What makes a great sequel? Progression? Innovation? Tradition? These elements have long since fell by the wayside in recent years; ‘sequel’ has become a byword for ‘rehash’.
The yearly iteration is perhaps the largest cause of cookie cutter follow ups, a blight on the annual release schedule, it is a system designed to pump out a series instalment every 12 months, regardless of quality. The Call Of Duty franchise is a poster boy for this type of release, a series divided between studios to share the yearly load, which as a result has taken on a strangely schizophrenic personality, characterised by the solid Infinity Ward ones and the workmanlike Treyarch ones.
One series that has tried to turn the yearly iteration system to it’s advantage is Assassin’s Creed, a franchise which, along with Gears Of War, should rightly be recognised as the identifying series of this generation. The story of AC, a convoluted tale of Assassins versus Templars both in the modern era and in several key points in history, is a serialised work of fiction that easily stands up to anything Hollywood can produce. The original game focused on Altair, a hooded killer in crusade era Jerusalem, who showed us the ropes and introduced us to the fluid free running mechanic, meticulous stealth takedowns and nuanced combat that have become the series signatures. The first major sequel did away with the solemn middle eastern killer and introduced us to Ezio Auditore De Firenze, a cocksure Italian ladies man who dons the Assassins garb after his father is killed by the dastardly Templars. ACII was a massive leap for the series, improving on almost everything in the first game, yet Ezio was gifted with 2 other instalments that changed nothing (aside from useless distractions, like an ill judged tower defence mini game) and added little to the story, yet remained fully rounded adventures in their own right, thanks largely to the hard work and dedication of Ubisoft Montreal.
“Taking the elegance and beauty it applied to renaissance Italy and adding a rustic sense of blossoming civilisation, Ubisoft have created one of the most impressive open worlds of any game. “
The New World
And now we come to ACIII, the 3rdmajor progression of both the ongoing odyssey of modern day assassin Desmond and for the series as a whole. While not as much of leap forward as the second game, ACIII feels like a satisfying progression of events and design, one that ejects fresh life into what could have easily fell prey to the tedium of a Call of Dutyesque cycle. Everything fits, from the bold new setting, which takes in the bustling cities of the new world (namely Boston and New York) and the harsh plains of the frontier, to the new gameplay additions, like hunting for game or being captain of a grand old warship.
The only think that doesn’t really gel is the new assassin. Ezio is a tough act to follow, he’s one of the coolest protagonists of this or any other generation, with his roguish charm and his accent, which makes him sound like the evil love rival in any number of romantic comedies, he is a joy to play as. We witness Ezio grow from promiscuous teen to fledgling assassin and leader of men, his journey is the defining aspect of the series so far. So when we first fill the shoes of Connor (his native American name is changed so he can blend in) and he spends most of his time cursing the Templars and swearing revenge for the plight of his people, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed, especially considering the journey towards playing as him throws up some exciting narrative curveballs which I won‘t divulge here. It’s not that Connor is a bad lead, he is engaging and easy to root for, but his honourable intentions often bore. Connor’s lack of charisma makes the story segments seem a tad bland, where Ezio would fire off a wry quip or glance over at the nearest bar wench, Connor merely scowls and outlines his lack of understanding for the white man’s ways.
Thankfully, the world Connor inhabits has far more character, and it’s undoubtedly the star of ACIII. Taking the elegance and beauty it applied to renaissance Italy and adding a rustic sense of blossoming civilisation, Ubisoft have created one of the most impressive open worlds of any game. As you wander the streets of Boston and New York, vendors entice you to their stalls by declaring the exotic origins of their produce, newspaper boys bellow about the latest headlines (most of which feature a certain hooded trouble maker), townspeople complain about the British oppression, offering nuggets of information about the struggling economy and cruelty of their rulers, if there’s one thing this series excels at more than any of it‘s peers, it’s the intoxicating sense of place.
Of course, The appeal of the environment isn’t all cosmetic, activities and side missions are plentiful in ACIII and range from the familiar to the refreshingly new. In the cities there are the usual fetch quests, like hunting down almanac pages to unlock crafting options, these mix with some interesting diversions like creating civil unrest by starting riots and sticking it to the Brits. If you want, you can venture out into the wilderness and converse with colonials by a forest campfire, or hijack a British convoy to add to your own coffers. Stalk through the trees (Free running now extends to the flora and the results are intuitive and satisfying) and hunt game, then skin and gut your prey and trade the hide, the possibilities for distraction in ACIII seem endless. Connor’s central hub is the Davenport homestead, a dilapidated old farmhouse that can be slowly upgraded and modified into a competent base of operations, complete with artisans, merchants and your very own man o’ war floating nearby. Which brings us to the sea battles. Ah, the sea battles, Assassin’s creeds most enjoyable new addition. Anyone who has played the new Total War games will know the thrill of exchanging cannon fire on the open sea and Ubisoft have given us a naval battle ‘mini game’ so visceral and downright enjoyable that it deserves it’s own stand alone title. Connor takes the wheel of his ship, The Equila, and barks orders at his crew, who frantically dash about the ships deck at the behest of their captain. Strategy is as simple as getting the enemy in your sights and all of the encounters can be easily bested, but as the cannons fly and the wood splinters, there’s an incomparable adrenaline rush and the developers should be commended for working so hard on what could have easily been a throwaway mechanic.
After the stop gaps of Brotherhood and Revelations (strong titles in their own right), the series is back on track with this, a ‘true’ sequel. Ubisoft Montreal have given us yet another lovingly crafted and immersive world to inhabit, filled with intricacies and distractions. The combat and movement remains largely untouched, with the traditional block and counter rhythm refined to near perfection and the free running gives that familiar sense of freedom.
The new lead assassin and his quest to protect his people often comes off as maudlin and tedious, but hopefully he will blossom in the inevitable sub-sequels, and his moody disposition is bolstered by an ensemble of great characters and colourful cameos (George Washington, Paul Revere, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams).
ACIII is a truly impressive sequel, that exhibit’s a slow but sure sense of progress for the series, a touch of innovation and an adherence to the traditions of it’s forebears. What could have been workmanlike and uninspiring, revitalises the series and whets the appetite for future instalments.