SHOCKING AND UNFORGIVABLE REVELATION: I've been looking at a videogame on the PlayingStation. Don't judge me, I just like to sit in a different chair sometimes. And the benefit of the 10-odd hours I've spent with Assassin's Creed III so far does enable me to share some thoughts on what we're essentially in for when the PC version (maybe - let's not count our oft-delayed chickens yet, eh?) arrives later this month.
The main thing to say - by which I mean 'moan endlessly and slightly tediously about like a little child who didn't get the right Transformer for Christmas - is the tutorial.
I say 'tutorial.'
I mean 'five-hours of being treated like an idiot, and a slave.'
I mean 'I am a hair's breadth from saying I hate this game for always and forever.'
I don't hate this game, but I hate that I had to wait so damned long to be allowed to play it. The AssCreed games have always been slow-burners with extra-length tutorials, which I will superciliously claim is because they're games with relative complexity of controls compared to fellow perennial chart-hogs such as COD and GTA, but aimed at the massest of markets. AC3, however, is taking the micturition. Not, I think, in a "we believe our customers are morons" way, but more that it takes itself far too seriously, and as well as having to explain both the existent controls and the new features (hunting, tree-climbing, a heavily and awkwardly redesigned trading/crafting/economy system) opts to include a lengthy switch'n'bait prelude starring a different character. It's a good three hours of familiar free-running, man-stabbing and thinly-sketched conspiracies before the game offers even a taste of the new, Native American-inspired skillset. (And even once it does, there's two more hours of being laboriously told how to use it). Perversely, the guy voicing this initial character is infinitely more charismatic the performance of eventual protagonist Connor, who could easily be mistaken for a grumbletonian chair. Even so, the prelude is cloyingly po-faced as well laid low by excessive hand-holding and sign-posting.
What particularly puzzles me is that is the game takes no prisoners in terms of its meta-narrative, Assassin's Creed's infamous sci-fi/prophecy wiffle, as starring rightfully-loathed present day slubberdegullion* Desmond Miles and his attempts to stop something or other from happening by reliving the adventures of his historical ancestors. An intro video makes a token attempt to explain the story so far, but I can't imagine it would make a great deal of sense to series virgins - especially as the modern world scenes which follow drop straight down the ancestor race/impending apocalypse/centuries-long conspiracy/querulous charisma vacuum rabbit-hole. So, the game is presuming all its players know the story relatively intimately, but with its infuriating, 300 minute tutorial it apparently believes they've completely forgotten how to actually play these games. Or, more likely, it's trying to have its long-running franchise cake and force-feed it to newcomers. Either way, big, frustrating and patronising mistake.
The first five hours are as slow as continental drift, but once the fog of dour tuition lifts the real game finally appears. And, in the five-ish hours of that I've played, it's an awful lot more similar to the earlier AssCreeds than I'd honestly expected, given all the fancy talk and this game's three-year gestation.
I'm okay with that, truth to be told. A great deal of the appeal of this series, for me, has been relatively unfettered transit around carefully recreated cities of the past, and AC3's 18th-Century Boston (other cities appear later, but New England's capital is all I've seen so far) is satisfyingly, appealingly different to the old world cities the series has taken itself to previously. Large, cuboid red brick edifices either side of wide roads, with far less verticality than the towering spires of Europe and the Middle East. A wider expanse of world makes up for this, so there's more in the way of long sprints around twisting side roads or galloping through crop fields on horseback and a wee bit less rooftop action. Not much less though, and when you are up high the bow and arrow makes stealth-sniping that much more front and centre than the relatively limited-use throwing knives of earlier games.
Outside the city are first docklands occupied by towering part-built ships, and then, on the other side of a loading screen, the forested, animal-ruled wilderness. There are a few side-quests scattered around this area, but it primarily serves as a hunting ground. Arrows, knives, and if you want less valuable horribly mutilated hides from your kills, tomahawks are the standard tools of this beast-slaying trade, but there's a more elaborate mini-game to be had from setting down bait and snares to indirectly kill prey while you're busy bothering something else.
This side of things is most certainly diverting, and has become the compulsion loop I'm most regularly allowing to grab hold of me in AC3, though like everything in Assassin's Creed it's simply a matter of mastering controls and activating fixed actions, rather than an organic, changeable and surprising stalking game. On top of that, I haven't found the use of resources gained from hunting to be satisfying.
Mostly it's just selling your assortment of hides, tales and - ew! - hearts to shopkeepers, but there's also a cludgy remote-access crafting system whereby certain resources can be used to create upgrades and ammo, but only if you've also met requirement x and completed sidequest y and have friendly NPC z generating a steady stream of resource Φ. And got the hang of a really awkward, cramped additional set of menus which string together this obtuse series of actions and items. I'm glad to see a change from the straightforward but over-conveniently instant shop restorations of the post-AC2 games but this new system seems like feature creep for feature creep's sake.
Feature creep is perhaps the defining description of AC3. This isn't like the sea change of AC2 from AC1, but instead a whole lot of new stuff and a very attractive (even on console - I'm dead keen what the longer draw distances and crisper edges possible on PC do to AC3) engine put on top of a formula that's already underpinned three ACs to date. Some of it's certainly for the better, such as the move away from the always slightly vague head/arms/legs control concept of earlier games to a more traditional, explicable third-person action game setup, and that liberating areas of the city is now about fomenting the American people to revolt against their British masters rather than the sillier 'go burn down the enemy towers' mechanic of earlier games.
Less positive is a more awkward, overly-streamlined interface for controlling your NPC Assassin aides, an achievement-centric minigame involving chasing torn pages floating on the breeze, and so many bloody things which need buying or finding or upgrading, all with neat little monochrome icons to denote where to get them. Even by AssCreed's standards, this is an overtly gamey game, which is another reason I've been inclining towards the quieter, less signpost-splattered wilderness/forest environment.
It's a big, generous game and I'm enjoying myself even if I'm a little disappointed that its fixed, unsurprising systems means I'm not generating any anecdotes out of is as yet, and the new setting is a more evocative one than the earlier games' for sure. I fear it's too big for its own good though - too many small systems that aren't pleasing in and of themselves even if they do lead to more unlocks, and most especially that opening five hours of snail-slow deadtime. Right now, I'm feeling like the carefree party that was Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood remains the go-to AC game. I'll definitely and without regret be sinking the requisite several dozen hours in to the PC version a few weeks though, so perhaps I'll yet be proved wrong on that account.
Assassin's Creed III is in theory out on PC on November 23.
* Eternal credit to Proteus lead Ed Key for this most marvelous of words. Buy Proteus!