I’m watching BlueJay play through the early stages of Assassin’s Creed III, and although my experience is naturally coloured by his own (low) opinion of the game, I must say I’m disappointed so far. There are certainly things which are good – visually it has some great details (even if some faces have become odd in the graphics transition), the free-running looks amazingly fluid, and they’ve gone to a lot of effort to include Native American language and cultural details where they can.
Unfortunately, the free-running looks fantastic because the game does it all for you, as far as I can tell. You can leap through the trees and swing gracefully from branches or up ledges in a stone cliff face, but I don’t think I’d feel much sense of achievement doing it. You barely even have to jump any more – just hold the “kickass parkour” button down and point yourself in the desired direction. Ratonhnhaké:ton (aka Connor – or whoever you’re playing as) does everything on his own. This experience extends to many parts of the game – most of the beginning that I watched seemed to involve running a character between cutscene trigger points. Watch a video, run to the next video. A button will ‘analyse clue’, but not tell you anything about what you’ve found or what it means – just give you a mark on the mini-map. The dreaded quicktime events make a strong showing; I can only hope that’s less true later in the game, but the first few hours of play suggest that they play a big part.
The problem with things like quicktime events is that they reduce playing the game to pushing the right button. I know that video games boil down to that anyway, but part of the fun is disguising that behind the simulation. If I know that this button makes me jump, and this button makes me drop down, I feel like that’s what I’m doing – what I’m doing. When everything is arbitrary buttons, or arbitrary steps in a quest, there’s no immersion. I don’t feel any motivation to keep playing when I feel like I’m just being led by the nose through a series of entirely arbitrary steps.
And one more thing on that note: quest objectives! The Assassin’s Creed games have been going in this direction for a while, but watching AC3 has made me realise just how much I dislike it. The main objective at any given time is a simple task required to get to the next step – usually as simple as ‘get here’ (i.e. ‘point the stick in this direction until we give you a cutscene’). The only challenges to bring variety to this are ‘optional objectives’. These are, again, entirely arbitrary and transparently game elements, such as “don’t lose more than x health”. That has nothing to do with what our hero is doing. It’s not something I contribute to the story, or a required challenge to overcome, it’s just a further complication to…what? Stop the game from getting boring?
If you’re having to design in optional extras to stop your game being a boring slog from one video to another, you have a problem with your game. And if you just wanted to tell a story through a series of cutscenes, you should have made a visual novel.