It’s so refreshing to play Assassin’s Creed III now, nearly seven years after its controversial release. The game’s debut was marred by misleading marketing, a surprising game structure, and a lot of bugs, but I always liked the rough-edged yet fascinating adventure the game’s creators actually built. Playing the new remastered game on my PS4 last night was a trip, like stepping into one of those machines that lets you relive past lives.
Assassin’s Creed III launched in October 2012 with a lot of hype.The game’s debut trailer, released back in June of that year, was superb. Our new hero, a half-British, half-Native-American man named Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor, wielded a special Assassin’s tomahawk against British forces during the Revolutionary War. He weaved through the chaos of huge battle and leapt over musket-wielding redcoats to kill an enemy commander. This would be a stirring setting for a new game.
ACIII disappointed a lot of people that October. It was buggy and janky and had a controversial fake-out that kept players from controlling Connor for the game’s first several hours. It didn’t include any grand battles like the ones seen in that trailer, except for one tucked into the end of an optional downloadable expansion involving Benedict Arnold.
I was so thrilled by what I found in Assassin’s Creed III when I reviewed it and in the months following, though, that I kept poking at it. The game was radical. It was radical in its structure, delaying the player’s opportunity to play as Connor by first putting them in control of his father. It was radical in its gameplay, daring to expand the series’ exciting—if sometimes clumsy—free-running from cityscapes to forests. It was radical in theme, repeatedly emphasizing that a man of Connor’s background and skin color would lose out in the new country.
This narrative underpinning didn’t always do the work of fleshing out Connor’s character, which meant he occasionally seemed off-puttingly irritable, but that was only if you ignored the game’s side missions. After I returned in February 2013 to ACIII’s recreations of colonial Boston and New York and went through all of its side content, I found my opinion of Connor transformed.
The lower-Manhattan zone is full of burned buildings and people at risk from smallpox. In this zone, you need to find pox-infected blankets to burn and sick, threatening dogs to kill. You carry sick people to doctors. You can do all this while en route to other quests, but as you’re doing them you develop the rare sense that Connor is doing something simple and good.
So many of the heroic actions we commit in video games are overly grand. They involve saving the world. In northern New York, you wind up helping farmers by repelling hooligans while they plant their crops. You pay off or beat up shady government officials who are trying to foreclose on people’s homes. In Boston, you do more traditionally video-gamey things: you attack British prison guards and officials. But in New York, you might as well be Robin Hood or some sort of super-powered soup kitchen volunteer. You do good. Connor feels like a hero for the 99%.
I couldn’t believe what I found as I dug deeper into the game. I discovered the full scope of the excellent Homestead missions that involve Connor creating his own better society. Amid the game’s modern-day sequences, I found optional discussions that defied the pro-American sentiment you’d expect in this sort of big-budget game to, say, remind the player that some of America’s founders had slaves. Here, before it came in vogue to interrogate whether a major new game was being political, was a clear argument that modern politicians’ strict constructionist approaches to finding the original intent in the Constitution are a farce:
It was entirely understandable for players to miss or not care about any of that. Assassin’s Creed III brambled the path to many of its most interesting parts with a cumbersome, rhythm-breaking inventory system, calamitous glitches that broke the game for many players, and a torturous endgame on-foot chase that our critic Kirk Hamilton denounced as the worst thing I played all year.
A lot of ACIII’s glitches were patched out, and the new remaster is designed to make the whole experience run more smoothly. I’ve not played enough of it to assess how well it does that, but stepping back into this game is a pleasant return.
I hadn’t absorbed until playing III again just how severely the spirit of the Assassin’s Creed games has drifted since 2012. Many of the series’ more vocal fans on YouTube, Reddit, and message boards have turned on the franchise of late, complaining that recent sequels have bent and eventually snapped many of Assassin’s Creed core tenets. Gone are requirements that the game’s modern-day characters are related to the historical assassins whose lives they experience through the Animus device. Minimized are those modern portions of the game, their world-shattering meta-plot shunted into a resolution in a spin-off comic book series. Recent Assassin’s Creed games barely even feature an Assassin’s order or an Assassin’s Creed.
I’m mixed on those complaints, but what a refreshing shock it is to return to III, a game about Assassins and Templars and otherworldly sci-fi spirits and the ability of past lives to turn a modern man into a world-saving assassin in his own right. It’s much weirder and perhaps much more niche than the magnificent but less shocking historical tourism of modern Assassin’s Creed games. Newer games deliver the history and big battles from the trailers that players wanted, but playing ACIII is a superb reminder of what was left behind.