With so many AAA games coming out this fall, it’s hard to pick one that I’m most excited for. But if there’s any one game that has me losing sleep in anticipation it’s Assassin’s Creed III. This is the Assassin’s Creed game fans have been waiting for since 2009, and not only does it introduce a new protagonist, a new setting, new gameplay mechanics and a new engine, but it also promises to wrap up the storyline of the series’ true hero, Desmond Miles. Be warned, spoilers ahead.
Both Ubisoft and the press generally put the most emphasis on the core gameplay of the Assassin Creed games, i.e. parkour and fluid combat against the backdrop of a realistic historical setting. In the case of ACIII, that setting is the American Revolution, with gameplay shifting to match the new locale and the fighting style of the playable protagonist, Connor, a half Native American assassin hunting down Templars amidst the turmoil of America’s early democracy. However a major aspect of the game that often gets little coverage or fanfare is Desmond’s sequences, likely because not only is Altair, Ezio and Connor’s sections the meat and potatoes of the franchise but frankly, Desmond’s levels have historically been a bit, well…boring.
In the first Assassin's Creed, Desmond was essentially a cipher for the player. In a very meta conceit, the machine which allows Desmond to tap into the memories of his ancestors- the Animus – works much like a videogame, or more accurately, like The Matrix. Not only can Desmond relive events from centuries prior, but like in the Wachowski Brothers’ iconic film, he can retain skills and abilities from the Animus via a “bleed-through effect.” As cool as all this mythology sounds, in terms of gameplay Desmond’s role in the first game was incredibly lackluster. Confined to a small room in a section of the Abstergo corporation’s headquarters, Desmond basically walked around a boring environment, spoke to a digital representation of Kristen Bell and the game’s primary antagonist, scientist Warren Vidic. Sometimes Desmond would hack into a computer and read some newspaper articles, but his sections in AC were little more than exposition, delving into the modern day incarnations of the Assassins and Templars and the mythology impacting Altair’s storyline in the Third Crusade.
In Assassin's Creed II, Desmond got to do a bit more, but it still felt like he was playing second fiddle to Ezio. After an escape sequence where he and Lucy break out of Abstergo, Desmond spent much of the rest of the game in an underground chamber strapped into the Animus, occasionally getting up for some parkour training. Two new Assassin's Creed characters were added to give a bit more richness to the present day plot, but ultimately it all felt a little tacked on, even an after credits sequence in which Desmond actually gets to fight and kill Abstergo goons with a hidden blade.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood featured the most engaging and intriguing Desmond subplot to date and an incredible cliffhanger I won’t spoil here. Though Desmond once again spends most of his time in the Animus, his quest is more directly connected to Ezio’s and thus, when he gets up out of his chair and starts scouring the Coliseum for the Apple of Eden, there’s weight and importance to his actions. Revelations, the fourth chapter in the series, deployed an intriguing concept—Desmond is trapped inside the Animus along with the consciousness of one of Abstergo’s deceased former guinea pigs, Subject 16. Revelations has the coolest story for Desmond, but unlike Brotherhood it’s almost entirely disconnected from what’s happening to Ezio, save for one scene near the end of the game that connects all of the series’ protagonists to date. Players got to a learn a lot of Desmond’s past growing up on the modern day assassin desert compound mentioned in the first game, but were forced to slog through laborious and ill-conceived first person puzzle sequences—think a poor man’s Portal. It was boring and seemed really out of place in a game that had always been about third-person action, and not bizarre existential puzzles in a subconscious maze.
With only two months until its release, Ubisoft has been releasing more and more details about Assassin’s Creed III, which has been in development since ACII shipped in 2009. We know it introduces a new, half-Native American hero disinterested in the Revolution or either side in the conflict, is set in famous cities such as Boston and has new combat and free-running mechanics. With smaller buildings, Connor will spend less time running up walls and more time swinging from tree limbs, though he can now launch himself through open windows and pop out of the other side of a room. Gone is the hidden blade, replaced with a detachable version and a tomahawk.
As this is the end of an era for Ubisoft’s popular franchise, the publisher is keeping details on ACIII’s plot tightly under wraps. We know that like with Ezio, we’ll get to experience almost the entirety of Connor’s life and we know that he too has a thirst for revenge. We know famous historical figures such as George Washington will make appearances, but other than that little is known of where the story will go or how it will conclude. In addition, there’s been nary a mention of Desmond and none of his sections have been revealed to the public as of yet.
This can mean one of two things. Either fans’ hopes have finally come true and Desmond has been given a more expanded role and will actually do something in ACIII (I’m hoping he’ll climb some skyscrapers), or Ubisoft just isn’t interested in that aspect of the franchise and wants to focus on its bread and butter. I can only pray that it’s the former. ACIII has been dubbed as the closer to the “Desmond Cycle,” which means it will also conclude the 2012 Mayan apocalypse plot that has been ominously looming over the games since the first release back in 2007. One almost wonders if Brotherhood and Revelations were merely created to stretch the story out long enough for ACIII to be timed with the actual Mayan apocalypse.
Portrayed by famous voice actor Nolan North (best known as the voice of Nathan Drake), Desmond is a rich and relatable character, and just as important to the Assassin’s Creed mythos as his ancestors. A fish out of water and a classic example of Joseph Campbell’s reluctant hero archetype, Desmond drives the story and helps ground it when all the talk of Apples and first civilizations and Templars gets too out here. Other players may disagree, but what has always drawn me to the Assassin’s Creed series, other than the unique historical settings, is its story. Characters feel real, dialogue pops and a rich mythology acts as a backdrop to what is, at its heart, a human drama.
But as with any big entertainment industry, games are first and foremost a business, at least in the eyes of those who sign the paychecks. I only hope that Ubisoft takes the risks they are known for and gives Desmond as good a send-off as they give Connor an introduction.