Review: Assassin’s Creed III

AssassinsCreedIII

Making its fourth annual release–the fifth main game but only the third numbered title–Assassin’s Creed III has been released with the promise of a new setting, main character and a chance at resolution to Desmond’s story.  Annualized games don’t usually fit in my wheelhouse, yet I am a sucker for the Assassin’s Creed games. Part of the appeal is the historic setting and the wide range of things to do in the open world.  Another draw is the ability to dispatch enemies in so many different ways and feeling like a total badass while taking down despicable Templars who are abusing their power. But what always keeps me begging for more is the incredibly well crafted characters and story. Assassin’s Creed III is no exception when it comes to storytelling, but there are some hurdles to overcome this time around which sadly makes the game harder to enjoy.

Annualized games have a rhythm and pacing that returning gamers come to expect.  Not changing out many of the mechanics means familiar gamers can jump right in and play.  However, the problem with a high profile game like Assassin’s Creed is the huge marketing push to draw in new gamers to the title, and the potential for new players all but demands a lengthy tutorial process.  Tutorials done right can feel like a very natural part of the overall story without breaking the pacing or waving flags to indicate that players should pay attention.  With a game like AC3, striking the balance of front loading the first two or three hours with tutorials while moving the story along is a delicate challenge.  The reward loop of doing something new, gaining abilities, and making those abilities relevant to the continuing story needs to keep players wanting more.

In AC3 this reward loop is handled fairly well, as new abilities are added every few missions on into the seventh or eighth hour of gameplay (depending on your play style of course).  While this slower introduction isn’t a bad thing, the long term reward from some of the later game abilities would have been really handy earlier in the game.  There are two such side mission rewards that aren’t truly beneficial until almost too late in the game, one being the reintroduction of the assassin mentor relationship, and the other the ability to build up Connor’s homestead.

Brotherhood first introduced the idea that other assassins would take sides with Ezio and help fight if combat got too overwhelming.  In AC3, apprentice assassins become available to aid Connor but only after spending fairly large amounts of time clearing out Templar influenced sections of Boston and New York. The apprentice assassins offer new abilities such as provoking riots, assassinating a specific target or, my favorite, covert escort, where the other assassins dress in Redcoat uniforms and pretend to hold Connor captive as a prisoner so guards will step aside without confrontation.  After completing the initial mission that introduces the apprentice functionality the map throws up all of the potential missions to unlock further apprentices, but the game does a poor job of explaining all of the advantages of what the apprentices can offer.  Instead the map simply indicates there is something to do and once all of the icons for a given area are cleared the apprentice assassin is made available.  To add to the game’s overall inconsistency, some of the icons don’t appear until Connor walks past a trigger point, while others show up immediately.

While I have some similar issues with developing Connor’s homestead, they aren’t quite the same. Throughout the game world, homestead icons appear indicating some type of mission that relates to building or continuing a storyline.  The various homestead story missions can at times feel like basic fetch quests, while others require actual skills of an assassin–but all help to highlight individuals and their struggles with plying a craft in a young and volatile developing nation. Through many of these homestead missions, Connor’s strength, determination and caring for equality for all truly shines.  The narrative associated with the homestead is compelling enough that I found myself getting sidetracked by all of the secondary missions instead of dealing with Connor’s main quest.  As the homestead grows, crafting items by way of the homesteaders’ various occupations becomes a smaller system within the game.

As recipes are unlocked (through opening chests hidden in forts or randomly in the streets of Boston or New York), crafting becomes a means for making money as well as a way to complete tertiary item collection quests.  There are two problems with crafting in my opinion.  First off, the crafting interface does a poor job explaining how the system actually works.  Spending a few minutes within any of the recipes, I was able to figure out what to do; however, between no obvious tool tips and small icons for required ingredients, the crafting system is something that feels cobbled together with very minimal intent for interaction by a gamer for any length of time.

The second problem is a matter of usability.  Recipes are broken down by subgroups and within each subgroup are specific items (gold rings or belt buckles are found in metalworking, spools of thread or blank paper are found in materials, etc).  If a recipe calls for a specific item that is currently unavailable, that item is highlighted in red.  But the icon is so small that in order to identify what it is, the onscreen cursor needs to be moved to highlight the unavailable item.  Once the item has been identified, that particular recipe needs to be selected, yet switching back to the recipe selection menu always brings the navigation back to the top of list.

It is a minor complaint, but spending any real amount of time with the crafting system feels like it takes twice as long to have to re-navigate back to whichever sub category the recipe calls for, scroll through all of that category’s selections, craft the item, then back out to craft a new item only to have to start from the top, scroll back through all of the categories, find the correct recipe and craft what was first intended.  Crafting would have been more useful had Ubisoft designed it to remember the last place a menu item was at instead of forcing the player to re-scroll through pages of categories and recipes. Fortunately, crafting is a fairly inconsequential part of the game, so enough griping about that.

As the marketing push for AC3 has indicated, this latest installment is set in both densely populated cities as well as large sections of wild forest frontier lands.  In the previous games, running along rooftops and jumping between buildings was not only cool to watch but it made for a wonderfully fast way to travel from one point to another.  City running returns of course, but the parkour style tree running while out in the frontier is truly a fun and wonderful thing to do.  Obviously not all trees are perfectly lined up in the same way a city block is structured, but the development team clearly put great care in designing and placing trees throughout the frontier to give the environment a natural look and feel, all the while providing Connor with a fun, exhilarating pathway to acrobatically navigate twenty feet up in the trees.  What would seem impossible, plays fantastically and is definitely one of the more enjoyable aspects to the game.

When there isn’t an obvious path for tree running, Connor can call on a horse to appear and help him move quickly through the frontier.  Sadly, the horse is not as deft of hoof as Connor is with his feet as too often you will be galloping along at a fast clip to suddenly be stopped by a rock barely jutting out of the ground.  Navigation by horse is nowhere near as fun or as quick as tree running.

Having such a large frontier to explore and complete various missions in requires faster travel (either by tree or horse), but when those options won’t cut it, there is a fast travel option from the map menu.  Unfortunately, fast travel only occurs to specific points on the map.  In the frontier fast travel can be made to the forts, which are in three corners, as well as to the icons marking New York, Boston, the Homestead or a Naval pier. For some inexplicable reason, fast traveling to one of the cities doesn’t actually take Connor to that city, but rather relocates Connor to the edge of the map where the player then has to walk the ten feet or so to trigger the game to load up the city.  While this isn’t a big deal, it just seems silly to indicate fast travel to a city, switch to a loading screen and then put Connor right in front of the zone line which then brings up another loading screen before the actual city is available to walk around in.

One of the fast travel locations I mentioned is to a naval pier, where you can talk to a harbor master and embark on secondary naval missions.  Just as tree walking is a finely implemented new addition to the series, so too are the naval missions.  Ranging from escort missions to narrowly navigating tight rocky passages to full on ship-on-ship warfare, the naval missions add a fantastic new gameplay mechanic that is both simple to learn and a blast to play.  Upgrades can be purchased to increase hull integrity, rudder response, as well as switch the type of ammo used to provide a unique tactical experience while commanding a massive gunship.

If the dual storyline with Connor and Desmond, naval warfare, hunting in the frontier and collecting loads of Ben Franklin’s almanac pages isn’t enough, there is also a full multiplayer component to easily get drawn into. The premise for multiplayer is the same as the previous AC games. Players pick an avatar and then must carefully blend in with computer controlled citizens which look the same as the player. Playing cat and mouse, moving slowly and getting a kill while incognito earns more points versus a straight out run and stab approach that is more reminiscent of modern military shooters. Multiplayer is pretty well diversified and balanced for all styles of play too. Points can be earned for subtle kills, but points can also be accrued for not being killed and successfully tricking opponents into killing a civilian instead of you. Banked points can then be spent to unlock an alternative storyline created about Abstergo in addition to physical appearance modifiers and perks and relics which can be used to perform decoy maneuvers.

I know that I’ve spent a large amount of this review highlighting smaller aspects of the game (both good and bad) without spending any real time with the story. That’s done on purpose because honestly, I’m a little torn by how the overall storyline develops.  While yes, there is a resolution to Desmond, it is by no means the resolution, because then Ubisoft wouldn’t have an annual game to go back to.  I’m not disappointed by the way Desmond’s story comes to an end with this game, I just wish there were more than what was presented.  In some ways I feel the same way about Connor’s time during the Revolution.

Another strange plot development occurs right from the start. When the game first begins, players aren’t in control of Connor, but rather Haytham, a seasoned, well connected British fellow sent to America to look for the same thing that Desmond in modern times is looking for.  Because of this, and the steady flow of early tutorials, the first few hours are a bit slow. At no point during Ubisoft’s pre-release hype machine did Haytham make an appearance, so when the game begins with you playing as a character different from the new hero that’s the face of the game it’s hard not to be thrown off a bit.  While I understand how the character ultimately ties to Connor’s story, I found myself questioning why I was spending so much time as a character I had no previous introduction to. The good news is that by the end of the game, the relationship between Connor and Haytham develops into a fascinating vehicle for discussing all manner of viewpoints and philosophies presented by both Templars and Assassins.  Their relationship also adds another wonderful historical point of view of the early years of America from both an outside British stance as well as a Native American stance.

For all of the wonderful characters and stories presented throughout AC3, I still can help but wish that the overall package of the game was more polished.  Between the lack of clear explanations within the various game systems and the glitchy scripting moments (and flat out awful world clipping instances), the game needed to bake in the oven for just a little longer, which again takes me back to my earlier point about the inherent problem with yearly franchise installments.  

Too often (and too early in the game even) are there times when sneaking around is necessary to obtain information to continue a mission, yet being spotted immediately fails the mission.  Time and again I found myself frustrated out of nothing more than having the controls not respond as I expected, only to have my character stumble into view and immediately have a guard spot me, causing an instant fail.  Or in other instances I would be chasing a person and after catching up, I would leap in for the kill only to have the mission fail because I wasn’t supposed to kill the person.  I’m playing an assassin.  My sole mission in life is to kill people, yet when I do kill someone, my mission is a failure?  That makes no sense.  

The game regularly fails to give clear guidelines as to what is necessary to complete a mission.  Instead the game spends more time cluttering the screen with failed secondary objective indicators. Secondary objectives aren’t critical to completing a mission, yet if failed, a HUD checklist changes to red and stands out and is a bit distracting while trying to finish the main objective.  Instant failure of main objectives and a constant reminder that failing secondary objectives doesn’t add any confidence that a mission can be completed, but rather tends to rub your nose in a frustrating moment.

For all its faults, AC3 is still a good game, but it’s painfully obvious at every turn that it could have been so much better. Continuing the series with a new main character in a new historic setting goes a long way to bringing a fresh vibe to a game that has the potential for getting stale with the same basic mechanics as the four previous titles.  Introducing new content such as hunting, naval warfare and exploration, and a robust homestead crafting system all lead to fresh and exciting gameplay moments, but at times can also feel like a bit of a distraction. There are plenty of things to do, but a lot of them don’t feel relevant or necessary, which is a shame because the game has a lot of standout moments that are diminished by the rough edges.  These unsightly blemishes could potentially be patched, but given the extremely wide swath of systems that should be punched up, I can’t imagine an update being released any time soon that could easily address everything that’s wrong.  

What AC3 does offer, though, is a continuation of the series tradition of presenting memorable characters and a deep storyline that will carry many player’s through the muck. Existing fans will certainly enjoy the new setting and story, while newcomers are invited in nicely by a helpful “previously on” recap opening segment which does a pretty good job of hitting all the important plot points from the first four games. There’s a lot to like about this game, but just as much that disappoints. Unfortunately, without a patch to fix certain problems, I can only recommend renting or waiting for a price drop.

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Pros:
+ Engaging new setting and characters
+ Naval warfare is a blast
+ Fun multiplayer
+ Amazing visuals with large squads of Red Coats during field combat
+ Hunting is fun and varied

Cons:
– Glitchy scripted sequences don’t always run as expected
– Poorly explained UI and mission instructions
– Insta-fail mission segments are frequent and frustrating
– Secondary mission objectives are obtuse and provide no benefit
– Hidden Animus puzzle doesn’t unlock until the main story is completed

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3, also available for Xbox 360 and Wii U
Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft
Release Date: 10/30/2012
Genre: Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: Mature
Players: 1 (4-8 online)
Source: Game purchased by reviewer

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About the Author

Tim has been playing video games for more than 20 years. He manages to find time to game in between raising three kids and working as a network administrator. Follow Tim on Twitter @freemantim.