Modern tropes run rampant in Assassin’s Creed III. A little fun one is the late title card where the title of the game doesn’t reveal itself until after you’ve explored some small segment of an underground tunnel, murdered an elder Britsman at an opera house, and survived a harrowing naval battle. And, I guess, after playing some ancient checkers, possibly more than once because you refuse to lose to a computer.
That late title card, however, also works to represent the overall pace of the game in microcosm. You see, the first hour of the game is about as open as the latest Medal of Honor game (read: not very), and even after that, you’re still severely restricted in what you can and cannot do. There is a very deliberate and upfront section of tutorial within the Animus, but even after that, the game is still trying to hold your hand and teach you things.
Which can be good, in some cases. Assassin’s Creed games have traditionally been very mechanically dense. The first game in the series applied a puppet metaphor where buttons mapped to parts of the body according to relative location (i.e., triangle/Y was for your head, X/A was for your feet, etc.). And while helpful, that failed to permeate the subsequent games in any meaningful way and since the series has been out for a while, they figured the explicit tutorial then wouldn’t hold up now. This means instead of a compact, 10-minute tutorial of how everything works, we’re given hours of contextualized information on how to use firearms and punch people in the face.
It’s a little bit more than that, though. It’s not much of a spoiler at this point to say that you don’t actually start out playing as Connor, the new Native American hero of the game. Instead, you start out as a London-native named Haytham Kenway (if there’s a more 18th century name than that, I’d like to hear it), another ancestor of Desmond and full-blooded assassin. But it’s not a subtle introduction to the game via a different perspective as you might think. No, you are Haytham for quite some time. It’s like a backwards Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty switcheroo.
And pretty much the entire time you are Haytham, you are familiarizing yourself with the game and its systems. You will learn pretty much everything you need to know to play the game effectively over the course of the first third to half of the story, which kind of stretches the definition of “established order,” the key prologue before shit gets real found in any good story. It’s odd and a bit disconcerting.
It seems, however, to serve a purpose. Once you are finally put in Connor’s shoes, you are immediately at home. It’s not so much a shocking change so much as a lateral shift. It’s a different dude in a slightly different setting, but the controls and systems are still the same. It’s basically like you got taken from one plug and shoved into another outlet. You’re still the same tool, used for the same blood-soaked utility, but just…different. It takes the potentially jarring introduction from Revelations (or nothing, if you’re fresh to the series) and puts it on a gradual slope but keeps things interesting with this unexpected twist.
But is it necessary? Is this, much like the multiple versions of arcane checkers you can play, superfluous? Over the course of the Haytham introductory dichotomy, you’ll meet key players to the plot and the Revolution (Ben Franklin et al.), but you have to remember that era lasted all of 20-something years. Without spoiling too much, the balance of things that happen, when they happen, and who they happen to is, well, incongruous.
Perhaps the greatest casualty of this design is the actual gameplay. Assassin’s Creed games undoubtedly excel when they are at their most open. From where you approach to where you depart and everything in between, it is all your choice and you direct the outcome of this particular experiment in video game systems. However, in this preliminary phase of the game, you are directed instead. This paradigm of meta control is flipped and now you are at the game’s will, which not only takes away one of the greatest strengths of the series but also, in general, just plain sucks. There is a time and a place for such forced linear experiences (the Uncharted series, for example), but the first act of a supposedly open world game? Maybe not.
Once the game opens up, though, and you are able to battle ships and recruit assassins and whatnot, the game really hits its stride. It feels like Brotherhood again—the peak of the series—and requires no qualifications to say that it is a good game. The complaints of the slow burn at the beginning are understandable, but to say it is boring and leave it at that is folly. You should understand that it is not without purpose—albeit a misguided one—nor without merit. It’s a joy simply stepping foot in a setting so rarely explored in video games and to meet people you’ve only read about or seen in movies. It’s that feeling when you first meet Leonardo da Vinci as Ezio but like 20 times in a row.
I agree that Assassin’s Creed III opens with a poor hand, but it’s important to understand why it stumbles and not just label it as a mistake and tuck it away. That way you can better appreciate it when the game finally turns into the game you wanted it to be. And, I guess, while you’re playing Halo 4 next week.