Assassin’s Creed III – Lee’s Last Stand and the Combat System

Hey, guys. Sorry for quite an absence, but I’m back to wrap up my Assassin’s Creed III level design analysis series. Really, there are only two levels left that I want to talk about: Hostile Negotiations and Lee’s Last Stand. I’ll start with Lee’s Last Stand, because it’s got the boss battle, and… this post will be much more about the combat system that it’s going to be about level design, though. As usual, spoilers.

(sorry in advance for the lack of any screens in this post to vary it up visually)

The combat system has always been somewhat of a shaky thing in the Assassin’s Creed series. The first game had a legitimately good combat system. Which was broken by the counter-attack, because it was essentially a dominant strategy – and that’s never good. But, the concept was well-designed, it was about methodical combat and using right moves at the right situation. And enemies had the same abilities as you. Battling with the Templars (the strongest archetype in the game with the full set of available moves) was really enjoyable (at least, before you got the counter-attack).

But subsequent games never have really fixed the counter-attack issue, and the kill streak system that was added in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood made combat even easier. The battle system was fully reworked in Assassin’s Creed III, drawing inspiration from games like Batman: Arkham Asylum. And I’m not going to go into detail about all ups and downs of the system and the way it’s implemented in this post, but I’m just going to say that overall it works really well for group combat in my opinion.

But here’s the thing, the boss battle in Assassin’s Creed III is not against any groups, it’s one on one fight against Haytham, and the game’s combat system is not designed for that. The first Assassin’s Creed combat system is. Fix counter-attack, make Haytham a stronger version of the Templar archetype, and you would have an intense boss battle right there. Though, boss battles still have been somewhat of a problematic area in the series (but the first game had a decent one, most likely it suffers from the counter-attack ability which is why I didn’t find it particularly enjoyable).

And you can’t make Assassin’s Creed III boss battle in any way related to group combat, it’s all about that confrontation between Connor and Haytham. It has to be strictly personal, no templar guards running in to help him like with Cesare Borgia. You want story and gameplay be consistent narrative-wise. And you can’t put it all into a cutscene, because, well, you need the player to fight Haytham (plus, you might say that Assassin’s Creed III has an overabundance of cutscenes already, and I partially agree with that). And you can’t go the Batman: Arkham Asylum way of dealing with boss battles, because Haytham, is a normal human, not a super-villain with special abilities and whatnot. Tyranny of King Washington, by the way, had a much better boss battle but that’s because it made extensive use of the supernatural abilities Connor gets in that alternate reality setting. Can’t really do that in battle with Haytham.

So, I understand the conundrum the developers have faced. At the same time, I don’t think ‘counter-attack three times near an object’ is a way to solve the problem. And even if you do that… Why do you write that on the screen immediately after the battle starts? You could at least wait a little bit, especially considering that because the battle is so short most players don’t get to hear the very interesting conversation between Connor and Haytham.

And I guess this is the part where I’m supposed to provide my solution to the problem, how to fix this and make this boss battle better. But, honestly… I don’t know. I’ve been thinking about it for months and I don’t have an answer that I like. I can provide suggestions on how to improve the group combat system, how to make the archetypes more varied and meaningful, how to make the different weapon types more useful, and all that stuff (though I think I’m going to hold on this kind of discussion until Assassin’s Creed IV is released).

But I can’t provide an answer on how to improve the combat system in relation with Haytham’s boss battle. I don’t think returning to the Assassin’s Creed I combat system is the answer. I adore the concept behind that system, but I think building upon the Assassin’s Creed III system is the way to go. Even in the first game, combat situations mostly consisted of at least three to four guards, and I think it makes sense to focus on the group aspect of combat rather than on one vs. one aspect.

And whatever you do with it, regardless of how much you vary it, it’s still going to be about playing on weaknesses of each archetype. That means that a human boss is also going to be an archetype with a certain type of weaknesses, which is not going to make a particularly challenging boss battle anyway. I was thinking about dividing the battle in stages and changing the weaknesses as things progress, but… boss battles are mostly about pattern recognition, and that requires a little bit of exaggeration. How exactly do you show the player that in one instance you have to, let’s say, counter-attack with an object but in another instance you have to throw the guy away? That just won’t make any sense.

So, mechanically speaking, I don’t know how to make the boss battle work. But, I started this series with an assumption that most of Assassin’s Creed III problems can be solved (either fully or partially) with level design, and this is no exception. And the best idea that I had so far (perhaps there are better) is to play on the fact that Connor is suffering from a concussion due to the fact that he was almost hit by a cannon ball.

So, start off with a section where he’s focused and the world is pretty clear, and we have to lure Haytham to an object and counter-attack there. And then after that things go all blurry. You see multiple Haythams (maybe have it like in Assassin’s Creed I where you have to hit the right one). Maybe Connor sees images from his past, like the burning of his village – there’s fire everywhere and it affects him. Maybe there’s an illusion of Kanentokon trying to attack him or something like that (he did had to recently kill his best friend). And then it goes back into focus, and you have to find an object to counter-attack Haytham once more. And then the concussion kicks in again. Something like that.

So, in short, without changing the combat mechanics and Haytham as an enemy archetype, I think the way to make the battle more interesting is to take advantage of Connor’s concussion to add some interesting situations. Maybe you could actually even make a little bit use of the group-centered combat system. It also can provide ground for a little bit more traditional boss pattern recognition, I’m not sure. Maybe have a connection between what’s happening around and the dialogue that Haytham and Connor are having. But, the danger here is not to get this battle to Tyranny of King Washington level of traditional gameplay, because it still has to stay relatively grounded in reality. And still has to be very personal, between those two guys.

Well, this is it. I hope you enjoyed the read. I will be back with an Assassin’s Creed III post one last time soon, which is going to be about Hostile Negotiations. And it’s going to be a really positive post, actually, I don’t want to end this series with a negative feeling.

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Posted on May 19, 2013, in Game Design and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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