Sunday, December 15, 2013

Assassin's Creed 3 vs. Assassin's Creed 4: Which is better?

     Prior to Assassin's Creed 4, I thought Assassin's Creed 3 was the best of the series. After the cartoon villainy of the Borgias and the horrific disappointment of Assassin's Creed: Revelations, Connor's story was a breath of fresh air. But which is better? The game starring the pirate or the tracker? This is a article which will answer the question from my perspective.

Warning - Spoilers for the series up to 4.

Why I liked Assassin's Creed 3

    I can see why people had a problem with the gameplay, though, because it was seemingly one tutorial after another. Likewise, both Connor and Desmond's stories ended in a way which was bound to be controversial.

    Still, I think AC3 managed to revive the moral ambiguity of the Templar vs. Assassins conflict while also showing the latter aren't always going to be the most effective of heroes. Connor Kenway is a figure who chooses to support the Revolutionary cause on ideological grounds but the results for him, as a Native American as well as Assassin, are underwhelming to say the least. I much preferred this to the unambiguous triumph of both Altair and Ezio's storylines.

    Likewise, I'm a huge fan of the character of Haytham Kenway who manages to be one of the more intriguing protagonists of the games. He's a Templar of conscience who, while still doing some pretty awful things (organizing the Boston Massacre, plotting George Washington's assassination, and so on), still manages to come off as an anti-hero as opposed to a straight-up villain.

    The "America, F*** Yay!" element of AC3  is something I can take or leave. The game comes across with a decidedly mixed feeling toward American patriotism, highlighting the warts and hypocrisy of the Revolution but rarely acting as if Connor shouldn't be supporting them 100%.

    Indeed, I know many players who were disappointed Connor didn't make his own attempt to assassinate George Washington when it was discovered he ordered an attack on their village. The Tyranny of King Washington didn't satisfy my Foundercidal tendencies because the alternate history required Connor not to know the First President or his many personal misdeeds against him.

    I was rather sick of Ezio climbing the ancient structures of Europe and the Middle East, however, with Revelations being particularly egregious. Somehow, they managed to make Istanbul's architecture and its convoluted politics boring. This is quite the accomplishment given both are some of the most notable in the world. So the forests and modest structures of the Americas were quite the improvement for me.

    Overall, I gave Assassin's Creed 3 a 10 out of 10 but this is on a scale which measures the amount of enjoyment I got out of the game. Is it possible for a game to go to the 11? In which case, the answer is yes.

Why I *loved* Assassin's Creed 4

    I wasn't particularly excited about Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag because I'd felt AC3 was a sufficient ending point for the series. Yes, the series still had the release of Juno but Desmond Miles' story was complete and the conflict between the Templars and Assassins was now thoroughly stale. AC3 had thoroughly deconstructed the battle to the point the Assassins didn't look that much better than their age-old enemies. Which is quite the accomplishment when the first game says Hitler and Stalin were both Templars.

    Worse, the setting was about pirates. I love pirates. Don't get me wrong. However, pirates are an easy cash-in for people. Given I was hoping for a story about a older Connor involving himself in the French Revolution, this was a trifle disappointing. Likewise, having read Assassin's Creed: Forsaken, I can't say I was enthused about playing Edward Kenway. It seemed incongruous to play a figure we know ends ignominiously before having his legacy betrayed by his son.

    I was wrong.

    Assassin's Creed 4 is the best of the series, surpassing AC3  by leaps and bounds. A repeated statement about the game is that it didn't need to be an Assassin's Creed game, which is a sure sign it's actually just a good game period. AC 4 is an awesome pirate game which just happens to be set in the AC universe. Given I have long lamented the lack of a "serious" pirate game, this is a great remedy.

    I admit, though, part of the fun for long-time Creed fans will be the game's extensive p***-take at the entire conflict between the Templars and Assassins. If Connor's story deconstructed the idea of "Assassins Good, Templars" evil then Black Flag shoots it out of the water with Edward's take on the two sides being "Assassins stupid, Templars irrelevant."

    It's fascinating to see the Templars power having waned to the point they can barely keep control over their minions. Likewise, the modern day segment has the Templars in control of a video game corporation and so blindingly incompetent that you have to wonder why we need a secret society of Arabic ninjas to fight them. If this offends your sensibilities about the series and its mythology, the game may not be for you.

    Really, at times, the game feels like "Grand Theft Galleon" with Edward being the most brutal and selfish protagonist in the series. He's a more murderous pirate than the vast majority of the historical pirates he hangs out with, killing hundreds of British and Spanish sailors in cinematic Eroll Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks-like duels. He's interested in coin and pleasure as opposed to freeing the world from supernatural conspiracies.

    The game nicely deconstructs the horrible history of Disney's pirates. Blackbeard is actually one of the most soft-hearted pirates around while the inspiration for Captain Jack Sparrow was one of the most stupid. There's even a bit of fun with Tortuga being one of the most heavily guarded plantations around. History is stranger than fiction with the most famous pirates of history all hanging around and knowing each other.

    Gameplay-wise, the game doesn't hold your hand and while there's no real glorious architecture to climb, that's more than made up for by the excellent parkour opportunities to be found in climbing sailing ships as well as the occasional Mayan ruin. I felt the parkour was also a little easier with there always being something for Edward to climb or run across, making the chases all the more dynamic.

    It is a great-great game.

Edward vs. Connor

    I've long felt Connor was a rebuttal to Ezio Auditore. The protagonist of Assasin's Creed's "middle trilogy" more or less spends the majority of his life getting revenge and it works out pretty well for him. Likewise, he allies with some of history's nastiest figures but because we see it from his perspective, they come off as heroes.

    Connor is a good antidote to that as the entirety of his story is a lengthy analysis of not only how involvement in shaping history is rarely clean and dry but how change is often ambiguous in its results. Connor successfully helps create a Republican government by serving as the Assassin's Creed universe equivalent of John Paul Jones crossed with Francis Marion (except more Natty Bumpo than slave-holding terrorist) but suffers blowback for his decisions.

    I also like the fact that Connor's war on Charles Lee is misguided from the start. The true center of his wrath is George Washington but if our hero killed him, he would have plunged the newly formed nation of America into a civil war. In the end, Connor chooses to stick with killing Templars and puts aside his personal vendetta to embrace the broader Assasin's idealogy. Even so, he's left with the knowledge his choices may not have been the correct ones.

    The ambiguity of Connor is something I really enjoyed. He's a tragic hero who wants to make the world a better place but a tool of forces beyond his control. Whether Haytham, Juno, or Washington--he's also forced to end up choosing the lesser of two evils rather than the greatest good. It adds a touch of melancholy to his character arc, even if I think a lot of players thought Connor wasn't aware of these facts.

    I think Connor was *deeply* aware of all these manipulations but was powerless to do anything about them. Even Achilles, his fatherly mentor, was using Connor the same way Obi-Wan Kenobi used Luke Skywalker--as a weapon to revenge himself on the boy's father. Still, no one wants to feel like a pawn and it sucks to be Connor Kenway. Indeed, he's the only Assassin who doesn't even get a love interest at the end of the story.

    By contrast, being Edward Kenway is awesome for 90% of the game. Edward Kenway is a dashing pirate, a ladies man, and his early achievements include getting not only a Cool Ship but a gigantic Caribbean villa filled with a surprisingly large number of beautiful women. Edward's motivations are coin, corsets, and killing with a large amount of rum in-between. Abstergo's trailer isn't all that inaccurate for the early part of Edward's life.

    The carefree and bloody life of a pirate is a direct contrast to Connor, who is always dwelling under an auspice of doom. We all know what happens to the Native Americans, leaving Connor's story to be bittersweet at the best of times but Edward Kenway has an unbridled joy that invokes all the fun of Disney's Pirates of the Carribean combined with earlier Douglas Fairbanks and Eroll Flynn-style movies.

    Eventually, the party winds down for Edward Kenway and things turn to complete garbage but he manages to end things on a seemingly happy note. I think this is another reason Edward Kenway was a more satisfying protagonist to follow. While his final scene with Haytham Kenway is filled with portents of doom, the opera house and our foreknowledge he'll be murdered by his own son, I think most saw it as our hero getting to live at least a short time with a loving family.

    A happy ending doesn't mean bad storytelling. So, between the two, I give Edward the edge, even if I do love Connor's story.


  1. side question- how would have a game with connor in the french revolution have worked tho?

  2. I'm inclined to think it would follow Connor as he developed a more nuanced view of revolution and its costs. Connor would come to France and deal with the older Assassins we saw in Unity, who are all tradition-bound, snooty, and up their own backsides. He'd get to see an outsiders perspective on French poverty and noble privilege while also knowing these things can get out of hand. It'd allow the player to be educated (along with Connor) about the two sides to the Revolution and what costs there are.

    You might argue making Connor an outsider would be a bad thing but I think it did well for establishing him as a character in the American Revolution who can look at the conflict between Loyalists and Patriots objectively.