Assassin’s Creed III
Capturing a sense of time and place has always been central to the appeal of each Assassin’s Creed. Whether the dusty streets of Masayaf, the canal veined archipelago of Venice or the sun baked Constantinople, each of Ubisoft’s chosen settings has been designed with such a degree of authenticity and historical accuracy (albeit twisted for their narrative purposes), that it’s not uncommon to read stories of tourists being able to make their way around Rome simply from having memorised the map in Brotherhood.
It’s hardly surprising then that with Assassin’s Creed III Ubisoft have absolutely nailed a recreation of 18th century revolutionary America. It’s a sprawling land of open forest, bustling colonial cities and epic naval warfare, filled with wildlife, frontiersmen and Redcoats. Everything from the lengthy reload animation of a period musket, to the recognisable compacting crunch of jumping though waist high snow has been meticulously designed: not since Red Dead Redemption’s Wild West has an American frontier been so fully realised and engrossing.
The burgeoning wooden structures of Boston and New York play similarly to the brick tiled buildings of Europe, albeit with a little less verticality and wider streets. But it’s in the forested areas that we see why Ubisoft consider this worthy of another numbered entry into the series, rather than a subtitled sequel. The pine-valleyed frontier is a technical and visual marvel, and whilst there’s a little too much conveniently angular geometry in service of the series’ trademark free running gameplay, it’s varied enough to weave a convincing illusion. The width, depth and breadth of the New World is a grand ambitious statement of intent from Ubisoft – this is their American epic.
That holds true as far as narrative is concerned, as famous historical moments are woven into the series tradition of having you interact with, and in many cases assassinate, famous historical figures. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Charles Lee are all central to proceedings, and The Boston Massacre, The Battle of Bunker Hill and the signing of the Declaration of Independence serve as contextual scenery for events. It’s a sweeping epic that takes the series in some interesting directions as the morality of the two warring factions are questioned by those on either side – The Templars aren’t painted as pantomime villains anymore, and the actions of the Assassins aren’t necessarily righteous.
All of this is interwoven with the life of a half British, half Native American Iroquois named Connor (or Ratonhnhaké:ton in his tongue), hell bent on taking up the mantle of the Assassins and stopping the destruction of his people and homeland by the revolutionary war. As a primary protagonist Connor lacks the charismatic charm of the Florentine noblemen Ezio Auditore da Firenze, and is stoic to the point of unlikeable arrogance at times, but his tale is the best the franchise has ever told. The game takes its time establishing his origins and motivations, which includes a lengthy section as a teenager, and there’s a long stretch before you even feel the stride of Connor’s weighty stature.
Such meaty scene setting pays dividends as far as the narrative course of Assassin’s Creed III is concerned, but it’s to the detriment of pacing and flow. As a series, Assassin’s Creed is so very synonymous with sprawling open world design that the linearity of the opening 7 – 8 hours is disorientating, and does little to show of the game in its best light. Missions all have a clearly defined correct route of progression, and whilst you can stray from this, there’s little incentive or reason to until you get to the bulk of Connor’s tale. It’s confusing and a little disorientating that gameplay designed around letting players choose their approach in an open world places so many restrictions.
Still, there’s a nice variety to the story based missions throughout, ranging from horseback commanding of troops on the battlefield – boastfully demonstrating AnvilNext’s impressive capacity to realise hundreds of individually animated characters in real-time – to captaining a ship in naval warfare upon stormy waters. Most of these work well, and there’s a spectacle throughout Assassin’s Creed III that is engineered through scale, realism and the odd touch of subtlety rarely found within shallower modern action adventure games.
Desmond’s missions punctuate Connor’s story with the usual convoluted tales of the Animus, The First Civilisation and the pieces of Eden. In narrative terms the modern day Assassin sections are as baffling and unnecessary as ever; only serving to cloud what could have been a well-told historical epic. In terms of gameplay, however, he’s never been better, with his few relatively unobtrusive missions exploring the globe-trotting exploits of a modern-day assassin. Platforming challenges atop skyscrapers and a stealthy assassination taking place in the rafters of a stadium based boxing match are particular highlights.
Desmond’s sections are lean and concentrated, which is more than can be said for Connor’s adventure. Once the extent of Ubisoft’s absorbing frontier opens up there’s such variety of distractions to your main purpose that they lack a little focus and clarity. Liberating Borgia controlled towers in Assassin’s Creed II clearly served the purpose of opening shops and training apprentice Assassins in Brotherhood allowed you to call upon hidden allies at a moment’s notice. Each came full-circle in terms of providing a gameplay benefit, and whilst the same holds true for the most part in Assassin’s Creed III, it’s a little hard to tell what collecting Benjamin Franklin’s almanac pages, or delivering random citizen’s letters truly provides.
Since the repetitive monotony of Assassin’s Creed’s rinse and repeat assassinations, the series has spawned so many side-quests and mini-objectives that it’s hard to keep sight of the purpose that most serve. The ability to develop Connor’s homestead – a peaceful patch of land where Connor and his retired Assassin mentor Achilles base their operation – is the main distraction here, as you can attract craftsman and artisans to settle as neighbours by helping them out. They bring with them some interesting missions, but there’s little incentive or benefit to developing their skills other than the cheaper production of purchasable items, and the sheer complexity of the menu system through which you can craft by combining their wares and your hunted animal skins is simply obfuscating.
Naval sequences provide the most well defined side missions, and are some of the most engaging action moments in videogames this year, thanks to the realism, subtle layers of strategy and sheer spectacle of 18th century naval warfare. The ebb and swell of the beautifully modelled ocean gives a realistic physicality to the creaking, groaning warships, and engaging in battle requires you to balance wind direction, speed, cannon reload times and ammo types, as well as a variety of enemy vessels. For a minor gameplay component it’s deep, thoughtful and brilliantly designed, more Master and Commander than Pirates of the Caribbean.
Throughout, moments like this demonstrate the sheer ambition with which Ubisoft has constructed Assassin’s Creed III. The fact that it pulls it off at times is downright defiant of the technical limitations this generation now poses to games of this ilk. But its strain upon such ageing hardware is evident throughout the game’s DNA. It only takes a floating apple, a crippled frame rate, a stuck horse or an issue with AI path finding to draw you out of the world, or ruin the experience, and they often do.
And just as Assassin’s Creed III pays the price of its own ambition on a technical level, game design issues persist throughout. Main mission objectives can run into a disheartening grind, as getting spotted in a stealth requiring situation ‘desynchronises’ Desmond from the memory of Connor, requiring a restart. It makes sense within the series’ narrative context, but as a gameplay paradigm it feels antiquated. Perhaps the most egregious of all issues are two particular chase sequences that stand out as an abomination of modern videogame design, as badly judged difficulty, a lack of direction and even glitches conspire to frustrate.
Where Connor’s campaign can suffer from a lack of concentration, Assassin’s Creed III’s multiplayer suite all revolves around the series’ unique cat and mouse style of gameplay. It’s refreshingly different from most other multiplayer games out there, but Ubisoft still haven’t quite figured out how to give it depth and longevity. Character progression happens at a snail’s pace, with weapon and ability unlocks occurring so infrequently, they don’t provide the kind of incentive that they should.
Minor improvements to the conveyance of environmental information upon previous iterations benefit these modes immeasurably, as things like the sound of a heart beat indicating line of sight upon your target provide unobtrusive and yet invaluable tactical aids. And there’s a welcome dose of originality, including the exhilarating new co-operative mode Wolf Pack, in which four players team up to take down AI targets against a time limit in the most creative ways possible.
At times Ubisoft threatens to pull off one of the most ambitious games of this generation, at others it threatens to make one of the most frustrating. But much of that frustration is born from the knowledge of just how good Assassin’s Creed III could have been had Ubisoft drawn its reins in and applied a little more polish in both technical and design aspects. Is it a revolution? Sadly not, more a tentative evolution with some inherited and some introduced flaws. But it’s a refreshing, if often troubled step in a bold direction for a franchise whose yearly iterations were beginning to wear thin.