Playing Assassin’s Creed III was probably one of the most miserable experiences in my gaming life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played many, much worse games, but can I honestly think of a game that left me feeling this hollow and depressed? To say that Assassin’s Creed III does not live up to its promise is an understatement; if there’s one good thing to come from this game it’s that it left me looking back more fondly at Mass Effect 3, this year’s other big ‘disappointing end of a trilogy’ release. At least the mechanics of Mass Effect 3 were functional and fun, which cannot be said for Assassin’s Creed III. I love this series, I even loved the deeply flawed first instalment, but Ubisoft have succeeded in quashing almost everything that I love about it, in a game all the more tragic for the odd flash of utter brilliance that shows just how greatthis game could have been.
Despite that somewhat bile and hate filled first paragraph, I’m going to open by talking about one of the real strong suits of the game; it’s ability to construct a believable and fascinating world to experience. Assassin’s Creed III is set in the American colonies during the Revolutionary War, and easily captures this location as well as they did in Renaissance Rome in the Ezio games. In a first for the series, the strengths aren’t the cities, but the beautiful countryside, known as ‘the frontier.’ The frontier is beautiful, and the best moments of the game are those where you’re swinging through the trees in the great forests of America before it became the United States. The cities fare less well; whilst the opening city of Boston is certainly wonderful to look at, and seems very authentic, it really isn’t that much fun to explore. It lacks the grandeur and scale of Rome or Jerusalem, all the buildings are too flat and the streets to far apart to allow satisfying free running. New York fares even worse, it doesn’t even look good. It’s clear that Ubisoft rushed this game, and that manifests itself in almost every aspect of the finished product, and New York is a prime example. The draw distance in New York is awful, with terrible pop up and absolutely no effort to give the city any kind of identity. Compared to the differences between Florence and Venice in Assassin’s Creed II, the treatment of Boston and New York in this game is shameful. Despite this, the setting is probably this game’s biggest strength, it’s just a shame that the developers were utterly incapable of giving the player anything fun to do in it.
The plot of Assassin’s Creed 3 is actually pretty great for much of the journey, but makes a lot of mistakes. The plot covers most of the Revolutionary War, including iconic events such as a certain event involving tea in Boston harbour, a pleasant trip with a Mr. Paul Revere, and the signing of a little document known as the Declaration of Independence. The player character is Ratonhnhaké:ton, known for most of the game as Connor, a young Native American. After Connor receives a vision from an unknown figure, he comes into the fold of the Assassin order. Connor focuses his attention on the real world figure of Charles Lee, swearing vengeance for an earlier crime. Connor then proceeds to ‘Forrest Gump’ his way around colonial America, encountering figures such as George Washington, Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and playing a rather implausibly large role in the conflicts which birthed a nation. Of course, this wouldn’t be Assassin’s Creed if we didn’t have the Desmond meta-narrative. Assassin’s Creed III picks up right where Revelations left off, with Desmond and his merry gang of Assassin allies arriving at the Grand Temple of the ‘Ones Who Came Before’, the incredibly advanced precursors to humanity who had been all but wiped out by a massive solar flare. In 2012, another solar flare is due to devastate humanity, and so Desmond must penetrate the secrets of the Grand Temple to seek a solution, with the location of the key to the temple’s inner sanctum held within the Animus, and the life of Connor.
Before this game was released there was some concern that this game would fall into the classic jingoistic pro-America wankfest trap that so many videogames succumb to, with a lot of the marketing suggesting that this would be the case. Thankfully, Ubisoft actually sold themselves short here and we have a plot that’s admirably ambiguous and willing to question the precepts which undermine the United States. Although, broadly speaking, the Patriots are the good guys and the Loyalists are the bad guys, it’s all a lot more muddy than that. This is a game which is willing to portray the reality of the Founding Fathers, not quite vilifying them but steering very clear of the hagiographic treatment often given to these men by the writers of American history. This ambiguity spreads to the meta narrative, a major theme is the concept of the Templars as being incredibly similar to the Assassins, which is a welcome deviation from the rather unambiguously evil role they’ve played so far in the series. The game constantly asks you to reassess your previous preconceptions, creating an interesting sense of narrative unease. The game gets off to an odd start as you play as a different character to the much advertised Connor, the incredibly interesting and charismatic Haytham Kenway, and this extended prologue lasts for a long time. From a gameplay point of view this got somewhat tiring, but from a plot perspective this was an absolute work of genius, giving us a point of view which we haven’t previously seen in the series. Haytham is probably my favourite character ever to appear in an Assassin’s Creed game, he’s utterly fascinating and his appearances were real highlights.
Alas, the actual plot of the game never quite lives up to the few individual interesting moments it contains. Connor is a potentially interesting protagonist, torn between his Native American heritage and his ties to the Patriot cause, which come into conflict more than once, but the voice actor never really sells this dichotomy. I suppose it must have been difficult to find a Native American voice actor fluent in the dialect Connor’s tribe speak, so their talent pool must have been rather shallow. Connor never approaches Ezio for likeability, but I don’t believe that a good protagonist has to be likeable, look at LA Noire’s Cole Phelps. The actual writing for Connor is pretty sharp, and I like the directions the story takes him, it’s just a shame that the voice acting never lives up to this. The Ezio games were able to take complete liberties with the personalities of its characters, turning Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli into big, interesting characters, because no one can truly say what they were really like. This isn’t really the case in Assassin’s Creed III, and we’re never really sold on any interesting characters. Where Ezio plays a background role in his Renaissance trilogy, Connor plays a vital role in many of the key moments of the American Revolution, to the point that it seems like simple fan service rather than an attempt to craft an interesting story with fun missions. Ezio’s background role felt much more convincing. The Desmond stuff is easily the best yet, but is let down by a rushed and poorly thought out ending. People may slate Bioware for the Mass Effect ending fiasco, but at least they had the bravery to give the series a definitive end, despite how profitable it was. Ubisoft don’t do this, clumsily paving the way for future games and denying a proper ending to the story that’s been going on for five games now. It’s painfully clear that Ubisoft had no long term vision for Desmond’s plot, and any plans that they may have had were thrown out when they realised just how much money they could wring from this franchise.
The gameplay is similar to the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series; you’ll be free running, fighting, stabbing and shooting. Probably one of the better features of the gameplay are the wonderfully smooth animations when clambering through the trees in the frontier, a first for the series. The combat is still based around countering, and has been Arkham Asylum-fied, although it never feels anywhere near as fluid and satisfying as Rocksteady’s masterpiece. This is a game which does not lack for content, there is a lot to do; sadly, very little of it is fun. Gone are the open ended assassination missions of the earlier games; each story quest mission generally just funnels you along a linear path, such as a chase scene, with any deviation from doing exactly what the game wants punished with a loss of full synchronisation or even outright failure. There are some fun side missions, but many are simple deliveries, with the extra assassination missions having had absolutely no effort put into them. The optional assassinations in Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood were never as elaborate or well designed as the story ones, but they had at least had some thought and effort put into them, which cannot be said for Assassin’s Creed III. There’s a welcome return of the assassin recruitment element of Brotherhood and Revelations, which has been smartly refined in this instalment, with each recruit given a personality of their own. One of the few positive changes in the game is an altering of the game economy; gone is the ridiculous system of purchasing land, whereby most players ended up owning most of Rome in Brotherhood and Constantinople in Revelations. Now, Connor is the master of a ‘homestead’, which can be steadily built throughout the game, in a highly satisfying manner. Alongside the high drama of the American Revolution, a simpler story of a community growing together emerges through easy missions for the likeable range of characters which can be bought into the homestead. These missions can either gain new members of the community, or bolster resources and abilities of those already there. This feeds into a rather compelling crafting system, where you’re ‘homesteaders’ can construct items which can be sent out in convoys to earn cash. I really liked this system, it’s just a shame that I ran out of things to spend money on about half way through the game, which forms yet another example of a decent idea utterly ruined by creative laziness and thoughtlessness. A clear highlight of the game are the naval missions, which whilst being relatively simple from a gameplay standpoint, are hugely fun and atmospheric. This wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without lots of useless collectibles to clutter up your map; most are pointless, but one collection, ‘Peg Leg’s Trinkets’ leads to a series of fun missions which actually form a surprising highlight of the game.
There are so many things wrong in the basic gameplay of Assassin’s Creed III that it can be difficult to think of them all. There’s absolutely no mechanic in the main game (sailing excepted) that works well; even free running, probably the defining mechanic of the series, feels awkward and stilted. Gone are the smooth and easy motions of the earlier games, now it’s incredibly difficult to get Connor to do what you want him to do. The player is given plenty of gadgets and methods to take out enemies, and lots of potentially interesting moves from the assassin recruits, but you will almost never get to use them. The game drives you so relentlessly down a single play style path that there’s almost no opportunity to use these moves. The stealth is an unmitigated disaster; there’s no crouch button, it’s very difficult to ever blend into the scenery or a crowd and the enemy AI seems to have zero internal logic. I wasn’t overly impressed with Dishonored, but Assassin’s Creed III made me look back at it with a new fondness; at least that game actually functioned. There are several missions which are just so staggeringly poorly designed that I honestly couldn’t believe they got through play testing. Of course, it doesn’t matter, because Ubisoft knew this game would sell huge amounts and had no incentive to make sure the game was properly finished. People may complain about the numerous delays of Bioshock: Infinite, but I’m confident that when the game finally does arrive we’ll have a polished product. Assassin’s Creed III needed at least another six months of dev time; the recent claim that the game has been in development since Assassin’s Creed II has been exposed as a lie, it was actually made in just two, which simply isn’t enough for a game of this scale and ambition. There are some truly baffling design choices too; who was it who thought it would be a good idea to make the player crawl through boring tunnels to create the fast travel points in the cities? Who? Who was this snivelling incompetent and why did no one bother to stop them? This is a game which just doesn’t work, it fails at that most basic level, and it’s other successes, and there are actually plenty, can never transcend just how broken this game is.
When Assassin’s Creed looks good, it looks really good. The frontier has to be one of the most beautiful gaming environments that I’ve ever seen, it’s just a shame that there wasn’t much fun to do in it. The level of detail is astounding, and I loved the wild animals everywhere, either for hunting or as part of the scenery. The naval missions are also stunning, particularly in stormy weather, and are easily the most immersive parts of the game. Alas, the cities don’t fare nearly so well, as mentioned above. Some of the character animations, particularly during the side missions, are embarrassingly terrible, looking like something out of an N64 game rather than a modern release in one of the most successful series in the world. The voice acting, the staid tones of Connor excepted, is generally excellent, containing the wide range of accents which would be expected of the time period, and rarely lapsing into caricature. There are a few obnoxious vocal samples heard over and over again in the cities (the laughing children are burnt inside my skull for all eternity), but the main characters are generally excellent. Of particular note are the wonderfully aristocratic tones of Hatham Kenway, a wonderful vocal performance containing a mixture of English gentile politeness, brusque efficiency and the occasional haunting snatch of humanity. Hatham Kenway is too good for this game. The music is unexceptional, but not annoying, so that’s something I suppose. Irritatingly, this has to be the most obnoxiously glitchy game that I’ve ever played; I never played more than five minutes before another awful glitch or failure of the mechanics drew me out of the experience. The recent patch improved matters somewhat, but not enough, and it all feels like too little, too late.
Assassin’s Creed III isn’t the worst game I’ve played this year, but it’s the only game to make me angry. Ubisoft had the potential for something wonderful here, and they cocked it up in almost every regard. This series used to be about free form assassination, and that’s changed. That’s ok, change is good, it’s fine to try to become something more, but you’ve got to replace it with something else, because without that the experience will just be an empty void. That’s all Assassin’s Creed III is, a void. The moments of brilliance, and there are plenty, only serve to highlight how truly incompetent the rest of the game is. I kept waiting for the real game to start, but it never did.