‘Assassin’s Creed III': Perception, Memory, And Stabbing Lots Of Redcoats
When I wrote about all the reasons I like the Assassin’s Creed franchise a few weeks back, I made the crucial mistake of extolling its virtues right before I sat down to play the latest installment. It’s not that I was expecting it to be bad or anything — it’s one of the few games that I was looking forward enough to grab on release day, which is kind of rare for something that doesn’t involve dropkicks and Pikachus — but talking about how much I loved its predecessors was setting a pretty high standard. That much fixation on its predecessors was going to make Assassin’s Creed III suffer by comparison no matter what happened.
In the end, though, it’s still a pretty solid game. It’s not my favorite of the franchise, but while it has its share of flaws, there’s a lot about it that’s very well done, and genuinely fascinating.Aside from a few tweaks designed to smooth things out, the gameplay of Assassin’s Creed III falls right in with its predecessors. They’ve streamlined the whole High Profile / Low Profile system, and made it a lot easier to switch between a melee weapon and a ranged weapon in combat, which mostly translates to whipping out a pistol and shooting Redcoats in the face right in the middle of a combo. You know, just like you learned about in history class.
Other than that, the core mechanics are mostly the same, and that’s not really a complaint. The intuitive combat and freerunning systems are the things I really like about the series, so keeping them the same isn’t a problem. They’ve just been switched over from the Old World cities of Europe to the Revolutionary War-era American colonies and added in seasons, which mostly boils down to “Winters” where any visit to the Frontier area will involve an achingly slow slog through the snowdrifts until you get a cutscene that drops you in a more temperate climate.
Of course, that change of setting ends up having a pretty big effect on gameplay; as fun as it is to swing through tree branches out in the frontier, the two-story buildings of 1776 don’t quite have the majesty of Constantinople’s towers or Rome’s ancient landmarks. Despite the historical significance — or maybe even because of it, since I’m a lot more familiar with how the Revolution turned out than I am with the Renaissance — it feels like a smaller environment and a smaller journey.
Also, despite my hopes that setting the game in Boston would lead to Ezio’s signature “Requiescat in Pace” being replaced by a whispered post-kill “Jeetah sucks,” it was not to be. Apparently the Boston accent did not exist in 1776.
So yes, those core controls are as smooth as they’ve ever been, and they even have new additions like double-counter-kills, which are varied for each weapon and happen just infrequently enough that I never get tired of seeing them. Unfortunately, there are huge chunks of the game that are built around a whole slew of other mechanics that aren’t quite as polished. Sailing around on Connor’s pirate ship isn’t bad, and while there are a few mandatory storyline missions where you have to take to the seas, most of it’s optional stuff, with the only impact being on the equally optional (and way-too-complicated) trading system. The horses, however, are quite possibly the worst thing that has ever happened in a video game.
It felt like there was a pretty strong influence from Red Dead Redemption on a lot of this game — there are side missions where you go looking for the Sasquatch and the Headless Horseman that would’ve been right at home in Undead Nightmare — but while the horses in that game were logical and easy to control, someone apparently decided that in Assassin’s Creed III, every time you had to mount up should be an absolute horror show. As a result, two of the events I was most looking forward to seeing in the game, Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride and the Shot Heard ‘Round The World at Lexington and Concord, became two of the most frustrating parts in the entire franchise.
For future reference, here is a list of things I want to do in an Assassin’s Creed game, in order of preference:
1. Stab dudes.
3. Sneak around.
4. Learn about history… the fun way!
You will note that “ride a stupid horse directly into a nearby tree at a pace slightly slower than a turtle” does not appear on that list. There’s a reason for that.
Where Assassin’s Creed III is most interesting to me, though, is in its storytelling, and if you don’t want the game spoiled, you might want to go ahead and bail out now.
Connor, the new main character, is actually a lot harder to connect with than his predecessor, and there are a few reasons for that. For one, you don’t spend the whole game with him — instead, you play the first bit of the game as his father, Haytham, which sets up a nice plot twist, even if it feels like a tutorial level that goes on for three or four hours. But more prevalent than that is the fact that Connor is often written as a sort of stereotypically stoic Native American.
It’s worth noting that Ezio was written as an equally stereotypically passionate and lusty Italian, but the upside of that was that we could identify with his emotions. We knew what he wanted whether he was out for revenge or chasing girls (and occasionally Leonardo Da Vinci), and I don’t have any trouble describing his personality. Connor is more difficult. His stoicism and repression come off as remote, and it’s harder to get into his head beyond his extremely valid and justifiable desire to go kill a bunch of people.
That’s not to say that he’s entirely unlikable, he’s just more difficult to get a handle on. Noah Watts does a good job with his voice, and in those rare moments where Connor gets to show emotion in conversations with Haytham and his mentor, Achilles, his personality does come through really well. Those brief bursts of emotion — along with the fact that he’ll stop Sam Adams in the middle of a conversation about how Americans must be free to call him out on owning slaves — make him work so much better as a character that it’s a shame they don’t crop up more often.
More than the characters, though, what really got me is the game’s treatment of memory and perception. If you’re not already familiar with the franchise, one of its weirdest quirks is that you’re actually playing as a guy who’s essentially playing a game, reliving his ancestors’ memories. In this game, you experience the memories of two different people with radically different perspectives.
To be honest, there’s not much difference between the way the two men see things. The environments and most of the character models remain the same, with one key difference: Charles Lee. When he first shows up as Haytham’s henchman and ally, he looks like any other nattily dressed Colonial gentleman, soft-spoken, curious and helpful.
When he shows up during Connor’s arc, however, as the madman who burns Connor’s village, he looks like a completely different character. Wild hair, an unkempt moustache and rotten teeth to go along with his sneering contempt for Native Americans. There are definitely a few years between those times when we see him, but given that Haytham’s only change is adding a little grey to his hair, it seems less like a change in Lee himself and more like a change in how he’s perceived.
While the world around them might be more or less constant, Lee is a character that Haytham and Connor are going to have radically different opinions on. They see him in a different way, and we as players literally get to see the way that perception changes.
It’s an interesting and actually kind of subtle way for the game to play with the idea of memory, in a way that a game that’s ostensibly about memory never really has before. Everything up to this point has been presented as though it’s exactly as it happened rather than the memories that could be colored and changed by the different people who lived them.
It’s an interesting touch, and it adds a nice level of thought to a game that I was already enjoying.
Well. Apart from the horses.