I recently found myself in a lengthy discussion regarding Hollywood’s apparent lack of interest in the American Revolution. There are entire websites dedicated to British productions of the Napoleonic Wars, but only a handful of the seminal moment in American history. Despite our near pathological obsession with capitalizing on anything that could turn a profit, the lack of entertainment focused on the fertile ground that Assassin’s Creed 3 makes its home is bizarre.
Perhaps it is out of respect for the subject matter and especially the subjects that stays our entertainment hand. Or perhaps it is simply the fear of not being able to find a story that can come close to reaching the emotional and cultural significance that the time period elicits. And yet it is a time that is ripe with possibilities.
Ubisoft wisely went in a different direction with AC3. Instead of building a game about the American Revolution, it designed a game that has universal themes and ideals, then tweaked it to fit with the history of the era. The story of Assassin’s Creed III simply exists during the founding of the country, but it is a story of freedom, betrayal, and revenge. And in terms of pure narrative, AC3 is one the best games around.
One stark difference between film and games can immediately be found in AC3‘s prologue. The opening of the game, which is actually fairly lengthy, contains at least two major twists, one for player and one for the story. It would be a disservice to discuss them other than to say that they create a powerful and personal narrative. You know who the enemy is and you know why they fight. You also feel a special bond with the main protagonist, the half-Native American, half-English assassin Ratonhnhaké:ton, otherwise known as Connor.
Without spoiling anything, the story focuses on Connor far more than the Revolution. You will see a great deal of the war, as Connor often finds his interests coinciding with events that resonate through history, but just as often he goes his own way and follows a story more in line with the franchise’s familiar war between the Assassins and the Templars.
As always, the story is linked to the present through the character of Desmond Miles, a reluctant assassin with an inescapable destiny. Desmond has been through a lot over the years/games, and his experiences reach a head in AC3. Although still very much the junior varsity to the historical star, Desmond finally gets his own playable sections sprinkled through the game, which culminates in the resolution of a story thread that has been dangling since the first Assassin’s Creed debuted in 2007. Again though, that is steering into spoiler territory. Just know there is a climax, but the story will certainly go on. That isn’t a spoiler as much as a knowing wink to Ubisoft’s business acumen. No matter what happens, there will certainly be more Assassin’s Creed games.
There will, of course, be a debate as to where Connor’s character stacks up with the other Assassins. It’s natural to rank things, and everyone will have their favorite – just look at the never-ending debate over the best James Bond. Where Connor ranks will come down to personal feeling.
What I can say, however, is that Connor’s story is perhaps the most personal of the three assassins (four, if you count Aveline de Grandpré, from the Vita’s Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation). Ezio quickly became an iconic figure. His charm and humor fed into the creative nature of the missions Ubisoft Montreal continued to dream up for him, and his own tragic story made for good gameplay. But AC3 revolves around Connor in a much different way, and the game cleverly creates a bond between the character and the player. The AC stories have always been sprawling, but the plot in AC3 is the easiest to follow, due in part to the more familiar locales and players, but also because of the narrative tricks Ubisoft introduces. The game is the least complicated of the AC games. That isn’t to say it is simple – it isn’t, there are some serious philosophical and ethical issues addressed throughout the game – but it is told in a more effective way.
You see Connor as a child and walk in his footsteps for decades, and Connor is not a passive character. He isn’t as outspoken as Ezio; he has a moral compass that is continually tested, but remains true. The American Revolution may have become a singular and noble event in our minds, but the truth is far messier, and it was colored by gray more than black or white. That is represented here, which allows for a few shocks and surprises along the way.
Although Ezio’s story was perhaps more intricate, Connor and AC3’s narrative is the strongest in the series. It helps that Desmond’s sections buoy it rather than slow it down as was the case in the past, but the story and setting mesh so well that it presents the best overall story of a series renowned for its stories. It’s also worth mentioning that Lorne Balfe’s score is exceptional.
As much as Connor is the star of AC3, the settings are an equally important character. That might be an overused expression, to attribute a location or setting with a significant portion of the storytelling, but in this case it is apt. Ubisoft Montreal did a magnificent job of packing a lot of world into this game, and it is period accurate (as much as possible in an entertainment medium), which immerses you in the world of that time.
Assassin’s Creed 3 exists in three primary locations: Boston, New York, and the “Frontier,” all of which are shown between 1753 and 1783. There is also a fourth area that you call home, and it does contain missions, but it’s mostly optional how you approach them, and by design it tends to be a place you pass through rather than go.
Each of the three areas is massive. Thankfully fast travel at anytime through the map to specific locations makes navigating the otherwise daunting geography a breeze. Both Boston and New York are packed with side-quests, fights, and historically accurate locations that may seem oddly familiar, but the difference between the places then and now would leave even locals lost.
The third section, Frontier, exists within the same set of rules, but interprets them differently. One of Connor’s most useful and unique traits is his ability to move through nature as easily as the other assassins move through cities. This opens a new world up in terms of gameplay, while the Frontier provides the fodder. You can now hunt and skin animals, which becomes your best source of income early on. This also opens up hunting challenges, although they are usually just something going on in the background (with the exception of a few missions) that you only recognize when an icon notifies you that you completed one, rather than a game like Red Dead Redemption which was designed to nurture an obsessive level of dedication. The Frontier is also where the weather effects are most notable, especially snow, which can hamper your progress, but also leaves trails.
Like all the Assassin’s Creed games, there is a certain amount of repetition. After the repetition-a-go-go that was the original Assassin’s Creed, the developers realized that interesting gameplay mechanics would only take them so far, and to its credit, Ubisoft has continually worked to improve the variety of mission-types in each game. The newest offering for the franchise continues that trend. There are several side-quests that play out like mini-games (things like defend an area from thugs, or beat up a group for info), and those tend to come in threes, but they are only repeated a few times and longer missions are broken up with new ideas. It is an improvement, even if it isn’t a massive one.
So Long, Tower Defense. Don’t Let the Door Hit You on the Way Out
The most important thing to know about Assassin’s Creed III is that it is very much an evolution of its now familiar mold. It does not reinvent the series. If you were not a fan of the gameplay and style of the previous iterations, then this game probably won’t do much to sweeten your disposition towards it. What it does do is take those familiar motifs and shine them where needed while focusing them in others.
You still have the abundance of collectibles, the synchronization through scaling vantage points, and people that need you to deliver their mail, but other familiar institutions – like training assassins and taking Templar controlled forts – are much easier. To send out assassins you can just open a menu at any time, while fort commanders don’t run screaming and force you to return again and again until you can kill them before the scamper. Gone also is the messy tower defense mode. “I absolutely loved that feature in Revelations!” said no one ever.
Also gone are the Tomb Raider-esque explorations Ezio went through – repeatedly – to earn new armor. Instead, there are a series of somewhat similar missions where you search for pieces of a lost treasure map, but instead of a forgotten catacomb, you complete those missions in places like the middle of a British base or a sinking ship. They are shorter as well, which improves the pacing.
Obviously this isn’t a game changer itself, but it is representative of game as a whole. What could be annoying in the previous games may still be there (with a few exceptions like the nixed races, which no one will miss), but they are more streamlined in general and more fun as a result.
The Cut of AC3‘s Jib
One of the big additions comes by way of the high seas, as you can now take command of a ship and engage in naval battles. A few of these are required for the story, but most of these battles are optional. You choose your location – anywhere on the Eastern Seaboard from Canada down through the Caribbean – and then go out to sink your enemy. Some of these missions have you escorting other ships, while others are simply seek and destroy.
The gameplay mechanic is simple enough: you have a swivel gun, the broadside cannons, and you can weigh anchor, find more maneuverability with half sails, or gain speed with full sails – as long as you remain in the wind. The entire mechanic will take minutes to learn, tops, but it is addictive and you’ll be left wanting more.
It may at first feel like there is less content in this game than its predecessors, but that’s simply because the missions have been given more life. Instead of dozens of assassination missions, you may have hunter challenges that have you search a specific area and then kill a wild animal. It really isn’t that much different, but it feels fresh. Instead of several courtesan or mercenary jobs, you now have homestead missions, which improve your settlement and flesh out the character of the inhabitants (as well as helping to unlock certain bonuses like better weapons or more capacity pouches).
The economy has also seen a notable shift, but not necessarily for the better. Considering the last few games have all just been a matter of “buy buy buy” and there’s your economy, this is an improvement in the fact that it at least tries.
When you progress far enough, you can begin to manufacture and sell your own goods that were either crafted in by your settlement or collected by Connor. The more chests you open, the more recipes you can earn as well, which then allows you to craft better goods. Once you have goods, you can then set up a convoy to travel to merchants you have already met. In theory it is a serviceable mini-game, but in practice the menus are awful and counter-intuitive, and sorting through your goods takes patience and determination, which is only moderately rewarded until late in the game. At that point you won’t really need to spend the money you earn on anything. It is a chore, but it’s thankfully one you don’t have to use.
America was Built on Punches to the Face
One of the biggest issues the series has always faced is the combat, which at its peak was still just a game of blocking at the right time and then hitting the right button. The assassinations were fun and the parkour running was generally tight, but there were always questions with the larger scale combat. That is something that has improved with each game, and AC3 is no exception.
It isn’t a total overhaul, but it is a much better system than before. It remains linked to the parry mechanic, but that has now been expanded to include multiple ways to fight back that can then lead into chain kills, which we have seen before. Rather than just hitting the button fast enough, these do require a better sense of timing than before, which makes them more engaging.
You can also use your secondary weapons like the rope dart – a chain linked to a dart that can snare a man and leave him hanged – in the combo, as well as picking up muskets on the fly. These are minor tweaks, but they’re good ones. Linking moves together is smooth and easy, and changing up weapons produces great results. Things like aerial assassinations, jumping from a saddle and hanging kills are all simple to execute as well, and the new tools like the bow and the aforementioned rope dart make nice additions.
Welcome to Abstergo
The multiplayer returns with a few new tweaks and the addition of a new game mode called Wolfpack, a co-op centric mode that has you and three others hunting a group of AI controlled targets to earn kills and additional time to push you to the next sequence, then the next, and on. Since it is time based, it can be over incredibly quickly, and the co-op can lead to a bit of confusion as you all go for the kill, but it is a great game mode for people that have been with the multiplayer from the start.
The traditional game modes return, including team objectives (and a new domination mode) and the now familiar deathmatch, with you’re hunting a character as another hunts you. The AC3 multiplayer isn’t a major change from previous offerings, but there is more of an emphasis on the story of Abstergo now.
The conceit in the multiplayer has always been that you are playing the game as a member of the Templar-controlled Abstergo, which gave it a nice touch of meta. The new content furthers that ideal. It won’t change the way you think of the game, but it should be gravy to the fans of the offering.
If you enjoyed the previous multiplayer, you’ll like this one, if not, this won’t win you over. But with a campaign that is anywhere from 20-40 hours in length, there was no real need to include a multiplayer, and yet it is there, and it works. I’ve always considered it just a bonus to the campaign, and that hasn’t changed.
The Past Can be Ugly
So far my review has been full of justifiable praise, but there is a rub. AC3 is filled with glitches and bugs. More than once I had to restart from a previous checkpoint because an enemy I needed to kill was stuck in a wall. In one instance I managed to join him and we fell through the world together. Missing dialogue, repeated mission briefings that won’t start the mission, and a camera that occasionally sees things that it shouldn’t – like walls instead of you – plague this game occasionally, especially the Desmond sections. The odd chases, especially those on horseback, remain an iffy proposition as well, and they will certainly be the most failed sections.
With a few exceptions though, these glitches are just annoying rather than game ending, and while they are a constant companion, they are also less common than you might expect of such a massive game. They are also inevitable. With luck a few patches will knock most of these out soon.
Ubisoft Montreal took one of the best franchises around and polished it, cut the fat, and created one of the best and most compelling narratives in video games today. With a setting perfect for the ideals that fuel this series and a character that is perfectly suited to bridge the gap between modern sensibilities and the realities of the times, the story is not just an accomplishment for the game, it is an accomplishment for gaming.
There are a few problems throughout, but the narrative and pacing aren’t among them. Sure, AC3 is more akin to a summer Hollywood blockbuster than a powerful indie tearjerker, but it entertains throughout with good historical insight (mostly) and gameplay that makes you feel like a god among men. To top it off, the graphics are among the best ever seen on a console.
If you can overlook the bugs and are already a fan of the gameplay, then Assassin’s Creed III should stand near the top of your “Must Own” list. The Assassin’s Creed series is already one of the best franchises around today, and this is the best, most complete offering yet.
Score: 9.5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360, on a copy provided by the publisher)