We visit a shrine to destroy, and whilst touring about a big ol’ knight pops out...
Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed series is so staggeringly big. It’s gone from being the quiet hit that came from experimenting with Prince of Persia, to the French publisher’s biggest title – completely overshadowing its lucrative Tom Clancy franchise and the once successful Prince of Persia series. This of course means that for Assassin’s Creed III Ubisoft have made quite the investment, in not just time but also money. To combat their expenditure they’ve thrown the marketing machine into full gear and it’s easy to see that this is the most anticipated in the series thus far. Thanks to all the hype being flung around the internet though videos, previews and numerous screenshots – something we are as guilty of as anybody else on the internet – expectations for Connors adventures in the frontier were high. Perhaps just a little bit too high.
Despite the vast majority of Assassin’s Creed III being set within the pivotal American Revolutionary War, you do still have to play as that vapid fellow known as Desmond. Once again this means you’ll be exploring the depths of his genetic memory in the Animus and puppeteering his ancestors in the process. As this all follows on from the disappointing Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, Desmond’s story revolves around finding a key to save the world from the impending solar flare that’s set to wipe out human civilisation as we know it. Luckily you don’t really have to have played previous AC games to know what’s happening as there’s a little catchup video and it’s largely utter nonsense.
His adventures in the real world really pale in comparison to those found inside the animus. It makes little difference if you know all this meta sci-fi gubbins that’s floating around about the Apple of Eden and the First Civilisation. These sections also aren’t helped by the poor combat and general woodenness of Desmond and his supporting cast of Danny Wallace and co. Combat has improved here, but it’s still largely clunky and unenjoyable without the Animus’ HUD to assist.
However, Desmond’s actions inside the Animus work towards finding this key that’s needed and, exactly like all the other Assassin’s Creed games out there, the memories are damaged and so need to be played through to be fixed – although if you could just see the outcome it would mean Ubisoft didn’t have a game. This time we’ve put the effervescent Ezio behind us and taken up the role of Desmond’s mixed Native American and Colonial British ancestor Connor Kenway – or Ratonhnaké:ton for those inclined to call him that. Perplexingly, Desmond doesn’t look even remotely like Connor, yet looked surprisingly similar to Ezio – go figure.
Luckily Connor’s adventure is much, much better than that of Desmond’s even if it isn’t as clean cut. Starting out with the upstanding and courageous intentions of removing the threat against his people and their land from the ever expanding British Army, Connor’s actions soon end up descending into a seemingly never-ending cavern of killing Templars and rallying Patriot forces against the encroaching Loyalists. Essentially, Ubisoft paint the picture that Connor’s the man who did everything but sign the Declaration of Independence, even though he was there to see it be done by everyone else. Mind you, it takes a fair while for the plot to take you down this path, and when it does you won’t even realise until it’s too late.
Interestingly you don’t start the game as Connor. Without wanting to spoil too much, you take up the role of an Englishman by the name of Haytham as he travels across the Atlantic to the city of Boston. These opening hours of Assassin’s Creed III are perhaps the best moments within the entirety of the game. Haytham may be rather bulky and, in comparison to the sleek Ezio, look a tad ridiculous perching upon rooftops; but his charm and sarcastic wit in the face of danger are very refreshing when contrasted with Connors serious demeanour. Saying that, the first hours with Connor are also brilliant as you’re growing with him inside this huge open playground known as the Frontier. You’re growing into the role of an assassin as he is, and you’re seeing the start of the slippery slope that is the end of his people as his innocence slips away.
Connor’s heritage is important in Assassin’s Creed III as you’re placed inside a rather strange middle ground. His role as an Assassin puts him on – what we’ve always assumed is – a path of righteousness. He’s continually marginalised by the Loyalists who think of him nothing more than a savage, and under the Patriots his people and the slaves wouldn’t be free either – despite their call for freedom. For the most part he sides with the Patriots due to the Loyalists largely being Templars; however they only really want to be free from British power. Ubisoft do a grand job of painting this war not as one full of patriotism and zeal, but one that, ultimately, has changed very little – replacing one power with another.
What’s even more interesting is that this is the first time your actions as an assassin have come into question, are you really doing the right thing? We’ve always assumed you play the hero, but Ubisoft question that and in doing so create a much deeper narrative than before. It also means that the American Revolutionary War isn’t dripping in patriotism and flag-waving like it could well have been if portrayed in a Hollywood movie or by a less culturally sensitive publisher/developer. However, the pace of events isn’t constant and that’s really what lets Assassin’s Creed III down.
They always say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and when it comes to Assassin’s Creed as a franchise Ubisoft know that. It may have had a lick of paint thanks to the unbelievably beautiful AnvilNext engine, but underneath not a lot has changed. In fact, because of all the new additions, it creaks with age. The sleek, simple and stylish contextual run of yore is still there, but now Connor hulks rather than stalks. No longer do you glide with ease through cities, now you’ll run up a wall when you intend to duck down a street; now you’ll vault off into water instead of jump along onto a pole. The only bit that works effortlessly is navigating your way through the trees on the Frontier. The same can’t be said for horseback though as the densely populated maps lead to you becoming stuck up against almost every rock and tree possible. It could have been as enjoyable as Red Dead Redemption‘s open world, but instead you’re better off traversing the world by foot. It’s lucky then that you can fast travel your way to most locations with little effort.
If you do fancy exploring, though, you’ll find an abundance of content hidden around for you to dive into, although some of it doesn’t quite make sense. You can hunt and scavenge and finding hidden treasure, but most importantly of all you can also recruit settlers for your homestead. Venturing into the confines of cities sees the side missions drop in quality. Being nothing more than sawdust in an economy price cake, these small missions are largely there to make cities feel like they have something to offer. They really only consist of raiding a fort or two and liberating areas from Loyalist control. If you decided to liberate an area you’ll gain a new assassin into your fold that can be sent out on missions a la Brotherhood, but their real impact onto gameplay or the main plot is rather moot.
Doing these side missions and hunting distractions do provide you with money and the supplies needed for trading from your homestead. Utilising merchants skills and your crafting knowledge you can rack up an impressive amount of income that can be used to fund ship improvements or craft weapons you couldn’t purchase. However it’s a huge timesink and isn’t as interesting or simple as Ezio’s town building entrepreneurial endeavours. It’s also largely pointless as you never need to buy new weapons or upgrade the ones you own, and if you’re good at sailing ship upgrades aren’t entirely necessary either.
Your starting arsenal serves you well throughout the entirety of your adventure and, thanks to the dated combat system, you’ll rarely need more than a hidden blade or tomahawk to do any mission. Every foe can be dispatched by waiting and countering, and the few that can’t just need their defences broken instead. The only thing that’s limiting you is really the amount of damage you can take, and seeing as armour upgrades and costume sections have been removed, there’s not much you can really do about that. What’s clear is that while the Anvil Next engine does a superb job of creating a lovely and lush environment, current-generation technology really holds the series back from progressing as, with each iteration, its limitations become all the more present. The series really needs a full revamp rather than this expansion that Ubisoft has provided.
I’m well aware that this is painting a rather disparaging picture of Assassin’s Creed III. It may well be a disappointment compared to the promise that was so easily held at first. The seasons are wonderful to see in-game, and exploring in the snow is a joy, but it’s almost like two gameworlds separated by a loading screen instead of a natural progression. It’d be asking a lot of current hardware to see it realised in any other way, but that’s just harking back to my earlier point of ACIII being beyond what’s currently possible. It’s also disappointing that, in its desire to appeal to every man and woman in the world, it’s morphed from being about stalking your target and stealthily removing them into running through burning buildings and charging in headfirst. Some of those older elements do still crop up now and again, but it’s hard to shake the feeling you’re playing out a Bruce Willis film over the exploits of a trained assassin.
Here’s the kicker though, Assassin’s Creed III isn’t a bad game – not by any stretch of the imagination. It’s built on the foundation of a successful franchise, and one that’s successful for a reason – it’s good. The combat may have aged, but it works; Connor may not be the effervescent, sarcastic and enjoyable character that Ezio once was – or Haytham is – but he serves his purpose well. Between all the rather pointless filler and endless stretching out of the main story, Assassin’s Creed III has some absolutely excellent moments.
Towards the latter half of the game you team up with the unlikeliest of allies and suddenly the tiresome hours that preceded it are forgotten as you enjoy the rapport on show. Embarking on the strangely detached naval campaigns also really shows Assassin’s Creed III at its finest – even if it has so very little to do with assassinations and the life of an assassin. Sailing on the waves and continually adapting your strategy for the weather and wind is a joy, and no other moment compares to riding the storm waves in the Aquila.
Placing it in line with other entries into the series, Assassin’s Creed III is a worthy sequel to Assassin’s Creed II and is far better than what Brotherhood and Revelations offered. I suppose that it just offers such an overwhelming amount of content and value for money it’s hard to say that it won’t appeal. Every time a moment misses, another moment comes along that steals the show. It may well be muddled and confused at exactly what it wants to be, but at no point can anyone say that Connor Kenway’s tale isn’t fun – well, except for those rather awful Desmond sections.
Audio/Visual – 4/5: It’s lacking the enjoyable NPC audio of Renascence Italy, but it more than makes up for it in terms of visuals as it smacks you in the face with its beauty.
Gameplay – 4/5: The same as always, but now running through trees is a joy and controlling a ship is wonderfully easy.
Innovation – 3/5: Not a lot has changed in how everything works and adding in more has diluted the core appeal of the franchise, but each addition is well produced but not necessarily essential.
Value – 5/5: Unfaultable. A near 40 hour story with even more left for you to do upon finishing – and that’s before the sneaky endgame addition.
Final Score: 4/5