Another year, another Assassin’s Creed game. One of the most common concerns of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is that a game a year is a very tough job to pull off – and the added worry of making each game sufficiently different is the first thing on ever gamer’s mind. Based on my opinions of Revelations last year my feelings when picking this up were mixed to say the least.
Following on from events in the last game, Desmond Miles (the series protagonist for your newbies) and his cohorts are trying to prevent the Mayan 2012 Apocalypse – which is real, by the way.
Guided by the First Civilisation, Desmond and company are travelling the globe, searching for artefacts which may help to thwart the end of the world, all the while being stalked and taunted by the modern Templars who are ignoring the looming Armageddon and concentrating on being a bunch of dicks. The lion’s share of work requires Desmond to enter the Animus machine, penetrating another assassin-ancestor’s genetic memories.
Your ancestor this time is the half-mohawk, half-British Ratonhnhaké:ton. If the name seems confusing, fear not as in one of the first chapters our character is advised to adopt a nom-de-plume to ward off anti-native sentiment – and so he goes by the name of Connor for the rest of the game.
An interesting point before we go on; In previous games the protagonist’s name has been related to eagles (both Altaïr and Ezio roughly mean eagle in Arabic and Italian respectively) but Connor’s Mohawk name refers more to his struggle for survival and literally means “life that is scratched”. Even the name Connor is associated with wolves rather than eagles and it seems strange to me to abandon an otherwise charming detail to the series.
The story is fairly strong, this time set in colonial America in the years running up to – and including the Revolutionary War. The story focuses on the relationship between several parties, all hoping to achieve different goals from the war. Of the parties involved we have the usual Assassins and Templars but also included are the two warring factions of British Redcoats and the revolting Patriots. The Patriots want independence from the crown, the British want control of their land; the Assassins and Templars however have goals of their very own and will utilise either party to achieve their goals. Apparently there is mention of the Freemasons in there – which in my opinion would be a brilliant storytelling angle due to the masonic conspiracy surrounding the Declaration on Independence – but no real mention is made so that’s a lost opportunity there. A particularly impressive element in the writing however is that this isn’t a simple story of Red vs. Blue; the Templars seem to be playing both sides to their advantage and the Assassins are no better, manipulating sentiment and creating conflicts to hide their true intentions. Whilst this should play off as a clever blurring of the lines like a John le Carré book, it can in fact become just a muddy grey mire, with the player easily becoming lost in a complex and labyrinthine story. To say nothing about the ambition of Ubisoft Montreal with the scale and scope of this tale would be remiss; as usual Corey May and his writing team have gone to great lengths to imbue a sense of verisimilitude to the story by including famous figures from history like Samuel Adams and George Washington , but perhaps the twisting narrative and the varying shades of grey politics is a little self-indulgent.
One of the strongest elements to any Assassin’s Creed game is the relationship between the protagonist and his timeline. In the first game we saw Altaïr fighting during the Third Crusade to liberate the Holy Land from the tyrannical grip of the Knight’s Templar; the second game featured Ezio struggling against the corrupt Borgia family in their attempt to sieze control of the Church in Renaissance Italy. In this we have a Native American Mohawk brave, who is inducted into the Assassins; on the one had he’s tasked with killing various high-ranking Templar agents, on the other hand he’s obligated to protect his village from the marauding colonists. Whilst the enemies on two fronts feel is frantic and exciting, I feel that Connor doesn’t really have any real identity or place in the world and that stopped me connecting with the character like I did with the previous assassins. Connor’s character is that of a boisterous young pup, his anger and arrogance have none of the cool distance that Altaïr exuded and he is missing the swaggering braggadocio of Ezio, qualities which I enjoyed in both characters. Perhaps it’s a personal preference, but I failed to connect with Connor’s story based on those factors.
One point which Ubisoft have been very proud of is the technology shoehorned into this game. The game’s engine has been re-built and dubbed AnvilNext (opposed to the previous games’ Anvil); the technology allows for greater accuracy when free-running, additional environmental effects and depict a great many more characters on-screen (two thousand in fact, compare to Revelations’ one hundred). This new technology, along with some staggeringly good physics integration has led to new additions in the form of boat sailing, naval conflict and epic infantry battles. The words on the tin don’t quite seem to match the ingredients however. The freerunning is certainly better in many places – If you watch our initial opinions video I state that the controls feel tighter than any previous Assassin’s Creed game. This is true – the controls are sharper and are missing that rubbery feel of the previous games, where the player’s direction was taken as more of a suggestion than a command. In Assassin’s Creed III the gamer’s input is seemingly considered absolute. It’s a bit of a mixed opinion from me as five games down the line I’m pretty used to the way I like to control my assassin – the changes are actually quite jarring and that “softening up” security blanket being removed may leave you feeling cold and vulnerable. That said – the game is sometimes guilty of repeating the same sins of its forebears; oftentimes pushing forward whilst freerunning is a gamble – it’s a coin-toss as to whether Connor will travel forward or pike off on a right-angle and plummet to his doom. To be fair we’re too far down the line now to be marking the games down for this and it does admittedly happen a great deal less.
One thing that is a great big mark down is the invidious horse control. Every game has included horses – they are as endemic to the gameplay as the hidden blade or the eagle-shaped hood. In this game though, the horses are garbage. Controlling these horses is harder than peeing with a hard-on; you’ve got more luck getting a real horse to use an Xbox controller than you do controlling these equine devils – push forward to jump over a log and you’re rolling a die: he could go left, he could go right; he might stop altogether. On some occasions he may just glitch out and go into a horsey epileptic fit while neighing madly.
Whilst not necessarily a bad thing, the extra missions actually eluded this reviewer until the metaphorical 11th hour loomed. Until the very last stages of the game, I was unaware that assassins could be hired or that naval missions could be embarked on. Sure, a quick look at the achievement / trophy list would reveal achievements related to those very things but the previous games wove their secondary missions neatly into the fabric of the game. Assassin’s Creed III seems to put the onus on getting through the main campaign; utilising your band of recruited assassins or their unique skills is never required and so is not something the gamer need spend time on. Much like in the last two games recruiting assassins, sending them away on missions and building their stats is a part of the gameplay herein, but this seems to have taken a backseat somewhat and if you’re not careful it would be easy to miss these wholesale. The fact that these – and the copious side quests – have no impact on the game proper in any sense reduces their sense of worth. They’re really only there for the completist, the scorewhore and the obsessive compulsive and that fact saddens me.
Combat has been overhauled significantly in this release, almost to the point where one feels as though they’re playing a wholly different game. The controls in general have been streamlined to the nth degree – gone is the system of controlling each area of the assassin’s body, the game now opts for a more traditional control scheme and this is something which is jarring at first. Assassin’s Creed veterans will find adjustment has a learning curve of its very own – parrying, blocking and other combat moves have been moved to a different button and expect to take more than a few jabs to the torso before you get to grips with the new system. In all, the new way is pretty respectable (although I wouldn’t say it was better than previous titles) especially parrying, which now slows time down slightly to allow the player to choose one of several options. Choosing whether to throw, to execute or to disarm your opponent becomes key in the later stages of the game as different enemy types are immune to different moves – learning your opponents’ weaknesses is key to survival. Dramatic aphorisms aside, once the gamer is settled in this new system it’s likely Connor can take on twenty or thirty enemies at a time and still walk away.
Extra additions in this edition are the inclusion of ship-to-ship naval warfare and the epic battlefields of the American Revolution. The former of the two is a fun minigame if nothing else, having the player control Connor at the wheel of his ex-Navy vessel, the Aquila (aah, there’s the Eagle reference!), fighting pirates and redcoats with cannon fire and the occasional boarding action. In truth these sections are really fun; firing a full broadside of grapeshot into an enemy schooner or blowing the powder reserves of a Navy man-o-war with an accurate shot from the swivel gun is great fun time and again – the Aquila can even be upgraded to fire different shot types and make her better suited to demolish the various ship types. This reviewer feels it is a shame that less emphasis was placed on these missions and in fact the overall naval campaign is pretty otiose in the grand scheme of things.
The large-scale infantry battles are fairly impressive. Crossing a battlefield thousands of men strong without getting hit is a genuine challenge and later stages of the game see Connor in command of troops and artillery, which adds to the story but ultimately draws away from the gameplay. A section where Connor is on horseback riding between posts of riflemen, giving the order to fire is one of the most boring missions on any game I’ve played, let alone an Assassin’s Creed game. However in the latter stages of the game where Connor is knee-deep in the fighting the game comes into its own; Connor is soon visibly drenched in the blood of his enemies – his once-white robes dyed a deep crimson hue and his tomahawk slick with brain matter – something which is a fantastic visual reminder of Connor’s kampf.
In terms of the visuals in general, this game is far-and-away the best looking Assassin’s Creed game yet. AnvilNext has done a great job of rendering gorgeous locales, incredible pastoral landscapes and some of the most impressive humanoids in any game released. Not only does the scenery look good but it has function as well as form; as the seasons roll on and lakes freeze over, Connor is able to each new areas by walking on the thick New York ice; snow becomes a genuine barrier as both men and dogs are slowed down by it whilst Connor is able to scale trees – a brilliant feature than shows his superior skillset. The wilderness is a whole new thing in fact with Connor able to track, hunt and kill animals in the wild and this alone may see the gamer enjoying this bucolic gameplay more than the city. The very fact that these incredible winter vistas can be depicted so full and detail-rich but also such incredible care and attention has been lavished on the human characters speaks volumes of the scope of this production. The facial animation is some of the finest on show this generation; emotional ranges and lip-synched speech is near-perfect with each character shining through – not only in the voice acting but in the performance capture and animation to boot. The HumanIK for which Assassin’s Creed is famous has taken a rather drastic turn in this title. Not only do our assassins’ hands intelligently grasp for handhelds as in previous games – the feet now do so as well. This sounds like a good idea on paper but in practise has our protagonists camply mincing around the screen trying to touch everything with their feet, a phenomenon dubbed “Spaghetti legs” by our very own Raff.
As in my Revelations review, the most significant difference in Assassin’s Creed III is not what has been put in, but rather what has been taken away. A significant amount of Assassin’s Creed cornerstones have been removed in this game and the game has been left lacking for it. Perhaps the intention was to streamline the experience; Revelations attempted this and in my review it succeeded in making a fast-paced game that was still full of enough extra content to warrant spending some time on. In this third instalment we see the removal of anything like the assassin tombs or the Romulus lairs from previous games and these fairly combat-free, exploration missions were some of the most well-designed and original parts of previous titles. In their stead we have Redcoat forts which must be stormed – almost always ending in a thorough and bloody massacre – and handed over to Patriot control. Fun they may be but I found them invidious to say the least.
As well as missing my much-loved ziplines a more significant loss has been made and that’s the animus hidden-data minigames. Again, these were the very quiddity of the Assassin’s Creed series – the idea of delving deeply into the animus, into Desmond’s mind or into Subject 16 have been a huge draw for fans but are completely eschewed in this game, much to the detriment of the franchise. The bleeding effect it mentioned in passing, as if Ubisoft themselves forgot it was a plot hook they invented.
In closing, too much opportunity has been wasted on this game. The ending is frankly awful and the last three hours of the game are practically all cutscenes and QTEs. All decision and choice has been removed and the finale of Desmond’s story does not to justice to the franchise. The game is neither outstandingly bad, but nor is it remarkably good. After completing the game, this reviewer feels empty and apathetic. Connor’s epilogue is twee and certainly makes up for the banal final chapter of what should have been my favourite gaming franchise of the last decade.