of these and they make up the majority of the game, seeing as how doing any of the missions by anything approaching stealth has been made nigh on impossible. That doesn’t matter if your only aim is to complete the main storyline and chop a few people up with an axe like a psychopath as it’s laughably easy to simply hack you way through the game. However, if your aim is actually extract some pleasure from life and you find the whole notion of killing an anathema and you’re actually questioning why you bought this game in the first place but, oh well, you’d better get on with it now, let’s just try to avoid too much blood being spilled, after all, these soldiers have families and most of them only became soldiers because they didn’t have the money to become lawyers or doctors, then Assassin’s Creed punishes you at every possible opportunity. Inadequate options for going undercover, poor climbing mechanics and sneaky back entrances thatare so secretively hidden, you feel like you need Sherlock Holmes to help you find them get in the way of completing missions with stealth. You know, like a real assassin probably has to.
Back to Rahkentohkon, though, because my problem with him is one of that I have with a lot of modern game characters. I don’t want to be him. I have absolutely no desire to play as him. I don’t feel anything for him and what I do feel is mostly malicious. I extract bizarre pleasure from being killed as this guy, almost screaming ‘HA! Take that you monosyllabic prick bag!’ every time one of those big buggers with the axe kills me. This problem, though, isn’t just one with Assassin’s Creed. I find a lot of modern shooters are wholly lacking in empathetic characters. It’s an area where Half-Life paved the way and nobody seemed to follow. One of the many, many, myriad elements of utter genius in Half-Life was the Gordon doesn’t talk and, because of that, you project yourself onto him and have instant empathy. A script with too many words, as I found with Assassin’s Creed, and with a character as thoroughly hateable as Connor leads to a disconnected experience and dissatisfaction.
Things I like:
- The way it looks
- Storyline easy enough to pick up if you aren’t familiar with the other titles in the series
- The crazy old clan mother character from the tribe
- The naval missions are refreshingly fun
Things I don’t like
- The main character
- The repetitiveness of the game play
- The time wasted on creating missions that don’t contribute to the main storyline
- Inability to save
- The controls
- The endless tedious cut scenes and the fact that these cuts scenes have been poorly animated
- The fact that is so easy to hack your way through the game and, conversely, the difficulty of doing anything by stealth.
- But mainly the fact that the two main characters are thoroughly dislikeable and moody
- The camera
I’ll be back in 2 weeks time with a review of a classic title and back in a month with a review of another new game. Feel free to comment.