Review: Assassin's Creed III
Here we are. Finally -- after five years -- we've arrived at the end of the Assassin's Creed story. This, the fifth game in the trilogy (no that's not a typo) comes to us, riding a wave of hype and expectation not seen since before the release of the very first game that kicked this series off. At a time when big budget blockbusters are increasingly becoming hit and miss and fans and critics alike are more judgemental than ever, Assassin's Creed III had a gargantuan task to accomplish.
Did it achieve it? Well, yes and no.
Let me say from the beginning, Assassin's Creed III is a good game. Often times, it's a great game and very occasionally, it's a sublime gaming experience that delivers on the potential for brilliance demonstrated in the first game. However, for every amazing moment -- every time the game makes you go "WOW!" -- there are equally as many baffling development decisions and gameplay inclusions that leave you shaking your head in disbelief.
Assassin's Creed III offers us up a brand new setting for the first time in three years. While Revelations took us to Constantinople, it was very much still set within the Renaissance world of Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a world we first visited in Assassin's Creed II, back in 2009. The gameplay was tweaked and features were added and removed back and forth. Assassin's Creed II introduced the economy and shops, whilst Brotherhood gave us multiplayer and assassin recruits. Revelations brought the first-person Desmond puzzles and the Den Defence mode. While some of these inclusions worked -- and some definitely didn't... I'm looking at you Den Defence -- they did one of two things. Either (like me) you thought they added layers of additional depth, gameplay and life to the game world or, you felt they diluted the essence of Assassin's Creed, drawing focus away from assassinations, making the follow-ups bloated and over-encumbered with frivolous extras.
Assassin's Creed III is no different. Aside from the main sequences/missions (which we'll come to later), there is an absolute mountain of additional content in this game. The usual suspects are present and accounted for.
Scattered collectibles? Check.
Shops and an economy? Double check.
Treasure chests and multiplayer? Check and check.
So what's new this time around? Ubisoft have taken great steps to spread the word of Assassin's Creed III's naval battles. They're an excellent addition that has you commanding a ship on the open seas and engaging in battle with enemy ships by exchanging cannon fire. A few of these missions are mandatory parts of the story, but sit well within the narrative and make sense in the context of your current goals. Sailing and attacking have been made intuitive and easy to grasp which assists in ensuring the battles are lots of fun. There are a whole host of naval side-missions to explore as well, for those seeking more time on the open water. Here's hoping that a game based around these naval battles is in the works, it would be a shame if such a fresh and fun concept was left on the shelf.
Also newly introduced is hunting. Very much borrowed from Red Dead Redemption, hunting for animals whilst in the Frontier is a brand new mechanic the game clumsily forces on you early on and then quietly forgets for the remainder of the game. That's not to say that the hunting lacks fun or polish. For a while, stalking and hunting in the forest -- silently sneaking up on your prey -- whilst moving between hiding spots or stalking from above in the trees is a lot of fun. Making a perfect kill and collecting the skin to sell is rewarding... at first. Then, there becomes less and less incentive to do it, until eventually it's forgotten about altogether and you focus instead on other things. Towards the end of the game, I would see a rabbit or deer run past and would remember the hunting but would never bother to go after it. Overall the hunting is a nice distraction at first and then an eventual forgotten element. I'm willing to bet there will be many gamers our there who spend a huge amount of time hunting and skinning and loving every minute of it but it's not for me.
On the multiplayer side of things, proceedings have been kept generally intact with those that came before -- with one notable exception. Wolfpack is a new multiplayer mode that sees you team up with other players and try to take down groups of enemies within an allotted time frame. Manage to get them all and you move onto the next wave with a time bonus. It's an excellent twist on the well-worn "Horde" mode and is deliciously addictive. Tempering the stealth kills of the multiplayer mode with a frantic race against time makes for some truly tense moments. When you inevitably fail, that old "just one more go" feeling comes rushing back again and again. Multiplayer in Assassin's Creed was always an unexpected pleasure and here it is no different. If you're a fan, expect to sink many hours into the online mode.
The final -- of the bigger -- inclusions is the ability to free run through the frontier including through the trees and over rocks etc. Initially tree running (as I like to call it) is a little unintuitive. The lines to take aren't entirely clear and it feels stilted and without flow. This is due -- in part -- to the fact Assassin's Creed has only allowed climbing and running over buildings in previous games. Once you've spent a little time running through the trees, it becomes just as easy as in previous titles. There is nothing quite like sprinting through a forest, up a fallen tree, bounding through the tree tops and then scrabbling up a cliff face only to be greeted by the magnificently rendered American frontier spreading out before you. The sense of freedom instilled in you while playing, is the best yet available in an open world game. That is, when the narrative eventually unleashes you.
You'll notice that I've spent a great deal of time digging into the past and present -- the DNA, if you will, of the Assassin's Creed games -- and am yet to explore the narrative. This is the part of the game that has given me the most trouble to write about. We've spent five years, played five games, and invested hundreds of dollars into Assassin's Creed. We've grown to care about the characters and their stories. We've begrudgingly accepted the abrupt stops at the close of each iteration as endings, since we assumed Assassin's Creed III would reveal all and leave us satisfied. I'm here to tell you that it doesn't.
Assassin's Creed III picks up directly after Revelations. Shaun, Rebecca and William Miles -- Desmond's father, impeccably voiced by John De Lancie -- have snuck Desmond into America and are secretly searching for the lost temple created by the First Civilisation. It's all in an effort to stop the destruction of the planet by a massive solar flare. Once inside, Juno forces Desmond to regress and relive another ancestor's life in order to find the key to activate the temple and save the world. That ancestor is Ratonhnhaké:ton -- better known as Connor -- a Mohawk tribesman who lived in the time of the American Revolutionary War. Just don't expect to jump straight in and be free running all over. The game takes a painfully long time to actually get going. In hindsight, the slow burn is essential to the story telling and the mirroring of that father/son issues faced by both Desmond and Connor, but the burn is much, much too slow. It's not until you reach Sequence 6 -- a good five hours in -- that Ubisoft finally hands the reins over to you and lets you play like you would any Assassin's Creed game.
It's a bold move and one that could be considered necessary, but the pay off never comes. Those first few hours never truly resonate with the rest of the story. The same effect could have been achieved in less the time. I've read that Assassin's Creed III would be the perfect game for newbies to the series, and I must strongly disagree. It was only my love for the series that saw me persevere through those opening hours. For a series so well loved, it's a gigantic misstep for the denouement to stumble at the very beginning.
But the problems with the narrative don't end once you take control of Connor.
The situations you're faced with, the interactions and motivations of certain characters and some of the dialogue ranges from the bizarre to the abysmal. At one point you spend an entire sequence working with and standing side by side with your main target. The head of the Templars stands no more than two feet away from Connor but rather than end his life, Connor chooses to work with him. It's such a logic defying decision that I actually yelled "KILL HIM, YOU IDIOT!" at my TV. Moments like these are rife in Assassin's Creed III, which is a genuine shame as the central conceit of the story is solid with more than it's fair share of intense and awesome moments.
Desmond's story section fares no better then Connor's. Actually, it fares worse. Desmond has never been given the full attention and fleshing out that he deserves and that we've been calling out for. In Assassin's Creed III, you finally get to take Desmond out on some missions to retrieve artefacts which will power up the temple. These take him from Manhattan to Brazil and finally to Italy. At first, it's quite cool to finally use Desmond in the same way as other Assassins. Then the novelty wears off, as the levels reveal themselves to be simple climbing simulators. So little story is added by these levels that they may as well have been removed altogether, or shown in brief cutscenes. After all this time, it was assumed that Desmond would become a fully fledged playable character. Instead, he remains the least interesting character in the entire saga and the ending to his story is likely to enrage rather than impress.
Disappointingly, the story in Assassin's Creed III offers no closure, no sense of accomplishment and least of all, no pay off after the countless hours spent thus far.
As I said at the beginning of this review, I think Assassin's Creed III is a good game. It's also a game weighed down by it's own lofty intentions. Its a game that is crushed under the weight of its own story and frequently comes unstuck when held up to any kind of scrutiny. That being said, the freedom the game -- eventually -- offers up, the action and the set pieces are the best of the series. Assassin's Creed has never fully realised its own potential and alas Assassin's Creed III is no different. If you are expecting this game to be a revolution -- to change the face of action and open world gaming and to leave you with a sense of joy and closure -- you will be sorely disappointed. If (like me) you expect nothing more than another solid entry in the Assassin's Creed series and another open world to explore, then you'll likely have a good time.
I guess we'll have to wait for the inevitable Assassin's Creed IV for the true revolution.