Assassin’s Creed III as big as America

, | Game reviews

You ever stop reading a book or watching a movie because you don’t want it to end? Me either. That’s another example of how books and movies aren’t like videogames. Because I’m at the ending of Assassin’s Creed III — I’m in the final “sequence”, which is roughly analogous to a chapter or episode — and I have no desire to find out what happens at the end.

After the jump, so far, yet so close

I did something similar with Skyrim, but for different reasons. Bethesda’s games are among the openest of open worlds, and although Skyrim had a story driven plot about a civil war and a dragon prophecy, I didn’t care enough to see them through. Instead, I had decided to be as wizard as a wizard could be, gadding about doing odd quests in places that looked cool but mostly following the wizard quest line. So once I was appointed headmaster of the College of Magic, or deacon, or secretary, or whatever the technical term was, I sort of petered out and stopped playing. Skyrim had run its course for me. There was still tons of content in there, as anyone who’s done his 200 hours in Skyrim will tell you. But as for whatever overarching ending Bethesda had written for their game, I couldn’t have cared less.

Similarly, I don’t care about the plot in Assassin’s Creed III. At least not the main plot, in which two men bob and weave through a seventh grade understanding of American history. Never mind that stuff about Templars and Assassins. That’s the least of the silliness. Did you know there was a native American at the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and that he called out all those old white dudes for excluding women and slaves? American exceptionalism predates America itself. It’s indigenous.

But I’m not playing Assassin’s Creed III purely to jump around the scenery, chop dudes in the neck, and check activities off lists. All that stuff is here, and it’s better than ever (the wilderness stuff is a breath of fresh air — get it? — that wisely draws from what Rockstar did in Red Dead Redemption). The usual Creeding around is better yet with context, with narrative, with a story. And that’s mainly why I’m still playing Assassin’s Creed III and why I’m worried that once I reach the end of the final sequence, the game will slam shut on me.

The story that has pulled me through Assassin’s Creed III — and it’s as powerful a pull as any videogame story — is the real story of America, outside the textbook beats of this game’s facile historical perspective. It’s the story of a country hewn from the wilderness, built out of ideology, industry, fortuitous historical accidents, and a varied assemblage of regular people. Assassin’s Creed III is about the mythology of America, as surely as Once Upon a Time in the West, or The Godfather, or Armageddon, or Grand Theft Auto IV. It’s about America without being about America in the sense that the storyline parades you through the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Valley Forge, and so forth.

Most of the meaningful Americana is in the homestead, a sprawling counterpart to the villa improvements from the previous games. The homestead is a bit like the city building in Dark Cloud, or the Colony 6 progression in Xenoblade Chronicles. It’s got touches of Harvest Moon or the “dudes, too” dating in Grand Theft Auto IV. You’ll also find bits and pieces in the liberation missions, which range from burning diseased blankets, standing up for hungry children, or freeing conscripts from their service to King George. The story of America in Assassin’s Creed III is in the ancillary characters in the wilderness, at sea, in the nascent cities, telling ghost stories around campfires on the frontier, having babies, planting grain, and even falling into dopey teenage love with each other. It’s like your party in a Bioware game, but writ larger and broader, as befits the birth of a nation.

And to be fair to the main storyline, the stuff that’s capital-A about America, it’s far better than anything Ubisoft has cobbled onto an Assassin’s Creed so far. Faint praise, I know. But the slow opening — it’s a prologue, really — gives weight to later events in a way that you can’t possibly know while you’re waiting for everything to get underway. You’ll have to give it about five or six hours. Ubisoft makes some brave narrative choices in their main storyline, and although it falls apart and leads to some silliness with the main character, it’s a noble attempt.

As for the series’ nonsense framing device in general, and Desmond in specific, the less said, the better.

The combat this time is more forgiving. The intention is clearly that it should be more of a spectacle than a skill. It’s not as rewarding as Arkham City, since it’s not asking you to master timing or gadgets. Your job is to admire the animation and sound. And what sound it is. Such Hollywood snikts and crunches and wet slices. This attention to details of sound, light, and animation is apparent throughout, as conspicuous and lovely as the seasons. No one nails the nuances of production values quite like Ubisoft’s sprawling network of developers. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was an entire studio in China whose job it was to make the sound of boots in snow or the bloom of sunlight through autumn leaves.

There’s an economy in Assassin’s Creed III, as weirdly optional and even more undocumented as leveling up your assassin buddies (who bring with them some cool new abilities this time). It’s not a meaningful economy. In fact, it’s little more than an excuse for you to Creed about in the open world, in the cities, on the frontier, beneath the streets, into the forts, o’er the waves. The basic currency is how much time you’re willing to spend with a godawful crafting/trading interface, which is so steeped in frontier American flavor that I can hardly resist. Helping a miner woo a Scottish huntress so he can find and sell me the ore I need for my seamstress to make buttons for someone in New York? It’s among the most ridiculous things I’ve ever done in a videogame, right up there with becoming dean of Skyrim College’s magic department.

The most significant money sink in Assassin’s Creed III, which doesn’t have nearly as many money sinks as it could, is your ship. It’s an effective money sink, since it feeds into some ridiculously gratifying over-the-top Master and Commander spectacle. Your sailing ship, the Aquila, is a bit like the part of a sci-fi game where you get a spaceship, as Bioware has tried to do with their Old Republic games. But it’s way more gorgeous, opulent, and majestic than anything you’ll find in a sci-fi game.

Finally, I can’t say enough good things about the multiplayer, which is the next step in the formula introduced in Brotherhood and neatly spruced up in Revelations. No multiplayer game so cannily captures a feeling of cat and mouse, and relies so completely on tension and suspense instead of yet more thrills. To call this multiplayer unique doesn’t do it justice. If you care about new experiences in videogames, if you want to see how games can explore 3D spaces without resorting to shooting stuff or breaking things, you owe it to yourself to try Assassin’s Creed multiplayer. This latest iteration features absurdly detailed customization — aesthetic and otherwise — lurking in a drawn out set of unlockables. You can even advance by playing the new co-operative mode. The mode, called wolfpack, isn’t quite a horde mode, because this isn’t a shooter. But it is to Assassin’s Creed’s stealth what horde mode is to Gears of Wars’ shooting. The multiplayer even has a sideline plot you can gradually unlock, like the additional characters in the multiplayer for The Darkness II.

When Assassin’s Creed III was announced, I was entirely tapped out. I had no desire to traipse around the colonies or do dopey sailing missions. I was done. And boy was I wrong.

5 stars
Xbox 360