The majority of game journalism is game reviews—many reviews are broken. Judgment Day is a column designed to highlight the reviews that stand out among the rest—reviews that are intelligent, thoughtfully critical, and helpful.
I spent a few hours of my weekend playing Assassin’s Creed III, so I thought this would be a good opportunity to share my initial thoughts as well as the best reviews I have read.
Where does Assassin’s Creed III shine brightest?
The most interesting thing to me about AC3 is its setting and it’s handling of historical events:
Ludwig Kietzmann of Joystiq highlights how well crafted the game’s revolutionary setting is:
The sense of scale and nearly palpable life in Boston and New York has the capacity to stun. The cities feel authentic enough to deter fact-checking, and impart that sense of being there – even if you’ve never been and never will be. These streets are nearly worth the price of admission alone, and they come with the implied promise that you’ll never have to do something as boring as driving a car up and down them all day.
Beyond the cities you’ll find a massive playground of rivers, cliffs and trees in the Frontier, an ideal testing ground for Connor’s feats of free-running. His impeccable movement, uninhibited by hills and fallen logs, is as captivating to watch as it is to command.
Arthur Gies of Polygon explains how the game’s handling of historical events is actually pretty fair and interesting:
Ubisoft Montreal has done a fantastic job of painting the American Revolution as more than the white-washed right vs. wrong conflict of high school U.S. History classes. The well-known figures of the Revolution aren’t saints. They’re slave owners and drunkards, disgraced soldiers and commanders guilty of awful sins amid the Seven Years War. They’re men willing to use the power of the printing press to sell the public a version of events like the Battles of Lexington and Concord designed to rally revolutionary spirit, regardless of whether that version is true or not. Neither side of the conflict is clean, and the effort to paint human characters with well-developed motivations is obvious.
Why couldn’t I get into the game?
I know some of you will object to John Teti’s review for Gameological–perhaps you feel it comes across as too harsh or too annoyed by optional things in the game, however, no review was able to articulate my frustrations with AC3 so clearly:
Creed III relentlessly foists busywork on you. Practically every action you can take in the world is recast, within seconds, as the first step in some demeaning meta-quest. If you kill an animal, a text prompt appears with a challenge: “KILL 5 DIFFERENT KINDS OF ANIMAL.” Take a “leap of faith” from a tall tree, and you get “PERFORM 10 LEAPS OF FAITH.” Your reward for completing these scutwork challenges is more of them; once in a while you might get a brief mission.
It’s a reductio ad absurdum of a worrisome attitude in modern game design: the belief that a task becomes entertaining simply by virtue of making it a goal. You see this attitude playing out in the corporate sphere with the execrable “gamification” movement, which attempts to increase productivity among rank-and-file employees by applying game mechanics to their jobs—like, say, giving Joe Punchclock 100 points for filling out his TPS reports on time. Instead of making work rewarding, gamification strives only to make work seem rewarding. In Creed III we come full circle: the gamification of a game.
What is the most surprising moment in the game?
Without hesitation, the funniest moments in the game come from talking to Benjamin Franklin. I stood and listened to him explain to my character why he thinks its better to have an older woman for a wife–the conversation probably lasted close to 5 minutes, was horribly sexist, and apparently also historically accurate. After having this conversation with Franklin, I came across this interview with Corey May, the game’s lead writer, conducted by Yannick LeJacq, in which May cites the historical evidence for that conversation:
I learned a lot about how many of the founding fathers had these very bizarre quirks. Benjamin Franklin definitely had opinions on sex and sexual relations. Something that we reference in the game is a letter he wrote to a friend that outlined all the reasons why taking an old woman as a mistress is better than taking a young woman. He goes through a bunch of things which are, you know, fairly sexist and classist . . .
I won’t go into more detail about that conversation–but it’s amazing to me that this particular sequence is not merely some hamfisted attempt at humor but actually has historical precedence. It made me want to go talk to all the various founding fathers featured in AC3 just to see what interesting or bizarre things they might say. May went on to discuss how the game depicts the founding fathers and what we can learn from them:
There’s a lot to learn from what they failed to do, and we should aspire to be even better. Even they knew they weren’t perfect! There was talks by I think Jefferson about how he wanted the constitution to be revisited every x number of years because he realized that society changes, and culture changes. All of these things are really interesting to me, and they’re all there in the game. But again, I don’t like to preach or hit people on the head. So it’s relatively subtle and off to the side. But it’s there for people who want to find it and who want to think about that stuff.
What do you think of the game?
My opinion should be taken with a grain of salt because I have only played 10 hours or so of the game. That said, I often found myself feeling the same frustrations that John Teti articulates, though I think I found more reasons to attempt to overlook them. AC3 is thoroughly gamified–every single mission that I did, I was told to try and do it a certain way and was never really told why I should do it that way. I got a lot of red “Xs” in my mission reports because I just didn’t want to take the time to try and do these missions in such silly gamified ways. I also agree with Teti that AC3′s plot takes a really long time to get going. I probably played for about 5 hours before I ever started playing as an adult Connor–that is longer than any of the extended editions of the Lord of the Rings movies.
I will say, however, that I found Colonial America to be beautifully rendered and surprisingly fascinating to explore. I enjoyed chatting with our founding fathers and found each of them to be surprisingly interesting characters. I would love to see more games attempt to place themselves in such rich historical settings and to provide players with interesting means of living in such settings.
Having recently played through Dishonored, I couldn’t help but constantly think about interesting a stealth game in the Revolutionary period would be if it were not so bent on progression by violence.
In my 10 hours of playing AC3, I have not been able to stop thinking about how I would love to see a historically rich game that doesn’t default to having players kill hundreds, if not thousands of dudes. Truth be told, you will spend as much if not more time, in AC3, killing people than you will taking in the beautiful setting and being amused/entertained by its depiction of history and historic settings and events. I wasn’t expecting to get that kind of interaction from AC3, I doubt anyone expected as much if they played any of the previous games, AC3 just further reinforced how tiresome such violent systems are becoming.