The latest installment in the Assassin’s Creed series sums up the highs and lows of the franchise as a whole. It is a wildly fun action-adventure game set in a beautiful and lively open world full of side quests, historic characters, cities where buildings serve as jungle gyms, beastly targets to assassinate, and the ever-growing Templar enemies hungry for power and control. Yet like other games in the series, Assassin’s Creed III is filled with bugs, glitches, often annoying A.I., and a general lack of polish. This is more a new Assassin’s Creed game and not a huge leap of faith into new, surprising territory. Luckily the Assassin’s Creed formula still works, and that new coat of paint in this third numbered game–fifth overall on consoles–is enough to push this beyond Brotherhood and Revelations. It’s not the new story, the multiplayer, the additions to gameplay, the new tools and weapons, the new cast, the new world, or the new protagonist that breathe fresh life into the series, though. It’s the fact developer Ubisoft Montreal gets one thing exceedingly right: The sense of place. Colonial America is easily the best setting to date out of all the Assassin’s Creed games, and the new half-English half-Native-American protagonist is likely to give Ezio a run for the "biggest stud" award. And even if the game is delivered with some major bugs and graphic issues, it is sure to impress wanna-be assassins and offer a nearly endless blueprint for Ubisoft to unload mounds of new downloadable content in the months to come.
Assassin’s Creed III once again revolves around Desmond Miles, his father, and a pair of nerds dedicated to preventing some Mayan-predicted disaster. I poke fun at this story because it’s silly and only serves to connect the Assassin’s Creed games. There are likely people out there that want to see what happens outside the Animus–the piece of technology that allows Desmond to essentially go back in time to his ancestors–but for my liking, all games are best when replaying history, not the modern arch. If you’ve been looking for more answers to the modern story, you’ll get more information through Assassin’s Creed III. The game is split into sequences, all with their own missions. You’ll get optional objectives throughout those missions, as well. All of this, again, largely takes place while Desmond is in the Animus and in the boots of his ancestor.
This new ancestor is far less arrogant than Ezio but not quite as smooth. However, he plays just like the other protagonist and when suited up in the iconic white cloak and hood, he looks like a champ. The protagonist, Connor–the half-English and half-Native-American– is embroiled in a conflict with European colonists as he fights to protect his tribe and home. There is way more to this story, but as Assassin’s Creed III is heavy on the narrative, I’ll hold off on any major spoilers. It should be noted that the intro–the first several sequences–are slow, almost painfully slow. I understand Ubisoft approached this intro as a way to set up the rest of the game, but it wasn’t not until the big reveal that I actually cared what was happening.
Colonial America is an absolute dream for a setting. Cities like Boston and New York are filled to the brim with European influences while the frontier land is largely dominated by native tribes. Ubisoft did a solid job casting voice actors to fill the variety of main characters and general citizens. The English sound English, the French sound French, and the natives, well, that may be the one area that misses the mark. At times that natives sound either overly stereotypical, or overly simplistic. Some of the early levels that show young natives do a good job of introducing players to the wilderness and stress the importance natives place on harmony for all living things. Back in the cities, it’s a rough place for anyone, especially someone that could come across as a native–although he’s often described as some European colonist, maybe Spanish, for example. The buildings are not quite as grand as those in other Assassin’s Creed games, and I still believe Rome and Florence are the best cities in the series, but that’s not to say Colonial cities are lame. Venturing outside cities to places like Lexington and Concord provides the game with an interesting mix of forts, cities, frontier land, and smaller towns.
There is a lot to do outside the main campaign, and the side story surrounding Connor rebuilding the Assassin’s homestead is pretty massive. You’ll go through several quests and work with characters to purchase and sell items to build up your homestead. This is a fairly simplistic system that allows you to make money, but it’s also pretty deep and worth your time–but not a lot of it. You can also create a band of merry assassins by recruiting people in cities and turning them against the English. You can also unlock tunnels in the cities that allow you to fast travel much easier than in past games. Cities are also home to nearly endless side quests and random fun objectives. The more you play these side quests, though, the more you may realize they generally fill the purpose of something-to-do, as opposed to providing the player some great reward. The obligatory go-find-this is alive and well in Assassin’s Creed III as you look for feathers, pages of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac, and chests. You can also play games with random characters, which helps add to the sense of place for the era.
One of the largely touted additions in Assassin’s Creed III is naval battles. You’ll take the helm of ship and call out orders to fire cannons or a smaller gun, and tell your crew to duck and cover when attacked. The ship handles surprisingly well, considering it’s a boat. You can use your boat to travel long distances, but when a battle breaks out you enter a sort of cat and mouse game. Look to make deliberate maneuvers as you protect your crew and deal the deadly blow to your enemy’s vessel.
Back on land, Connor is equipped with an assortment of weapons and tools used to hunt animals and enemies. Yes, hunting has its place in Assassin’s Creed III, but it’s used much in the same way as hunting in Red Dead Redemption. You can trap bunnies with snares, shoot dear and foxes with your bow and arrow, or wrestle and cleave bears and elk with your hands and a tomahawk. There are even more weapons that come in handy when fighting humans, including dual hidden assassin blades, guns, a rope-dart, and swords. They all have their place in different settings. For example, when tracking a group or Red Coats, Connor can perch in a tree, quietly throw a rope-dart at a soldier to hang him from a tree, leap down with his hidden blades onto two startled enemies, do a few twirls to slice up more baddies, then finally shoot your main target with your pistol.
Connor is as nimble as his predecessors as he free runs through city streets, on roofs, leaping across tree limbs, and climbing cliffs. In fact, free running is more refined than past games and rarely will you get tripped up trying to run around a building instead of up it. The system of free running in the woods is also a blast. Lines are loosely drawn to give the player some direction when navigating the tree line, and you’ll have more than one option, too.
Combat in Assassin’s Creed III is smooth and offers several options for the player. The system has some tweaks, but it’s very much in line with other Assassin’s Creed games. One button is your primary attack, another serves as a block and counter, while another is tied to your secondary weapon–like your pistol, for example. An indicator above an enemy’s head let’s you know he’s about to attack so you properly time a block and counter. Hand-to-hand combat plays a lot like that in other brawlers, like Batman: Arkham City, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable. That could be because A.I. for both enemies and allies, is off. Sometimes allies will run into walls and keep running, while enemies will crowd around Connor for a fight, but just stand there and watch. Other times enemies crowded around Connor will all fight at once, resulting in that crowd of baddies running into each other and making something of a mess.
Some of those allies and enemies include historic figures, including Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, William Prescott, Paul Revere, and Charles Lee. It’s important to note that the game spans many years, and is set before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. This is obviously historical fiction, but Assassin’s Creed III does include some real life events, like the Boston Tea Party. History buffs may get a kick out of the retelling of history, but the rest of us will just give a "hey, I know that!" smile when they meet someone they learned about in school and take part in events borrowed from text books.
Character models are generally fantastic. In fact, the game overall is gorgeous. That is, it’s mostly gorgeous. There are times during cutscenes where the faces of characters look muddy, where lip syncing is painfully bad, and textures take too long to properly set in place. Those are the basic issues associated with the game’s graphical shortcomings. The draw distance seems far too small considering the world is so wonderfully designed. The enormity of bugs is also upsetting (note that this is even after the patch). At one point a character I was talking to while on a carriage simply disappeared, yet Connor kept talking and looking in their general direction. At another time the screen flickered black and white, and another time a horse was standing on a wagon. Worse bugs caused issues with some quests. For example, one quest has you follow someone, and when the person says "hey, come follow me," he simply stands there with a dumb look on his face.
Long load screens and confusing menus also add to the overall frustration and lack of refinement in Assassin’s Creed III. As an overall package, it’s solid, but it’s loosely held together and it’s clear it needed another six months or so to work on these issues, both large and small.
Multiplayer offers yet more things to do in Assassin’s Creed III. The new cooperative Wolfpack mode allows up to four players to fight as a team against increasingly difficult enemies in a set time frame. The more you kill, the more time you’ll get. There’s also the modes that allow you to compete in king of the hill, deathmatches, and capture-the-flag style play. As you earn points in multiplayer, you can unlock new abilities and stories.
Assassin’s Creed III is deeper than I had time to cover here, and that’s a good thing. There is simply so much to do and see that it’s hard not to recommend this title, even to someone completely new to the assassins on-going battle against the Templars. However, it’s also a game filled with problems that detract from the otherwise solid premise. Bugs, graphic glitches, lack of polish, and poor enemy A.I. all add up frustration, and just because a game has a lot to do, doesn’t mean it’s held together very well. However, if you want to step back in time and play a solid stealth action-adventure game, Assassins’ Creed III is a great fit. There is simply so much content here that it would be a shame not to check this out.