Swinging through the treetops certainly doesn’t seem like a particularly colonial pastime. And yet reviewers seem to love it.
The newest entry in the Assassin’s Creed saga takes to the 18th century and the heart of the American Revolution. Can Boston and New York, in their fledgling states, measure up to Damascus, Rome and Istanbul? How about the forests full of trees and wildlife — are those as thriving a source for intrigue as the courts of Europe’s most powerful political players?
The answers, it would seem, are yes. Though reviewers are mixed about mechanics and can’t help but compare Connor Kenway’s taciturn countenance to Ezio Auditore’s natural charm, the overall feeling is definitely players who would like to keep stabbing their way through history — and perhaps save the world, while they’re at it — would do well to have a look at Assassin’s Creed III.
When it comes to the main missions, you tend to feel like a neutered killer with your path plotted for you, or a glorified stuntman who has to hit the marks in his big action sequence, lest he repeat it over and over. There’s no sense of empowerment in connecting the trivially spaced dots, or walking from one cutscene to the next, or chasing a man in a circle until you take the correct path and tackle him. By the time you get to the assassination, it’s been robbed of any planning or sense of accomplishment.
The social stealth element of Assassin’s Creed was stretched thin in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but it’s almost at its breaking point in Assassin’s Creed 3. Being able to blend into crowds doesn’t cut it anymore — it’s too easy to get caught — and the addition of brush to blend into barely makes up the difference. This is especially problematic during mobile eavesdropping missions, where being spotted or not keeping up will result in automatic failure. But it also makes pulling off perfect assassinations exercises in trial and error.
These are small sections of Assassin’s Creed 3 comparatively speaking, but they are a thumb in the eye of what might be the most ambitious Assassin’s Creed game. It’s so disappointing because everything else is so good.
Assassin’s Creed III is a big game that gives you a lot to do, some of which is fleshed out relatively well, and some of which isn’t. It is not, however, content to rest on the series’ laurels. It takes chances with its opening, with its story, and with its characters. It expands the series’ gameplay in enjoyable and sensible ways. As with many ambitious games, not every arrow fired hits the bull’s-eye, yet this big, narratively rich sequel is easy to get invested in. Other games stimulate emotion with manipulative music and teary monologues; Assassin’s Creed III rouses your mind and your heart by giving you a glimpse into its characters’ souls and letting you judge them on their own merits.
Of course, Connor’s adventure isn’t taking place in the game’s present, and it’s when you climb out of his adventure and back into Desmond’s sci-fi oddity that Assassin’s Creed 3 threatens to falter most. An initial journey to New York to retrieve a First Civilisation artefact is actually quite good — a simple but fun ascent through the inside of a skyscraper — but after that the present-day missions feel like they’ve been made by a different developer entirely (which, come to think of it, they probably have) and do little to advance your interest in Desmond’s antics. Nor does his hot-and-cold relationship with his dippy father. And the game ending itself, bringing five years of tempt and tease to a close, is thoroughly weak.
Assassin’s Creed’s greatest allure has always been melding real history with a conspiracy-laden fiction, and colonial America is rife with moments, personalities, and events worth exploring. Colonial-era Boston and New York are the liveliest and most authentic open cities I’ve encountered in a game, from the squealing pigs to the newsboys hawking papers. The wilderness that separates the two is vast, and filled with plenty to do. Many missions are set in the frontier, and in between those missions you can hunt animals, bring down enemy forts, climb cliffs and trees, and explore hidden caves, just to name a few of many diversions. As an open wilderness zone, the frontier shines, though long runs to mission objectives can get tedious. Everywhere you go exhibits dynamic weather effects, and the world feels more varied and alive as you witness its passage from summer to winter and back again.
Fighting Redcoats or Patriots — yes, Connor is an equal opportunity protagonist who attacks both sides, if warranted — can feel a bit simple at times, but the animations are smooth. There’s a huge variety of movements Connor can take in battle from slashing with a cavalry sword or inserting a hidden blade in the soft skin of an opponent’s neck. Reloading firearms takes too long to rely upon within battle, but it’s incredibly fun to snatch up a musket from a fallen foe, and get off a shot at a charging Redcoat before dropping the unwieldy weapon and dashing into the shadows.
Creed III relentlessly foists busywork on you. Practically every action you can take in the world is recast, within seconds, as the first step in some demeaning meta-quest. If you kill an animal, a text prompt appears with a challenge: “KILL 5 DIFFERENT KINDS OF ANIMAL.” Take a “leap of faith” from a tall tree, and you get “PERFORM 10 LEAPS OF FAITH.” Your reward for completing these scutwork challenges is more of them; once in a while you might get a brief mission.
It’s a reductio ad absurdum of a worrisome attitude in modern game design: the belief that a task becomes entertaining simply by virtue of making it a goal. You see this attitude playing out in the corporate sphere with the execrable “gamification” movement, which attempts to increase productivity among rank-and-file employees by applying game mechanics to their jobs — like, say, giving Joe Punchclock 100 points for filling out his TPS reports on time. Instead of making work rewarding, gamification strives only to make work seem rewarding. In Creed III we come full circle: the gamification of a game.
The title Assassin’s Creed III is a lie insofar as this is the fifth console Assassin’s Creed game. Ubisoft put the number on there to sell the game better and to sell the idea of radical change. The number is earned. The game is not just set in a radically different place at a very different time; the sense of reinvention permeates from the game’s core.
ACIII packs surprises big and small, veers away from habits of the older games, and looks a hell of a lot better than them, too, thanks to a new graphics engine. All things considered, it winds up perhaps not as refined as Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, but far more satisfying and well-crafted than the rough draft of Assassin’s Creed 1. Connor may not have Ezio’s flair, but he has a game that rivals the quality of the Italian’s trilogy. Cautious consumers might want to wait for the inevitable subsequent patches, but those who don’t mind a few cosmetic bugs should have no fear. This is a great game.