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.
With all that we knew about Assassin's Creed III before its release – that Connor was the main star – it at first seems odd to play as Kenway through the first four-or-so hours. But a fantastic swerve at that point almost makes up for the slow start. The payoff as to why we spent so much time with this seemingly incidental character also comes later.
The feature that doesn't pay off at all here is the game's absolute flurry of cutscenes, which have the adverse effect of pulling you out of the game world. The surfeit of these cinematics is a borderline tragedy, given how incredible the world is. There's just way too many of them. Seriously, there's one for everything. Investigating that animal poop while hunting? Cue the cutscene. Opening a door? Cue the cutscene. Having a conversation? That naturally cues what is often a long cutscene. The overall effect is damning – it often feels like you, the player, are just the vehicle that gets the game from one cinematic to the other. They pull you away from that amazing world far too frequently and for far too long.
That's not to say Assassin's Creed III isn't fun at all. Indeed, it works best when it lets players rip. The franchise's key pillar has always been the ability to free run, although this has been limited to rooftops and buildings in previous games. The latest instalment expands this to the natural world. It is exhilarating to see Connor run at top speeds through the treetops. If the player only exists in this game to kick off cutscenes, at least getting to them is fun.
The main campaign's fights are a hoot. As a highly skilled assassin armed with a tomahawk and dagger, Connor proves to be an unstoppable force in combat. At first, the natural instinct when seeing a group of 20 red coats heading your way with bayonets might be to run. But with the smooth Batman Arkham style combat at play, where button timing kicks off Connor's amazing counter-moves, you soon learn that Connor can take on virtually any number of enemies and prevail.
Assassin's Creed III also introduces naval battles to the franchise. It seems strange and out of place at first, but the sequences are actually some of the most enjoyable parts of the game. The roiling seas, the frantic yelling of crewmen, the urgency of firing your cannons at enemy ships at precisely the right time – it's amazingly well done.
Another to enjoy the pure action of the game is through online multiplayer. This excellent mode is pretty much the same as it was in the past few releases, and it subtly asks those same existential questions by requiring players to guess who among them is human and who is a computer AI. Rather than the fast-moving kill-fest found in most multiplayer games, this mode slows things down and inspires angst rather than adrenalin.
The new Wolf Pack mode, which has players co-operatively hunt down computer-controlled targets, is also a nice touch. Up to four players look for targets amid crowds, with the clock extending each time one is found and nailed. It's even more cerebral fun.
Much of the rest of main campaign, however, isn't quite so nail-biting. Connor can engage in numerous side missions, some of which upgrade the Davenport homestead, as well as search for collectibles, buy weapons and equipment, send apprentice assassins on their own unseen missions, go hunting and send trade convoys.
None of it has anything but a cosmetic effect on the main story, with the possible exception of building up money that can be spent on expensive upgrades to Connor's ship. With more cannons or a better keel, the naval missions – only two of which are integral to the story – are easier to pull off. Otherwise, there isn't much reason to engage in any of the optional stuff. I got through the game without buying a single weapon upgrade.
The story has something of the character of a spaghetti western or kung fu revenge drama. We see Connor as a child named Ratonhnhaké:ton, playing and hunting with his friends in the forest. Tragedy soon visits the young brave and off he goes in search of vengeance.
It's in this quest that he meets Achilles Davenport, a retired member of the Brotherhood of Assassins, the secret society that has been warring with the equally secretive Templars for centuries, both of which are the focus of Ubisoft's game franchise. Achilles becomes the Yoda to his young Luke, spouting wisdom while hobbling along on his cane, all the while teaching him the ways of the Force… er… the Assassins.
The first third-to-half of the game is spent on this backstory and training, with the action only finally picking up when the setting shifts to Boston.
Achilles introduces his protégé, now a man, to the bustling city, as well as to his new name. Ratonhnhaké:ton, he says, simply won't do in a white man's world, so Connor it is. All of this, meanwhile, is set against the backdrop of the American revolution. Or, as some characters prefer to call it, a civil war.
Video games are often criticized for poor storytelling, so it's hard to fault the developers for instead taking their time to set a rich table. By the time we get down to the action, we know who Connor is and we understand his motivations and, to some extent, those of his friends and enemies. This is the sort of depth that most games can only aspire to.
But the story may be let down by the mission design, as many of the game's chapters have a ho-hum feel. While previous games had many actual assassinations, in this game there's a surplus of stealth eavesdropping and tailing suspects to be done. One slip-up usually means starting over, so jobs that are already low on the action scale often become monotonous tasks of trial and error.
Things get painful on occasion, particularly when running after targets through the crowded city streets. One particular chase sequence near the end of the game forced me to follow a very specific and maddening path, which had me ready to throw my controller at the TV. Any slight stray from that route meant starting the whole thing over, which I did many, many times.
This segment, where Connor runs after one of the main villains, actually highlights everything wrong with the game. During several of those many attempts, I actually caught up to the bad guy, at which point I started pressing the attack buttons. Yet, nothing happened and the chase continued on into a burning building.
So, despite beating the seemingly impossible odds, the game cheated me out of a win because my actions didn't follow the script. That's pretty much Assassin's Creed III in a nutshell.
The main core of Assassin's Creed III feels a lot like the original Assassin's Creed game, released in 2007. That game, too, was a giant technological leap forward. It presented a large open world with incredible graphic fidelity and a population that seemed relatively alive. At the same time, though, it was panned for having repetitive gameplay.
Assassin's Creed III certainly isn't repetitive, but its mundane actions may outweigh the enjoyable ones. Nevertheless, like its forerunner, it is an accomplishment that is worth checking out. It's a breakthrough achievement that brings us another step toward the virtualized future. Let's just hope that future – or at least the next Assassin's Creed game – is a little more fun.