Nearly six months on and I'm still torn on Assassin's Creed III. I loved the setting, loved the combat, loved anything and everything to do with the Aquila. But I couldn't stand the mission design, and the game was so humourless and drab it would bum me out just booting it up.
The game's surprisingly substantial singleplayer DLC, then, gave me a chance to revisit Ubisoft's version of 18th-century America. Not just to see if my feelings have changed in the months since its release, but whether the new content could address some of the main game's several substantial flaws.
The Tyranny of King Washington is a three-part series set in an alternate alternate universe, where instead of joining up with the Assassins Connor remains at home, and grows to a man as Ratohnhake:ton. In this version of events, the British are still defeated, however George Washington gets his hands on one of the game's Apples of Eden, and goes quite bonkers with it, installing himself as a tyrannical regent.
Which sounds absolutely crazy, right? Crazy in the way only a flash game or B-movie could be. Awesome crazy. So my first problem with this DLC is that it has absolutely no fun with it. George Washington as a mad King is a ludicrous scenario, one that should have been played for over-the-top laughs, but instead, the three episodes are as humourless as the main game was. Ben Franklin as a tyrant's lackey? Serious. Thomas Jefferson as an armed insurgent? Serious. George Washington sipping tea on a throne? What should have been a hilarious sight is instead played totally seriously.
This gives the DLC a ridiculous tone, one that's not helped by the fact that in each episode you're granted a new special ability that at best can be described as game-breaking. Early on in the opening chapter, and going against the wishes of his mother, Ratohnhake:ton drinks some funky spirit juice that gives him the power of certain animals.
The first is the wolf, which lets you sneak undetected through crowds of people and set a pack of three ghost dogs on unsuspecting targets. The second is the eagle, which takes a page out of Batman's book by letting you "hook" between targets, flying over rooftops one "soar" at a time. The third is the bear, giving you a HULK SMASH move that can clear a crowd of enemies and topple/crush certain objects in the game.
While all three drain your health upon use, they're still fabulously overpowered, to the point where their use - which at times is made mandatory - strips the game of not just its challenge, but its entire foundation of stealth and acrobatics. The wolf's invisiblity cloak makes tracking targets and infiltrating areas a breeze. The eagle's flight does likewise, letting you fly over the walls of forts and barricades. And the bear, well, it's basically a "kill everything around you" superpower.
Of the three, only one is genuinely useful outside of combat scenarios, and that's the eagle's flight power, which drastically cuts down on the time needed to traverse the game's dull and repetitive cities.
There's the argument that these powers are a release, a way of flipping the game on its head, of experimenting, but they all fall flat. Assassin's Creed is a game built on the tenets of stealth, of parkour, of combat that's almost rhythmic in its flow. When you take those things away and substitute them with weird superpowers, what's left? Why are you playing an Assassin's Creed game at all?
What I found saddest about the whole thing, though, was the fact that it seems no lessons were learned from the main game's poor mission design. With the exception of a few well-staged battles and a single open-ended section towards the end of the third chapter, Tyranny's missions fall into the same trap as Assassin's Creed III's, in that most are poorly designed for the areas of the map in which they take place, constantly leaving you with scripting problems, pathfinding hiccups, cramped combat and busted stealth/trailing missions.
When I booted this DLC up for the first time, I was hoping for a happy ending. Something tighter, more focused than the main game, which would let me make peace with it and end my adventures as Connor on a happy note. Instead, all I'm left with now is the confirmation that his world is so boring, and so often broken, that it's not worth returning to, let alone saving.