I recently went back and booted up Assassin’s Creed 3 to hunt down the last few remaining chests and feathers I hadn’t yet found, and remembered that since I played it a while after release, I didn’t actually review it.
I’m not going to do that today, but I will discuss why in some ways, it was a rather fantastic title. A lot of that has to do with the protagonist this time around, the half English, half Native American assassin, Connor.
I’ll say this up front, Assassin’s Creed 3 is not the best game in the series, not by a longshot. That honor goes to Assassin’s Creed 2, which was my favorite game of that year, and shined where titles like this are supposed to, the gameplay.
Each mission felt expertly crafted and you had to use a large amount of strategy and every weapon and trick at your disposal to advance. The landscapes were gorgeous, the fighting intense and the stealth satisfying.
Not so in AC3. Gameplay was…adequate, at best, and the game ditched stealth for nearly its entire duration. With this latest game, combat has been simplified to the point of annoyance, and the addition of counterkills and chain kills in the past follow-up AC2 games, Brotherhood and Revelations, have made stealth more or less useless. If you can press B, then X, then X again and again you can shred an entire platoon of guards with a parade of one-hit kills and walk away unscathed. If you sound an alarm when you’re spotted, you no longer die, but merely easily kill everyone who comes to fight you.
“Why you stabbing your friend? Why you stabbing your friend?”
So if it’s not the gameplay that’s so great, why did I enjoy the game so much? Well, for as much as I loved AC’s 1, 2, 2.5 and 2.6666, in nearly all of them, it was incredibly hard to tell what the hell was going on in the story, and your protagonist didn’t help matters. Altair barely spoke a word and Ezio was a cocky rich douche with a fun accent, but barely a trace of a personality.
But in AC3, we meet Connor. Or rather, we don’t.
(spoilerish story discussion follows)
Instead, we’re first introduced to “Haytham,” a white Brit sent to the Colonies in order to locate a “forerunner” site. You know, those places where alien ghosts wake up and talk to you?
You play as Hatham for a few hours, helping local Native Americans, falling for one and eventually knocking her up before its revealed that you’ve been playing as a Templar the whole time.
As it turns out, all these events are in place to give our hero a backstory. Connor is born with a Iroquois name I can’t pronounce or spell, and we play segments where he’s a boy, then a teenager, then finally grows into a badass young man under the tutelage of his mentor, old man Achilles.
“Get a haircut, boy.”
It’s rare in any game that so much backstory is crammed into the actual gameplay of a title. Yes, it makes the game start slowly, but it gives Connor a history, motivation and a sense of place that other video game protagonists usually don’t have. And his lineage? The bastard son of an English Templar and a Native American? He’s definitely got the coolest pedigree of any hero in a game I’ve played in years.
It’s nice to see so much time spent on developing a character in a game like this, especially in the very long AC3 where you’ll be spending 20 hours or more with him. You feel much more connected to Connor than past AC heroes, and there’s a lot more to him than simply killing people from a list of names (though he does that too).
Connor finds himself allied with the rebellion attempting to overthrow the British, because freedom is what the Assassins strive for above all else. The Templars for the most part side with the British, as they desire control and order.
But if you’re expecting a game that’s cheerleading America or idealizing its history, you’re wrong. Often times, Connor discovers that the men he’s helping are no better than the ones he fights. Great American hero George Washington is portrayed as weak-willed and shifty. At one point after protecting him for years, Connor discovers that Washington has ordered a raid on his native village. Connor loses it, and threatens to butcher Washington as he did the British if anything happens to his tribe.
Connor speculates about what these rebellious colonialists are truly fighting for. After years of aiding them, he begins to see that their war for freedom only meets freedom for white, male landowners. He sees his own tribe murdered and swindled. He watches black slaves being treated like refuse. How great could these “founding fathers” truly be if they abided such treatment of others, and even participated in it themselves?
There’s an interesting series of missions on the “Homestead” in the game, which serves as Connor’s “home base” of sorts. The idea is that you recruit a bunch of skilled laborers you find in your journeys, and invite them to settle on your land. You find a tailor, a blacksmith, a doctor, a fur trader, and so on, and there are dozens of missions where you interact with them and run errands for them.
In many reviews, these missions were lauded as rather pointless. Most are quite easy and the reward only allows you to craft better items for a really awkwardly implemented trading system I never bothered to use more than a few times.
But for me, the missions served another purpose. It humanized a protagonist who in the main game, is a brutal killing machine. Here, he set about building a community full of the sorts of immigrants the rebellion was leaving behind in their crusade for freedom. By the end of the game, these people in your community have gotten married, had children, or passed away. You felt like you knew them, and it brought a new dimension to Connor that was nice to see, where most games don’t quite care about investing much into the humanity of their murderous assassins. It wasn’t done in a cheesy way, and felt like a natural evolution of friendships, establishing that you wanted an ideal nation of equals more than the actual colonists did. The game’s story isn’t perfect, and really starts to fall apart near the end, but I never felt lost and Connor was a much more relatable, multi-dimensional badass than most heroes in games these days.
Connor goes all Taxi Drive by the end with his hair.
Also a big factor in creating effective storytelling here is that Ubisoft has once again left out an semblance of a moral choice system. Yes, there are many games that use this effectively, Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead and so on, where your choices shape the story, but it’s so commonplace now it’s almost refreshing NOT to do so. You don’t have to be “good Connor” and wonder what “evil Connor” would have been like, or vice versa. You’re a bit of both at times, and the game takes decisions out of your hands and forces you to trust it to write its own story. How many movies would you say might have been better with a “choose your own ending” component? Few, if any.
The game isn’t great, and I really missed the ingenuity of Assassin’s Creed 2 as I was playing. It felt like an incredibly easy brawler with a pinch of stealth thrown in on occasion, and almost none of the missions feel the least bit strategic.
That said, it was still a great experience from a story perspective and Connor is definitely now one of my favorite gaming protagonists after spending 20+ hours together. Ubisoft finally managed to tell a pretty great story after hinting at one for four games now, and have created a lead with more dimensions than we’re used to in the genre.