Developer: Ubisoft Montreal / Publisher: Ubisoft / Played On: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99 / ESRB: Mature [Blood, Intense Violence, Sexual Themes, Strong Language]
Few games have shown as much care for their settings as Assassin’s Creed. But last year’s Revelations felt like the series stuck to its 15th Century European backdrop for one game too long, especially considering the narrative flexibility to travel anywhere.
Assassin’s Creed 3 is a much-needed dramatic departure for the franchise, moving it to the East Coast of 18th Century America during the bloody Revolutionary War with Britain. Ubisoft Montreal really takes advantage of this setting with a strong story tied to the important themes of this historically significant era – government, expansion, independence – and a new protagonist, Connor Kenway, the most relatable the series has seen. But for all the strides made here, this is an Assassin’s Creed game with few gameplay refinements to the established mechanics.
Assassin’s Creed 3 continues the grand tale of the endless war between the ancient factions, the Templars and the Assassins. The actual protagonist here is modern day Assassin Desmond Miles, a young and reluctant hero who fights and prepares for this war by experiencing the memories of his Assassin ancestors through a time travel device called the Animus.
That’s the basics, anyway. While some might argue Brotherhood and Revelations were filler games probably not part of the original Assassin’s Creed narrative roadmap, they contained enough exposition to make you overwhelmed if you jump blindly into Assassin’s Creed 3. Heck, even if you HAVE played those games you may be lost organizing the esoteric plot details of an ancient alien race who were the first civilization on Earth, and their powerful devices known as the Apples of Eden.
But aside from being a bit too convoluted for its own good, I’ve always found it difficult to remain invested in Desmond’s story because of how infrequently he is made the centerpiece. As with the previous games in the series, the bulk of the story here follows one of Desmond’s forbears. In this case it’s Connor, a half-British, half-Native American who discovers his goal of protecting his village from the newly arrived and overly aggressive foreign settlers is intertwined with this ancient war.
It probably says something that despite the predestined nature of Connor’s story, I was completely invested in it. This is in large part to Connor himself. He’s a flawed and relatable character. After his mother is killed in a village raid at a young age, he develops an unquenchable desire for revenge. But he soon finds himself out of his comfort zone in the cities of fledgling America.
His is a perspective of innocence and naïveté. At one point he is framed for inciting the Boston Massacre. When Sam Adams explains that he must tear down wanted posters featuring his face, Connor asks why they can’t just go to the proper authorities and alert them it’s a misunderstanding. This ignorance often borders on endearing.
But Connor is also intelligent. And his outsider’s perspective just as frequently acts as an interesting vessel for social commentary. It’s no mistake that Connor is half-Native American. Even among the newly free people of America, he is an oppressed minority. He recognizes the hypocrisy of revolutionists like Ben Franklin who cry for freedom and independence while at the same time keeping slaves.
The Assassin’s Creed games have consistently shown reverence for their detailed settings. Assassin’s Creed 3 may be one of the first games in which your enjoyment of it will be directly proportional to how much attention you paid in American History class. In many ways, Connor becomes “the guy that the history books forgot.” You meet and ride with Paul Revere and witness the signing of the Declaration of Independence. You throw tea into Boston Harbor and hear the phrase “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” uttered during the Battle of Bunker Hill. The understanding and appreciation of this time period really drives home the believability and authenticity of the narrative.
While a much more likeable character than Ezio Auditore, Connor’s bag of tricks for assassinating the high-ranking Templar officials that have infiltrated the British Empire (and just about anyone else that makes the mistake of being his enemy) are mostly on par with his Italian counterpart’s. Connor, of course, wields the now iconic set of hidden blades for stealthily and brutally eliminating targets and, when the game allows it, he can remain hidden among crowded streets or plant life in the less populated areas. He can use poison blades for slower kills or blast enemies in the face with his pistol.
Connor is also just as limber as his Italian ancestor. He’s able to scale massive towers and thick forests with quickness and ease. Streamlined traversal through the always-contextual nature of his movement and actions is what makes the flow of the free running feel so good (well, that and the unsung environmental designers). By simply running at an object or wall (while holding the right trigger) you start to climb it. Combat has also been streamlined a bit. When confronted with hostiles, Connor will automatically lock on to one of them. A majority of your kills in this situation will still come from countering. This slows down time for a split second, allowing you to choose between one of the face buttons, each of which corresponds to a different action: you can disarm, throw, use your item, and attack. It doesn’t fix the wait-react nature of combat that has plagued the series but it does add some speed and fluidity.
It’s quite a feat to make a game with very complex controls easy to navigate. But it’s a double-edged blade. It’s now easier than ever for the game to misinterpret your intentions; the margin of error is often unreasonable. It doesn’t get more frustrating than being in the middle of chase scene and having Connor dive into a pile of hay or auto-lock on an enemy and enter his fight stance when you don’t want him to.
Feature creep began to plague Assassin’s Creed but this third installment really trims the fat. There’s no bomb building or tower defense (which were introduced in Revelations). And the Assassin’s Guild system returns but is definitely less intrusive. All of this helps to focus the experience. However, Ubisoft Montreal overcorrects in spots leaving some obvious holes that really diminish the value of their optional content.
Most notably, Assassin’s Creed 3’s lack of difficulty curve and character progression sort of nullifies the need to engage in any of this optional content. You can undertake housing missions to acquire craftsmen in your homestead who can then use the materials you acquire from hunting animals in the Frontier to make items which can be sold via envoys you can send out. But why?
Frankly, there’s very little to spend this money. Purchasing new melee weapons and pistols is an option but I made it through almost the entire game with the set I started with, making Assassin’s Creed’s metgame economy kind of meaningless. That said, some of the optional content is worth checking out simply because it’s enjoyable. The hunting reaches Red Dead Redemption levels of addictiveness; it’s really to easy to get side tracked chasing down animals.
And if you haven’t seen by now, naval battles are introduced in Assassin’s Creed 3. There are a handful of mandatory battles on the high seas, but also optional ones if you’re interested, and they are awesome. Piloting a huge war ship with sluggish maneuverability in a big open sea battle is fun in a way that I can only compare to a space combat sim.
It speaks volumes about the art direction of Assassin’s Creed 3 that, given the option, I almost always chose to journey on-foot or by horse rather than fast travel. You split your time between the now historically unmistakable brick-based architecture of 18th Century Boston and New York, and the barely settled wildlife-filled Frontier. Both are amazingly well realized in a way that enhances the authenticity of Assassin’s Creed 3’s narrative, and the juxtaposition of these two distinct areas enforces the themes of settlement and expansion. The era and setting have never been so well explored in videogames, which is a large reason why it’s such a stand-out.
A small but dedicated following has developed around Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer since its introduction in Brotherhood, and with good reason. The core hide-and-seek concept is consistent with what’s appealing about the mechanics of the single-player game but in a player-versus-player arena. After three games to iterate on this formula, it’s solid but is still in its infancy.
The most worthwhile mode is still Manhunt in which two teams of four players with identical character models switch between attempting to remain hidden and hunting those who are hiding. You’ve got to balance trying to act like an AI-controlled character with knowing when to take advantage of opportunities to kill or run when they arise, without outing yourself. I also enjoyed my time with Artifact Assault, which takes this core concept and integrates Capture the Flag.
Wolf Pack is the first co-operative mode in the Assassin’s Creed universe. I can understand the genesis but it fails to capitalize on what’s appealing about Assassin’s Creed multiplayer. Up to four players enter a map, each with a different AI target. The more coordinated and synced players are with their assassination timing, the more points they receive. Points will advance your sequence and give you more time to take out your next targets. Communication with your teammates is obviously important here but hiding from and assassinating AI targets is just simply not as fun as humans.
There have been five proper Assassin’s Creed games released in the last six years. This makes it all the more impressive that Ubisoft manages to deliver a worthwhile experience in Assassin’s Creed 3. There’s a certain amount of diminishing returns on the mechanical evolutions made but the fresh, authentic setting along with a brand new protagonist go along way in rekindling the fire.
+ Well realized 18th Century America
+ Streamlined Mechanics
- Familiar Control Issues
8.5 / 10