Dances with Wolves

Editor’s note: This review contains Assassin’s Creed III spoilers; it is recommended you play ACIII before The Tyranny of King Washington.

Episodic content is hitting the game industry in full force these days. Halo 4’s currently on this trend with Spartan Ops, while The Walking Dead featured an enthralling episodic narrative that garnered several Game of the Year accolades. So, it’s no surprise to see Ubisoft taking a crack themselves with what’s being described as their most ambitious downloadable content to date—Assassin’s Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington.

In this first of three chapters—titled The InfamyAssassin’s Creed III protagonist Ratonhnhaké:ton (better known to fans as the far more pronounceable Connor Kenway) wakes up wearing traditional Mohawk garb in the forest…with his long-dead mother standing over him. Startled and shocked, Ratonhnhaké:ton can’t come to grips with why his mother is alive. Meanwhile, she can’t understand why Ratonhnhaké:ton is suddenly acting so strangely.

After speaking with his mother, Ratonhnhaké:ton comes to realize that he’s no longer in the familiar universe he once knew. In this world, he never joined the Assassin’s Order—thus, no one refers to him as “Connor.” Meanwhile, George Washington found an Apple of Eden, using it to help free the American Colonies from British rule. But instead of living under our beloved first President, the Colonies have a new despot to contend with now in Mad King Washington, who uses his Apple to govern with a bloodstained iron fist. So, was Ratonhnhaké:ton fighting alongside George Washington a dream? Is this new reality the dream? Could this be Juno’s doing? Maybe this is some sort of weird feedback from the Animus?

Or maybe, theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Ratonhnhaké:ton stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator…and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time who appears in the form of a hologram that only Ratonhnhaké:ton can see and hear. And so Ratonhnhaké:ton finds himself leaping from tree to tree, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap…will be the leap home.

Either way, the solution to this riddle eludes Ratonhnhaké:ton, but if he’s to survive this alternate world, he’ll have to adapt—and quickly—while searching for the answers as best he can.

Every previous Assassin’s Creed DLC has directly supported an established game world, such as Battle of Forli withAssassin’s Creed II. In this context, the idea of an alternate universe inspired by—but separate from—a game in the series is definitely a cool change of pace. Aside from the narrative itself, this twisted reality also provides a fresh coat of paint for everything you may have already played through. Each episode carries players through one of the three primary areas of the central game, with this first episode looking at the Frontier. Burned-down buildings litter Lexington and Concord, slaughtered animals dot the landscape of Charlestown, and even Ratonhnhaké:ton’s village and its inhabitants are different, as they, too, have begun to feel the pressure from Mad King Washington.

The story—combined with a fresh look at familiar locales—definitely kept me playing through the two-to-three-hour-long episode and see how the mystery would continue to unravel, especially once it’s revealed how other old friends have now become Ratonhnhaké:ton’s new enemies.

One new aspect didn’t quite click with me, though. Since King Washington holds an Apple of Eden, Ratonhnhaké:ton knows he’ll need assistance to overcome this Despot-in-Chief. The Clan Mother instructs Ratonhnhaké:ton—against his biological mother’s wishes—to drink tea made from the bark of the Red Willow Tree, a majestic beacon standing above the stark, wintry wastes that now make up the Frontier. By drinking the tea, Ratonhnhaké:ton embarks on a spirit journey, the first of three (one per episode), where he gains new abilities.

The first journey sees Ratonhnhaké:ton become one with the wolfpack, which allows him to sic spiritual wolves on groups of enemies—much like calling on Assassin trainees in previous games. Becoming one with the wolf also imbues Ratonhnhaké:ton with the ability to blend into the wilderness like a single flake of snow against the background of a blizzard.

At first, this super-camouflage feels amazing and gives the sense of a much more hardcore stealth experience, with missions tailored to take advantage of the new powers. For example, Ratonhnhaké:ton can move between hiding spots that are few and far between and cause panic among the enemy ranks with no one the wiser. But then, you realize that it feels like you’re using a cheat code and that the game has lost all challenge; Ratonhnhaké:ton is damn near untouchable, since no one can see him. The game attempts to balance this by only allowing use of the power for so long, as the special abilities sap Ratonhnhaké:ton’s health over time. But since it recharges in any hiding spot, all this does is delay its inevitable continued use as you move behind enemy lines, through patrols, and around any and all danger.

Assassin’s Creed has always been touted by the developers as being built on the three pillars of stealth, movement, and combat, and those have always been well-balanced throughout each entry (obviously better in some games than others). Removing combat almost entirely with this new power—and offering no challenge through the other two pillars—left me unsatisfied.

Despite the fact that this new grossly overpowered tool in Ratonhnhaké:ton’s arsenal holds the gameplay back, The Tyranny of King Washington weaves an intriguing tale that left me wanting more. And when it comes to Assassin’s Creed, the story’s always been the core focus more than anything else—at least for me. The free-flowing combat from Assassin’s Creed III is still intact, and the animation, voice acting, and new original musical score remind us how far the right coat of polish can push our senses.

If you play Assassin’s Creed primarily for the single-player experience, The Tyranny of King Washington is definitely worth it. Think of it in terms of Marvel’s alternate-storyline What If comics: It’s fun for what it is, but it doesn’t surpass the original in terms of enjoyment.

SUMMARY: Ratonhnhaké:ton’s new stealth powers are an interesting twist that causes some unfortunate gameplay-balance problems, but there’s enough classic Assassin’s Creed action and storytelling here to warrant the download.

  • THE GOOD: The beginning of an engrossing alternate-universe story.
  • THE BAD: The special powers don’t fit the established Assassin’s Creed vibe.
  • THE UGLY: George Washington wearing a crown.

SCORE: 8.0

Assassin’s Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington—Episode 1: The Infamy is available on Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360.