Assassin’s Creed III is a signpost on the way to the future of entertainment, in more ways than one. It’s a monumental technical achievement, with Ubisoft Montreal creating the most realistic and alive virtual world for a video game console yet.
Contemplating the richness of this game, I was reminded of the pilot episode of Caprica – the less-well-received Battlestar Galactica prequel series that was eventually cancelled – in which an artificial intelligence leads a human visitor through a virtual nightclub. The place is packed with other VR-assisted humans, who are otherwise engaged in all kinds of debauchery. There’s booming music and uninhibited dancing, copious drug and alcohol use, sex, even recreational fighting.
For the visitors, it’s an escape from the dreary real world, yet it’s as realistic as anything they encounter without their virtual reality headsets. There are, of course, other less profane and more mundane uses of the technology in the television show, but the nightclub represents the ultimate expression of what is likely to happen when such a singularity – a place where we can upload our consciousness into a digital universe – becomes real. Virtual worlds can and will be a lot of fun, given that they allow us to enjoy our basest desires in seemingly harmless fashion.
In Assassin’s Creed III , the game’s recreation of Colonial America – seen through the eyes of a half-British, half-Native assassin named Connor – is a living, breathing ecosystem that is so convincingly done, you might believe it continues to click and whir even after you’ve shut off the console.
The forests teem with wildlife while the cities bristle with people going about their daily business. Seasons come and go; the frontier forests and cobblestone streets are equally impressive when bathed in warm sunlight, under a blanket of snow, or facing the brunt of a hard rainfall or thick fog.
One of the best ways to take it all in is to stand atop a church steeple in northern Manhattan and look south. You can see tiny people scurrying about below in a sort of randomized order. Jump off the tower into a haystack below and you’re suddenly up close with those tiny ants, who are now fully realized individuals. It’s these sublime moments that made me appreciate Ubisoft’s accomplishment and contemplate the coming singularity.
Connor’s reality is actually the second trip the rabbit hole, as players are told that his adventure is also being experienced virtually by Desmond Miles, a modern-day assassin hooked up to the Animus, a machine that projects his consciousness into that colonial world.
If you think hard enough and follow the plot closely enough, there is some existential philosophy to be found. Are we playing Desmond, who is playing Connor? What does it mean, after all, that we are living in a time when we can experience a virtual story virtually? Previous games in this series touched on the possibility of getting lost in an alternate reality – will this become more likely for us as those worlds get more real?
But never mind that for now, since Assassin’s Creed III is still a game. Or at least, ostensibly so. Unfortunately for its players, the game also seems to forget that fact. At times, it’s more “interactive entertainment” than an actual playable experience.
Despite providing an incredible sandbox to roam around in, Assassin’s Creed III can be a difficult game to enjoy. The action veers sharply away from that sort of nightclub debauchery and instead asks players to engage in copious amounts of the mundane. The problem is, there’s no getting around the fact that even the most realistically simulated errands, well, are still boring errands. As a result, the game is only fun sometimes, often a chore and occasionally painful.
The issues are tied mostly to the developers’ slavish devotion to the story. The tale begins in 18 century England as players take on the role of Haytham Kenway, an aristocratic gentleman with a penchant for assassination. After dispatching an enemy in a crowded theatre, Kenway makes his way to the New World for reasons that become clear later.