The Assassin’s Creed series is one firmly rooted in the gameplay style and narrative elements set forth all the way back in 2007 when the first game was released. While the two most recent installments, Brotherhood and Revelations may have deviated a bit from the established template, they were still easily recognizable at first glance as members of the Assassin’s Creed family. Early this year, we found out that the next chapter in the series would take place during the American Revolution and feature a new protagonist. It’s not surprising that, after the initial indications of these significant changes, Assassin’s Creed III features a variety of new elements. As with any major shifts in an established gaming franchise, fans stand at the ready to pass judgement. Do these changes serve to add real substance to the experience or would they have been better left on the cutting floor?
The most obvious newcomers to the series are the aforementioned setting of Revolution-era America and the introduction of a new assassin. Rather than stalking the streets and rooftops of Middle Eastern and European cities with Altaïr and Ezio, we take to 18th Century America with Connor. The game follows him through 30 years of his life, from childhood to his introduction into the Brotherhood and beyond. Visiting various moments of his life offers up an opportunity for a detailed insight into his motivations and the development of the character.
Unfortunately, his tale seems a bit rushed, as though Ubisoft is providing the Cliff Notes for his life. Skipping over large chunks of time forces a disconnect between events that should add up to a sort of cumulative and dramatic impetus for his actions. However, Connor never seems quite as passionate or driven as his predecessors and, as a result, is simply not as likeable. In addition, the hesitant and apprehensive nature that seems to always be on display becomes downright annoying after a few hours. Altaïr and Ezio were ideal figureheads for the Assassin’s Creed series, but Connor does not convey the same sense of inspiration and significance.
Perhaps even more frustrating than the character of Connor himself, is the fact that the game presents a number of far more engaging individuals that I would have preferred them to pursue. Assassin’s Creed III begins across the pond in merry old England with players taking on the role of Haytham Kenway. He is a key figure in the events that occur over the course of the game, but not the actual focus of the story. Along with his companion Charles Lee and Connor’s mentor, Achilles, I found numerous characters that would have made more interesting protagonists.
Unfortunately, Ubisoft chooses not only to not follow these characters, but to also vilify some of them in a poor attempt to establish who is “good” and who is “bad”. The story does make some interesting twists and turns that may call for the player to adjust their perspective and the wartime setting does lend itself to side-choosing. However, the whole effort comes across as a very forced and unnatural storytelling practice that removes that audience’s ability to form an opinion.
While the American Revolution may not have provided the most engaging of protagonists, it does offer up a refreshing setting for the game. Players will explore the cities of Boston and New York, as well as the more open and wild Frontier. Aside from the differences that come with several hundred years of human advancement, the setting has a much more dirty, rustic feel to it. Trading in the garish piazzas of Venice for the muddy streets of 18th Century Boston is a welcome change that is brought to life with excellent detail. Both American cities are alive with citizens going about their day, complemented by the ever present British occupation.
Even though the setting has moved several hundred years and several thousand miles from where the series began, the landscape still has a very Assassin’s Creed feel to it. As in previous titles, I wanted to explore these locations, scaling every tall building and stalking every alley. That being said, the game’s pacing doesn’t lend itself to the type of exploration and discovery found in other Assassin’s Creed games. Rather than completing a series of objectives in one place, the game skips around a variety of locations from mission to mission, never really offering much of an opportunity to become familiar with your hunting grounds.
The game’s inability to stay in one place and one time period is somewhat forgivable, as it is oftentimes the result of its close adherence to actual events in American history. Assassin’s Creed games have always had a strong connection to the events of human history, especially as they relate to the ongoing conspiracy surrounding the Abstergo Corporation and the Pieces of Eden. While previous games have all been set in specific time periods and may have featured occasional historical figures, none have been so tightly woven into real-world historical events as Assassin’s Creed III. The writers have made obvious efforts to tie the Templar and Brotherhood influences to specific occurrences that lead up to the war, as well as actual battles. Historical figures, including George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Sam Adams, put in appearances and it is genuinely interesting to interact with them as the story develops.
Even more impressive than the game’s marriage of the established Assassin’s Creed lore with American history, is the fact that the writers finally tie together some of the loose ends of the ongoing conspiracy theme. After four games in the series, the web of intrigue that has been spun is impressive – and frustratingly incomplete. Over the course of Assassin’s Creed III, we are granted the opportunity to see how some of these plot lines come together. I wouldn’t dare give any inkling of a spoiler here, but I can say I was pleased to see at least a few of the puzzle pieces fall into place. Naturally, there are still plenty of questions left unanswered, still providing that shadow of intrigue that hangs over the game.
The breadth and scale of the narrative development here requires the game to take a more scripted route than we’ve seen in the past. Aside from the time and location flip-flopping mentioned already, there are also a good number of cut-scenes that seem to simply serve to act as waypoints from one sub-objective to the next. The result is a game that feels much more linear than its predecessors. While the motivation behind this shift may be understandable – even wholly appreciated here at a site that focuses on stories and characters – it just doesn’t feel right. When playing as a character that can run, jump, and climb in a fashion that exceeds normal human abilities, it’s a bit aggravating to be led along by the hand throughout the game.
Perhaps in an attempt to combat the linear feel of the game, Assassin’s Creed III features a wide range of secondary activities that players can choose to pursue. These include hunting, crafting, trading, and a variety of side missions. Most of these offer nothing new to the gaming experience and are easily overlooked. The exception would be the outstanding naval missions. Taking to the high seas in a fully armed warship is definitely something not seen before in the series. The gameplay found during these missions in surprisingly well-designed and would seemingly be more at home in a game dedicated to seafaring. During my playthrough, I made sure to play every available naval mission, as they were always exciting and tactically satisfying affairs.
Even the celebrated fighting mechanics of the Assassin’s Creed series does not manage to escape the winds of change in this most recent installment. At first glance, the concept of a “simplified” combat system reeks of a publisher pandering to the masses. However, after spending some time with it, I will admit that I love the changes here. During combat, the player’s choices have been whittled down to just a few options: block, attack, and move. While this may seem oversimplified, accounting for factors such as timing and directional movement allows the combat to be surprisingly expansive and intuitive. Flicking the thumbstick in the direction of an attacker allows Connor to engage that particular individual. Depending on the length of the button-press, the player can block, parry, or counter, opening up the enemy for an attack. The player can then continue focusing on that same enemy or quickly move to another if a second attack is incoming. It took very little time to become comfortable with the new system and, as a result, I felt as though I was truly controlling the action against numerous enemies.
To go along with the prevalence of firearms in this time period, Connor also has the ability to take human shields. Being able to grab an enemy to use as cover during the midst of heated close combat speaks to the simplicity and effectiveness of the new combat system. In addition to the new tricks up his sleeve, Connor has a few weapons in his arsenal that we haven’t seen before. These include dual pistols, musket, bow and arrow, and, my personal favorite, the tomahawk. This Native American weapon makes for some of the bloodiest and most brutal kills we’ve seen thus far in the Assassin’s Creed series.
While some of the changes to Assassin’s Creed III seem somewhat ill-advised, there is an overall technical polish to this game that is undeniable. Graphically, it is absolutely gorgeous and the Revolution-era period details are impressive. The sound design is equally inspired, offering up a deep auditory experience that weaves the sounds of 18th Century life and the cacophony of battle with an epic soundtrack. The only shortcoming found here would be in the laughable voice acting assigned to some of the game’s secondary characters. Connor and the more significant figures in the game carry a believable and emotional tone. In contrast, the stereotypical broken English spoken by the Native Americans or the overly arrogant British accent uttered by some of the Redcoats is a bit embarrassing.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed III provides a much larger experience than previous games in the series. Completing the main storyline clocks in right around 25 hours. Completionists will spend far more than that finishing all of the side missions, finding all of the collectibles, and working towards 100% memory synchronization. Beyond the campaign, the new “Wolf Pack” cooperative mode is surprisingly fun, allowing players to partner up with up to three friends to eliminate targets over the course of 25 increasingly difficult waves.
With all that said, does the larger experience serve to make a better experience? In the case of Assassin’s Creed III, it does not. While I admire the ambitious narrative and attempt to give players more gameplay, the results just don’t quite feel like an Assassin’s Creed game. In addition, some elements seem to have suffered due to the fact that the game probably got a bit too large and the developers lost focus. The most notable of these is that Connor never ends up being the assassin that we want him to be. Assassin’s Creed III is one of those good games that is frustratingly close to being a great game. Unfortunately, its potential seems to have been crushed under the weight of over-ambition.
ONLY SINGLE PLAYER SCORE
Story – 7/10
Gameplay/Design – 7/10
Visuals – 9/10
Sound – 8/10
Lasting Appeal – 8/10
Overall – 7.5/10
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC (Reviewed for XBox 360)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Ratings: Mature (ESRB), 18+ (PEGI)