#475: Assassin’s Creed III
Beginnings and endings, revolutions and evolutions, fathers and sons in this American Assassin adventure
Initial release: 2012
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: Playstation 3/XBox 360/PC/Wii U
The history of the world, to a cynical eye, must read like a laundry list of wars, conquests and atrocities. New nations must naturally be borne out of old, emerging awash in blood and smoke. The American Revolution, the origin of the nation’s founding myths, was no different: a civil war, Brit against Brit, over representation in Parliament and the right to self-governance. After all, London was thousands of miles away; it seemed absurd that a bunch of old men could dictate the lives of people across the ocean when we could just as well have a bunch of old men dictate peoples’ lives from down the street.
Assassin’s Creed has, bit by bit, built itself on making history come alive. The Italian Wars of the Ezio cycle were interesting enough, but four games into the franchise Ubisoft were clearly feeling ready to tackle one of the biggest events in western history, and, being a French company with a Canadian studio working on the game, they had a lot to say about the whole mess.
Assassin’s Creed III opens simply enough. The modern-world framing story returns yet again, as the story of Desmond Miles reaches what will be its apparent conclusion: a cave in upstate New York, hiding a vast, ancient facility of unknown purpose. But to reach the center of this place requires a key, and the only one who knew where that key was is dead now. Fortunately, Desmond and company brought their Animus machine, the device that allows a user to dive into the memories of their ancestors — in this case, a dashing but unpleasant man named Haytham Kenway. During the French and Indian War, Haytham has been tasked with finding this exact place for the Templars, that ancient, dastardly conspiracy seeking power and control; along the way, he meets a Native Mohawk woman who has a particular grudge against a British general (who just so happens to be someone Haytham wouldn’t mind seeing gone either.)
One thing leads to another and we move on to Haytham’s son, Ratonhnhaké:ton (if you don’t know how to pronounce that, that’s okay, neither does his black father figure, who gives him the name Connor to blend in with “civilized” society.) After Templar Charles Lee murders his mother, Ratonhnhaké:ton is sent by the village elder to learn from “the old man on the hill,” a broken-down former Assassin named Achilles, who has seen the entire Colonial Brotherhood destroyed (something we got to witness in Assassin’s Creed Rogue.) As Ratonhnhaké:ton grows, learns and changes he gets wrapped up more and more with the growing dissatisfaction of the colonists with the British Empire; when revolution breaks out, Ratonhnhaké:ton is right there in the thick of it, meeting famous figures like Ben Franklin and Sam Adams and even George Washington himself — as well as his father, still on the side of the Templars.
Assassin’s Creed III is a lot of things. It’s a story of father and son — Desmond and his uneven relationship with his father, Ratonhnhaké:ton and the obvious awkwardness of having Haytham for a dad — or grumpy, tired Achilles for a father figure. It’s a beginning and an ending — an ending for Desmond, and the storyline that began with the first game, but also the beginning of a new era for the franchise — as well as the first and last game in a trilogy with follow-ups Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue being prequels. And, in the end, it’s a tale of how high-minded concepts like liberty and self-governance often don’t survive reality intact.
If you came at this from the Ezio trilogy you’ll right away see how the freerunning system has changed. While the hook from Brotherhood is gone, movement generally just feels more fluid and responsive while being less prone to sending you flying off in the wrong direction. This also marks the beginning of the series’ more naturalistic bent, with not one but two maps full of wilderness, with plenty of tree branches and logs and the like to run around on. Hunting is also introduced, turning the game into a (simplistic, but nonetheless engaging) frontier hunting sim a la Red Dead Redemption. And you get not one, but two cities to run around in as well, Boston and New York; the fast travel system returns, but this time you have to go down into old Masonic tunnels and find your way into cellars and other entrances and unlock doors from behind. It’s pretty spooky down there!
In general most of the franchise’s major systems have gotten a big overhaul. Combat got the biggest boost, being incredibly robust, giving you the ability to counter multiple attacks at once, use human shields, perform chain kills, and so on, as well as a new counter system, all geared towards a more aggressive playstyle. The button system has also been greatly simplified; rather than every action being connected to feet, hands or head, all interactions are done via a single context-sensitive button. This is also the game that introduced sailing to the franchise; while it’s not the open-world experience of later games, instead being centered around specific missions, you’re given the opportunity to upgrade your ship as you go along, and ship-to-ship combat feels good despite its relative simplicity compared to later entries.
This is also the point where the franchise started to go completely off the rails with collectibles. All of the maps are chock-full of icons to squash, and you’re free to collect or ignore them as you wish. I would personally recommend however collecting trinkets for Peg-Leg, because they unlock some fun missions to track down parts of a map leading to Captain Kidd’s treasure. But perhaps the single best part of the game are the Homestead missions.
I’ll get right down to it: it’s a long-standing joke that Ubisoft protagonists are kinda samey. Ezio stood out for being a well-meaning fuckboy who grows past his anger and into a wise leader of men, but Ratonhnhaké:ton is often quite single-minded and humorless in his appearances during the main storyline. The Homestead missions give him a chance to open up to people; as you meet more and more characters to invite to the little village you’re building, you get to witness Ratonhnhaké:ton grow as a person from a sweet, awkward dork to someone who truly cares about the people who’ve come to be his neighbors. These missions are often very simple: run an errand for someone, help someone get out of Boston (or New York,) and so on. But it’s a great way to get to know these characters, who have their own lives and follow their own schedules, culminating in some great scenes such as a wedding and — alas, inevitably — a funeral.
Assassin’s Creed III has a bittersweet feeling to it. Maybe it’s just because it feels like the end of an era in more ways than one, maybe it’s because of the rather pointed way that the game shows that even with the British gone, not much has changed — and in some ways, it’s worse. Or maybe it’s because, being not an American-made game, it has a lot of cogent things to say about American history that most Americans would never think to consider. It tries at least somewhat to center the Native experience, even going so far as to having the Native characters speak in their own language; it touches on the fact that a lot of Native Americans fought on the side of the British, because they knew what was coming should the Colonies win (and, indeed, they were proven correct.) Ratonhnhaké:ton, meanwhile, is caught between two worlds, both as a half-Native person and as someone who fights for the Patriots, believing that the freedom the Patriots fight for extends to his people.
And then there’s the DLC, creatively titled The Tyranny of King Washington I guess for copyright reasons. Ratonhnhaké:ton wakes up one morning after the war is over to find that he never left the tribe, his mother never died, and, crucially, George Washington has come into possession of a sinister artifact, giving him godlike power and enabling him to crown himself King of America, turning the country into a living hell with bodies lining the roads and hanging from trees. It’s all a mad vision, of course, induced by that same artifact, but Ubisoft used it as an opportunity to go a little nuts with supernatural stuff that they hadn’t really done much with up to that point (and would continue to not do much with at least until Assassin’s Creed Origins.) While it’s not explicitly intended as a horror story, it certainly comes off that way at times, putting it in the grand tradition of horror-themed expansions like Infamous 2’s Festival of Blood, The Zombie Isle of Doctor Ned for Borderlands, and, of course, Undead Nightmare for Red Dead Redemption.
Assassin’s Creed III is a lot of things: social stealth game, frontier sim, character-driven revenge story. And while it’s got a layer of jank over it (though let’s be real, that’s true for most games in this series) I have to say it’s one of the best Assassin’s Creed games I’ve ever played.