“I have spent today drawn from one bit of madness to another, with nothing to show for it,” complains the hero of Assassin’s Creed III at the end of one mission. He might as well be talking about the whole game. Assassin’s Creed III is mired in madness, but not the run-naked-in-the-streets kind—that would be entertaining. Instead, it’s the more mundane madness of an ill-conceived sequel: an obsessive compulsion to add more, more, more, with diminishing returns, long after the well of ideas has run dry.
Set in colonial New England before and during the American Revolution, Assassin’s Creed III is the latest in the Creed series of games about sneaky people from the past who stab bad guys. (Technically, Creed is about a dude from the future who uses a magic DNA time machine to pretend that he’s sneaky people from the past, and this game wraps up that future dude’s storyline, but the series’ techno-spiritual premise is just the flavorless saltine on which the peanut butter of old-timey assassination rests.) The first Creed, repetitious and underdeveloped, served in retrospect as a prelude to Assassin’s Creed II, in which the “historical superspy” concept reached full flower in earnest.
Creed II and its follow-up games, Brotherhood and Revelations, benefited from an inspired setting and a charming hero. Lively, volatile Renaissance Italy not only provided a backdrop against which Creed could unwind its epic conspiracy theories, but it also gave your character, Ezio Auditore, intricate spaces in which he could sneak, scamper, and stab the conspirators. The games were loopy—one minute you’re prancing across the rafters of St. Mark’s Basilica, and the next you’re hunting for hidden Templar messages in a photo of the Yalta Conference. But there was a consistent sensibility to them, embodied by Ezio himself—clever, violent, and silly at once.
When the scope was broadened to a wider coalition of assassins in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood—one of the most enjoyable games of the past decade—it worked because the larger world still felt like an extension of Ezio. It’s only in the disappointing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, when Ezio’s natural charisma and physicality were obscured by tedious technical gewgaws like a bomb-crafting system, that cracks began to show. Those cracks have widened into a chasm of aimless mediocrity that consumes Assassin’s Creed III.
To say that this new entry starts slow would be like saying that Hurricane Sandy was a bit of a rain shower. Its disregard for the audience’s time is obscene. Here’s pretty much all you need to know about the first day you might spend playing Creed III: The 17th mission you undertake is called “Training Begins.” Prior to that, hours are pissed away, mostly on a series of go-here-kill-this errands in which you play as a rather bland fellow who has a connection to the eventual protagonist. Throughout this crushingly boring prelude, your background and motivations are vague, in order to preserve an eventual plot twist—one that packs no emotional oomph, given the game’s failure to inspire any strong emotion about its characters one way or the other. Thus, in the time it takes to watch Lawrence Of Arabia in its entirety, Creed III sets up one joke with a lousy punchline.
But then “Training Begins,” right? Well, no, not just yet. First, you meet our new hero, Ratonhnhaké:ton, the humorless love child of a British colonist and a Native American. He plays hide-and-seek with his friends, and he goes on a spirit quest in which Ratonhnhaké:ton takes the form of an eagle, as mandated by the Federal Agency For Pop-Culture Depictions Of Native Americans. Once he meets his mentor, our hero acquires the more pronounceable name of Connor Kenway—because, the mentor explains, Connor needs to be able to pass as a Spaniard. (“Ah, yes, Kenway. Of the Barcelona Kenways, I assume?”)
Only then does training begin—although it would be more accurate to say that training continues, because Creed III never really stops holding your hand. The majority of the missions in the main quest consist of cutscene after cutscene, broken up by menial tasks in which you walk to a prescribed checkpoint and either stab something or press the B button to “interact” with it. Worse yet, many of the menial tasks are just cutscenes in disguise, like the eavesdropping missions in which you must stand nearby while you listen to a conversation. That pretty much sums up the Assassin’s Creed III main-quest experience: You shut up and sit down while plastic-looking computer people blather screenwriting clichés at each other.
Even when this hugely over-scripted game releases the reins for a bit, the design of the challenges tends toward the simplistic. There are a few small missions that recall the careful strategy and stealth of the series at its peak, but more often, you’re an errand boy. Your role in the Battle Of Bunker Hill is to run back and forth between three groups of Continental Army soldiers and tell them to shoot at the guys in the red coats (who obligingly fall dead en masse). Creed III’s interpretation of Paul Revere’s midnight ride is to stick Paul on the back of your horse and have him shout driving directions at you, recasting an American folk hero as the pasty, irritable predecessor to a dashboard GPS.
You play through other major events of the era—you’re basically Forrest Gump with a tomahawk—but you won’t find any substantive commentary here, despite the fact that Creed III makes some weak feints toward Saying Something About America. Connor lectures Sam Adams, for instance, on the hypocrisy of owning a slave while calling for liberty, and Templar conspirators exist on both sides of the Revolutionary conflict, so it’s not just the Brits who earn your ire. These superficial gestures generate no lasting insight or tension, because ultimately, they’re trumped by Creed’s fundamental formula: At any given moment, the guys marked in red on your mini-map are the baddies, and you should go murder them. It’s hard to graft ideological complexity onto that template, and the attempts to pretend otherwise are unconvincing.
That’s the main quest, though. The spice of Assassin’s Creed has always been found in the extracurriculars. Once you slog through Creed III’s initial eight-hour cavalcade of dullness—to be clear, this is a prospect I do not endorse—the world of this “open-world” game deigns to open. Suddenly, your map lights up with activities galore. There is more to do in Creed III than in any game I’ve played. Yet so little of it is worthwhile.
You can hunt for animals in a hunting-and-trapping simulation slightly more sophisticated than late-era Oregon Trail. You can play three different kinds of checkers. You can chase down pages of Poor Richard’s Almanack that a clumsy Ben Franklin scattered throughout Boston and New York. The bomb-crafting system has metastasized; you can now gather raw materials and recruit artisans to craft oodles of things. Perhaps you’ll gather lumber and make a barrel. Congratulations, you now have a barrel.
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.
In fairness, previous Assassin’s Creed games had their share of menial tasks, too. But the side quests in the Ezio Auditore games had a baseline level of craft to them. The most thrilling parts of Creed II were the free-running challenges that had you seek out treasure by finding the fastest route—jumping, climbing, swinging from chandeliers—across the nooks and crannies of Italian landmarks. In Creed III, you gather trinkets for a sailor named Peg Leg by going to the spots on the map marked with a trinket icon and picking them up.
And while there was not much depth to Ezio’s renovation quests, in which you fixed up local landmarks and storefronts, they provided tangible and functional changes in the surrounding world—a sense that, as you were drawn from one madness to another, you had something to show for it. Creed III’s landscape is static by comparison.
Creed II also offered the pointless and much-mocked tedium of finding all the glowing feathers hidden throughout its world, but the feather sideshow was easy to ignore, and all but the most obsessive players did so. In Creed III, it’s all feathers—with rare exceptions. Among these bright spots are the naval missions, which put you in command of a battleship on the high seas. These battles are exciting, with pacing that is slow enough to give you the feel of a massive wooden hull but quick enough to keep the blood pumping. Fleshed out, the naval missions could stand alone as their own game.
That might make more sense. The bits on the boat feel detached from the rest of the experience, as do so many aspects of Creed III. At times, the whole affair feels like one of those old gray-market cartridges that offered “100 games in one!” One or two of the games would be decent, but the rest were chaff.
Maybe that’s unfair, you could argue, because the production values in Creed III are so lavish. After all, this is hardly a cheap-looking game. Its rendition of the New England countryside is extremely pretty. Yet it’s pretty in the same way that a picture of sailboats on the wall of a bed-and-breakfast is pretty. Nice to look at, but devoid of passion. There was a hot-bloodedness to Ezio Auditore’s Italy that is absent from Connor Kenway’s New England. Hell, there was a hot-bloodedness to Ezio Auditore that Connor Kenway doesn’t have. That passion is important. It provides the underlying thread of emotion that can unite the disparate elements of a sprawling world. It provides the drive to offer players something more than a sequence of tasks.
Unlike its best predecessors, I never got the sense from Assassin’s Creed III that its goal was to present a compelling, unified work. By all appearances, its primary goal is to justify its existence. Creed III seems to know that “guy from the past who stabs people” is a premise that has run its course, at least for now. This game doesn’t need to exist, but the forces of marketing inertia have decreed that it will. So with an endless litany of cutscenes, chores, and side games, Creed III tries to obscure the reality of its own pointlessness. Trouble is, the harder it tries, the emptier it feels.