Is tyranny worth the price?
Note: This review evaluates the Tyranny of King Washington DLC as a whole in light of the third episode, The Betrayal. For more detailed thoughts on the individual merits of the first and second episodes, look here and here.
The Tyranny of King Washington’s premise is one of the more interesting alternate-history interpretations that games have attempted. (Certainly more interesting than “what if Hitler had a mech suit?” at least.) Corrupted by a powerful Apple of Eden artefact, General George Washington has claimed the new nation for himself and continues to wage war on the native population and his political opponents. Ratonhnhaké:ton – who never became Connor in this double-alternate timeline – is determined to overthrow him, motivated by a sense of personal vengeance that later mixes with democratic ideology.
It’s a fast-paced tale, running its course in around six hours over three episodes. The opening episode mines Ratonhnhaké:ton’s native American heritage for a new approach to AC3’s well-trodden frontier; the second leaves that behind and returns you to Boston for a slow couple of hours that build curiosity for the final act but doesn’t offer much in the way of new experiences. The third opens with a naval battle – easily one of the best things about AC3, and a timely tease for the upcoming Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – as the final showdown in New York approaches.
If you were left feeling ambiguous about this DLC after the first two episodes – as I was – then the third goes some way towards redeeming things. Having spent those first four hours longing to see more of what the nascent America might have been like as a despotic dictatorship, I was pleasantly surprised to arrive in New York to see unrest on the streets, food shortages leaving the citizenship demoralised and desperate, and Washington giving chillingly fascist balcony speeches to crowds of his people atop a pyramid he’s had constructed as a monument to himself, an eagle-adorned crown resting atop his head.
New York looks and feels significantly different in this DLC, in a way that the second episode’s Boston and the first episode’s frontier simply didn’t. There might not be much more to actually do, besides stringing Bluecoats up from washing lines as opposed to Redcoats, but there is an atmosphere of panic and oppression. The Betrayal is the only episode of this DLC that has a specially-made new area, too: Washington’s pyramid, an excellent playground for the wolf, hawk, and bear abilities that Ratonhnhaké:ton acquires by drinking the sacred tea of his tribe.
The resulting futuristically trippy spirit-communion dream sequences and the powers that they bestow upon you are the most enjoyable parts of The Tyranny of King Washington. Outside of that, too many of the actual missions feel copy-pasted from Assassin’s Creed III’s main storyline, especially in the second episode. The wolf grants Ratonhnhaké:ton that famous lupine trait of, um, invisibility, letting you move unseen between hiding places. The hawk bestows upon him the power of flight, letting you flit Batman-esque across the rooftops of Boston and, later, New York, negating the need for climbing.
Both of these abilities redraw the boundaries of AC3’s gameplay, significantly altering the way you can approach its challenges. On the third spirit journey, though, Connor meets with the bear, which essentially gives him a ground-pound. Admittedly it’s a very powerful attack, sending enemies flying and vulnerable structures toppling, but it’s hardly a game-changer.
It’s not too much of a disappointment, though. Where the first two episodes are heavily centred around their own particular new powers, the third necessitates that you use all of them together. It sends this DLC out on a high note, and perhaps inevitably, the third episode is by far the most narratively satisfying. The ending is a decent enough payoff to justify the time spent wondering what’s going on in the first two episodes. But I still feel like it could have done more with this fascinating concept of a young, idealistically founded nation gone horribly wrong. If you take the Apple of Eden to be a metaphor for the corrupting influence of power rather than a sci-fi doodad, then The Tyranny of King Washington does have the basis of something interesting to say, but it’s still thematically shallow.
The Tyranny of King Washington’s production values may well set new standards for DLC. As evidenced by the literally 20 minutes’ worth of credits that roll at the end, this wasn’t dashed off in someone’s lunch hour; it has more than an hour of new cutscenes and significant new gameplay woven around AC3’s familiar locations and characters. But the price you pay for that is £24/$30 for around six hours of play, which will be unjustifiably steep for most. Even the season pass, which also includes pre-order bonus missions for the main game and multiplayer bonuses, hardly offers stunning value.
It’s also impossible to overlook that not every hour of this short series is enjoyable. Episode 2 sometimes feels like AC3 at its worst: walking between cutscenes and completing tasks in which you have no real investment. It also doesn’t do anything thematically interesting with the alternate-history setting until the final episode – this is the best use of Animus technology I can think of, and it’s saddening that The Tyranny of King Washington does relatively little with it.
The Tyranny of King Washington is made to the highest standards, but also overpriced for what it is. Though the new powers refresh and reshape Assassin’s Creed III’s gameplay, most of the locations and missions here are overly reminiscent of what we’ve seen time and time again in the main campaign, and only towards the end does the story really come into its own. It would be a much easier recommendation at half the price.