I have been wholly immersed over the last few weeks in working on some writing projects and haven’t been able to turn my attention to this blog in the way that I certainly wanted to. In my spare time, I found I was doing more reading than usual, particularly on NeoGAF, and particularly on the debates surrounding next-gen.
I admit. I’m excited. I know a host of people–all of which feel differently about what next-gen has to offer–many of whom believe they’ll be safer purchasing their systems much later on, at least, after the initial rush. I can’t say that I blame them, of course, and I’m sure that when next-next-gen comes, I’ll do the same. But I’m one of the few who never experienced a launch day. I received a PlayStation 2 for Christmas when I was about ten or eleven, and an Xbox 360 shortly after it released, again, at Christmas. The first console I ever purchased with my own money–a PlayStation 3–was the slightly slimmer model, once the initial price hike had gone down a few years post-launch.
This new generation has finally given me access to the wonderful, the exciting, launch day. I couldn’t get a Wii when it launched (though many people couldn’t), and, although we were stranded at work without a Wii U for a whole week or so, it wasn’t nearly endearing enough upon actually interfacing with it to make me regret not purchasing one. The promise of this generation is what made E3 a delight for me, what sent me off, barely a month later, scouring the internet for some retailer that could get me a PlayStation 4 on launch day. Thanks to Amazon, I can expect to come home from work on Friday to a brand new system.
Due to release date of Watch Dogs getting moved back, I’m left on launch day with only* a copy of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, somewhat questionably produced as a next-gen game available on current hardware. Despite the fiasco that was, and still is, Assassin’s Creed III, I’m excited. I’ve been trolling the GAF original thread on the subject for quite some time, but what I found there got me thinking about the state of the franchise and why I, like apparently so few others, still quite enjoy the series.
The Story so Far
It’s probably worth mentioning that the first Assassin’s Creed game I ever played was Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood. I hated it. From clunky controls that I didn’t know how to use to occasionally vaulting over the city walls and into bodies of water I wasn’t able to find a way out of, there was literally nothing fun about this game to me. They gave me a horse and took it away, every time I ran up a building guards thew rocks at me. “Ezio is so cool though,” the game told me, “look at him here having sex with this hot lady. Now you get to go blow some stuff up! Is this game awesome or what?????”
Off the top of my head, I don’t know what my playtime is on Brotherhood, but I can bet safely that it wasn’t much more than four or five hours. I restarted the campaign twice at different intervals, usually quit in the same spot, and left it on my shelf. I still haven’t gone back to Brotherhood, but given the current circumstances, maybe I will.
I’ve played a little bit of most of the Assassin’s Creed games. Though most make the case for the original Assassin’s Creed II as the best of the series, I was particularly taken by what I saw of Revelations, which was exceedingly beautiful and, as I have been told, fairly lovely all around (within reason because, obviously, nothing gets better than Assassin’s Creed II). Ezio, unlike Altair Ibn-La’Ahad and Ratonhnhake:ton (or Connor, considering his actual name isn’t the catchiest for audiences unfamiliar with the Mohawk tribe), received the full treatment: a suite of three games that took him from birth to death, establishing a legacy that has, in some way, come to weigh on the franchise. “Why not stop after Revelations?” most ask. “Why do we need an Assassin’s Creed III (or IV)?”
I can’t answer that in any terms that aren’t “because it’s a franchise,” and “because it makes money,” but that’s beside the point. Everyone–including myself–went into Assassin’s Creed III uneasily knowing that Ezio’s storyline was over and that Desmond wasn’t getting the slick modern-day assassin game that some people were hoping for, among other iterations. I recall reading PlayStation Magazine during a (short) plane ride to Anaheim to go to Disneyland, and the spread it had, some five or six pages, that were simply stunning. Revolutionary War? Yes. 18th Century Boston and New York? Awesome. Ship battles? Totally. Free running through trees? Wild. Connor? Well…okay.
I received game on its release, I went home and played it immediately. The first part of the game–arguably just a large tutorial section–puts the player as young Englishman Haytham Kenway, later revealed to be both a Templar (shock!) and Connor’s father.
For the record, I love Haytham. I loved Haytham when I played him and I love him now. I talked about how much I loved him on Twitter that his voice actor ended up following me and we exchanged a short conversation about how great I thought he was and how Haytham was the best ever and how bummed I was when I didn’t get to be Haytham anymore. Fuck the Assassins, I want to be a Templar now! Who cares if they’re the bad guys??? Who cares if Haytham is literally the worst father on the planet and such a complete douchebag to Connor? HE’S AWESOME.
I can’t speak for the design team on ACIII, but I assume that I probably wasn’t supposed to feel like this about Haytham. He was the bad guy, after all, and I imagine that revealing him as a Templar was meant to pull the rug from my feet, to keep us players on our toes to watch for anything that wasn’t as it seemed, to be angry because we had been led astray. We’re shown an older Haytham later on, after Connor has grown up, who is stubborn and cold toward his son, apparently lacking any kind of emotion that might stop him from outright killing Connor altogether. Though he and Connor are shown to have to work together, the plot uniting them against a common enemy, both characters continue to hold each other at an arm’s length. Even though he is a ruthless human being and a terrible father to boot, I still love Haytham.
Without attempting to point fingers, or say this in an accusatory manner–because I did, ultimately enjoy the game–I see this as a shortcoming from a writing perspective. Connor, almost infamously, is perhaps the most annoying, whiny assassin the series has ever had, who constantly seems to make irrational decisions and is often hindered (or inspired, at times) by his hatred of every Templar that ever walked the earth. His intentions–to avenge the death of his mother and the destruction of his home–are worthy and noble and perhaps I am meant to forgive Connor’s irrationality because of his young age, but I simply can’t. The character who I am meant to hate, Haytham, is suave and sure of himself, has great depth and nobility that is reminiscent of previous assassins, and is basically an all around badass. I have trouble liking Connor–the good guy–because he is almost too weak for me to believe that he will be the hero this city deserves (but not the one it needs), particularly in comparison to daddypops.
This isn’t to say, as a brief aside, that I believe every hero must be flawless and strong. Indeed, most of the best heroes–especially in games–are those who have the most flaws, the greatest depths to their character. But where ACIII is concerned, that character ended up being Haytham, not Connor.
Connor does triumph, I guess, and he does kill his father, in a scene that I found mostly underwhelming. ACIII sported an even weirder ending in its present day storyline, effectively killing off Desmond completely, and basically stranding the series somewhere in limbo. When they announced ACIV, I, like many, was once again skeptical, unsure of how the storyline was meant to continue without Desmond, particularly when the assassin was revealed to be a relative of Desmond–saucy pirate Edward Kenway, father to Haytham, grandfather to Connor. I have been doing my best to avoid spoilers for the game so that I could enjoy it when I played two weeks following its current-gen release, but I know that the modern side has been cut down considerably, and the animus apparently operated by Random Abstergo Employee #4, which, I guess, makes all that stuff about genes and memories kind of irrelevant. I expect the game to iron out these details later, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if they weren’t addressed at all. Shrug.
Reviews that I HAVE read (my favorite in particular being Kotaku’s, who charmingly referred to the game as “Hot Pirate Simulator 2013”) have noted recurrently that Black Flag is what ACIII should have been, taking the best elements from its predecessor, tossing the ones that didn’t work so well, cleaning up the edges, and spitting out a tighter installment. After five games, the stealth is apparently fixed, all that annoying present-day stuff is optional, players can be all up in Edward’s pirate business within the first hour, and that really cool ship thing from ACIII is basically the whole game. Awesome, right?
In spite of the sliver lining, heavy-handed criticism remains in place. Many people are tired of the franchise (understandable), many are weary of the ability for innovation in yearly releases (naturally), while others are still disheartened after ACIII, turning to games where they can pick up a gun and run with ease instead of tangle with spotty stealth sections and tedious gameplay. There is a general cloud over the franchise and, in a way, I completely and totally understand.
Tossing in the Two Cents
I love the Assassin’s Creed franchise. I really do. I had fun with Assassin’s Creed 3, acknowledging its flaws and successes alike. I get knocked down, but I get up again, they’re never going to keep me down. I have said before (I think?) and will say again–I believe, wholeheartedly, that it is possible to love any game, no matter how bad it is, by remaining critical. I haven’t played a bad game in my life (except for Harry Potter Quidditch World Cup for the PS2, but that’s beside the point) and even though ACIII was kind of bad, I still really enjoyed it. I actually almost finished it. And I so rarely actually almost finish anything.
Where others may turn from the franchise, I will gladly hop on the pirate ship. I will ride the series until it can’t ride any longer. I continue to love Assassin’s Creed because it gives me something that so many other games don’t: power.
You might argue with me on this point, and I welcome it. But let me explain. We can say that all games give you power to some degree. In Bioshock Infinite, I am Booker DeWitt and I can shoot fire out of my fingertips, I can hang enemies upside down in midair, I can push huge mechanical monstrosities off the side of Columbia. In Uncharted, I am Nathan Drake and I can scale cliffs and buildings with superhuman strength, I can take down hundreds of enemies with just a pistol, I can solve ancient mysteries laid hidden for thousands of years. In Mass Effect, I am Commander Shepard and I can command squads of aliens and humans alike to fight by my side, I can save entire species from destruction, I can stop the force that wants to destroy the entire galaxy all on my own. Each of these heroes, all of them beardy white dudes with guns (though I do play a female Shep), are, in a way, the generic hero type that gamers, that I myself, love to play. They have power, sort of, though their guns, through their wit and intellect, though dumb luck sometimes, but each of them are challenged. There are bosses to be faced. There are enemies stronger than they are.
You could, maybe, say the same for Assassin’s Creed. There are enemies stronger than I am. Me with my hidden blades and my shitty little wrist pistol thing are no match for ten guards with their weapons drawn, even when they all seem to only attack me one at a time for some reason. I am a beardy white (or half white) dude. I am a generic hero. But more than other heroes, I have power. When I am hanging from the rafters, looking over rooftops, standing on the masts of ships–I have the upper hand. I can leap down and kill a few enemies in the process, only to run off and disappear somewhere else.
While this might be characteristic of stealth games, I beg to differ. Deus Ex: Human Revolution was quite difficult to run as a stealth game, and nearly impossible as a run-n-gun, and there were really only very few situations when I wasn’t waiting for someone’s back to turn in order to knock them out unseen. Dishonored–a favorite of mine–is also fairly difficult to run stealth in, as it seems there’s always someone, somewhere, who saw me do something and I spend the majority of the time tucked away in hidey holes, waiting for the guards’ alert meters to drop to try again.
To me, Assassin’s Creed never feels this way. I never feel like I am running for my life. I never feel like I have to hide for five minutes and wait for people to forget about me (which, they never do. I think I am just bad at hiding considering they always figure out which haystack I jumped into). In Assassin’s Creed I am faster, I am stronger, I am more equipped than anyone else in the game. I make mistakes and I get shot and killed sometimes, sure, but I am given a character in peak physical condition, trained with the skills to kill, and it is in these moments that I find myself really feeling like I’m somebody else. Don’t get me wrong–I love saving the galaxy and romancing charming aliens. I love uncovering mysteries and saying quippy lines to my companions. I love saving the girl and wiping away the debt. But there’s something about Assassin’s Creed that I don’t get anywhere else. Nothing else makes me feel quite as powerful, quite as swashbuckling, or whatever else, like it can.
I can’t say if ACIV will do it for me. Edward supposedly is somewhat anti-assassins and, in light of that, perhaps I will spend more of my time with my feet on the ground and my ship in the sea. I always wonder if the next installment will be the one to break it for me, if at some point I won’t be able to do it anymore, long before the franchise itself has tossed in the towel. Time will tell.
*This has since been rectified with my recent purchase of Killzone: Shadow Fall and Knack.