“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”
Charles Dickens’ opening to the book that still taunts Matric students this day, A Tale of Two Cities, may have pertained to an altogether different revolution, but serves as perhaps the perfect way to describe Assassin’s Creed III and its unique take on the history of the American Revolution.
I can’t recall a single other game that’s instilled within me so many conflicting emotions and thoughts, forcing me to catechise myself and wonder whether or not I actually experienced much in the way of fun. Monumentally ambitious, Assassin’s Creed III, the final chapter in a 5-game arc, is equal parts shining brilliance and bug-infested boredom.
Leaving behind the renaissance of the old world to embrace an 18th century America, Assassin’s Creed III drops the charming and Italian lothario Ezio, driven by a quest for knowledge and the perpetuation of the Brotherhood code, for the stoic, unwaveringly self-righteous and largely uninteresting Connor, a half-breed Native American whose sole, idealist naive impetus is revenge.
And here’s where’s the problems begin; for the first four to six hours of the game, you’re not even playing as him. Instead, you’re running over rooftops as the smarmy, unlikeable British colonialist Haytham Kenway, playing a prologue of mindlessly dull quests that involve either fetching things, or killing swathes of people in red coats. The problem is that it all feels like a meaningless tutorial; and you as the player know that, because Haytham’s just not the guy on the front of the box in that slick Assassin’s uniform. I understand why it’s been done for narrative purposes – but forcing the player to slog through hours for a narrative payoff that’s spoiled within the in-game encyclopaedic codex is inexcusable. You could, for example, watch the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy in the time it takes for the story to get going.
It does get better. Once you take control of Connor (or Ratonhnhaké:ton if you wish to get your tongue in a twist) first as a child and later as a teen, the game still feels like a tutorial, getting you to grips with mechanics unique to him; running along treetops, hunting wild frontier animals and being as humourless as is humanly possible. There are some odd, but hard-to-ignore idiosyncrasies. Connor’s mentor in the game gives him his more pronounceable English name, saying that since he’s a paler skinned half-breed, he might be able to get away with passing for Spanish, granting him the very Latin name of Connor. That sort of things pops up at other times in the game, where Connor suddenly and inexplicably knows story-pivotal character NPC’s without having met them before.
Controls, for both free-running and combat have been refined, and dare I say simplified. All you need to scoot up trees, buildings and fortifications is the left trigger, no longer requiring a second button press for jumps. some might say that its simplicity at the sacrifice of depth, but it makes running around the pre-liberation cities of Boston and New York – as well as its surrounding wilderness significantly easier and more fluid. It’s not perfect though; and you’ll still run up the odd wayward tree during the game’s terribly designed chase sequences. Combat, likewise, is smoother and more fluid, thieving its core mechanics from Arkham Asylum – though there’s still too much reliance on the block-and-counterattack formula that’s been the series combat hallmark. Still, it’s both empowering and fun to take on a hoard of redcoats single handedly, leaving their bloodied lifeless bodies in your wake, made all the better by the lovely new animations that accompany each kill.
Narrative, as far as the historical one provided by series co-protagonist Desmond Mile’s genetic memory within the Animus, is quite remarkable. Where Altair and Ezio bore witness to some of history’s defining moments, Connor is more actively involved; juxtaposed like Forrest Gump upon the great battles and moments that turned the American revolutionary war in colonialist favour. I wont say much more about the story to avoid some of its more intriguing twists – but it bravely depicts the founding fathers not purely as the heroes history has made them. You’ll take part in the Battle at Lexington and Concord, Warn of the impending English army as you ride with Paul Revere, dump tea in the Boston harbour and blast enemy ships, frigates and Man-o-Wars to splinters in the infamous Naval battle of Chesapeake Bay.
Ahh naval battles. If there’s one shining light within this sequels new repertoire, it’s the ridiculously fun and engaging sea-faring battles. Early on you’ll acquire access to a upgradeable ship, The Aquilla, undertaking large scale-naval battles against other ships. Polished to a sheen and incredibly implemented, they’re undoubtedly the most fun I had with the game. You not only control the ship – by steering – you’re also able to lower the sails at will; full sails sacrifice manoeuvrability for speed, half-sails provide balance while raising them allows you to avoid obstacles. Naval combat requires tactics and precision; your cannons, located on the side of the Aquila hurl cannon balls, an iron tempest, in the general direction they’re facing, and you’ll have to use your wits to figure out the best positions for launching barrage while avoiding similar assaults from your enemy. You can also use a smaller gun for more pin-point targeting, or ram (and often board) smaller ships. Naval battles are tense and wholly enthralling – and though there are only two of them within the game’s narrative, there’s a wealth of them available as side missions. Play them. I’d dance in the streets for this small, but essential part of the game to be spun off into some grand pirate adventure.
There’s an astonishing amount of content in Assassin’s Creed III, though it’s debatable as to whether any of it is actually fun. Hunting, as one example, which seems to be popping up everywhere since Red Dead Redemption, is a rather tedious and time-consuming process with little pay-off You can sell the pelts, claws and meat of the poor critters you fillet, or set up merchant caravans to trade your good for you, or use those raw ingredients to craft other materials (including some weapons and upgrades you can;t otherwise purchase) for trade and profit. It’s nice to see a focus on economy and an expansion of Assassin’s Creed 2’s villa with Connor’s upgradable Homestead but it’s all just busywork for the sake of it, not offering anything in the way of tangible reward.
Of course, all of this is just make-believe; a simulated recreation of the genetic memories contained within the increasingly simian-looking Desmond Mile’s DNA. You’d never believe it, but this is his story, which makes it a little surprising that five games in and he’s still largely treated as secondary; his story constrained to the footnotes and margins. You do get to play as him a little more this time around, finally using some of the abilities he’s learned from his time within the Animus, though beyond one or two breath-taking missions he is severely underutilised. There’s none of that virtual reality, make-your-own-Tetris adventure nonsense from Revelations, thankfully. Most of your questions will be answered, but I feel that for all the mystery and mysticism presented throughout the series, the mystery’s more powerful than the answers when 5 years of intriguing questions boil down to inconsequence.
The multiplayer element is pretty similar to what we’ve seen in the last two entries, offering rebalanced versions of the same, terribly intense PvP modes. There’s a new co-operative “Wolfpack” mode, where players work together to take down enemies which is quite fun, and the whole thing’s presented this time, not as an Abstergo training simulation, but one that’s targeted to retail consumers, including some funny and well produced infomercials that’ll delight fans.
It’s frustrating and disappointing that for all of the mistakes that Ubisoft fixed for this sequel, they’ve made a number of new ones, taking a step backwards for every two forward steps they make. It’s undoubtedly a good game and there’s a lot to like here. Die-hard fans of the series will likely be ecstatic, hailing it as the best in the series, but the highlights – like the naval battles, the historical accuracy muddled with great fiction and the refinements to the mechanics get lost in the mundane periphery. Ultimately, Assassin’s Creed III buckles under its own ambition.
Combat and movement have been simplified and refined, so you’ll probably no longer unwittingly jump to your death. There’s much to like, but just as much not to. The naval battles are by far the best addition, but much of the peripheral side-quests are tedious and meaningless.
Design and Presentation: 7.0./10
The AnvilNext engine that powers the game allows for some rather beautiful and breath-taking vistas – but the actual game design isn’t quite as shiny. There are numerous uninspired missions, and a few, such as the chase missions, that are just downright poorly made. The story, while great, starts off slow then suddenly and inexplicably hurtles towards the finish line, with poor pacing. And then there’s the bugs. Even after the patch, I encountered numerous mission breaking bugs; like targets not spawning, or mission objectives pointing to random places and the very common one of “enemy rifles floating in mid-air.”
A lengthy campaign, an expansive multiplayer and hours of side-quests, challenges and collect-a-thons. There’s enough content to keep you busy for forever – the question is whether or not its fun. there’s also naval battles. NAVAL BATTLES!
I know moaned a lot, but it mostly stems from my own disappointment as a fan of the series, hoping that Ubisoft would continue taking the series from strength to strength (slight Revelations misstep aside). AC3 is an entertaining wrap-up to the series; I wanted to love it, but it’s a little too uneven in its execution, a little too ambitious, a little too buggy. Everything that’s done right (those damned naval battles again!) is countered by something done so wrong. Is it still worth playing? Absolutely.
(Reviewed on the Xbox 360)