Games like to make a lot of promises. The whole hype machine is solely based on a game’s potential. It all looks fantastic on paper: a powerful new game engine, a grand backdrop to fully explore, an immersive gameplay that features a variety of modes. It is all very Peter Molyneux, the legendary developer who promises revolutionary grandeur but only delivers a nice little story. Assassin’s Creed III is such a game.
I’ll admit it, I had a ton of hope for AC3. I consider it one of the key franchises of this console generation and have been following the series since its inception. While the first title following Altair ibn-La’Ahad was an interesting excursion through twelfth century Israel, it was the charm and fire of Italian Ezio Auditore and his transformation to master assassin that elevated the series to a blockbuster level. Combine Ezio’s tale of vengeance with the rich setting of renaissance Italy, and I was hooked.
So what could possibly have gone wrong?
After three games following the complete arc of Ezio (and tying him to Altair as well), it was time to move on to a new assassin in history. AC3 would move the story from the Italian Renaissance to the American Revolution following the young assassin Ratonhnhaké:ton (often referred to by his given name, Connor), a half native American of the Kanien’kehá:ka and half British. Connor is presented as impatient and brash, eager to fight his way to find answers, and rarely unapologetic for his actions. The story follows Connor as he seeks to find a means to protect his village from outside influence, specifically the Templars who desire to take his tribe’s land. While Connor yearns for the power to grow and protect his people, he gets caught up in what would become the American revolution.
It is a story full of twists and turns that is actually much more involved than titles before. While Ezio was always working against the infamous Borgia family, Connor’s enemies are shrouded in mystery as he finds himself hunting men leading both British regulars and American militia. And while discovering the layers of deceit and corruption that the Templars have saturated both armies with sounds like a great way to deliver a compelling story, towards the game’s climax it becomes less about finding out about motives and more about how quickly you can kill this guy.
[Plot spoilers follow]
Honestly, the story had such a powerful narrative and character in Haytham Kenway, the man you actually begin the game playing as. Haytham’s identity is revealed after the first act: not only is he Connor’s father, he is also the leader of this particular order of Templars. The story really was at its best when Haytham and Connor were forced to ally with one another, blurring their loyalties. From one perspective Connor appears to be less hateful to his father and seeks to understand him and his motives beyond the war between the Assassins and Templars. From a second perspective Haytham presents himself as much more powerful and skilled than Connor, but is intrigued and curious at the prospect of even having a son, let alone one with Connor’s ability. And just as quickly as the two align, they divide only to have them at each others throats again, with no more explanation than their alignments dictate that they are mortal enemies.
While the story seemed patchy and rushed, there was a lot of thought that went into designing Boston, New York and the vast wilderness that separates the two cities. I always appreciated the series’ attention to detail, accurately placing famous landmarks and giving a mini-history lesson in the process. AC3 continues that trend with the fantastic design of the two main cities, as well as the Davenport homestead. The wilderness however, was another story completely.
One of the biggest problems with the first Assassin’s Creed was that there were these expansive cities to explore which were divided by a mountainous desert that was filled with nothing. The wilderness in AC3 is that desert. It is far too large, too difficult to traverse. Sure you can ride a horse, but it either gets stuck in the tree growth or you get attacked by patrols on the main path. The wilderness is more a chore than fun to explore. Fast travel only compounds this issue. With fast travel, there is no real reason to go into the wilderness of your own volition. There’s hunting and other small tasks that can be done, but aside from story missions, I found myself wanting as little to do with the wilderness as possible.
In fact, every little thing the game has added has similar issues that the wilderness does. Trading goods is advantageous when it comes to making money or unlocking specific items for the homestead and combat. The only problem is that it is incredibly tedious. As the shops on the homestead become more advanced, so do the recipes. What makes crafting such a tedium is that there are way too many unimportant items that need to be crafted before getting to something worthwhile. Sure it make sense, but it isn’t exactly fun.
It seems every thing they’ve added has a big detractor. I love the new assassin recruits because each apprentice has a unique personality, ability and backstory. Unfortunately, the recruit system is the weakest its been since its creation, they become incapacitated far too quickly and they’re useless out in the wilderness. Hunting is meticulously carried out with bait, traps and weapon selection but with a little bit of speed, luck with the terrain and a hidden blade you can get just about any animal by running. The underground tunnels open the many fast travel points in the city but aside from a few quick puzzles are entirely forgettable.
Even ship combat is fantastic. Wait, do I have a detractor to ship combat? No. Ship combat is fantastic.
Commanding the assassin warship Aquila felt amazing. Barking out commands as your ship chased down an enemy frigate, fighting sudden changes in wind direction and carefully maneuvering in open water to set-up cannon volleys and avoid being ripped apart by enemy fire. Naval combat was exhilarating, challenging and had a whole set of side missions dedicated to it. The only downside was that it ended too quickly.
As highly critical as I am with AC3, I do still thoroughly enjoy the game, it is just much more plodding than I expected it to be. I hate to compare Connor to Ezio, but Ezio’s story was very deliberate with assassinations taking careful planning and timing. Each target had a multitude of strategies to employ and that made Ezio seem that much richer. This is less true for Connor. He still had his stealth and his hidden blade, but it often seemed he would much rather fight facing his enemies as they ready a firing squad. Even for the obvious assassinations, there seems to be only one correct path to take rather than multiple ways to eliminate a target.
I suppose a benefactor of a less stealthy assassin is that the combat engine has really been beefed this time around. There are still the standard multiple sets of enemies that encircle Connor and (mostly) attack one-by-one. And Connor can still counter-attack till the cows come home, only this time a bit more strategy is required. Nimble enemies still attack with daggers, but are much harder to grab and counter-attack. Similarly, large enemies will use their powerful axes to deliver haymakers and Connor has to employ the dodge ability rather than counter-attack, which has been rendered ineffective. Also new are double-counters which create a mini cutscene where Connor will eliminate enemies with their own weapons, ranged attack counters with pistols, rifles and the bow and the ability to grab an enemy as a human shield when facing a firing line.
In the end, AC3 is a massive game with a ton of things to do, only not everything to do is good. Connor could have been a fantastic bridge to a modern Assassin’s Creed but instead you are left wondering what could have been and staring at the mass of potential both the game and the story had. Were it not for the fact that AC3 is fun where it counts, intriguing when it needs to be, showed us the future in the franchise in naval combat and finally (maybe?) brought the Desmond Miles story to a close, the results of my review might have been as lost as this game was.
7/10 Overly saturated content threatened to ruin an otherwise solid game that delivered enticing gameplay to a fantastically original story. Major historical setting of American revolution resonates strongly with the modern gamer. Also, boats with big guns and sails.