post mortem: assassin’s creed

assassin’s creed 3: nothing is true. everything is permitted… even having an assassin character that you don’t find even remotely cool

Disclaimer: I’d warn you about spoilers ahead, but if you haven’t played this series by now, there’s something wrong with your life.  Check out the youtube videos if you’d like to catch up on the plot.

Due to the onslaught of work, school, then work and a giant move east, I started in on the Assassin’s Creed bandwagon rather late.

Sure, my Faux Bro Don kept bugging me to play this masterpiece of a game, but I simply had bigger, uglier fish to fry.  However, once I had comfortably settled into my new city and (after mixed success) retired from the Toronto dating scene, you can bet the first thing I did with my spare time was tackle Ubisoft’s favourite franchise on my PS3.

I would not regret it.  Except 3. Screw 3.

the majority of these characters are cool, but let’s showcase the crap one!

I have an excuse for the length of this post.  Other than to make up for my lack of posting over the past year, I mean. The truth is, I don’t think admonishing Assassin’s Creed 3 is at all fair, as simply complaining about it omits the context necessary to fully grasp why this particular game was so awful. There is no way to understand my disappointment with AC3 without an understanding of my rampant and deep-rooted affection for the rest of the series. I simply will not be satisfied until I have voiced both the mouldy crater of displeasure I have for this game, as well as the joyous apex of delight and borderline obsession induced by its predecessors.

I finished Assassin’s Creed as quickly as I could without missing all the side quests or taking for granted the elaborate scenery.  I must say, the game won me over in record time;  the “puppet” format of controls actually worked remarkably well with the (IMO inferior-to-PC) controller.  I hardly spent five minutes as Altaïr before I was free-running like a pro. With the dynamic camera, the detailed architecture, and the general feeling of each city as being lived-in and populated (as opposed to the “tired old paintball field” feel some games have), it was easy to get immersed in Altaïr’s world and revel in how utterly cool he is. Heck, his morals and composure rubbed off on me enough that I even felt bad when I lost my temper and shoved one of those annoying beggar women into a haystack. It’s also nice that Ubisoft cared about the little things, like having bystanders remark on how strange it is that this guy’s climbing up a wall when there’s a ladder just two feet to his left.

As if living in the age of the Crusades, unravelling centuries-old mysteries and feuds, and just being an ancient assassin wasn’t enthralling enough, this game is damned pretty. The plot had themes that kept your character(s) motivated and you actually saw the arrogant “top gun” assassin develop into a mature and wise underdog. Initially, Desmond’s scenes seemed to be little more than annoying intermissions you couldn’t get away from… pointless backstory excuses for having the ability to live as Altaïr and be awesome. But that was just misdirection – cleverly executed on Ubisoft’s part, distracting from the much bigger story that Desmond, Altaïr, and I as a player had unwittingly stumbled into.  And by the end of the game, they had given me just enough of a taste of that meta-plot that I ran out to EB and picked up the next three games in one go:  AC2, Brotherhood, and Revelations.

Sure, I cracked a few jokes about AC2 being the most Italian video game of all time (I mean, come on, you spend the first bit running away from girl-you-shagged’s dad, then running errands with your mother, and beating the living crap out of a guy who cheated on your sister.  But after that, I tore through the first chapter of Ezio’s story with the hunger of a spoiled toddler.  “When is it going to happen?” I’d whine at a fellow geek friend. “When will his family just die so he can be a proper badass already?!”

My friend, being a better human being than I, pointed out how disturbing it was that I wanted this poor kid’s family dead. As a writer, though, I know the rules: your protagonist needs a reason to leave comfort behind in favour of trials, tribulation and training montages. Sure enough, there go Ezio’s male relatives, and we’ve started on the rocky climb to being a genuine badass. The character who starts as a high-school-level charmer with a family vendetta soon learns humility and grace, and a whole new level of charm… the “I kind of wish you were real, single, and in my social circle” charm. He makes friends along the way that are enjoyable and not annoying (I’m looking at you, Selphie from FFVIII), gets to play with some of Da Vinci’s contraptions, and help his sister run a (high brow) brothel.  Oh, and he learns how to fight. Just basically, he’s the classiest badass this side of Batman. Hell, he’s classier than ol’ Brucey. He speaks Italian, and he doesn’t spend half his time destroying elegant buildings.

seriously, how classy is this guy?

As the backdrop changes from Florence to Venice to Rome to frickin’ Constantinople, the plot gets even more interesting and more involved. Combat even improves with smoother counterattack and a toning down of the “gentleman’s aggro” combat system.  You care about the protagonist, and amazingly, you even care about the side characters. To put it bluntly, Ezio’s arc of titles were probably three of the best games I’ve played in ages – right up there with Uncharted, and Arkham Asylum.  I’d include Arkham City in that list, but that’s next on the docket. Like I said, I have a lot of catching up to do.

So in the matter of weeks it took to knock back Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood, and Revelations, I had grown completely spoiled in terms of the balance of the game and the likeability of its characters.  By balance, I refer to the vastness of the sandbox, while still maintaining a strong sense of direction with regards to plot, priorities, and must-do side quests.  Killing time in AC never seemed pointless. Either you were gathering treasures to unlock the ultimate armour set, or you were buying up all of Rome and giving the Borgias a gracious vafanculo from atop a newly usurped tower.  It was brilliant.

Even with the ~700 words of puke I’ve smattered above, I just don’t think I can express how much I enjoyed the Assassin’s Creed series.

And then there was 3.

We start off the game with lush graphics that are slowly revealed to us as we walk our ugly, worst-British-accent-ever protagonist towards a gorgeous hotel sometime in the 19th century.  There’s an air of class to him, but not the kind you’d be proud of. His voice seems put-on in the subtlest of ways, but you accept it as part of his character… except that now you’re not really happy to be him. Not like you were with Ezio. Sure, Ezio was whiny in his youth, but at least he was relatable.  You soon learn a few things about this protagonist:  mainly, that his name is Haytham Kenway, that he’s English, that his friends are assholes, and that he’s not actually our protagonist.

Thank the gods. I couldn’t stand being him much longer.

Now we have our real protagonist: an adventurous, curious young Métis boy. He whines and is a bit of a brat, but he’s a kid. He has a best friend he thumps his chest at and tortures us with some bad voiceovers, but he’s young, so we forgive him. We have some fun with the seemingly endless environment of New England’s forests, play some hide and seek, and learn to trap and skin animals, and it’s actually quite fun for a while. Then – as mandatory hero curriculum dictates – his mother dies, and you start hoping for the moment when he pulls an Ezio-esque growth spurt. With bated breath, you anticipate that golden moment where he has an epiphany, becomes a man of action as well as thought, of consideration and justice, of patience and a vision, ambition towards a bigger picture. You hope for the day he stops whining.

That day never comes.

Even when Connor looks like he’s already 40 (How? Wasn’t he 20 five minutes ago? Ten minutes later, he’s young again? What?)  Where handsome Ezio’s long, drawn out monologues were at least engaging once he got older and wiser, homely ol’ Connor rambles on with the same bratty tone he does from day one. The voice acting here was a far cry from Ezio’s, and don’t get me started on the actor for Awkward Native Granny who sounds like an eight-year-old boy.

So our hero is decidedly uncool. What about his world? Can that make up for it? Not even close. Where Ezio’s world was saturated with some of the finest architecture in the history of Europe, Connor’s is sparsely dotted with the simplistic white boxes of Colonial America, whose highest towers are dwarfed by even the mid-size structures flaunted by Florence, Venice, Rome, and Constantinople.  Gone is the excitement of exploring a famous, faraway land.  Behold the monotony of driving around the Boston and New York of old – not dissimilar to the Simsbury, Connecticut of current times.  No more fighting against the legendary crime family of the Borgias; now you must concern yourself with the much less interesting bickering settlers of the American Revolution.  (No offense, America – this message is directed to Ubisoft. The story of the red white and blue has been done to death, and there’s nothing exotic about it.) You think for a moment that Connor will befriend his own genius inventor – Benjamin Franklin – but their acquaintance is brief, and about as deep as a wading pool at Hobbit daycare.

You have no sense of attachment to any of the characters – not Connor, not his cantankerous mentor, not the cantakerous mentor’s dog – the one thing I felt most attached to was Connor’s bow.  Honestly, it was okay. The bow, the rope dart, and the trapping system are probably the only parts of the revamped (read: ruined) combat system that I actually liked. Seriously- whose bright idea was it to even bother with the muskets that took half a lifetime to reload? And who decided the counterattack/parry/block system from Ezio’s heydey needed “improvement”? Find this person for me so I may pout at them in person.

For three months, I repeatedly picked this game up only to put it down again after a few hours.  I told myself the plot would kick in soon, or the characters would get interesting soon, or the environment would get more interesting soon – a wish momentarily granted by naval combat – but eventually, after Connor sees Haytham again, I gave up.  I never finished the game. I just couldn’t.

Then I caught the trailers for Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and decided it was imperative to be caught up to the overall story. On a friend’s recommendation, I decided to watch the four-hour-long “movie” on YouTube instead.

Of those four hours, roughly twenty minutes contained discernable plot points.  Of those twenty minutes, fifteen were Desmond’s scenes.  I had hoped for more in-depth exploration of Connor’s contribution to the meta-plot (but it seems he had very little contribution at all).  I had hoped for an elaboration on Haytham’s pivotal betrayal and his joining the Templars, but got nothing. I felt nothing but relief knowing that I didn’t sink any more time into this piece of crap game. It was as if someone had a brilliant idea, then entrusted the actual execution of their idea to their lazy stoner friend. I will be more than a little distraught if it turns out AC4: Black Flag exhibits the same lack of follow-through.

Seriously, though, Black Flag looks incredible.  I’m hoping it makes up for AC3 in the same way that X-Men: First Class almost made up for X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Almost. Still, I doubt anything can take away the sting from knowing I will never play Ezio again.  Luckily, these games have an unusual amount of replay value for the action-adventure genre.  Having written this much about them, I feel like I have no choice but to revisit Italy when I get home today.  Ah, hell, why not?  Arkham can wait.

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