Against better judgment, I always felt compelled to give Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series the benefit of the doubt, an undoubtedly foolish errand motivated mostly by a long-standing craving for a decent blockbuster open-world action series. I consider these games a kind of equivalent to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, titillating a base desire for silly, undemanding madcap fun loaded with swashbuckling rogues and propulsive energy. The first few games are amusing at times, bolstered primarily by the easy charisma of Ezio Auditore in his narrative trilogy. At other times, these early games even touted what could be argued as thematic depth or artistic risk, sentiments that emerge when considering the first Assassin’s Creed’s allegory for a post-9/11 political landscape or the underappreciated Assassin’s Creed: Revelation’s Brutalist architectural abstractions.
But these instances are merely outliers that have more to do with capable critics than the games themselves, especially because Assassin’s Creed III enjoys no such thematic or stylistic depth. Instead, the game languishes with muddled direction and an overcrowded and uninteresting main storyline. At the time of this blog post’s publication, Assassin’s Creed III remains at its perfect midpoint in the chronology, preceded by the four games Assassin’s Creed, II, Brotherhood, and Revelations and succeeded by IV: Black Flag, Rogue, Unity, and Syndicate. Ubisoft seems hell-bent on developing and releasing yearly installments with accelerated output, which is a taxing endeavor considering the scope of these open-world sandboxes. That’s not even mentioning the spin-off games under the Assassin’s Creed umbrella like the episodic Chronicles and Assassin’s Creed III’s far superior single-player expansion, Liberation.
Assassin’s Creed III on its own should have been a great game. The conceit of a big-budget title from a firmly established franchise centralizing characters and stories of marginalized Native American groups sounds like a bold artistic choice for a mainstream games culture hesitant to highlight such voices. That a Mohawk protagonist could even be possible in a videogame speaks not just to the cultural isolationism of videogames but also the lack of minority representation in most media. But Assassin’s Creed III stumbles hard, straining for revisionist history that actually does a disservice to its progressiveness and fails in its portrayal of the Mohawk protagonist Ratonhnhaké:ton AKA Connor Kenway (played earnestly if flatly by Native American actor Noah Watts). Connor is the central character, but the themes surrounding his marginalized otherness is woefully under-utilized and whitewashed. The game spends less effort in making him a compelling figure than previous Assassin’s Creed characters, and the game doesn’t thoroughly engage with the circumstances of colonial exploitation and the violent subjugation of Native Americans as it should or could have. The game isn’t even about history so much as it is about fantasy drivel, and rather than being a contrarian beacon of light in an otherwise dull mainstream AAA space, Assassin’s Creed III is, to paraphrase Robert Towne, the tunnel at the end of the light.
Many have written about the horrifically dreadful sequences Assassin’s Creed III has us endure, and I can’t help but identify a few of these because it’s some of the worst videogaming I’ve ever played. I’m still reeling from sharing a horse with Paul Revere during his mythical nighttime ride from Boston to Concord because instead of the famed lines “The British are coming!” the game incessantly spews “To the left, Connor!” or “Yes, this is exactly where we need to be!” like an irritating, unhelpful satellite navigation system in a car. I’m at a loss for why the game would think it’s a wise decision to rob the Paul Revere tale of its gravitas by having him be chauffeured by an accomplice and thus stripping him of his autonomous, nationalistic heroics. His perpetual screaming of directions in Connor’s ear despite trepidation of alerting the attention of nearby British soldiers remains burned in my memory as a source of vexation. “Be careful Connor, we mustn’t let the Redcoats warn th-YES! THIS IS IT! THIS IS THE WAY!”
And who could forget the ridiculous Battle of Concord sequence that witnesses Connor riding around in circles to give orders to fire upon an approaching Redcoat infantry? The time it takes for one group of colonial soldiers to reload their muskets is ample time for Connor to dart over to another group and yell orders, and thus, the sequence can be dumbed down to unthinkingly circling around yelling, “Fire! Fire! Fire!” without stopping.
Let’s also not overlook the incredibly cringeworthy final chase through the Boston dockyards, wherein Connor finally confronts bane-of-his-existence Charles Lee only to result in one of the worst action sequences ever conceived in a videogame. What should be a fast-paced parkour sequence is grossly hindered with abrupt explosions that make Connor infuriatingly stumble back for a few seconds, countless enemy soldiers and bystanders that the game doesn’t want you to shove aside, and the game’s pettiness to where you can go lest it deem you off-course and fail you with desynchronization. I sometimes return to the hilarious coverage of said sequence by Kirk Hamilton for Kotaku, in which he laments “five minutes of gameplay that somehow stretched into hours.” The same could be said for so much of what Assassin’s Creed III provides.
What makes the lackluster—no, actively bad—action sequences worse is that the story of Assassin’s Creed III is backed by empty themes that acknowledge the slippery slope nature of revolutionary rhetoric and nationalistic ideology, but doesn’t follow through with anything definitive to say about these ideas other than, “It’s bad!” It’s no secret that the founding fathers of the United States weren’t entirely noble figures, but in actuality were slave owners, fear mongers, hypocrites, and drunkards. Some may have been more upstanding than others, for sure. But as the Assassin’s Creed series has frequently pointed out, conflicts throughout history are more complex than school textbooks will have you believe, and political motivations extend in all directions.
However, Assassin’s Creed III seems uninterested in pursuing these themes with great complexity, choosing not to deconstruct compelling historical figures like George Washington or Samuel Adams and instead following a safe route of skepticism without critique. The game wants to exhibit a revisionist mindset that highlights underrepresented plights, but it simplifies patriotic ideologies for narrative expediency, or maybe even for lack of effort. Writer Samantha Blackmon for Not Your Mama’s Gamer makes the cogent argument that Ubisoft erased Ratonhnhaké:ton in favor of the more palatable Connor Kenway, in which the game disguised a man with Mohawk ancestry in the service of essentially, “another instance of the great White savior coming in to save/avenge the lowly savage.” Assassin’s Creed III purports to be invested in unpacking a morally knotty and historically intricate story, but it often relies on tired formulae that undercut what racial commentary it might introduce. Worst of all, the game fails in providing a compelling lead character in Ratonhnhaké:ton/Connor, a topic I’ll speak more of later in this piece.
I pine for a smarter Assassin’s Creed series (foolishly), but when it fails, I’m disappointed when it can’t even provide leisurely, spirited entertainment. The Ezio trilogy was never an insightful stretch of videogames, but it supplied romanticized intrigue and debonair heroics that was good enough for mild blockbuster entertainment. Assassin’s Creed III could similarly benefit from extracting the swashbuckling, roguish tone of this choice music from the game’s soundtrack instead of the deathly serious atmosphere it carries throughout its runtime. I’ve mentioned the Pirates of the Caribbean movies as the low benchmark this series should strive for because Assassin’s Creed lacks weighty themes that would elevate it beyond anything more than silly entertainment. Indeed, even Ubisoft seems keen on stripping away the series’ convoluted sci-fi storytelling in favor of more straightforward historical fiction given the exit of series anchor Desmond Miles. So why not lift from the silly, brainless blockbuster movies these games seem to share kinship with, allowing for injection of some airy, fun cadence this series needs? The Assassin’s Creed games suffer horribly when they fall into a cycle of stoic characters chasing stories of faux-revisionist moralizing because such seriousness is immediately undercut with the franchise’s inherent idiocy. Let’s not forget that Assassin’s Creed II, arguably the best in the series, ends with a climactic… fistfight against the pope. And let’s not disregard the fact that the modern day Desmond Miles story arc is held together with… a 2012 Apocalypse conspiracy as ludicrous as a Dan Brown paperback and just as dated.
If there’s any compliment I can give to the game, it’s that simply being in the bustling New England ports of Boston and New York City and the wooded towns of Lexington and Concord are a pleasure in itself, offering a kind of historical tourism that the Assassin’s Creed series has accomplished with gusto. Simply walking around with no immediate objective and absorbing the tiny, everyday details of simulated city life is the primary reason I’ll end up playing Unity or Syndicate because the budget really shows world design craftsmanship. Much in the same way Rockstar Games delivers exposition, Assassin’s Creed III decelerates action by maneuvering the player to travel alongside the speed of an NPC while they deliver backstory. Thus, much of the longwinded exposition is at least delivered against pleasurable visuals as you traverse the world of Assassin’s Creed III. The young New York City and Boston showcases its rustic verticality in its many taverns, town halls, and merchant warehouses scattered throughout developing urban areas. Local patois can be heard amidst town criers and bustling markets, lending a sense of lived-in commotion that sells the simulacra of colonial New England well enough.
Moreover, riding horseback to cozy New England towns tucked back in snowy woodlands has a definite pastoral charm, especially when crossing creaky footbridges stretching across bubbling creeks or encountering young strangers enjoying an afternoon of laidback fishing. Of course, Ubisoft—and a general tendency in open-world sandbox games—necessitates that these idyllic pleasures take less precedence to the generic trappings of unimportant side missions, endless random skirmishes with enemies, and collectibles garishly strewn throughout a natural landscape. Rather than simply existing and being swallowed up within a massive world as in the Los Angeles of L.A. Noire (which I’ve been greatly appreciating with time), this game asks of the player meaningless side objectives and random encounters as though simply being is a bad thing. But what the developers of Assassin’s Creed III overlook is the ability for a locale to have, as critic Ed Smith says of the aforesaid L.A. Noire for the International Business Times, “a sense of time and place,” where “characters and people have lives beyond when you interact with them.” Assassin’s Creed III is afraid of slowing down, and thus, it becomes akin to junk food (to borrow Smith’s argument), more interested in satisfying player-centric cravings than providing a really meaningful relationship with story, atmosphere, characters, and setting.
Take for instance the homestead and trading route systems that introduce an elaborate set of instructions all in the service of establishing a hub world, a base of operations meant to tether everything to one recurring locale. The problem of course is that building up the homestead is ultimately unimportant to the central storyline, and thus no sense of place emerges. The homestead embodies open-world sandbox games’ insistence on deriving pleasure from engaging with systems and monotonous side-quests rather than offering something with lasting meaning. Judging from what I know about the later Rogue storyline, the homestead doesn’t even matter in the long run.
I will take a moment to pause and share some admitted enthusiasm for the occasional forays sailing The Aquila, because the sense of open-ocean freedom and movement adds a fresh dimension to the typically land-based experience playing Assassin’s Creed. The one-on-one ship duels are tense, maximalist battles that reward patience and strategic maneuvering, and I’ll concede to having been shot dead a few times for lack of dexterity. I know that Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag still remains an empty open-world experience, but maybe it conveys a needed feeling of boundlessness that the open ocean can provide? I can surely dream…
…but reality reminds me that these games topple under pressure. I alluded earlier to the botched portrayal of Ratonhnhaké:ton/Connor because Assassin’s Creed III simply doesn’t seem interested enough in its own protagonist. I admire that Ubisoft actually aspired for greater representation of marginalized groups and actually casted a Native American actor to play a Mohawk warrior, but I’m displeased that they couldn’t be bothered to write Connor with interesting characterization or even a personality. Connor’s calculated stoicism renders him too detached from the audience, resulting in a character more of a cipher than an easily identifiable human with vulnerabilities and passions. The series even understood the problem of stoic protagonists after the sour reception to Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad in the first game and some seeming atonement by bringing him back in Revelations with more interesting circumstances, so why repeat the same mistake later?
A pretty hilarious article by G. Christopher Williams for PopMatters notes how Connor is more like an alien baffled by human behavior than a relatable character because rather than being the game’s emotional crux, he’s a bizarre nonentity lacking in clear human qualities. He only exists in banal, narrative-driven, moment-to-moment scenes instead of charting his own independent desires, emotions, and burdens. That Connor’s dialogue can be boiled down to the punch line, “Where is Charles Lee?” bespeaks the perfunctory nature of the character, repeatedly intoning a line for immediate narrative purposes in paroxysmal trance than acting like a normal human being. It seems that Ubisoft merely views Connor as an empty vessel to communicate to players an obligatory, peripatetic “greatest hits” timeline of the American Revolution like a colonial Forrest Gump, especially when Connor feels extrinsic to many specific historical occurrences he just so happens to stumble upon.
Adding insult to injury, Connor has traces of an interesting backstory that’s never explored with any depth. He’s a man that lives between two worlds, that of his white British fatherhood and his Mohawk motherhood, yet Assassin’s Creed III offers no discernible tension with this backstory narratively or thematically. This cultural and racial divide hangs limply without confident undertaking. On the one hand, Connor sympathizes with the colonial desire for independence because he’s drawn to the Enlightenment concept of individual freedom, but he also recognizes that white colonists have been encroaching on and stirring trouble in his ancestral lands. The game hints at the injustices that occur in the nascence of American history like the colonial dependence on slavery and atrocities committed against the Mohawk people, but the game merely identifies these topics rather than adequately engaging with and critiquing them.
Connor does have some inner conflict regarding how he feels about his father Haytham Kenway like a Luke Skywalker / Darth Vader relationship in Return of the Jedi, simultaneously revealing shades of compassion but also turmoil. Connor, alone in his homestead save for his mentor Achilles Davenport and displaced from his childhood tribe, cuts a lonely figure in the vastness of the frontier landscape. His lonely eyes scour the horizon from wintry canopies, but Assassin’s Creed III is neither interested in exploring his loneliness nor is it fully invested in making the character any more than a blank slate for players to tour around colonial America.
If Connor fails as a protagonist, then I wonder why Assassin’s Creed III never committed to aligning with the perspective of Haytham Kenway after sticking players with him for much of the game’s first act. When the game unites Haytham with Connor’s Mohawk mother Kaniehtí:io (or simply, Ziio), the game even offers some easygoing banter between the two that nonetheless retains shades of ominousness because we know the tragic outcome of their romance. I think the inherent conflict between Haytham and Kaniehtí:io is a more compelling relationship to follow than what the game actually provided, a kind of frustration of the Pocahontas myth. A white European falls in love with a Native American woman, but instead of a fantasy happy ending, the reality of history emerges. Haytham and Kaniehtí:io are characters with histories and personal narratives that extend beyond the boundaries of this shallow, constricting one, but Assassin’s Creed III doesn’t have the wherewithal or imagination to unearth it.
In thinking about Assassin’s Creed III, I sometimes think back on my favorite line in the game, delivered by the dying Redcoat officer John Pitcairn under your assassin’s blade. “And we should live forever on castles in the sky. You wield your blade like a man, but your mouth like a child. And more will die now because of that.” The death monologues throughout these games have typically been memorable, and this one expresses the central theme of all the Assassin’s Creed games effectively. Ultimately, these games acknowledge the selfishness of individuals following an ideology—or creed—when examining a multifaceted historical development in retrospect. Connor, like the assassin protagonists before him, is merely a puppet in the grand course of human history, and this sense of puppeteering remains the most convincing theme in the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Because if these characters are just puppets for grander, systemic forces like colonial exploitation or revolutionary rhetoric, then so too are the players that literally puppeteer them. This notion is made abundantly clear with the Animus, a machine that directly maps the limbs of a character like Desmond with their historical avatar.
But the game itself is also puppeteering us, though the puppet strings are shorter and less easy to see. We’re being guided by invisible hands to consume repetitive tasks and unemotionally comb through a useless open-world environment in the service of contrived enjoyment. The AAA videogame space is liberally scattered with trash, where adventures are forged without heed of emotional investment or narrative depth year after year. I only wish the developers at Ubisoft took greater time and effort to engage in themes that are latent within the story they do offer, and maybe more thoughtful art can emerge. Maybe then the AAA videogame space can release something worthwhile again. And we should live forever, on castles in the sky.
Miguel Penabella is a freelancer and comparative literature academic who worships at the temple of cinema but occasionally bears libations to videogames. He is also a contributing editor and columnist for Haywire Magazine and a columnist for Thumbsticks. His complete written offerings are archived here, but can also be found at Kill Screen, PopMatters, First Person Scholar, Playboy, Unwinnable, etc.