Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Assassin's Creed 3 Critique (Uni Assignment)

After the positive response to posting a DayZ essay on my blog that was done for a uni assignment, I figured I'd keep posting any game-related critiques/essays that I do throughout my degree. This was an assignment that was essentially a review, where we had to critique a game on what it does well and not so well, but more from a design point of view than a typical review (we were also told to write it "without the hyperbole you see in some commercial reviews - so keep it sober", lulz). We had to identify the flaws, and analyse how they were in keeping (or not) with the designer's vision of the game, and how they affected the game as a whole.

When we got this assignment, I knew from the beginning I would write about Assassin's Creed III. Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows exactly how I feel about this game. It's my go to example of the faults of the AAA industry approach to game production, and I had plenty of things to say about it. If we didn't have a word count I could have ranted for pages and pages on exactly what the game did wrong, but unfortunately we did, so I had to keep to that.

Hopefully this gives some insight into just some of the reasons I think Assassin's Creed III is a total turd. tl;dr it's a visionless mess

A cohesive vision is integral to a good game. If a game feels like it's barely holding together, with all sorts of random content thrown in there, it feels wrong. It feels soulless. This is how Assassin's Creed 3 feels to me- soulless. It's a product of the attitude of the AAA market in which a game needs as much content as possible, and needs to be designed around new and inexperienced players, even if the game in question is a sequel in a long running franchise. As the game's creative director, Alex Hutchinson (2012a) says himself, "content is king, as it has always been". A game should be aiming for quality over quantity. Yes, the scope of AC3 is indeed large, but it covers a lot of unnecessary content, and a lot of badly designed content, and is a large step backwards from the quality of past instalments in the series. It's the logical progression of Ubisoft's annualisation of the series in order to maximise their profits, and it's a real shame. Not only does it not mesh well with the series as a whole, but neither do its own components mesh well with each other as a complete product.

Hutchinson (2012e) said that during development they had a big idea on their whiteboard which drove development- "This is a new IP". This has had a noticeable effect where most of the content doesn't mesh together at all. Naval combat is enjoyable, but why is a supposed assassin partaking in such an activity? You're not supposed to know they're there, they're supposed to be working in the shadows, not yelling orders and firing cannons on the open sea. The time and resources spent here could have been put on fixing the game's other problems. That's the enjoyable end of the side content spectrum, the majority of it is more poorly designed. The game includes bocce of all things! If urgent action is required in the middle of a war, why is this hero taking time off to play games? The game doesn't explain the rules of bocce, nor what any of your actions do. I had to Google the rules in order to understand why my opponents were taking points from me because the game wasn't telling me. The interface wasn't clear about whether my shots were accurate or not, either, so I had to guess. It didn't help that this was a required part of a mission I was doing. The worst bit about this content is that there's no point in doing most of it, giving trivial rewards. A lot of them just reward you with money, but money is borderline useless in the game- the vast majority of items you can buy can be looted from enemies or don't offer much improvement.

This gigantic scope also poses issues for the main story as well. It, too, moves you away from being an assassin, into more of a historical action hero. The game's protagonist, Connor, is shoehorned into practically every historical event in the period like an American Revolution equivalent of Forrest Gump. In past games the protagonists have played a small part in historical events, like The Crusades in Assassin's Creed 1 and toppling the Borgia family's reign in Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood. The lore in these games also implied Assassin and Templar action in the course of history. But it was never to the extent of one person being the sole reason a nation won independence through a war of this scale. Hutchinson says AC3 gave them "an opportunity to include more historical events than ever before"(2012d), and it feels like this was done to further increase the scope and size of the game. Not only is it unbelievable that Connor is the one who actually rode the horse in Paul Revere's ride and commanded the troops in the Battle of Bunker Hill, among his parts in other historical events, but these sections again don't feel like assassin activity, and aren't enjoyable in the least. In the Battle of Bunker Hill you walk between groups of soldiers and press a button to tell them to shoot. A whole mission is made out of that!

The majority of AC3's problems stem from this overreaching scope- it makes the game feel so tacked together and unpolished. When asked about why a certain feature wasn't included in the game, Hutchinson (2012b) said:
" I think it's already one of the biggest games ever made, and you can see that with that level of ambition and scope comes bugs we just can't fix in time, so if we'd jammed more in there we would have been unable to polish even as much as we did. :)"
In his own words, he says the game couldn't have been 100% polished because of the game's scope, and he happily accepts that. Bugs aside, I feel like this attitude flows through to the game's content as well. There was so much added, that making sure all of it was of a good standard and polished wouldn't have been possible. A deeper focus on the gameplay and storyline show the flaws of the team's design process.

The game's interface makes both the combat and stealth fall apart. The game's map/radar is supposed to show you where enemies are, however sometimes it  doesn't show all the enemies on the map. In stealth situations, this means your strategies can get thrown out the window when you act only to find that the interface has lied to you about the number of enemies and you've walked into view of a group of them. It's especially frustrating when you're in a mission where you fail upon being detected, and have to restart the mission. In the combat, when players have killed enough guards, the player will reach high levels of 'notoriety', at which point enemies are constantly spawned out of nowhere until you escape combat. The game's camera zooms in so you can't see the enemies being spawned, but the illusion is easily broken when a pile of bodies builds up, when there weren't that many guards in the area before. Not to mention they're not even shown on the map! It's a cheap way of forcing the player to flee and hide, and breaks the game's own rules and conventions it tells you about- why have an interface like this when it outright lies to you and is of no use?

Regardless, the stealth systems are still broken. In a lot of games involving stealth, they have a lot use useful systems in place that allow you to be stealthy. This is usually in the form of being able to hide in shadows or a 'stealth mode' of sorts, like crouching. Assassin's Creed 3 has neither of these, instead revolving around what's called 'social stealth' i.e. being able to hide in crowds and groups of people, gradually making your way to a target. This is all well and good in areas populated with civilians, but a lot of the missions requiring stealth aren't. The lead game designer said that "It was always the vision that crouching in public spaces is not "hiding in plain sight"" (Assassin's Creed III Dev Team, 2012). Again, this makes sense for the populated areas, but when you're in an enemy garrison or in the middle of the Frontier, you have no way to stealthily approach your targets. The game does provide some, but they just don't work. If you hide at the corner of a wall/tree/tent etc, Connor will lean around the corner and you can whistle, luring an enemy towards you and allowing you to kill them stealthily. However, usually one of several things will happen- either no one will follow the whistle (making it useless), someone will still see you (blowing your cover) or multiple guards will follow the whistle (meaning you're back at square one). Two other tools provided are being able to run along the branches of trees, the rooftop equivalent of the Frontier, and being able to use 'stalking zones', which are areas of vegetation Connor can crouch in and hide. These sound like great tools to approach enemies with, but they're so situational to the point of uselessness, being faults of both the game's mechanics and level design. In the series' cities, it's easy to get on rooftops because you can climb effectively any building, and when you're there there's always some path you can follow to keep your eyes on your target. This isn't the case with the trees in the Frontier- not every tree can be climbed, and they don't always follow the paths that enemies traverse. This means that you have to first backtrack and find a tree or branch you can use to get over to the ones near your enemies, and when you're up there you'll often find that the path through the trees you're taking ends, with no way to keep following your enemies. The result is that you end up on the ground again, with no way to approach your enemies. This is where stalking zones are supposed to come in handy, but they're so few and far in between that you can't utilise them to approach enemies effectively. The logical conclusion I came to in these situations was to use silent, ranged weapons to take distant enemies out, but when you use them in a stalking zone Connor stands up, blowing his cover. Some form of 'stealth mode' like crouching would have really come in handy for these situations where low, slow traversal wouldn't stand out like in a city.

The game's mechanics and mission design are tailored around action and combat rather than stealth, which seems so silly given the game's title and lineage. Hutchinson (2012d) says they "kept the idea that the gameplay was built around navigation, combat and social stealth", but I really don't agree. I've pointed out already how the stealth systems are broken, but on top of that the game's combat gets a greater focus e.g. missions that require you to remain undetected often end in a battle anyway. The combat is quite enjoyable, I won't deny that, but it feels so simplified compared to the previous games (which is saying something), and it never gets harder. The same enemy types are used throughout the whole game, and while you're getting better at it, the enemies stay the same. Once you realise you can chain from a counter into the bow or pistol, you have a strategy that works on every enemy type. Hutchinson (2012c) says the aim for combat was "to reward aggressive players", but waiting for other enemies to attack is always the best option. If an enemy attacks, you can kill them with a counter attack (which is easier than ever now that the interface shows prompts when the enemy attacks), or if they're using a firearm you can grab another enemy as a shield. If you're not being attacked, you can just fire your pistol, killing all but the strongest variety in a single hit. Connor can fire his right away without aiming, yet enemies will wait around for a few seconds pointing theirs at you so that you can counter them. Unless you're forced to in a mission, there's no incentive to use stealth when it doesn't change the game's progression and combat is made so easy.

I mentioned before how the game's story suffers from its grand scale, but it has other flaws, too. In aiming to be a retelling of history it restricts itself, and the player, by not allowing itself to differ too much from what actually happened, making many sections of the game very linear. This often makes the protagonist, Connor, look like an absolute imbecile. He regularly comes into contact with historical figures who are his enemies, and he has every intention of killing, but some contrived reason to stop him will always arise. This is especially true of Charles Lee, the game's main antagonist. There's one moment where Connor is about to attack Lee, but is dragged away to meet George Washington so he doesn't make a scene. Connor has no problems killing all his other targets, and countless guards, but accepts trivial reasons to not kill the man that burned his village and killed his tribe. You're also robbed of many assassinations because of this, including Lee's. Because these people weren't assassinated, the game invents other reasons for you to kill them. The final confrontation with Lee is a chase scene- you merely chase him for a couple of minutes, with Lee's death handled via a cutscene. It's a massive anticlimax when the game's big conclusion is one you don't get to play any significant part in- it plays itself! Connor's idiocy is enforced by the 'optional objectives' of missions. The series' lore has established these as what the playable ancestors actually did (e.g. remaining undetected or not killing anyone) at that point of history, serving as more content for players to complete. The problem is, the designers have tried to make them difficult rather than believable, making Connor a buffoon. One that stood out in particular was mission where you must eavesdrop on two targets without being spotted. The targets are towing a cart of hay which you can hide in- the perfect place to hide! One problem- the optional objective is to not use the haystack. This means that instead of hiding away unnoticed, Connor ran alongside the cart through the trees, taking out guards stationed along the road, all the while listening into a conversation. Connor behaves irrationally all throughout the story, most notably with his interactions with George Washington and his father Haytham, the Templar Grandmaster in the region. Connor believed that Haytham ordered an attack on his tribe, burning down their village and killing his mother. This is the reason he targets the Templars. When Haytham discovers this he's shocked, he had no idea such a thing happened, and later reveals it was actually Washington, Connor's ally, who ordered the attack. The logical thing to do here would be to accept Haytham's truce and work together. Instead Connor turns both him and Washington away, while still fighting for the bluecoats. He ends up hunting Haytham down and killing him, while he acts almost friendly towards Washington, helping him out with another important task, and bizarrely even joining him for a friendly game of Bocce at the end. Connor feels driven by no real motive, serving purely as a means for the player to be fighting on the side of the Patriots because they won the war and the designers can't change that. The developers have stated that it was meant to be a story about Assassins vs. Templars rather than Patriots vs. Loyalists (May, 2012), but it doesn't come off that way at all. The Templars are almost exclusively sided with the British, and Connor and his mentor, the only surviving Colonial assassins, side with the Patriots. Connor is even explicitly told by his mentor when he refuses to help the Patriots at one point that "their fight is [his] fight". But the confusing thing is while the game paints him as the noble hero, I felt like Haytham and the Templars were the good guys. Whenever Connor kills a Templar they chastise him and describe their plans, which seems like an attempt at moral ambiguity like in the first game, except there's no ambiguity- the Templars have a vision and seem like they'd rule the land better than Washington, yet the game keeps reinforcing that they're the bad guys. For example, when Connor clears out a Loyalist fort, he is shown raising the Patriot flag, while a fanfare plays, followed by a shot of the Patriots cheering as the Loyalists are cleared out, and triumphant music plays. The Patriots are the good guys- except they're not!

The modern day plot that frames the game got a much worse treatment though. The Assassin's Creed games actually take place in the present, with a man named Desmond playing through the events of the past through a device called the Animus. This game was the end of his saga, but it feels like the designers lost their original vision for the series once it became popular, changing from a trilogy into an ongoing series (Assassin's Creed 3 is actually the fifth main game). This was the game that was meant to tie up the series' loose plot threads, but instead quickly snips them off at the ends and sets up further sequels. Desmond actually gets missions of his own in this game, which are for the most part well designed and enjoyable. They take a turn for the worse though once Desmond gets to Abstergo headquarters, the main base of operations for the modern Templars. Vidic, a Templar who is Desmond's main antagonist, has Desmond's father kidnapped and won't return him unless Desmond hands over the Apple of Eden- an ancient artefact capable of controlling minds. Desmond tries to sneak in unnoticed, but everyone inside the building gradually stop what they're doing and stare at him. He makes it to the lift and Vidic taunts him over the PA, asking if he really thought he could get in unnoticed. It's a great set up, showing how outmatched Desmond and his allies are. This feeling is short-lived. Daniel Cross, a high ranking Templar agent, traps Desmond and is about to kill him- but then has a hallucinogenic attack and runs off. The player chases him and kills him, and that's it. He doesn't get a dying monologue or anything to give his death an impact. Desmond then continues through to Vidic's office, where his father is. Vidic demands the Apple, to which Desmond activates it and has Vidic's guards shoot him, and then themselves, and escapes with his father. Vidic is a genius who knows full well what the Apple is capable of, set up to be a powerful antagonist, yet he's disposed of in a way that's insulting to his intelligence, lacking any impact.

The end of Desmond's story somehow manages to be worse. The catastrophic event that Desmond needs to stop has happened before in the past, and the group of ancient beings he has made contact with in previous games could not stop it, hence why they reached out to him. Except somehow one of them has managed to keep themselves alive, trapped in the Great Temple Desmond now stands in, and now has the means to stop the next solar flare from happening, but it can only be activated if Desmond sacrifices himself, and doing so will unleash her on the world, which she harbours a vengeance for now and intends to destroy it. Desmond does so, saying that the others will find a way to stop her, and the world is saved- for now! Ignoring that this is obviously a set up for sequels, this development doesn't make sense at all. If this being could not stop the past catastrophe with the help of other, equally intelligent beings, when they had countless resources available to them, how could she manage to now, despite being trapped in a room? And assuming she could create such a solution, how does it even function? How does it require a sacrifice, and how is it tied to her release from the temple? It raises so many questions but doesn't attempt to explain them. To end the game that was originally meant to be the end of the series on a cliffhanger is an obvious sign that Ubisoft cares more about making further instalments than the game's plot. To play through around 20-30 hours of the game and have unsatisfying ends to both of the game's main plots makes the experience end on such a bad note.

To say Assassin's Creed 3 was a disappointing game would be an understatement. Past games in the series were, if not at least somewhat enjoyable, still well designed games that didn't have gaping technical flaws. AC3 on the other hands is full of them, with mechanical and storytelling flaws that seem so obvious that it's a wonder that the developers didn't correct them. The game just gives me the impression that it was designed as a product than a game, so the developers could say "Look at all this content, what great value for money!". Unfortunately this didn't work, and unlike what Alex Hutchinson believes, content is not king. Well designed content, however, would certainly be a step in the right direction.

Works Cited

Hutchinson, A., 2012a. A Q&A With Assassin's Creed III Creative Director Alex Hutchinson [Interview, available online at http://gamesauce.org/news/2012/11/02/a-qa-with-assassins-creed-iii-creative-director-alex-hutchinson/] (2 November 2012).
Hutchinson, A., 2012b. Ask The Creators of Assassin's Creed III Questions. They're Here To Answer Them. Right Now [Interview, available online at: http://kotaku.com/i-loved-the-game-however-why-were-rival-tribes-neve-454457942] (04 December 2012).
Hutchinson, A., 2012c. Assassin’s Creed 3′s Alex Hutchinson interview: “following Ezio is going to be a challenge, no matter what you do” [Interview, available online at: http://www.officialplaystationmagazine.co.uk/2012/11/06/assassins-creed-3-interview/] (6 November 2012).
Hutchinson, A., 2012d. AusGamers Assassin's Creed 3 Alex Hutchinson Developer Interview [Interview, available online at: http://www.ausgamers.com/features/read/3202878] (27th April 2012).
Hutchinson, A., 2012e. Interview: The Next Patrice Desilets [Interview, available online at: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/363428/assassins-creed-iii-interview-alex-hutchinson/] (17 August 2012).
May, C., 2012. Assassin's Creed 3 dev promises: 'We've got nothing against the British' [Interview, available online at: http://www.computerandvideogames.com/350667/assassins-creed-3-dev-promises-weve-got-nothing-against-the-british/] (12 June 2012).
Assassin's Creed III Dev Team, 2012. IAmA Developer on Assassin's Creed III. Ask Me Almost Anything [Interview, available online at: http://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/134w2f/iama_developer_on_assassins_creed_iii_ask_me/c70tagu] (December 2012).

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