When we traveled to Ubisoft Montreal to see Assassin's Creed III for our cover story last February, the development team surprised us by saying the game was already in alpha stage. This means the game was feature-complete and fully playable a full nine months before release - not exactly a common occurrence in our industry, especially for an open-world game where the disparate feature sets often come together at the last minute. Given that one of the team's primary goals was quality, this aggressive schedule would seemingly provide them an unprecedented amount of time to debug. After playing the game for a handful of hours, it's clear Ubisoft Montreal's plan unraveled sometime between that visit and the launch of the game.
As Miller eloquently pointed out in his review of Assassin's Creed III, the game has a lot to offer. I've always enjoyed the historical settings, science fiction narrative, and satisfying hidden blade combat, and Assassin's Creed III builds on each of these pillars in meaningful ways. But even after downloading the major patch, the pervasive glitches and poor mission design have chipped away at these pillars to the point where they are starting to look unstable.
As The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Red Dead Redemption, and Assassin's Creed III prove, glitches are common in ambitious, sprawling games. Though they occasionally shatter the players' sense of immersion, strong story and gameplay can overcome these hiccups. Sloppy mission design, on the other hand, is much harder to survive, and Assassin's Creed III is littered with missions that could have benefited from more play testing.
On one mission early in the narrative, Samuel Adams said he was going to show me the underground passageways in Boston. I waited patiently for him to lead the way, but he never started moving. After restarting the mission and experiencing the same thing, I realized the game was telling me one thing and expecting me to do another. Despite Sam's claims to the contrary, I was supposed to find my own way to the marker on the map.
In another instance, I was riding on horseback with a famous revolutionary throughout the countryside to rally the patriots without alerting the redcoats. When I saw some British soldiers crossing a bridge, I veered into the wilderness to find a spot to ford the river. After wading into the water, the horse wouldn't go any further, presumably because the water was too deep. When I tried to turn around and get back to dry ground, the horse wouldn't budge. I eventually gave up and jumped off the horse. The steed worked his way to dry land on his own, but my revolutionary partner just stood there waist deep in water, showing no interest in joining us. Again, I restarted the mission. This time I successfully avoided the awkward fording, but when we were racing from settlement to settlement he would tell me to go one way while pointing in the opposite direction, instruct me to get off my horse then yell at me for doing so, and offer no helpful clues as to which house I was supposed to approach.
Help! I'm falling through the world!
These are just two of several examples that Game Informer editors have griped about the mornings after extended gameplay sessions. The questionable execution extends beyond mission design and into the basic gameplay and economic systems as well. From the confusing trade interface to a touchy interaction system that won't let me enter a building or start a mission if I'm too close or too far away from the objective point, rarely does an hour go by that doesn't have some sort of problem arise. Given more time, I feel like the talented team at Ubisoft Montreal would have fixed these issues.
When I experience pervasive issues like this, it makes me greatly appreciate publishers who embrace delays for the sake of releasing refined games. Take-Two continually maddens financial analysts when it postpones high profile games like Grand Theft Auto IV, Red Dead Redemption, and BioShock, but the resulting games prove that giving the developers the time to get the games right pays off in the long run. Rather than rush Assassin's Creed III to retail for the holidays, Ubisoft should have recognized these problems and given the development team more time to work out the kinks. Most all of these issues would have been easily correctable with a bit more time, and it would have helped the team reach the quality goal it spoke of when we first met with them last February.
Putting out two games in a row that some perceive to be a drop in quality isn't a good way to keep fans coming back to an annualized franchise. Assassin's Creed has so much going for it, and Ubisoft needs to take better care in protecting the reputation of a franchise it has worked so hard to build. Though a delay may have hurt in the short term, the long-term benefits of releasing a series of high-quality games should be the overruling factor. The record pre-order numbers proved that people had high expectations for the game. Those fans would still be waiting eagerly a month or two later.