The development team at Ubisoft Montreal were no doubt rubbing their hands when Assassin’s Creed launched back in 2007. Not only was it something bold, new, and ambitious, it also harboured an intriguing narrative device that allowed them to pick and choose time periods and characters as they saw fit. By introducing players to the Animus, Ubisoft effectively blew the hinges off any narrative restrictions, throwing the doors wide open to plethora of creative possibilities.
Over the past six years we’ve explored a myriad of timezones and locations, from Damascus and Florence, to Constantinople and, more recently, revolutionary America. This year saw Ubisoft steer the franchise in a different direction with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the sixth mainline instalment launching last month, and featuring a fresh protagonist with a distinctly nautical theme.
In terms of creativity, Ubisoft has yet to drop the ball. With that said, the demand for annual instalments has taken its toll on other areas of the acclaimed series, as we’ll discuss later.
Firstly, let’s talk about the merits of last year’s Assassin’s Creed III. Breaking away from the exploits of the fiendishly popular Ezio Auditore da Firenze, III introduced a new character, setting, and approach to gameplay.
The network of internal studios working on the game did well to capture the essence of the revolution and how people used to live in that era. Though the story turned out to be more of an interactive history lesson, it wasn’t a journey completely without highlights.
Before III, Assassin’s Creed had used precisely the same array of mechanics and button layouts. Some, including myself, weren’t bothered by the perpetual rehash, though Ubisoft no doubt wanted to get one step ahead and avoid claims of series fatigue. The end result was a much less intrusive interface offering an adjustable amount of depth. Using snap menus, players were free to equip Connor with a combo of weapons and assassin tactics on-the-fly. It was by no means perfect (personally, I found the new system hard to get to grips with) but still showed signs of innovation.
Ubisoft also opened up the in-game world. Where Revelations confined itself to a single city, III allowed players to explore two cities and an open frontier where they could hunt animals and take on sides missions.
Where the game really slipped up was its lack of cohesion, and if there’s one thing I don’t like about a video game it has to be not understanding the plot. Barely hours into the experience I had lost the thread and, even now, I can only remember a handful of important characters.
When playing through the campaign it almost felt like Ubisoft was genuinely trying to educate users on the revolution. Though certainly a different approach, it detracted from the overall experience, sculpting Connor into the series’ least liked protagonist to date.
This lack of cohesion also spread to the game content itself. Optional missions and tasks have always been a central part of the Assassin’s Creed experience yet in III there was a diminished sense of purpose or reward. Take Brotherhood’s business-building mechanics, for instance. As Ezio, you were free to buy up swathes of store fronts scattered throughout Rome, using the proceeds to train, develop, and expand. III’s equivalent? A new hunting system and a vacuous homestead.
In that homestead you could recruit workers to farm the land and produce goods, however only the latter part required any sort of player input. Whenever you had the impulse, players could dive into their logs, triggering an awkward interface where trading and crafting were initiated. It was a shoddy, demanding system that soured my enjoyment of the game. It also meant that, aside from my Assassin brotherhood, I had no other meaningful secondary tasks sitting on the backburner.
The lifeless leading hero and homesteads aside, Assassin’s Creed III is still recommendable. Though I still yearn for Revelations’ regimented style of gameplay, newcomers to the series will no doubt have felt comfortable with the new sytem. Despite its flaws, there is still a good experience to be had and one that advances the franchise, with one element in particular laying the foundations for the series’ shift to piratical waters of the Caribbean.