Title: Assassins Creed III
Usually a review will begin with a metaphor. Laboriously drawn out across an entire paragraph, this metaphor will at first seem completely off topic. It could even be an anecdote, something that happened to the critic which conveniently foreshadowed or influenced their opinion. Ultimately it will all make sense in the end when the review comes full circle and the truth behind the seemingly pointless opening rant is revealed. Unfortunately we don’t have time for that today, as I am tasked with reviewing what is undoubtedly the biggest and most ambitious game to grace this generation of consoles, Assassins Creed 3 and, quite frankly, there is a lot to talk about.
Firstly let’s talk tech. Assassins Creed 3 runs on a revamped version of the Anvil Engine, which powered the last three games, called AnvilNext. While the engine is certainly capable of great things, the game looks more impressive than ever and the battlefields are densely populated, I can’t help but feel the ‘Next’ in its title is rather telling. The game creaks under the weight of its own ambition to the point where small, simple things just don’t seem to work properly. There are, as many critics have pointed out, a tremendous amount of glitches and bugs, most of which are cosmetic and don’t matter much. But I couldn’t shake the feeling at times that AC3 would feel more at home on a next-gen device with more room to breathe and more space to move about. That’s not to say the engine is a complete game breaker, it isn’t, and on the topic of space let’s talk a little about the gameplay.
Like previous AC titles, the game is divided into cities; in this case colonial Boston and New York. These cities are full of things to occupy your time, there are collectibles to chase, snitches to catch, assassins to recruit and of course people to kill. The free-running is as exhilerating as it has ever been and even the combat is much more interesting this time around. You’ll have to pay closer attention to enemy type and weapon useage than ever before as certain foes will succumb faster to the trusty hidden blade than the awesome, and in my case, overused, tomohawk. It’s not the cities where the AnvilNext engine really gets to flex its muscles though, that’s saved for the space between them; the frontier.
The frontier is a stretch of wilderness, forestry, rivers, mountains and even some settlers which is three times the size of the entire game world in AC: Brotherhood. It might only be a time sink between towns (none of the major story missions take place in the frontier) but it’s also one of the most incredible things about the game. There are side missions scattered throughout the frontier, not to mention animals that can be hunted for their valuable pelts, but if you’re anything like me most of your time here will be spent exploring simply for the sake of it; taking in this stunningly put together world that could so easily and completely pass you by. Wandering through the frontier reminded me of Fable or Final Fantasy or any other classic RPG for the way in which the world feels alive with or without your presence. Hunting, both animals and humans, is fun and fresh thanks to the addition of some interesting new weapons. Using a bow and arrow to strike from afar is more rewarding than the series’ guns and pistols have ever been and few gaming experiecnces this year have given me as much sick satisfaction as hanging an enemy from a tree using a rope dart. For a franchise that offered unrealistic amounts of freedom before, AC3 just keeps on giving.
For me, part of what’s made Assassins Creed the quintessential franchise for this generation is its story. Never in my life have I come across a plot so ambitious in scope and so modest in its details. Even if you’ve played all the games up to now, there is a strong possibility that some integral plot elements have completely passed you by. Did you finish the glyph side missions in AC2? No? Then you probably don’t understand why present day protagonist Desmond Miles is so important. Didn’t play Revelations’ DLC? Be prepared for a shocking discovery about a former teammate. As far back as the first game, and also through its multimedia branches, the AC series has hidden the brilliance of its plot in plain sight, confident that those who take the time to seek it will find their reward and AC3 is no exception to that.
Without wishing to give anything away, the game opens with a handy little recap of the saga so far, ultimately reminding us that as it stands, the world is all kinds of screwed. A solar flare of some kind is set to tear team Earth a new one unless Desmond Miles can get inside an ancient temple where a solution to the apocolypse may or may not be hidden. This requires a key, a key which one of Desmonds ancestors was known to once possess. Thus, Desmond goes back into the animus to relive the memories of Connor Kenway, and boy is there a lot to talk about there too.
Connors story takes place during the years of the American revolution. Being of half Britsh and half Native American descent, he struggles with an internal conflict while choosing to ally himself with the Americans in an external conflict he does not fully understand. Raised by his native american mother and having witnessed her death during the seige on his village, Connor is unsure of his place in the inevitable new world and at times, it becomes clear that even the good guys might not be on his side. He may not be as instantly likeable as Ezio Auditore, but Connors story is truly moving and although he is generally distant as a character you will definitely feel for him as a person.
It’s worth noting that the games prologue, in addition to taking anywhere from 3 to 6 hours to complete, doesn’t have you playing as Connor or Desmond. To reveal anymore would be to give away what is, quite frankly, a holy-shit-what-just-happened plot twist, but it has to be said that the prologue was a risky move by Ubisoft and one that will divide (and has divided) critics and players alike.
The script pulls no punches in its mission to make the morality of the american revolution relatively ambiguous. The motives of the Templars are, for the first time, considered as more than just villainy and Connor (and to a lesser extent, Desmond) is forced to question the beliefs of the Assassin brotherhood, something Ezio never had to worry about. George Washington is played up as a well-wishing but ultimately clueless general and present-day antagonist Warren Vidic delivers a powerful speech (almost to the player) asking why we are so sure that Abstergo are the bad guys right before Desmond shows up and does something genuinely frightening. The developers mentioned that the lines between good and evil would be blurred in AC3 and they were not kidding.
There are also present day sequences where Desmond must avoid detection (or death by gravity) to locate mysterious power sources. The lack of any kind of HUD during these missions makes them incredibly immersive and I did find myself terrified on more than one occasion. Sadly these sequences are few and far between and given how important Desmond has ultimately become in the games story, there definitely could have been room made for one or two more.
In addition to the main storyline, side missions and all the dicking about you can do in the frontier, there are also the Naval Missions. As someone who was put off by the amount of hype this element of the game had been getting leading up to its release, let me be 100% clear on this: the naval missions are a game unto themselves. Spectacularly well designed with intuitive controls and stunning visuals, these missions add so much worth to a game already bursting at its seams.
Most of the games weakness comes in its presentation. The decision to split the analog sticks to navigate the in game map and menu is confusing at first, and even when you get the hang of it, it never feels quite right. The engine visually struggles to keep up with itself at times, particularly when you complete a mission without being congratulated or fail one without ever having being told you were on it. That said the score for AC3 is probably the best of the series so far. Taking a more focussed, melodic route than Jesper Kyds ambiguous, generative scores, Lorne Balfe successfully brings to life the tragedy and intensity of Connors story, not to mention the urgent and terrifying nature of Desmonds.
And after all that there’s also the multiplayer. Not too much has changed since AC: Revelations in terms of gameplay. The game types are all the same with some minor adjustments. There are new maps, new character skins and of course a new self-contained (for now) plot. Abstergo, it seems, have released a home version of the animus designed for playing video games through. The games you play are apparently distilled from ‘actual memories’, according to the abstergo advertisements unlocked throughout the multiplayer campaign. The myterious Erudito Industries would like to enlighten you however and for every story piece you unlock from abstergo, Erudito show you its hacked mirror image. Who’s telling the truth? Well you’ll have to decide that for yourself. But I would be very surprised if Erudito didn’t play a larger role in future AC games and if my interpretation of the ending to the main story is correct, they have already begun to do so.
Whether or not you’re a fan of Assassins Creed the fact remains that no other game franchise this generation has given its players so much freedom in such rich and detailed worlds, while simultaneously delivering a powerful, meticulously thought-out narrative. AC is truly a benchmark for video game storytelling and on the basis of AC 3 there’s no reason to suspect the bar will be met anytime soon. The promise of the much maligned AC may have been realized in its sequels, but it has not been until this fifth installment that the game has come full circle. In Assassins Creed 3 Ubisoft have delivered a flawed masterpiece and a modern day classic.
– Huge open world to explore
– Fantastic setting and intriguing plot
– Naval warfare has never been this fun
– It’s still Assassins Creed so it’s still awesome.
– Many glitches and bugs.
– Bizarre presentation choices
– Some frustrating missions, especially towards the end.