Assassin’s Creed III, is a grandly ambitious game–Ubisoft should be commended for approaching the founding of the United States as the wrapper for their story of the seemingly eternal battle between the Templars and Assassins. If nothing else, the developer’s vision for this entry made an earnest attempt to say something not only about the birth of a nation and the tension between the egalitarian ideals of liberty liberty and justice.
The problems–plural–with Assassin’s Creed III aren’t ones of ambition, though. This unwieldy followup to the brilliant last numbered entry in the series as well as that game’s beloved sequel Brotherhood (no one’s talking fondly about Revelations here) drops us into an incoherent conflict in the middle of a sometimes stark and empty frontier where chores, fetch quests, and rote assassinations are used as substitutes for the free-roaming, freewheeling challenges of the previous entries.
In the present, modern day Assassin and professional whiner Desmond Miles is accompanied by the four surviving remnants of the Brotherhood into a cave structure where they hope to find a solution to the impending solar apocalypse with the help of the enigmatic hologram people and a dive in the Animus into the Revolutionary War period. There, Desmond hopes to find an amulet that holds the promise of salvation for humanity, while in the mid to late 18th century, Native American hero Connor attempts to save (or at least avenge) his tribe from the encroachment of the British guided by the Templar threat. Both characters’ narratives mirror each other as studies in brittle daddy issues by way of continental and international murder sprees.
After an extended, something like four hour prologue featuring another character entirely, we meet Connor, whose real name is hard to pronounce, even more difficult to spell, and summarily dropped early on. His journey starts with the character as a young boy watching his village razed to the ground by a mustache-twirling villain (and he’s a blustery racist, to boot), his travel to the homestead of and subsequent training by disgraced Assassin Achilles, and later participation in key moments of the War between the colonists, loyalists, and British.
The environments of early America required a rethink of how the excellent traversal and free-running of the series works. The frontier is dotted with climbable trees from which Connor can be launched from branch to branch. A modification to the free running allows Connor to logically leap (or not) based on the availability of new perches by holding down the Right Trigger, versus the occasionally inaccurate RT and A button combo in previous entries which could potentially see earlier hero Ezio fling himself off a ledge to his death a hundred feet below. This is one of the few positive innovations of Assassin’s Creed III which allows the navigation to feel a lot smoother than in past games.
But that change comes with a dramatic shift in how cities are handled: gone are the super vertical buildings and narrow alleys of the last three games, replaced here by open and wide streets and many structures that top out around two stories, dotted with British-paid mercenaries and soldiers. It’s tough–impossible, actually–to build up the past game’s sense of fleet-footed city traversal as Connor constantly has to duck the hard to track lines of sight of the enemy, while the ability to climb trees is a great addition that feels largely frustrating because of what never coheres into a logical layout worth attempting to navigate (I ended up relying on my horse more often than not). What we have is a game where it’s much easier to navigate and move quickly, but we’re not especially encouraged to do so (with the exception of a handful of terribly-scripted chase sequences).
Those cities and the woods are also packed with chores for Connor to extend out the 15-20 hour campaign, including performing quests for homesteaders in order to develop and restore the area around Achilles’ house, collecting pages of Ben Franklin’s Almanac, naval battles, and old-timey board games. But the way Assassin’s Creed III is structured, some of these new features don’t really invite revisiting unless you’re really into obsessive completion. You can go out and hunt bears and rabbits, and foxes, or help a trapper kill some poachers, but are never really given a tangible and compelling reason to do so. it all puts me in the mind of a version of Red Dead Redemption that resists and sometimes even discourages exploration.
In fact, Connor’s story is so single-minded, so driven first by revenge, and later by broadly egalitarian and windily communicated ideals, that the overall experience of breaking off from the main quest line gives the game a schizophrenic feel. Investing in the character is largely a challenge because of this too: like Altair in the first game, he’s one-note to an off-putting extreme, far less charismatic than Ezio or even the nominal “villain” of the game. In turn, it’s a challenge imagining him with a life outside of grim pronouncements of revenge and surface-complexity examinations of his place in this New World.
In a curious move, Assassin’s Creed III has the distinction of being the most combat-heavy game in the franchise, with crowds of baddies clustering around Connor to do him in with bayonets, knives, and swords. The combat has never really been the selling feature pf the series, so throwing more enemies in is a counter intuitive and mostly unsatisfying addition. Ubisoft appears to have been inspired by the perfectly-timed fighting of Arkham City/Arkham Asylum, but the low-feedback, less than tactile action here is no match for that game, and like the traversal never allows Connor the latitude to build up a rhythm and truly get going. The addition of prompts above the heads of enemies adds to the comparison to Rocksteady’s pair of Batman games, but I found myself mostly trying to scramble away and avoid having to deal with being shot and stabbed simultaneously.
Multiplayer offers some respite, with a return of the mass online player assassinations in medium-sized environments. Team battles are joined by capture and defend missions and a largely excellent mode where your character hunts another while stealthily being hunted by a third. The mix of abilities and distractions keeps each match feeling lively, although occasionally, it seemed like online code had trouble matching me up with new targets. Unburdened by Connor’s tiresome narrative, the multiplayer shines a light on what makes Assassin’s Creed III work: the thrill of the hunt and the quick, stealthy execution.
I could enumerate some of the other bugs and weird glitches I experienced in my time with the 360 version of the game but suffice it to say when you do an open world game, you’re going to get the usual mix of bizarre, hard-to-predict bugs hanging its hero up on the environment, launching him into the sky, clipping, or what have you. I won’t beat up Assassin’s Creed III since there are so many other fundamental problems with it. Structurally and narratively a mess (the way Connor experiences history is in a Cliff’s Notes, abbreviated, and largely under-investigated (the story makes a lot of overtures towards inequality in the early vision of America but doesn’t allow Connor to do much about it) while the game play feels dramatically different and utterly wrong in the context of the series. Mostly, I’m hoping that we do get another Assassin’s Creed and that when we do, Connor either gets a new setting and an actual functional personality and real mission, but for now, we have Ubisoft’s big and busted mess.
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