Assassin's Creed III Was Disappointing. How Does Black Flag Stack Up?

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag had a lot of making up to do. I thought the previous game in the series, Assassin's Creed III, was a resounding disappointment. I've already weighed in on the new, pirate-themed Black Flag: It's pretty good. But for those who felt burnt by the last game, a more thorough comparison may be in order.

Last fall, I wrote an article titled "How Has Assassin's Creed III Disappointed Me? Let Me Count The Ways." The final tally: Ten. The game disappointed me in ten ways, though as I found while writing, its small disappointments were far more numerous. That article is below, if you'd like to relive the letdown of Connor's Big Historical Adventure.

The reasons for my disappointment with Assassin's Creed III were as follows:



  1. Nothing works all that well.
  2. It's all rough edges.
  3. The music is a drag.
  4. The intro? Also a drag.
  5. Basic interface fail.
  6. The "Gump Factor."
  7. Time for a control overhaul.
  8. For a stealth game, the stealth sure is jank.
  9. I avoid doing things.
  10. It's just not all that fun.

I thought it might be useful to re-state those ten disappointments as questions posed to the new game, the better to get to the bottom of where Black Flag has improved, and where it still has a ways to go.

Here we go.

1. Does anything really work all that well?

Basic functionality is an ongoing problem for the Creed series, and so it was with AC III: Nothing really worked all that well. Last year, I wrote that "it's almost as though Assassin's Creed III has no core game mechanics. It's all ancillary stuff."


Black Flag does improve on a number of small mechanical things. Shooting, in particular, is much easier, mostly because aiming is finally mapped to the left trigger. Targeting has been simplified from past games, and it's no longer possible to lock onto a target. Perhaps to make up for that, the new tagging system makes it much easier to keep tabs on a given enemy. Fist-fighting isn't horrible, though it still doesn't come close to the likes of the Arkham games. And, welcomely, inventory-management has been overhauled and brought up to snuff; it's finally easy to switch between weapons mid-fight.

With all that said, I still can't quite say anything actually works all that well in the new game. It's improved, sure. A lot of the time I could pull off tricks and maneuvers just how I'd planned, which is a nice new development. But there's still that nagging feeling that the series presents a collection of ancillary abilities in search of a primary one.

2. Is it all rough edges?

Assassin's Creed III was buggy as a Bushwick street-mattress. Assassin's Creed IV is far from bug-free, but judging by my time with the PS3 version, it's nowhere close to the glitch-fest AC III was. I encountered nary a weird audio loop, nightmarish laughing child or hand-standing-horse glitch in my time playing the new game, and while I'm sure it's has gotten some patches since launch, they haven't felt as necessary or substantial as the patches released for III. The visuals, too, are almost as lovely as they were in Ubisoft's now-notoriously "heightened" promotional screenshots. No game will ever look as good in action as Ubisoft's promo department would have us believe, but Black Flag is a game of remarkable beauty. So, significantly fewer rough edges.

3. Is the music a drag?

It is not, blessedly. For Black Flag, Ubisoft brought a new composer to the series—Brian Tyler, fresh off his work scoring last year's dubsteppy Far Cry 3. Tyler's work on Black Flag is much like his work on the recent Marvel films Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World—serviceable, if not particularly memorable. He's a workmanlike Hollywood guy who rarely conjures a truly iconic theme, though Black Flag's main theme comes close in places:

In the game, when it came time to take on an enemy ship, Tyler's amalgamation of Hans Zimmer's Pirates of the Caribbean theme did more than enough to get me psyched for some swashbuckling. His score doesn't match the iconic beauty of Jesper Kyd's work on the first few games—particularly the series-defining music of Assassin's Creed II—but it's an improvement from Lorne Balfe's often ponderous work on Revelations and III.

4. Is the intro also a drag?

No! And hooray for that. Black Flag makes a clear improvement over its predecessor by throwing us into the action right off the bat. The game gives Edward an immediate series of quests to undertake but doesn't blow its pacing, instead building toward a terrific mini-climax as Edward liberates his crew and steals the Jackdaw. That mission was one of my favorites in Black Flag, and marked the place where the actual game—the one where you sail around and explore islands—began. A huge improvement over AC III's endless "go here, press a button" introduction. Haytham could have learned a thing or two from his old man.

5. Does the basic interface fail?

I'm more mixed on this one. On the one hand, Black Flag's interface is an improvement on past games, certainly III. The inventory has been moved seamlessly into the game, and it's now possible to flip through your entire loadout using only the D-pad. It's almost like it's a functional action game!



On the other hand, the Creed user-interface is still a visual disaster zone. The problem seems intractable at this point—maybe these games simply have too much information to impart? When reviewing Black Flag, I wrote: "The Creed games seem addicted to UI clutter, on-screen text and icons that act as flesh-eating digital ants infesting an otherwise aesthetically wondrous game." I have no idea if there's really a solution for this problem. That said, I remain thankful that I can toggle off various aspects of the interface, and while I haven't experimented all that much with the "naked" game, I have a feeling it might work better than one might suspect.

6. How is the "Gump Factor?"

When writing about Assassin's Creed III, I worried that as the series gets closer and closer to modern times, it'll feel weirder and weirder to see its protagonists shoved into iconic historical moments. Call it the Gump Factor: Oh, sure, Connor fought at Bunker hill, Connor commanded the troops at Concord, Connor went along with Paul Revere on his famous moonlit ride. The more familiar we are with the events the games portray, the more aware we'll be of how contrived it all is.

Black Flag actually moves backward in time from AC III. It also tackles a place and time (the 18th-century West Indies) that is less familiar and less loaded with famous historical characters. Sure, Blackbeard is fairly well known. Some of us have heard of Mary Read and Anne Bonney. But for the most part, we've only a passing familiarity with these folks. That leaves the story with a lot more flexibility. It's a return to the vibe of the past games in the series: Interesting and occasionally educational without feeling Gump-y.

7. Is it still time for a control overhaul?

Yes. For all the things I like about Black Flag, the controls are still mostly a wreck. Smart level design has gone a long way toward making the controls seem better, but when it comes down to it, it's still difficult to do basic things like, say, walk through a doorway. Or maneuver in battle. Or jump onto this guy, but not that guy.


It's time for a crouch/take cover button. It's time for players to have more precise control while climbing. Maybe we need a grappling hook or something. Maybe some sort of time-slowing ability that lets players target more precisely. I don't know. But yes, it's still time for a control overhaul.

8. Is the stealth still jank?

Happily, stealth is one of the areas in which Black Flag has most improved over its predecessor. It is not perfect, but it is not "jank." Everything works much better, thanks largely to levels that have actually been designed to let players sneak. Bushes and hiding spots are liberally strewn around enemy compounds, and the patrol AI is less inclined to go on full alert, which lets you screw up and get spotted without feeling overly punished for it. This is nice because the controls are still a mess, so even the craftiest sneak will get spotted from time to time.


Back when I reviewed the game, I made a video to demonstrate the improved stealth:

Black Flag's stealth still doesn't come close to a dedicated stealth game, nor to Ubisoft's own Splinter Cell games or Far Cry 3. But it's getting there. In another game or two, we might finally get sneaking that matches Ubisoft's other output.

9. Do I avoid doing things?

One of the most damning things I could say about AC III was that I mostly wound up avoiding doing things. My boss Stephen has pointed out all the cool side-stuff in that game, and how rich it becomes if you take the time to dig into its nooks and crannies. But I was so bummed out by how much of a chore it was to get around, how little I liked the main character and how buggy it all was that I never really wanted to do much of anything.

I certainly want to do things in Black Flag. I plan to re-play at least a chunk of the game on either PC or next-gen systems, and am looking forward to more thoroughly upgrading the Jackdaw and maybe even taking on some of those legendary ships at the corners of the map. In short: Yes, I do want to do things in Black Flag.

10. Is it just not very fun?

If you've made it this far, you can probably guess the answer to this one. Yep, Black Flag is a lot more fun than Assassin's Creed III was. Most things work better, the setting feels more exciting, and the pirate-ship business is integrated well into the full game. It's still frustrating at times, some of the story missions are still junk, and there are way too many "follow the dude, and if you get spotted you fail" missions. But yeah, it's a lot more fun to play than its predecessor.

So! Several steps in the right direction, and a few remaining steps still to take. If you'd like to relive the bummer that was Assassin's Creed III, you can do so below.

How Has Assassin's Creed III Disappointed Me? Let Me Count The Ways.

I thought I was going to love Assassin's Creed III. From everything I'd seen, it seemed like Ubisoft was doing everything in their not-inconsiderable power to push their flagship series into brave new territory.


Except… well, they didn't manage to pull it off.

Rather than taking the Assassin's Creed series forward in some bold new direction, Ubisoft has resolutely kept the series at the same level as before, and actually have taken several rather large steps back. Not everyone feels this way: The game has garnered plenty of positive criticism, including a mixed but generally positive review from our own Stephen Totilo. But try though I may, I just can't love Assassin's Creed III.

Of course, that's not to say I hate it—I don't. But after about ten or twelve hours with the game, I have to say, I think it could have been much, much better.


Coming up, there'll be some minor spoilers, including descriptions of a few missions from around the start of the Revolutionary War. Nothing too major. Here we go.

1. Nothing Really Works All That Well

That sounds pretty damning, huh? Let's just start with this one, then. Nothing in Assassin's Creed III works all that well. Good video games have a good feel to them. Think of it this way: it's not necessarily that every toy, trick, and game mechanic feels intuitive and smooth. But in an action game, the core mechanics, the ones you use over and over again, should.


Think of a game where you do lots of shooting, like Gears of War. Gears' shooting feels good. The active reload feels good. Slamming into cover feels good. These are the core aspects of the game, the things you'll be doing hundreds if not thousands of times as you play it.

It's almost as though Assassin's Creed III has no core game mechanics. It's all ancillary stuff. Nothing feels "right," nothing works that well. Running is weird at best, laggy, and often leads you charging up a wall or tearing off in the wrong direction. Swordfighting feels less like a kinetic dance and more like a drunken brawl. Fistfighting is laughably bad. Shooting a bow takes forever and feels light and unsatisfying. Shooting a musket is worse—using the top face button, Y or Triangle, to shoot a gun feels like trying to screw in a lightbulb while standing on your tiptoes.


Targeting is a disaster. (Really? The left trigger is dedicated to toggling a slow-moving reticle that highlights characters for auto-target? Whose idea was that?) It should not still be possible to climb up to one of the game's iconic vantage points, synchronize, then press "jump," and... leap to your death on the hard pavement next to the pile of hay. And yet it is. Even air-assassinations, the one thing that the series had gotten pretty good at, feel finicky and difficult to land in the new game.

It's as though Assassin's Creed III has no core gameplay; it's so scattered that there's nothing to hold on to. As a result, it's rarely if ever satisfying to play.

2. It's All Rough Edges

There is a sense throughout Assassin's Creed III that the game's eyes are just bigger than its stomach. It feels as though it was crammed onto an Xbox 360 disc, its developers sitting on top of the disc while they zipped up the sides, praying it would fit into the overhead compartment. I couldn't go five minutes on the Xbox version without encountering some sort of rough edge or bug. Ubisoft have long been masters of the way too-good-to-be-true screenshot (you'll see several of those in this very article), but the gulf between how those images look and how the game looks in action has never been wider.

Constant loading screens between interiors and exteriors, cutscenes and gameplay, and everywhere else. Strange, abrupt transitions from the end of combat to the end of a sequence, where music would be about to hit a crescendo and would suddenly be cut short, replaced by a silent animus loading screen. Terrible lip synching during in-game conversations. Long pauses between characters' lines of dialogue in overheard conversations, as if my console was leaving them to ponder the most recent sentence while it desperately searched for the requisite sound file. And all of this is not to mention the many, many, many bugs in the game, most of which are cosmetic, some of which will doubtless be addressed by patches, and all of which conspire to make the game feel like less than it should have been.


Overheard dialogue, replayed ad nauseum, again, and again, and again. The "Mah-nee, mah-nee, mah-nee!" guy from AC II sounds refreshing compared with some of your cohorts' battle cries and the freaky, played-on-a-loop clown laughs of the little children.

The rough edges leave the world feeling clownish and false, like a scary amalgamation of a video game version of the past. It's not just unconvincing, it's often weird. It's strange that a game this high-profile, which has been in development this long, feels this rough and unfinished.

3. The Music Is A Drag

I just don't like the music in Assassin's Creed III. This is largely a matter of personal taste—when it comes down to it, I prefer Jesper Kyd's soaring, melodramatic themes from ACII and Brotherhood to Lorne Balfe's staid, dirge-like orchestrations and perfunctory ethnic wailing. It's all so serious and frowny, both in tone and in instrumentation. For a game that's ostensibly about freedom and flight, about leaping from rooftop to rooftop and tree to tree, the music feels lugubrious.

Put it another way: It's not a coincidence that several fan-made tributes to Assassin's Creed III have used music from Assassin's Creed II. Kyd's music is iconic, and nothing Balfe has created in the new game comes close.

4. The Intro? Also A Drag

The bait-and-switch opening chapters of ACIII have been a point of contention for many critics. I submit that it's not so much the nature of the introduction that bugs me so much as its design. Yes, you play as a different dude for the first four to six hours of Assassin's Creed III. (And yes, he is, oddly, a much more likable guy than the actual main character Connor.) I liked that; I liked the narrative twists and turns that this part of the story tossed out, and I enjoyed setting up the framework for the rest of the game.



What I didn't like was the actual way the prelude was designed—it was, literally, a series of cutscenes separated by some walking. Almost every time. My guy would wake up, then walk to a room, and a cutscene would play. Then he'd walk to another room, where a cutscene would play. Then maybe (maybe) there'd be a swordfight. Then walk to a cutscene. Sometimes he'd walk across a vast, snowy forest to get to his next cutscene.

The last straw for me was when I finished a cutscene and was set loose on the deck of a ship, en route to America. Land, I was told, was visible. I was instructed to climb the tallest mast and see for myself. I began to climb, excited to crest the top sail and set my sights on Boston Harbor. The music began to build as I climbed and… suddenly the game took over, and awkwardly transitioned into a cutscene of my character looking out over Boston Harbor. Man.

5. Basic Interface Fail

The interface in Assassin's Creed III is far too sluggish. Everything moves slower than it should. Weapon selection is a disaster—like many games, you press RB to open up a menu that allows you to switch between your various tools. But instead of popping up an easy quick-select radial menu, the game pauses, zooms out to an entirely separate menu, then lets you move up and down a list of items, rather than around in a circle.


This is basic stuff to get wrong at this point—Red Dead Redemption nailed it four two years ago, and Saints Row got it right even before that. There are too many tools in Assassin's Creed III to use the D-pad shortcuts; I always need quick access to more than four things. The amount of time it takes to select a new tool, particularly while in the heat of combat, is a groove-killer.

The map is even worse. It's become a given that Assassin's Creed games have terrible maps, but that does not make it okay. If anything, it makes it less okay. It should't "be a given" that a massive, multi-million dollar AAA franchise just has one very important element that sucks, forever. They've had five games to get the map right. Why can't they just overhaul it? It takes forever for it to load, it's difficult to read, and it makes it navigation more confusing, not less.

6. The "Gump Factor"

I'm a little bit worried about Assassin's Creed's fiction as it gets closer to modern times. In the earlier games, Altair and Ezio spent a lot of time tied up with the biggest political and social movements in their respective points in history. But, and this may be hugely ethnocentric of me, those conflicts, characters, and events felt far enough from our own time that it wasn't too big of a deal to see my video game protagonist taking a small but vital role in them. Even meeting characters I knew, like Leonardo DaVinci in Assassin's Creed II, felt a bit goofy, but fun.



Assassin's Creed III takes place during the American Revolution, during historical events that most people, at least most Americans, are much more familiar with. As a result, the story starts to have a Forrest Gump-y quality that feels more distracting than cool. You say Paul Revere went on a famous ride? Well actually, Connor rode with him! You say the British won a bloody victory at Bunker Hill? Well actually, Connor was there, and snuck across the enemy lines! You say the Colonials held the British at the north bridge in Concord? Well actually, Connor commanded the troops and told them when to fire! Why did he do this? Because the Colonial commanding officer decided to trust this random guy with the task.

I loved this re-done version of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's "Paul Revere's Ride" by Dan Golding over at Crikey. A choice excerpt:

And so our riders went swiftly through the night

With Revere giving directions towards the good fight,

When suddenly, without sure prediction,

It seemed a bug emerged with strong affliction

Revere was stuck helplessly in a dialogue cycle;

"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"

"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"

"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"

"Yes! This is exactly where we need to be!"

It all feels contrived, and unnecessary. I'm not sure of the exact solution to this problem—it is cool to read about and see the real story of Paul Revere's ride, and to see the events at Concord unfolding firsthand. But do I really have to ride on the horse with the guy? Must I command the troops, and if so, must Connor be the one to do it?


In order for a video game to occupy a place in history, it doesn't necessarily have to place characters at the very center of historical events. It would've been possible to put Connor into Paul Revere's ride, or the Battle of Bunker Hill, without making him an integral part of each one. And I worry that as the series progresses into even more recent history, that the Gumpyness will only get worse. I want to live through history, but I don't need to rewrite it.

7. It's Time For A Control Overhaul

In addition to the basic interface stuff, I think it's time that Ubisoft reassess Assassin's Creed's basic controls. Combat doesn't feel good, targeting is a disaster, and free-running should probably just be labeled a failed experiment. On a fundamental level, the game does not feature a strong connection between the player, his or her controller, and the game. That's a big problem.

Since the first Assassin's Creed launched in 2007, the series has been so thoroughly outpaced by so many games that the people in charge would do well to pause, study, and go back to the drawing board.

For example: With each passing year, combat in Assassin's Creed is further overshadowed by Batman: Arkham Asylum. While Rocksteady managed to raise their own bar in Arkham City, Ubisoft seems content to stick with a combat system that feels positively stodgy at this point. It's unsatisfying, hectic, and despite all that it's far too easy. They can add all the canned kill-cam animations they want, it won't change the fact that their basic combat is one tenth as enjoyable, challenging, and punchy as Arkham City on an off day.

Free-running, too, could learn some lessons from other games. Sleeping Dogs added an interesting trick where you hold down "A" to run, then press it in time to climb and jump over obstacles. Infamous forced players to actually press the jump button to climb walls, but managed to make navigation into a mostly-fun skate-park kind of thing. Dishonored added a teleporting mechanic to make rooftop navigation thrilling and empowering. I humbly submit that Assassin's Creed's next developers rethink what can be fun about running and leaping over things. The basic idea is still strong. But the execution needs work.

8. For A Stealth Game, The Stealth Sure Is Jank

And here, maybe my biggest problem with Assassin's Creed III: The stealth. The Assassin's Creed games are, ostensibly, stealth games. One of their oldest gameplay pillars involves your character blending into the crowd, striking, then vanishing into thin air.



And yet it never feels that way. Stealth in Assassin's Creed III is broken, plain and simple. This is best evidenced by an early mission in which you must sneak into an enemy encampment and steal intel without being spotted. If you're spotted, the mission ends, and you must restart it from the beginning. I failed this mission a good 20 times before finally succeeding, and I'd imagine I'm not the only one.

Here are the problems as I see them:

  • The camera positioning makes it difficult to see where everyone is, and despite the addition of an inconsistent corner-sticking ability, you mostly can't "stick" to cover and make yourself unseen.
  • There's no "stealth" button, not even a crouch button, which means that you can't tell the game that you'd like your character to be stealthy. That means you'll frequently just stand right up while moving through the underbrush, immediately tipping off every nearby enemy to your location. It's maddening.
  • Enemies don't appear to have a realistic line-of-sight, and can often see you from the strangest, most turned-around locations. I find myself playing more against the yellow arrows that have popped up at the side of my screen than against enemies I actually had any notion of when I started sneaking.
  • Crowd-sneaking feels inconsistent to the point that I never even attempt it. The stealth feedback is just fundamentally flawed. I never attempt to sneak using a crowd, because it's almost impossible not to get spotted.
  • Assassin's Creed III has also done away with the hireable helpers that made crowd-stealth more workable in past games. You can no longer hire courtesans and thieves to help you get past guards, giving you far less control over your work at street-level.
  • Sneaking in the woods is almost impossible, as well. Everything is so spread out that there are rarely good "stealth pathways" between you and your target, and there's no good way to quickly traverse open areas without being spotted. Far more often, you'll have to kill everyone who spots you before proceeding. I wanted to be a ghost in the underbrush, and instead I'm a thug with a tomahawk.

I've been playing a lot of stealth games recently. From Dishonored to Mark of the Ninja to Hitman: Absolution, which I'll be reviewing next week. All of those games, with varying degrees of success, have built-in systems that dovetail with the level design to make sneaking empowering, interesting, difficult, and fun. By contrast, Assassin's Creed feels like it has a stealth game's punishments without any of its necessary tools. It feels so clumsy. Connor is a constantly-spotted rube, a guy standing on a rooftop being yelled at by a guard.

9. I Avoid Doing Things

I find that in Assassin's Creed III, I avoid doing just about everything. I want the path of least resistance. I don't want to even try to use the rope-dart to hang a guy from a tree. I don't want to try to sneak through a fort undetected. I don't want to go hunting, I don't want to try to use feed to summon animals and shoot them from a tree. I don't want to try to dodge a firing-line and use a guy as a human shield. It's all just so difficult to manage, so I don't bother. And really, that's because…

10. It's Just Not Very Fun

And here we get to the crux of it, I guess. This one's more subjective than all the other ones, but it remains true: I just haven't been having much fun with Assassin's Creed III. When I started playing, I was also playing Need For Speed: Most Wanted for review. (That game? Very, very fun.) Considering how much I've enjoyed past Assassin's Creed games, I was honestly surprised to find myself saying, many a time, "Man, why am I playing this when I could be playing Need for Speed?" Then I figured out why: Need For Speed is fun, and Assassin's Creed III isn't.

It's interesting, and often smart. The story is cool, and I'm one of the people who actually likes that twisty, silly Desmond meta-narrative. I love the sense of place, the meticulously researched history, and think that this time period is hugely underrepresented in video games. I like exploring. But the game, as it stands, just isn't fun. I'm not one to stand on a mountaintop and declare that all games must be "fun," whatever that even means. But surely this blockbuster action/adventure series is intended to be enjoyable to play. And yet, here we are.



Despite all the disappointments I just listed, I still don't hate Assassin's Creed III. It's a game worth playing, and its basic setup, setting, and story are strong enough to overcome even that laundry list of complaints. And hey, the naval combat really is as cool as everyone says. I'm going to wait to play it to completion until it comes out on PC, largely in the hopes that my more powerful computer can remedy some of the rough edges that so turned me off of the Xbox version.

But on the whole, I just gotta say it: Assassin's Creed III, one of the biggest, most ambitious, and most hyped games of 2012, is a disappointment.

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