Video Game Review: Assassin’s Creed III
It has been a while since an Assassin’s Creed game without a subtitle has been released. A few years, in fact. It’s no secret that Ubisoft has thrown truckloads of studios at the franchise to crank out at least one sequel annually. By the end of Desmond’s last ancestral adventure in the animus, no one could blame you for being tired of playing through the memories of Altaïr and Ezio.
With these characters finally retired, it’s now time for fans of the series fill the shoes (or mind, rather) of another Mr. Miles’s long-dead relatives, Connor, a half Native American man who’s real name can no longer be pronounced by any human tongue. Leading up to release, there was a lot of talk about how this game would be very different from those that came before. With the new character and setting (the American Revolution, in case you’ve been living under a rock), we were told this would be “practically a new IP” and “ninety percent a new game” by the creative lead, Alex Hutchinson, back in July. The series is known for making big additions to each game, even on a yearly release schedule, but despite this one having been in development a bit longer, I went into this one a bit skeptical. Could it actually be an entirely fresh face-stabbing experience?
No. Assassin’s Creed III is every bit its predecessors, right down to the dimples. I don’t mean to say it’s a bad game or that it isn’t fun; it’s one of the more enjoyable gaming experiences I’ve had this year. It just also feels about ninety percent familiar. Almost anything you could do in previous Assassins titles, you can do again here, though it might be a bit simplified. The other ten percent is a bit of a mixed bag of small changes to systems that trade old issues for new ones and some new side missions that encourage exploration of the large world they’ve created, which is by far the biggest improvement, and the best quality, of this game.
There are only two cities to explore in AC3: Boston and New York. Considering Ubisoft Montreal’s history of making huge worlds to climb, kill and camouflage in, this may sound lacking, but it feels just right. Two sprawling urban centers wouldn’t quite be enough for any fan of the series, but they’ve added the homestead and the frontier as well. The homestead is, unsurprisingly, Connor’s, home. But instead of just having a building for a base this time, our protagonist has a whole community. Well, it starts as a large patch of forest with a lake and a big house on a hill near the middle, but if you take the time to improve this area, it eventually becomes a home to a host of other characters as well.
The frontier is a huge piece of mostly uninhabited land that sits between each of the game’s other areas and feels much larger than any space in previous games. It’s here that the game seems most unlike other titles in the series, since there aren’t many rooftops or guards around in the wilderness. There are new hunting and exploring side missions to complete here as well as plenty of the old feathers and treasure chests to collect. With such a large piece of the Northeast to explore, it could easily become tedious to traverse these areas, but the most important improvement they’ve made to the series is how you move around the world.
To start, I’ll explain that I’ve always found each of the Assassins’ climbing skills to be amazing, but their discernment of where exactly to go has been lacking. While Ezio could practically fly from rooftop to rooftop with the ease of a pigeon, he would instead decide to jump to his death off a ten story building if I moved my controller’s thumbstick a way he didn’t like. In previous games, parkour has been performed by holding R1 and X (I play on PS3) as you run and climb and jump around at top speed; wherever you point the left thumbstick, the Assassin should supposedly go, even if that means leaping to your doom. But the system has always fudged a lot to try and guess where you actually wanted to go, so you might have ended up catching a windowsill or corner you didn’t want to and then moving a lot slower to your desired destination.
It’s a subtle change, but in Assassins Creed III, you now hold only the right shoulder button to freerun, and the game will not let you attempt a jump you can’t actually make. If a jump or movement will fail, bringing you to the ground, Connor will just stop. You can still make the jump by hitting the X button, even doing so before you would actually lose momentum, but the game will not send you to your demise. When you get to a mission involving a chase or your trying to travel within a time limit, you still get a few of those moments where you want to hit Connor over the head for following a line almost perpendicular to your desired path, but these instances are, thankfully, now few and far between.
In addition to the control tweak, the different environments also make getting around easier. As Altaïr and Ezio, I always felt compelled to run around the city at the highest elevation possible, wind blowing in my hood and rooftop guards yelling and shooting at me as I ran by. It always seemed quicker than dealing with the pedestrian-packed pathways between buildings, though I would constantly be stopping and starting to figure out how to move from one building to the next, often going well out of my way to reach my destination. Once horses were included, it was annoying to have to deal with them jerking to a stop every time the topography was anything but flat or the streets were too narrow. Fast travel points helped, but getting to them and figuring out which one was closest to where you actually needed to end up was a pain.
Every complaint I’ve just mentioned has been fixed. The roads are wider and have more room for me and any pals, equestrian or otherwise, that might be aiding me. Even with buildings farther apart, travel between them is improved, with trees now offering branches as steps between them. Horses are still wimps about leaping over small rocks, but are very useful for traveling medium distances, and you can fast travel to many points around the world from the map in the start menu, provided you aren’t in combat. In the frontier, getting around is awesome, because the trees of the forest look and feel like home to Connor as he jumps and swings through them; once you get to an area with anything but a mess of trunks and branches, you call your horse and move even faster around the landscape.
We all know the Assassins are pretty good at climbing and leaping all over the place, but their true area of expertise is, obviously, taking fools out. Fools are, in this case, mostly Redcoats, and murdering them feels much the same as with previous enemies, but there a couple tweaks that make battling a bit better, technically speaking. Instead of holding R1 to stay in a defensive stance and then hitting buttons for different attacks and counters, you now only need the face buttons, and the shoulder buttons aren’t used for anything except pulling up the menu for weapon switches.
The combat is still based on the timing of counters and attacks, with the goal of chaining kills to be quicker and look more badass. Since some enemies will now back off to load their muskets and take a shot at you, you must be wary of intermittent ranged attacks and either disarm enemies’ muskets or take another soldier to use as a human shield.
You can still purchase new weapons in shops, but the armor system has been cut entirely. You can get different outfits, but Connor will always be able to take the same number of hits. There’s no medicine either; health regenerates now after you haven’t taken damage for a few seconds. These changes help to streamline the combat, but I don’t feel it’s an overall improvement, since I got most of the best weapons early in the game and didn’t feel like I could upgrade my abilities much from there, so even money wasn’t much use to me after a while.
The economy system that has given the player a way to affect the world his Assassin inhabits has also been given a bit of an overhaul. Instead of investing in shops around the colonies, you can go the spend-money-to-make-money route from the homestead. As you do missions that lead people to move into the community, you also gain access to these characters as artisans. By doing more missions for them once they are on the property, you can level them up. You can purchase goods from these characters and use both the craftsman and your stores to make other items, then sell the stuff you have made via convoys that carry your wares to stores around the colonies. Eventually, this leads to profit, but it is a bit of a hassle getting there.
I like that you must take more involvement in the economy to make money, instead of investing in shops and then leaving the game running while you hide in a haystack, accruing gold every few minutes. Unfortunately, the new system is a bit broken as well. It is unclear when you can and should do missions for artisans to level them up, and most of these missions are only available during part of the game, so it’s possible to miss opportunities for improvement entirely. The interface you use to craft is unwieldy, and how much profit you will make from an endeavor is not clear until you actually load up the wagon of stuff and tell it where to go.
After spending half an hour getting a convoy ready, only to find out I’ll make only a couple thousand bucks in another ten to twenty minutes when the cart reaches its destination, I realized the money just wasn’t worth it. A lot of the upgrade items are acquired through crafting instead of purchase, anyway, so I eventually used it for that, but not much else. I did eventually complete most of the missions for my homesteaders, compelled by a small narrative arc for each that truly made me care about them, even though they had nothing today with the central plot.
Possibly because the world is so well fleshed out, the main story in this game stands out as well. As an American, the setting of this game is obviously close to home for me, so take this with a grain of salt. Connor is thrust into conflict between himself, the only true Assassin in the country at the time, and the Templars, while also being forced to fight for one side in the Revolutionary War in order to further his own purposes. Despite coming from a tribe of horrible voice actors, he is an intense and believable character. By the end, I wished only that his conflicting motives got more screen time, as these issues make his view on a familiar story a very interesting one.
The plot has a couple twists that make this game an absolute must for anyone who cares about the Assassins as a whole, or just Desmond specifically. Some of my favorite parts of the game started with my removal from the Animus to complete objectives in the present day; these moments do a whole lot more to further the narrative of the current world and the Miles family than the last couple games combined.
Another issue I have with Assassin’s Creed III is the time it takes to get moving. Before you ever inhabit Connor’s mind, before he’s born even, you play as his father, Haytham Kenway, who becomes integral to the plot. I ran around Boston as Kenway for several hours of missions, a few years worth of story, but it felt like forever. Several of the game’s twelve chapters, what this game calls sequences, are played before the main character is even born. Once Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor’s name in the Mohawk language) finally enters the world, you play as him as a kid. Once you get past that, there’s the hurdle of teen years to get over. It was about seven or eight hours of what felt like tutorial before I was actually playing as a guy named Connor wearing a white robe and wrist blades. Even after that, there was more tutorial following, because I had to don a captain’s outfit and learn to run a ship.
The addition of Naval battles seems a bit excessive to me, but I still had fun doing them. I did not feel like an Assassin at all while yelling for my crew to fire the cannons or reduce our speed to half-sail, but I had some good times on the high seas. I would probably play a whole other game based around the ship combat and upgrade system, but I just didn’t get all that much out of it as part of Assassin’s Creed III.
The only issue the game has that I feel I must actually warn you of is that it can be extremely buggy. Any time you have a big open world to mess around in there will be some, shall we say, “jank” to it, and something will break, but I was having issues right and left. I experienced simple graphical problems like framerate issues, and textures and filters from cutscenes getting stuck on screen and covering my view once the video ended. I also had more serious bugs that didn’t allow me to interact with characters I should have been able to talk to, causing a frustrating inability finish certain side missions. There was a particularly annoying glitch that caused the second pistol in my holster to constantly revert to one I never wanted to equip every time I went through a load screen. I even saw enemy AI behaving like gods, able to see through walls or gaining immortality mid-fight. I thought maybe this was just on PS3, since this is the first title in the series that hasn’t completely locked up on me (so far), but I have talked to people playing on Xbox that have encountered the same issues. Oddly enough, because I have had a single technical issue while playing it, the multiplayer seems to be the least flawed part of the game.
If you’ve played any of the previous games’ multiplayer modes, then you already know most everything you need to about this one’s. The basic deathmatch battles in which you hunt other targets while trying to avoid pursuers is unlike any other online multiplayer experience, and and I would recommend it to anyone who hasn’t tried it as the perfect pallet cleanser between one’s favorite shooters.
AC3 adds a couple of new game types. One is called Wolfpack, in which you and up to three teammates race against a clock to find an assassinate targets, focusing on style and synchronization, making sure each kill is worth as many points as possible so you can move to the next of twenty-five sequences. It’s sort of like this game’s take on a horde mode. It’s fun, but dreadful to play with most people online, since no one likes working as a team because you’re a noob and they’re apparently your dad. There are also gametypes that add capture points and other objectives to team-based modes, but nothing to revolutionary there. The big change in this system is the customization. You can now unlock and change between different looks for your favorite characters in addition to their abilities. The multiplayer overall is a bit tough to get into, if you haven’t played before, but worth a shot if you want something fresh.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed III is a great game with nothing I would call a major flaw, but I was just hoping for something more, as the promises about the game had been so great. I would recommend it to anyone who follows the series, and tell anyone who is new to it to go back and start Ezio’s story in the second title. Despite AC3′s short “last time on” intro video and its long tutorial, I think it would still be overwhelming in complexity and underwhelming in narrative to a newcomer. I would also recommend waiting for the PC port to come out later this month, if you can, as I hear those versions have had less bugs the last couple times around, and it would undoubtedly look even better if your computer can handle it. I had a lot of fun with this one, but I am also glad to hear Ubisoft Montreal plans on putting more time between its future releases. I am still in love with the series, but the annualized nature has taken a bit of a toll on at least one in its fan base.
Follow Levi’s thoughts as he tries not to take his Assassins Creed skills into the real world @biggunsfowler.