Chances are, if you're a big gamer in this generation, you've given the Assassin's Creed series a shot sometime in the past couple of years. While the series has been divisive amongst gamers, it features a certain level of craft, attention to detail, and fascinating historical settings that are simply not found in other open world games. While the fifth (despite the fact that this one is titled as the third) instalment of the series feels like a step backwards for the series in several respects, it's a pretty safe bet that if you enjoyed the last few titles, you'll enjoy this one as well.
I had a blast with the original three titles, but I burned out from Ubisoft's annual release calendar for their massive open world games, and skipped out on the Assassin's Creed II trilogy's capper, creatively titled Revelations. For the most part, I was up to speed on the storyline within minutes, although I was a little lost as to how we went from finding ancient powerful artefacts to following series protagonist Desmond around as he and his merry band of wisecracking sidekicks are trying to stop a solar flare from wiping out humanity. No matter, like every other past title, Desmond is thrown into the Animus device, a machine that allows him to experience the DNA memories of his ancestors first hand. This time around, the series drops the excellent and unique renaissance Italy setting for one that takes place during Colonial America on the verge of revolution against the British. The game jumps between the present day and the past, exposing conflicts against Americans and British, Assassin vs. Templar, and some other surprising conflicts that you wouldn't expect. Better yet, the game doesn't beat you over the head about good and evil, and presents all sides as people just doing the right thing according to their beliefs, leaving the player to form their own opinions. Both time periods feature compelling narratives that will keep you playing just to know what happens next. It also helps that the game finally provides some much needed closure on Desmond's side of things in the present day, while still leaving room open for an inevitable sequel.
The fantastic storytelling comes at a bit of a price however. For a series that is renowned for its open world gameplay, it takes a near eternity to get to the open world meat of the game. You spend the first four to five hours of the game playing as Haytham, a British officer sent to the Americas to oversee operations on the other side of the ocean. During the prologue you'll perform a daring opera house assassination, spend a compelling 72 days on a privateer crossing the ocean, before playing the most tedious, repetitive, and trial-and-error based missions in the game. Eventually, the main character of Connor, a half Native and half British who joins the Assassin cause against the Templars, takes over. As a main character, Connor lacks the charisma and likability of Ezio from ACII, but considering the game's more sombre tone, he fits the aesthetic of the game well.
More oft-putting is the fact that the game finds a way to involve Connor in nearly every major event of the American Revolution, sometimes in incredibly awkward fashion. A clear example would be the mission where you join Paul Revere on his famous midnight to warn of the impending British invasion is handled haphazardly. A better idea may have been to have Connor scouting ahead and taking out British scouts ahead of Revere's ride, instead of the two sharing a horse. However, when you look at Connor as a framing device to educate about the history of this fascinating historical period, it becomes a little more acceptable to take part in the Boston Tea Party or helping George Washington charge a battlefield.
As far as gameplay goes, ACIII gives you no shortage of things to do, either within the main storyline or with side quests. The world map is absolutely massive, covering the urban centres of Boston and New York, and the massive natural frontier and small towns that join the two. Most of the story missions are fun, interesting, and carry weight, even though it's only around the six hour mark that the world truly opens up. I found it a little disappointing that the idea of tailing targets, finding a creative way to stealthily dispatch your targets tends to fall by the wayside in favour all out brawling combat. At the very least, combat has been overhauled from past titles, but is still too easy. Enemies will still stand around waiting for their turn to get stabbed, but an intuitive counter system that contains shades of Arkham City coupled with varied and brilliant animations makes combat more fun and less of a chore. A well designed, two handed system mixing ranged and melee weapons helps combat tedium as well.
You also have opportunities to try out lots of new toys and weapons in this title, all of which are useful, but none are generally more useful than any of the others. A rather sloppy interface that takes you to a static menu for changing up your toys puts a slight damper on playing around with all your options in the heat of battle, but it's never so clunky as to cause real frustration.
For a series that prides itself on its stealth, the stealth doesn't actually work all that great. There's no sneak button that allows you to move quietly from point to point, instead forcing you to rely on crowds, peeking around corners, or conveniently placed patches of tall grass or haystacks. At least you have a couple of seconds between getting noticed and getting recognized as a threat. Out of all the titles in the series, this one involves the least amount of stealth, which is disappointing. On the plus side; stalking your prey while using the natural landscape of the frontier is immensely satisfying and fun, giving you the chance to feel like a ghost of the underbrush.
The free-running and parkour elements of the past games return, and in this regard, the series still shines. Free-running through the cities or the tall trees and bushes of the frontier are equally satisfying and generally work great. There's a few control issues mostly related to the odd design decision to have running and climbing mapped to the same button, so you'll experience a few moments where you're chasing a target only to have Connor run up a wall instead of running down an alleyway. For the most part, these moments are few and far between, and the free-running design is still king of the hill in all of gaming.
The gravy on the deadly meat and potatoes of the AC titles has always been the immense level of sidequests available, and ACIII is no exception. Side quests run the gamut from building up your homestead in the countryside, playing three different kinds of checkers, chasing Benjamin Franklin's scattered almanac pages, hunting in the countryside, liberating sections of the cities from the British, taking part in thrilling naval battles, among other distractions. While almost all of the sidequests are fun in one way or another, the game doesn't give enough context or reward for exploring every corner of the map. For example, you can build up your homestead by helping country-folk, who will contribute to your homestead as craftspeople. So by finding materials and bringing in craftspeople, you can craft new items in exchange for money. So what? Money isn't hard to come by in the game as it is, and most of the items are useless in a gameplay sense. In ACII, building up your town in the country side rewarded you with new items and weapons. In ACIII, it's kind of rendered moot because the early weapons you have access to are every bit as effective as the later ones you'll find. I also lamented the lack of the free running dungeons that would unlock the ultimate armour in previous games. Completionists will love tracking and hunting every creature in a given area, or finding every almanac page, but average players will not be hindered by going full tilt into the storyline while ignoring the fat. In a way, it's admirable that Ubisoft is able to accommodate completionists and casual players alike, but I found it a shame that the sidequests lacked context or tangible reward outside of your trophy collection/gamerscore.
Everything I just mentioned about the sidequests does not apply whatsoever to the thrilling naval missions. These are completely optional outside of a small handful of story missions, but they're so much fun and exciting that you'd be a fool to play through the story without taking part in them. During the naval missions, you're given full control over a heavily armed frigate. You can command your crew to raise full or half sails to control your speed and level of ship control, which is also affected by the wind direction. As you make money, you can outfit your ship with new weapons and armour, which makes the missions easier. Controlling the ship effectively while firing on targets with cannons, swivel guns, and chained mast-destroyers never gets old, and outside of some notably thrilling story missions, is the most fun you can have with the game. If there's a more satisfying moment in the game than disabling an enemy ship and jumping aboard for close combat, I haven't found it.
ACIII, like its contemporaries offers a unique spin on multiplayer that emphasizes suspense and careful attention to detail as opposed to careless running around. The competitive mode remains mostly unchanged from past instalments, giving players a small patch of town to wander around in while trying to find player targets while being hunted themselves. You can blend in with crowds and hide in convenient spots, but once you've mastered these locations, the game starts feeling exceedingly random, and likely won't hold your attention for very long. ACIII also introduces a new co-operative mode that has you and up to three other assassins the chance to work together to take out targets against a constantly ticking clock. You gain time on the clock by taking out targets and working together, but much like the competitive multiplayer, the unique qualities it possesses eventually give way to repetition. Multiplayer is indeed a fun distraction and a unique take on playing with others, but it lacks that certain quality that will keep you from coming back for more after the initial run through.
For the most part, Ubisoft Montreal has created an enviable living, breathing world to explore, and the fantastic presentation sells the illusion. This is truly one of the most fully realised game worlds I've ever had the privilege of exploring, more so than Liberty City or Red Dead Redemption's wild west. The generally amazing graphics couple with a world packed with well researched details makes Colonial America a joy to explore. A slew of convincing weather effects, spectacular animation, endless draw distance, smooth frame rate, impeccable level design/architecture, and generally excellent texture work all play their essential part in the presentation. Unfortunately, as of this writing, there are a slew of glitches that shatter the illusion from time to time. Dead bodies will sometimes succumb to a distracting spazzy rag doll issue, certain animations won't connect from model to model properly, sometimes certain models will clip right through walls and the landscape. This isn't rare either, but is especially prevalent in the Haytham prologue. Things settle down a little bit once Connor takes over, but another visual glitch is never too far off in the horizon. At worst, I encountered two moments where a model caught in a wall forced a full restart since the scripting wouldn't activate the next cutscene. Perhaps this generation of hardware is finally limiting the brilliant vision of the Montreal studio.
Audio is generally good as well, despite some poor lip-synching in some of the cutscenes. Voice acting is generally good to great. Connor's voice actor generally gets the right amount of aloofness his character demands, and secondary characters are all given moments to shine. A solid orchestral score and authentic sounds of clanging swords and musket fire play their part as well.
I know, for a game I'm giving a great review score, I've sure had my share of complaints. However, by cramming in so much content in the game and giving the player options about what they want to do in this expansive playground, Ubisoft has ensured that you're bound to find something that you love about this game, and the main story campaign stays compelling throughout, at least once you get past the somewhat sluggish prologue. Much like past instalments, Assassin's Creed III gives you the chance to explore a sprawling and historically accurate land, uncovering the secrets of an epic storyline, while being an intimate experience focused on the micro interactions of its well drawn characters amongst a conflict far bigger than any of them. For this reason, along with some great gameplay along the way, Assassin's Creed III is an experience well worth seeking out. The noticeable flaws in the title mean so little when you're jumping from branch to branch, dropping down on an unsuspecting British soldier with bloody tomahawk in hand.