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Assassin’s Creed III Analysis

October 24, 2013 | Digital | no comments

Assassin’s Creed III is, first and foremost, a movie masquerading as a video game.  One would not need to look much further beyond the cinematic flourishes added to all its actions, and heavy separation of player control and avatar actions to find evidence for this claim.  Exemplified by the game’s free-running modes, players mainly interact with the world either in broad strokes input or by Quick-Time Event prompts.

Players play as Desmond Miles, an Assassin in modern times using the Animus technology to, essentially, play as his Assassin ancestors throughout various stages of human history.  For this game, it’s the American Revolution, playing as  Ratonhnhaké:ton, a Mohawk Native American inducted into the Assassin order to avenge the death of his mother and the persecution of his people.

As the choice of protagonist might suggest, the developers have kept a relatively neutral viewpoint to what is often boiled down to a jingoistic sequence of events.  While the narrative is still inarguably in favor of American Independence and the Patriots, this is tempered by acknowledging their decisions were not always perfect, motivated as much by pragmatism and privilege as by patriotism and principle.

Assassin’s Creed III
2013-10-15_00003
Developer Ubisoft (various)
Publisher  Ubisoft
Designers Various
Platform Played Steam PC
Release date(s)  November 20, 2012
Genre(s) Action-Adventure
Version Played  Base game
Popularity  12 Million copies sold, 80-85 on Metacritic
Time Played 20
How Far in Game?  Completed

Traversal

Incremental Obstacle Introduction

Contrary to most modern video games, AC3 doesn’t seem to introduce its play obstacles gradually. Players are introduced to nearly all obstacles and enemies before being full game functionality is given to the players.  First, they must work through what is, in essence, a 4-6 hour long series of tutorials, introducing the different systems in a directly linear manner before allowing players to choose what actions to take and where to go.

I would speculate that this is ultimately to preserve an open-world  aesthetic in the game, once fully functional.  Players have, at the conclusion of the tutorial, been given all the tools and instructions to make it through the rest of the game with absolutely no surprises.  Therefore, they can choose where to go and what missions to complete entirely on their own recognizances.

Similarly, if there are no “beef gates” (stronger enemies that, by necessity, must be overcome initially to make progress), the game’s flow is not interrupted to learn how to defeat the enemies in order to progress.  Moreover, the game emphasises a certain non-linearity to its narrative.  The player has leeway to transport themselves freely between unlocked sequences of Connor’s memory.  While the game is intended to be played as a linear progression, that conceit might be broken by introducing enemies incremental as in other games.

Multiple progression options/solutions and the limiting thereof

On the other hand, the game really shines here.  Due to its open-world design aesthetic, there appear to be multiple paths to every objective, though some are more efficient than others.  Generally, AC3 conforms to the general “Beads-on-a-string” pattern of narrative development common to most open world games.  While players must attend certain plot points to advance the game, their path to reaching same is still permitted to vary along different routes of attack, literally or metaphorically.

Navigation handling

In play, there is a direct, 1:1 mapping of player input to avatar response, all portrayed in real-time.  There are, however, a number of modes that govern how the player interacts with the gameworld:

 

Mode Behavior
Free-running If player avatar collides with certain parkour nodes, they will climb up them, and move directly (through an automated navigation (see limitations below) to the next one that A) is within a reasonable distance and B) in the direction the player is facing.
Normal Walking If the player collides with parkour nodes within this mode, they will simply stop; or, if prompted, they will climb onto the node, but will not use it to springboard to the next node.  Can only blend in, i.e move unnoticed by enemies by moving adjacent or within certain objects (groups of people, shrubs, etc) during this mode.
Horseback May not interact with most parkour nodes.  May change move speed and direction.  If pushed towards a fence or small drop, horse will leap over it automatically.
Climbing Same as for Free-running, however, done at a slower pace, and primarily vertical in nature.  Because it is so much slower, elements are often placed further away, or in less obvious positions, such that players will maneuver around trying to find the next grip to continue climbing.

fig. 1: various modes of terrain traversal in AC3

However, like attacking (as addressed in Skill Handling section), the navigation in free-running and climbing modes are largely automated.  Players do directly input the commands, however they are broad directional strokes, which are interpreted by the game to move between  “parkour nodes”- points in the gameworld that players can only move between while in free-running or climbing.  These nodes commonly are boxes, signs, walls, and the like, all objects that could be moved along during Free-running or climbing.

fig. 2: example of Climbing mode


fig. 3: example of Horseback Riding mode

This abstraction is primarily to engage the player in a more cinematic feel.  For examples, rounding a tree trunk while free-running one branch, then continuing the free-run onto the other branch.  That act of swing-spinning, or what have you, is an automatic flourish that could have been implemented as QTE or by manually navigating around the tree trunk on a ledge.

However, both methods have their faults.  The QTE method would become repetitive very quickly, leading rapidly to cognitive overload, as players would be near-constantly prompted to input the QTEs when free-running.  On the other hand, manual navigation would take too long, and would require space specifically implemented to allow that granular level of movement.

Both of these methods would interrupt the flow of the free-running experience.  I would state that said experience was designed, from the start, to be as hassle-free and streamlined as possible.  Therefore, any interruptions, such as the QTEs or manual navigation, would break the flow intended by the designs, invalidating the target aesthetic.

In addition to differentiating the movement modes, the game makes a point of presenting different gamefeel for each game zone; that is, Boston & New York (the Urban Zones) are constructed with a slightly different aesthetic to each, while the Frontier and Homestead zones are built in a wildly divergent manner.

In Urban zones, most of the map is comprised of alleyways, open rooftops (complete guards who can detect you), and long, linear roads with parkour nodes running parallel.  Viewpoints are often churches, meeting houses, or similar architectural landmarks.  There is open-world design to the Free-Running, here: almost the entire map can be traversed with only minimal time spent on ground, generally.  Dense packing of Urban areas ensures that players can return to the rooftops quickly and easily.

On a more granular level within the Urban zones, they are constructed to follow the city planning they would have showed during the appropriate historically time period.  That is to say, New York shows a rudimentary grid system, with a greater number of strictly linear streets.  Boston, on the other hand, does not.  The city’s old-world city planning is in full effect, with most of the city a jumble of meandering roads.

fig. 4: Boston Zone Free-running 

fig. 5: New York Zone Free-running 

The Frontier and Homestead Zones display almost the complete inverse of Urban free-running: most parkour nodes are hard-set into a single linear path that cannot be easily transferred without returning to the ground.  Without the open rooftops of the Urban zones, players may only follow the set pathways opened by sequences of tree branches, hunting platforms and cliffs, most of which do not intersect with each other.  Viewpoints in these zones include very old, very large trees, branches hanging off a cliff, and the occasional Church Steeple.

 

fig. 6: Homestead Zone Free-running

fig. 7: Frontier Zone Free-running

Skill Handling

In a somewhat similar vein to its navigation, AC3 generally allows for automatic targeting of attacks- the biggest exception being an optional manual aiming mode for ranged attacks.  Like navigation handling, the game automatically targets enemies, and executes attacks immediately on being prompted by the player.  I suspect this, like free-running, is to achieve a more cinematic feel.  Players, both from a narrative standpoint as well as a gameplay one, are piloting another human being from within an electronic device.  This simulation conceit allows control to be abstract away from the player, such that the avatar is capable of doing amazing things with only minimal prompting by players.

It is a dangerous line they tread, such that players may feel redundant if a character did something too cool without their input.  A common pitfall for other games is to abstract some amazing act completely away from player control, locating within a cut-scene; denying the player any agency or input into the action.  AC3 narrowly skirts this issue, making it so all interesting actions are taken as a result of player prompting, ensuring at least nominal investment in the actions being taken.  The game is, in essence, constructing itself as an open-world sandbox intended to connect a collection of QTEs.

On that note, the game explicit incorporates QTEs as attack counters and when facing firing squads.  When fighting individual enemies, an inverted white triangle with a red border occasionally appears over enemy heads.  This indicates they are about to make an attack that the player can counter- thereby providing an opportunity to kill the enemy with minimum time and fuss investment.

Similarly, when fighting larger groups, a number of enemies will arrange themselves in a line, and have a triangle with a yellow border appear over their head.  This is to signify a firing squad, which can be circumvented by grabbing a nearby enemy and using them as a human shield.  These human shields are duly killed and removed from the battle.

fig. 8: Countering/Firing Squads

To explore the reasoning behind this, one must examine the narrative conceit of the player’s health bar being portrayed as a “Synchronization Meter”.  All actions taken by the player are supposed to reflect actions taken by the historical person they are inhabiting in-game; dying/performing poorly/being attacked/etc are all taken as signs of “desynchronization” with the player character, which lowers their ‘health’.  Desynchronize too much, and the player character effectively dies.

Since the characters the player inhabits are supposed to be unstoppable perfect assassins, failures to perform counters/&tc properly are taken as distancing the player from the flawless execution of the character they inhabit.  In the particulars, this reflects back into gameplay as countering attacks is always preferable to otherwise.

These counters are both more cinematic and visually engaging than normal kills, as well as quicker to employ.  Should they execute them properly, players are rewarded by a small visual flourish as well as by lessening the number of opponents to face.  Like the navigation handling, this emphasis on QTE-abstraction lends a more cinematic air to the game’s proceedings; a notion reflected, of course, in the high-level story, wherein the player is positioned as a key figure in nearly all relevant battles of the American Revolution.

However, even with all this consideration, I am unsure of any actual difference in play-feel between varying weapons.  All handle more or less the same, and do not actually change the pace of attacks.  Notably, the Hidden Blade- the iconic Assassin weapon throughout the series- can be used, as in previous games, for semi-unnoticed quick kills.

Resource Management

AC3 specializes into two kinds of resource management: on the macro scale of business simulation (with trading, crafting, etc at the homestead), and on the micro scale of managing ammunition for various weapons and tools.  Generally, the business sim aspects require the player to hunt animals in the Frontier zones, and sell their furs or other byproducts for the money to purchase trading elements.  While strictly optional, the game makes a deliberate point of introducing it during the long tutorials.

Ammunition management is, on the other hand, a bit more mandatory for the game.  Despite the aforementioned emphasis on commerce, there is no way to purchase ammunition or tools in-game.  The only purchasable items are differing weapons that could be equipped.  Therefore, in order to replenish stocks of ammunition, players must loot it off the corpses of defeated enemies.

Encourages the necessity of scrounging and looting, perhaps as a reflection of the narrative, both that the American Revolution is repurposing the scraps of the British Army for so long, as well as the endgame concept that both the Assassins and Templar having been fighting over scraps and trinkets left behind by Those Who Came Before.

Arguably, this aspect is a departure from previous Assassin’s Creed games (or at least the systems of AC2), wherein ammunition was readily purchasable.  However, AC2 put less of an emphasis on Ranged Combat, though it did experiment with throwing knives.

 

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