Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Video Game Review: Assassin's Creed III

This is greatness. I've extensively talked about Assassin's Creed soundtracks already on the first Sunday Songs (accessible easily through the Music tab! No I will not stop plugging that page). I won't elaborate much further, but while I think Balfe dropped from Jesper's work he had, there ARE several truly excellent songs (like this one, and Fight Club, and even some of the more ambient ones like Through The Frozen Wasteland).

Hey there! As I mentioned in the first Historical Songaday post, for the month of December I will be filling out at least some of my backlog of stuff to post and will be doing reviews every Tuesday and Friday! I said Thursday before, but I've changed it to Friday - this doesn't change the number of reviews, just spaces 'em out a bit better. If I can make enough of 'em, it'll be a game review every Tuesday and a movie review every Friday. I hope to god I can keep up with a commitment like that. Enjoy!

OK, so Assassin's Creed III happened. I finished it. Now, I want to be very clear right away; my opinion of the game is NOT the popular one. It isn't particularly common (though I'm not alone), and you should not take my word as a deciding point of whether or not this game is for you. I hope it's an influence, but my thoughts here are definitely non-standard.
What opinion is that? I find that Assassin's Creed III is a well-crafted game that simply isn't actually FUN.

Background: So I love the Assassin's Creed series. Immensely so. Ever since I actually played AC1 I've absorbed the series with vigor. I've 100%ed every game up to this point, including achievements, collectibles, side-missions, and such (excluding multiplayer because I don't have Xbox Live). Here's how I rank the series:
1) Brotherhood. A strong plot, strong location (that occasionally got dull), strong history, and absurdly strong gameplay.
2) Assassin's Creed II. Only barely beaten by ACB, ACII had the best locations overall (Venice is simply amazingly well done) and the best soundtrack, but suffered from gameplay hiccups - primarily Ezio just doing whatever he damn well pleases. Also, the lack of kill streaks from the later games hurts it.
3) Revelations. A decent plot, very competant core gameplay with annoying peripheral gameplay (tower defense game, bomb making), a great location without enough variation. Also a barely-usable minimap, which is a killer.
4) Assassin's Creed I. Astounding ideas, a brilliant set of locations, marred by repetitiveness, painful gameplay inaccuracy, and graphical breakage. If fully remade in the vein of Revelations's innovations, it would be extraordinary. Just the addition of a database would be enough for me, since I'm a huge fan of Crusades history. Assassin's Creed I is still a great game though.
I know a friend on KG who pretty much reverses this order, loving ACI and disliking Brotherhood, and he absolutely loves ACIII beyond all others now. So yeah, subjective.
I'll note here that Geop's amazing Let's Plays of the first and second games add a huge amount to the game as well, and when I mentioned them to my history professor (who teaches an early modern Europe and a Middle Ages course) he had me send him the links and he was impressed by their detail and precision.

Introduction: Assassin's Creed III is the fifth game in the series, featuring a new Assassin in the lead-up to, the process of, and toward the conclusion of the American Revolutionary War. Connor, a half-Native American, is killing Templars and hunting the second-in-command of the Templar forces.

Gameplay: Easily the game's weak point to me. It entirely does away with the control system of the previous game, replacing it with an entirely new system. ALL movement stuff is covered by the RT button now (I will use Xbox terms because I played that) - you pretty much just have walking and full on sprinting now. You can half-hold the button or barely tilt the stick for a slightly lower speed more akin to just holding RT in the previous games, but it's so sensitive and awkward to half-hold that no one is going to do it. Unfortunately, because you're now always sprinting, you're also always freerunning, and Connor runs up all sorts of everything, even if you're just trying to ru  along. He's harder to control at that speed, and they removed an interaction with movement from previous games where you made your choice between holding A or B while running to either sprint (for speed) or shovve through crowds (for safety). Now you shove while you sprint, so there's less interaction and running through cities is just pretty boring - or would be, if not for the guard posts, but I'll get to that. The other big overhaul is that the entire combat system now revolves around the B button. Not in any particular format - you might as well just mash B and when time slows down because you triggered the counter you hit either X to murder them or A to disarm them (after which they can be murdered quite easily). After you kill a man just keep hitting X until you see a flashing red arrow above an enemy's head and then switch back to the B button. It's not thrilling. There are ways to use your secondary items in combat, but with the highly limited number, inexplicable removals (I had to go buy an entirely new complement of snares at least 5 times, and that was before I'd used ANY), and the fact that none of how to use them in combat is explained, it's not significant. Also, since using your gun in counters seems to not use up bullets or require reloading and usually kills even block-y enemies, it's pretty trivial, except when the game is dicking you over - random points where 2 enemies attack at once (either enormously fucking you or just resulting in 2 automatic kills, regardless of enemy type), stupidly long kill animations that get you stabbed in the back in the meantime, rows of other guards who line up to gun you down and who, if you're in an animation at the time, get over half your health removed, etc. Also camera angles that continually put trees in the view path, but I'm not really going to hold that against them. The lack of a dodge and the fact that both enemy health is hard to track and, more than anything else, there's just SO MANY GUARDS. If you get into an open fight, you're going to need to fight off several dozen guys over the course of the fight. If you run, you will never escape if you don't take advantage of something like water or one of the few entirely abandoned areas. If you do the open fight, well, you're gonna get at least 2 Notoriety, which just about guarantees you'll get into another fight, which will hit you into top notoriety, and if you get to THERE, you WILL constantly get into fights. It doesn't help that you'll get into an open fight if you step into a guard post, which are mostly open to the air, unguarded and unmarked from many angles, and entirely left off the map. Notoriety isn't easy to remove - without posters being marked on the map, you'll never use 'em (especially when the omnipresent guards get pissed if you tear one down, almost immediately dragging your notoriety back up). Print Shops are so few and far between that I used just one: the tutorial one. Heralds are cheaper, more present, and reduce Notoriety by 2. Unfortunately, they get frightened super easily and are almost always in sight of guards, so if you've got 3 Notoriety, you're caught. It really got to the point where, if I got to 3 Notoriety, I got into a fight and put down the controller and let myself die because it reset my Notoriety to 0. It's just too much hassle otherwise.
Combat UPGRADES are useless. You can upgrade your sword, your tomahawk, and your gun - I pretty much used the default of all three the entire game. POST-game, I've now acquired every upgrade. I've gone back and tried out the old ones again for comparison, and the result? Don't bother. Basic tomahawk + Hidden Blades is the whole game. I have yet to use a duckfoot pistol right, though the double-barreled pistol and twin holsters are both useful. There is no health boosting. The Bow, which doesn't upgrade, was often better than the pistol anyway.
Other items? Well, I admit that I like Rope Darts. The Hang mechanic NEVER worked right, but that doesn't mean I didn't have fun with it. Smoke Bombs seemed almost essential to be stealthy a lot of the time. Poison Darts aren't as discreet now, making them far less useful. Snares I didn't even realize COULD be used in combat until near the end. The bow isn't useful other than as a counter, but it's very useful there. Overall, just use the Hidden Blades and Tomahawk and you'll be FINE when the game doesn't fuck you over.
Also, there seems to be a human shield mechanic but I don't know how to do it, never did it, and have no interest in doing it beyond getting completion.
Hunting. So, uh, does Ubisoft think I have a thing for animal murder or something? I know, Native American traditions, fur trading, ways of the times, etc., but it didn't need to be a gameplay feature. It wasn't fun, it was more or less random if I caught my prey (because I'm not gonna bother with patience on a meaningless thing, and I'm sure as hell not bothering with Snares or Bait), violent animals ALL HATE YOU, they deal a billion damage (more in about 2 seconds than a whole volley of musket shots), killing predators is a fucking QTE (really Ubisoft? QTEs? I thought the high-profile developers had figured out that we hate them!) which is kinda inexplicable since any of the animals could totally be fought with the regular combat rules, and worse than anything is the bodies. Come on. I don't want the bloody rabbit carcass, and I certainly don't want a zooming-in mini-cutscene when I skin it so the slaughter isn't pointless. I don't blame Connor or Native Americans or even hunters in general but I don't want it in my videogame. And the hunting-fan and video-game-fan is a pretty niche overlap - the Cabela's games are enough.
Of course, I guess it isn't REQUIRED to hunt, since money is absolutely useless in the game. Everything you need can be scavenged, and since no upgrades are really necessary, you needn't hunt. *I* had to because I was dedicated to seeing everything before calling it done.
Also, people simply cannot be stealthy if they're not in tall grass. If you are standing, even standing still, animals will notice you immediately a flee, without question.
The big targets (Bears, Cougars) needed a COUPLE more places to find them.
That reminds me of the map! Not the minimap, which is just fine, and IS an improvement on Revelations's minimap by leaps and bounds. The general map is too, with a couple issues. First, on the Xbox there's still lag entering the map screen, which is hellish for doing completion. It's getting better though. Second, why do you move the cursor with the right stick? That's weird and took a long time to adjust to. Third, what on earth is that whel on the left doing HERE? The hunting overlay makes sense, but the rest should be in some other meny or don't need to exist at all (such as the liberation one).
Moving from there to the menus, there is no simple place to check what the optional objectives of your current mission are, which is a huge oversight - having to go into the DNA Tracker is just dumb. The splitting of some things into the Map's menu also made some things hard to find. Let's move from there to a big point...
Optional Objectives. This is the entire way the game does difficulty. Except unfortunately, with all of my ability, the game still fucked over half of 'em for me and some of them I'm not even sure how they're possible. I will need to either go through with a video walkthrough to do them and wind up extremely frustrated, but you know what? The game hasn't given me the enormous urge to 100% the achievements and the full sync and everything like the others. I just don't find the game that much fun because I end up having to fight the game a lot. Now, the creative director for the game made some extremely controversial and, in my opinion, utterly retarded philosophies about game design a bit ago (the big ones being "Easy mode is killing games" and "Games should be judged on plot along") which, for a guy who argued severely against difficulty modes and exalting optional objectives, this was not their most skillful execution. Optional objectives, in my opinion, work best when they serve to open up or bring attention to new or interesting methods of doing things - even in, say Revelations we had missions with the full sync objective being to, for example, kill the target using a grenade, or from a hiding spot. These were often a bit harder, but were MODIFICATIONS of strategy. In ACIII, a lot of the optional objectives are merely extensions of the strategy that is extremely obvious, and is often just "avoid damage" (the laziest one of all next to time limits in my opinion). They're just "do real good" and are more like difficulty levels on top of the baseline rather than truly adding any interest to the game.
NOTE: I HATE intense challenge in a game where my focus is the story. In other words, I hate challenge in games where I'm not playing explicitly for the difficulty. I play on Easy Mode EVERY TIME when I'm not playing, like, Super Meat Boy or Binding of Isaac or Bit.Trip. Guess what: I'm not playing ACIII for challenge. I want the games to be easy enough that I don't get frustrated. That's a great point for the optional objectives, except that struggling with the controls keeps the game from being easy or even not being frustrating for me. I don't get upset with games (I played through Super Meat Boy with a smile and the occassional sigh when I die), but I was audibly growling at the game.
I need to mention the Frontier. Damn it, I thought we got over this in ACI! The Frontier exists almost entirely to act as a way to show off the tree-running and give a big hunting-ground, though the presence of Lexington and Concord (drawing the Frontier into the story) definitely helped. It was still just SO EMPTY though.
Trading and crafting...Well, the trading mechanic with the Convoys and everything? Useless. I don't even remember how to use it but there's no point, just hunt big game if you actually need money for some reason - if you don't feel like finding the bear area, elk are all over the place and are excellent for money. As for crafting, I didn't do a single craft until I beat the game, but I realize now (having crafted every usable item) that it probably would have actually been helpful. Unfortunately, 90% of the stuff you can craft is pretty much bullshit with no use.
Social stuff was, uh, not. It was "interactive conversations" which are interactive in the sense that the person is speaking to Connor - you don't make choices or anything. Otherwise, people are for 6 things: Liberation Missions (including Assassination Contracts), Courier Missions, Delivery Missions, Frontier Missions, Shops, and Games. Courier missions are bringing letters to people - you have unlimited time and there is almost no reward. Delivery Missions are about collecting materials, like those in the Trade Goods menu. Frontier Missions had potential and were about investigating legendary sightings (Bigfoot, Headless Horseman, Kraken, etc), but they end up just being "Go to the spot on the map and click B on the clue." The Database stories are pretty good though. Shops are self-explanatory. Liberation missions are not unlike the missions you did around town in ACI, and are the most varied thing in the game other than the main questline. Games, though, are the bizarre black sheep of the game. They are, quite literally, board game simulators. Have you ever wanted to play a rousing game of Checkers against opponents of variable difficulty from within the comfort of Connor's skin? Now you can! Seriously. I didn't need a Checkers (and more) simulator inside Assassin's Creed. These are interesting enough but why on earth did you take your time to program them when you could have been reconsidering changing the controls or making Connor do what I intend for him to do?
Enemies are extremely good at noticing you, which is annoying when trying to stealth. The knock on walls move is also not particularly useful most of the time since it has some really low range. It's not TOO bad, except that with the amount
Oh yeah, time to talk about naval combat. There's not a lot of variety of mission types for the amount of missions, but I can't imagine what else they could do with it, so I thinkt the solution would be to just do less of it. The controls aren't particularly forgiving, but they can be done. Protection of others, on the other hand, cannot really.
The underground network of each city was an interesting way to bring them in, but they could have been more interesting individually (living around Seattle, the tunnels that now reveal the old Seattle layers are really cool! It isn't just tunnels like in the game cities). Also, mazes suck. As a cool place to go exploring? Great! As the means through which you fast travel? Great! As a boring exercise to unlock all the Fast Travel points while forced to move slowly through poorly lit passageways? Pretty lame. This could definitely be a revisited idea in future games if they're in cities with tunnels, it just needed some more work.

Now, I don't want to give the wrong impression completely. There are fun and cool things in the game. I will make a huge point of saying that the new "tree-running," as I've been calling it, feels incredibly good. Like, amazingly good. It's smooth, it's flowing, there's little to no disjointedness, and in the Frontier you can cover a lot of ground. It just FEELS good. They succeeded in this aspect.
Once you have the controls down (no mean feat) none of the non-normal minigames are particularly bad.
The fights where you use the environment were definitely a good idea, but they were done very poorly. There's very little significant way of knowing which scenery bits work, you can't take advantage of just anything and all the scenery fights are "Only fight with scenery" fights. Also, triggering the scenery things are just doen by countering while standing next to the relevant scenery. I really like the idea, and with some more integration, this could make the entire game's combat system a lot more dynamic. I'm excited about what this means for the FUTURE of this idea, but I'm unimpressed by this particular execution. Utilizing the environment in combat has always been a bit of an issue for the games in general, often fulfilled with QTEs, and I think this is definitely a step in the right direction.
It is so nice to have multiple cities again. They unfortunately aren't as visually distinct as ones in previous games (hurt by the lack of color filtering - in ACII we had orange-ish Florence, blue/pink Venice, gray Forli, and green San Gimignano, in ACI we had blue Acre, red Damascus, and green Jerusalem, Rome was green and Constantinople was yellow but those were single-city games so it didn't matter much. NY and Boston have the same color scheme, which is unaltered). New York has a very distinct burned portion, which is cool.
Fast Travel from anywhere? Hell yeah. Sucks a bit that you can't fast travel directly to other towns, but it's not that much hassle.
This is kinda a testament to liking the tree-running and the weakness of the optional objective design, but I had FAR more fun getting the collectibles (feathers, chests) than I did actually doing missions. This is suboptimal, but I enjoyed it enough.

The Desmond Segment Gameplay: I want to approach these separate real quick.
The first mission, for being JUST CLIMBING, is AWESOME. I fucking loved it. Maybe it's the prospect of modern day assassin-ing, but I really really really liked it. It also gave me wonderful Assassin's Creed vibes up by that red crane.
The second mission, though, is kinda bullshit. The fact that Desmond HAD to stealth it but lack many of the techniques of his ancestors.
The final mission? SUPER FUN. I love Desmond combat. The only way this could have been better is if they gave Desmond unique animations to represent the blended styles he's Bleeding Effected into him. Switching between a forward facing knife style like Altair's short blade and sword, a twin-hidden blade style like Ezio, and a hidden blade and reversed knife style like Connor (which is the only one he uses because they built him over Connor's animation frame). It would be a lot more work for a small scene, but it would have REALLY impressed me and made me ready for a full game of Desmond. The third segment is all combat though.
I wish there was a different locale for the third mission and the Abstergo raid was fourth and was a much more extensive mission involving full climbing, stealth, and combat, drawing it together. It would have been really cool. The third could be the Egypt mission where William gets captured - maybe Desmond was preoccupied or had to go off on his own to get the power source or something.
I don't know why you couldn't pick up a gun from the security forces. I mean, it woulde make the section even easier, but it would be cool and easy since all the gun mechanics are already on Connor's models.

Writing: I'm back and forth on the writing of the game. On the one hand, I happen to be one of those big fans of the meta-story. Not stupidly, fanatically so, but I do happen to really like it (though I'm unhappy with Lucy's death still - I liked her as a character! She fit the dynamic of the group well, I woul dhave much prefered Rebecca to be the traitor. I like her too, but not as much as Lucy). The overall arc of the plot of Connor is decent, and reminiscent of ACII and ACB, but different enough.
Things break down when you look a little closer though. Connor is a LAME assassin. I mean really, he's just dull! His character is written without an ounce of humor, he's not particuarly strong in his convictions, and his voice actor really needed some more training. In general the writing of characters was just entirely without any particular wit and cleverness. Everyone takes everything so damn seriously that I find myself just begging to go back to Ezio. Charles Lee is written as Evil McBadGuy without any shred of ambiguity in the good and evil (which hurts the series's theme of the Templars and Assassins both believing their the good side that will bring about a better world). The individual lines of Desmond and William aren't all that well written, especially when they're fighting.
I'm left with two characters of refuge. Shawn Hastings picked up a ton of the slack on the humor side, investing his own brand of humor into almost all Database Entries, and doing a good job of being funny in both the emails, over the radio, and in person. The other refuge, to a much lower degree, is Haythem. Haythem is witty to a point and is laid back enough in his speech to be a decent character.
Speaking of Haythem, I have a writing issue with relation to pacing. Put bluntly: Ubisoft, what the fuck were you thinking? There are 12 sequences. The final two sequences are short, and Sequence 10 isn't too long either. You do not play the main character until Sequence 4! You don't put on the Assassin robes until the end of Sequence 5! Really now, the game was over half done when I put on the Assassin robes. There were better ways to pace that. They even try to use the "oh wait, you've been playing as the Templar boss!" thing as a huge humorous plot twist, with a humorous achievement and all. Skip the joke and let us play the main character.
Generally, if you can get over the complete lack of humor in the game, it's of decent quality. It's just not really any fun to listen to.
Somehow, the incredibly pointless life-happenings of the Homesteaders, while it felt tedious to do (note that I did them all in a row after beating the game), they were surprisingly decently written.

Graphics: Someone needed to be a little less ambitious with the capabilities of the 360 - it still has frame rate trouble from time to time. It jsut needed a little more downsizing. It's disconcerting when you get near the top of a view point, when everything suddenly gets SUPER SMOOTH.
The lip synching is NOT up to par. Really now, that was kinda pitiful.
The CGI didn't quite hit me the way Revelations's intro did, but okay.
They did a good job of avoiding the overly detailed (and thus overly brightly outlined) outfit for Connor. They screwed this up in Revelations, but it's definitely better now. I'll say it that I don't like Connor's Assassin robes - they're just TOO plain without being character-ful. However, the Colonial Assassin outfit recieved from Achilles is excellent, and the Captain Kidd outfit and the tribal clothes look really good.
Now that I've gotten my complaints out o the way, the game looks great. Textures are great, even my metric (the quality of a game's stone texture tends to be pretty indicative of the quality of the graphics in general). The water is great both in still and in motion, and general animations are great. Character animations for real characters are good (I'm especially impressed by Connor's running-through-water animation - it looks a little silly, but that's how a real person would totally look!), and animations for minor NPCs are also good!
The game looks great, basically.
...did they change Desmond and Rebecca's motion actors? It's unsettling.
I like Haythem's hidden blade design and want a better look at it. Heck, it looks more hookblade-ish than Connor's!

Sound: I discussed the music of this game at length in a Sunday Songs segment (the first Sunday Songs segment!) so check it out for most of it. You can get there easily through the Music tab up top, or by following THIS LINK.
Other than that, I'll mention that I'm not particularly impressed by the voice acting as a whole, save for a few characters such as the real-lifers.
Sound effects are decent as a whole, but not spectacular.
Actually, the music DID fix a huge issue with Brotherhood and Revelations where the music would just be absent a lot of the time with just the ambience of the crowds taking its place, and the music didn't really get shown off to its best potential. This game may not have as stylish music for individual listening as Brotherhood or Revelations, but it definitely made the most of what it had. I distinctly enjoyed hearing it while playing. It was especially great in the near-end scene where you're stalking the other tribe members that Charles Lee is in charge of, when you hear a great combination of the general town-y Sherlock Holmes-y sounds and the definitely more Kyd-y sounding Native American sounds. I think that song is Wild Instincts, but I don't recall off the top of my head.

History: I don't need to say much. The game is as historically interwoven as ever, and I LOVE. EVERY. SINGLE. BIT OF IT. The history was among my main drives to follow through the game despite other flaws. I would love to see a modern day all-Desmond assassin game, but if I were to get that, I WOULD sorely miss the history.

I think that's all.
Conclusion: This is a game that, despite a strong presentation (marred by downsizing issues for the Xbox 360), is broken in half by its gameplay flaws in my opinion. When it comes right down to it, I think your own enjoyment of the game will be closely related to your opinion of and ability to adapt to the new control scheme. I don't like it. Maybe you do. For me though, it, plus several other design missteps, make this the worst of the Assassin's Creed games. Now, this doesn't make it a bad game! It's a good game, or at least a decent one. I just expected so much better from them. Thanks to the history, it managed to redeem itself some, and it's worth playing if you have an interest in the American Revolution.
Score: Between 6.5/10 and 7.5/10.

Have a good evening, and another review comes Friday!
End Recording,

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