In 2007 Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed, one of the more memorable disappointments of this console generation. Despite its breathtaking historical environments and the implementation of some fantastic new traversal mechanics, the game was burdened with painfully repetitive missions and an obnoxious science-fiction storyline that refused to remain what it should have been – a gimmick to throw the player into semi-accurate historical ‘memories’. However, there was so much promise and initial praise surrounding the title that in the years since the franchise has become Ubisoft’s largest, taking the place of previous favorites like Splinter Cell and Ghost Recon. Assassin’s Creed III is the latest in the series, the biggest departure from its prior chapters and the most ambitious one yet in scope and story. A new time period, a new assassin and a very different setting serve as the endpoint for this centuries-spanning trilogy of historical fiction-fantasy.
Set during the American Revolution, Assassin’s Creed III follows the life of Connor Kenway (Birth name Ratonhnhaké:ton) from his youth to adulthood. Connor stumbles into a conflict far beyond his grasp as a mere boy when his Mohawk village is burned down by Charles Lee, a lackey working for Connor’s own father – a Templar Knight named Haytham. Connor’s mother is killed in the fire and, displaced and angry, he sets out looking for answers. His journey leads him to a quaint ranch house owned by an aging assassin named Achilles, who begrudgingly inducts Connor into the order of assassins, and the young Mohawk begins hunting down Templars in his quest for vengeance. Along the way he finds himself on both sides of the revolution, fighting patriots and loyalists alike and stumbling upon some of the period’s most influential moments, from dumping tea in the Boston Harbor to going to war alongside George Washington. Meanwhile in the present Desmond Miles, still hunted by Abstergo, seeks to find a way to stop an ominous threat from wiping out the entire planet.
‘Jack of all Trades, Master of three or four’ may not be how the saying typically goes, but it’s fitting when talking about Assassin’s Creed III‘s gameplay. There are upwards of 20 hours of content to run through, and the game features a daunting number of mission types, weapons, gadgets and side quests. Most missions can be stacked, and engaged at your whim, and nearly all usable weapons and items can be swapped and used at any time. With such variation at hand, it’s kind of hard to expect everything to work flawlessly. However, barring some minor twitches, the broad strokes of free running, combat, naval battles and hunting are surprisingly fluid and intuitive. You’ll find Connor has a tendency to grab a wrong ledge or run atop a fence against your better wishes from time to time, but that is the trade-off for single-button controls that allow you to fly through trees like a maniacal squirrel. Similarly the combat will become repetitive before the story’s climax, but the contextual prompts that allow you to counter and slash into hordes of enemies get the job done, and with substantial gore and flair. As long as you’re willing to take a break from missions here and there to try something different you’ll find the new world is teeming with variety. Building your homestead and hunting wildlife are joyful time sinks (Though hunting is not as satisfying and challenging as it was in Red Dead Redemption) and learning new recipes and crafting new items may have you losing sleep.
If the game allows you to, that is.
There are bugs and glitches in ACIII that run the gamut from amusing to game-breaking. Of course, issues like this affect each player differently, but even notoriously glitchy games like Fallout 3 have caused less problems for me than this. There are two side quests I have yet to complete in the game – technically only one if you want to talk semantics. One of them is complete and the game simply won’t register it as finished, even though my objective marker lists 3/3. The other, a delivery request mission, will not start even though I prompted the conversation. These are the two persistent issues that have actually affected my game completion; I couldn’t list the number of smaller glitches that have forced me to restart a job, or simply caused a cutscene to go wonky halfway through. Some of these bugs have been well-documented, and Ubisoft plans to fix a lot of them in an upcoming patch, but nearly a month after release is far too late to allow this kind of thing to go unaccounted for.
While the gameplay is great when working at its full potential, the story has even larger peaks and valleys. Connor’s story is really engaging and one of the more three-dimensional narratives in video games. With the help of the visuals (More on that in a second), Assassin’s Creed III‘s characters bubble with expression and personality. The game features a pretty extensive cast, but nearly everyone Connor interacts with in New York, Boston and the frontier is unique and interesting. I actually found myself at one point criticising Haytham Kenway’s contradictory personality (He’s far more likeable as a playable character than when you meet him later as the villain), which is far more merit than most video game characters can hope to project.
The same can’t be said, however, for Desmond Miles’s storyline. I don’t know how the writing team for Assassin’s Creed works, but I would be surprised if the same people who write the animus memories do the present day story as well. For every interesting conflict or unique character trait portrayed in Connor’s world, there is an equal and opposite lazy convention in Desmond’s. The characters are flat, the plot is nonsensical and every moment spent outside of the animus is a constant reminder that you could be dive-bombing cougars out of the sky right now.
The opening cinematic is a perfect example of how bad the writing can get. The first ten minutes of the game are spent listening to a mess of convoluted exposition that is meant to bring the player up to speed on all that has led to Desmond’s current position, but instead it made me worry that spending 60 more dollars on this franchise was a mistake. Admittedly I already think the whole animus concept is superfluous and I’d rather have Desmond removed from the story entirely, but the ethereal alien-women, the infinite number of magical maguffins and the threat of a space-apocalypse that make up Desmond’s story are such tired and easy conventions of storytelling. It’s as if the writers rounded up every overused fantasy conflict in fantasy novels and rolled them into a big grey boring ball. See for yourself:
Young America is a beautiful place. Whether in winter or summer, the environments, the animations and character models of Assassin’s Creed III are absolutely gorgeous. The Anvil Next engine was designed “to look next-gen on current-gen” and while we’ll have to wait for the Xbox 720 and the PS4 before that can be properly tested, the game is easily one of the prettiest to date. It’s hard to find where to start – crashing waves look more menacing and full-bodied than any open water you’ve seen before, facial expressions actually emote with watering eyes and porous skin, and NPC characters execute detailed daily routines. Some of the simple activities you can miss entirely while meandering around the world would give a programmer cause to faint just several years ago. But if the graphics are better than most other games, the sound design is in a league of its own. The first time you set sail on a ship, the sound of the ocean, the creaking of sails and the sailors’ songs could give you goosebumps. The voice acting is fantastic, covering a range of accents befitting to the cultural clash of Brits and Yanks. Ubisoft hired Native American actors to voice the Mohawks in the game and hearing Connor speak with his tribe in their own language is a wonderful element that lends even more authenticity to a game that already hides factual locations and details behind every corner. Important figures like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington look and sound impossible real. LA Noire is the only other game I can think of that compares to this level of historical accuracy and atmosphere and that game took seven years to create.
Assassin’s Creed III is one of this year’s biggest titles, and though there are some slip ups, the overall game is still something genuinely thrilling. 25 hours in, I’ve completed the story and I still want more to do. I just want to spend more time in the game world, though I could do without the narrative and technical hang ups taking me out of the experience. Rather than change my opinion on the series, this is a case where the core experience has surpassed the faulty framework. Ubisoft has made Assassin’s Creed far better than it has any right to be, and for that I applaud them. Strictly speaking in terms of value, this is a must-buy.