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Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for PS4 and Xbox One

Remember when Assassin’s Creed was one of the most exciting series in gaming? Although it was mired in flaws, the original Assassin’s Creed combined together a whole bunch of gaming elements which I love (stealth, open world, parkour) in a unique setting. Unlike a lot of people, I loved the modern day stuff and was genuinely excited for the future of the series. Now, I approach every Assassin’s Creed with a sort of weariness, barely able to raise any kind of excitement. Unity was pretty much a disaster, so my hopes were not at all high for Syndicate, but thankfully it’s one of the good ones. Well, decent anyway; in my Assassin’s Creed rankings it comes in at the middle point (II, Black Flag, Brotherhood, Syndicate, Revelations, I, III, Unity). 
 
Syndicate brings Assassin vs. Templar action to Victorian London. Jacob and Evie Frye are the twin children of a legendary English Assassin and have arrived in London following his death with separate aims. Jacob seeks to overthrow Crawford Starrick, a Templar leader who rules London from the shadows and does so by taking down Starrick’s gang, The Blighters, using his own, The Rooks. Evie seeks a Piece of Eden known as the Shroud, desperate to avoid letting it fall into Templar hands. There’s also a little movement in the modern day story, although not much. 
 
I had many many issues with Unity, but the plot was one of the biggest. It was utterly incomprehensible, with nothing to latch onto apart from a fairly uninteresting central romance. Arno was the worst Assassin protagonist of the series and it managed to sideline the French Revolution, one of the most promising settings possible. Syndicate is certainly an improvement, with a compelling and charismatic villain in Starrick and a clear sense of building towards a goal. Unity and, to a lesser extent, Black Flag simply felt like a whole bunch of things happening with little to connect them, but Syndicate does hold together, with everything being in some way tied to the loosening of Starrick’s Templar grip on London. That said, the shift is essentially from ‘terrible’ to ‘mediocre.’ There’s nothing surprising or interesting in the plot and the best that can be said is that it is functional. There are some hints towards traction in the Modern Day story, but at this point I don’t know why Ubisoft still keep it around. The people who hate the modern day story don’t care and the people who like it don’t want it presented to us like this.  
 
The use of historical figures is also pretty poor; we’re a hell of a long way from Assassin’s Creed II’s Leonardo da Vinci, or even Black Flag’s Blackbeard. Figures such as Charles Dickens, Karl Marx and Alexander Graham Bell show up, but are essentially caricature versions of themselves, containing no depth whatsoever and serving no more narrative purpose than for the sake of a lazy reference. Jacob is simply not a good character, being fairly unlikeable for most of the journey. I think they were going for a loveable Ezio-esque rogue, but he just comes across like an arrogant dick. Attempts at character development are clumsy, awkward and forced. Evie is the better character, but to be honest I think she’s been overhyped. We’ve all been so desperate for a female protagonist that I think that standards have been lowered when she comes up. She may be the first female character lead character in a mainline Assassin’s Creed and hopefully Ubisoft see the positive reaction to her and don’t make her the last as I think they could do a lot better. In classic Ubisoft fashion, the one story beat I actually got a kick out of was contained in some new game DLC PS4 exclusive bollocks. So, sorry Xbox One and PC gamers, you don’t get the best story moment of the game because of Ubisoft being Ubisoft. Modern gaming! 
 
Syndicate’s core mechanics are essentially a refined version of Unity’s. Unity, for all its flaws, made some decent strides, particularly in its animations and ability to move downwards as easily as you move up, but the jankiness was overall even worse than in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games. This isn’t the case now and on a purely mechanical level Syndicate is the most comfortable game in the series to play for years. It’s still got nothing on games like Metal Gear Solid V or even Shadows of Mordor, but it’s better. The stealth has reached a point of being functional, if not actively fun and the combat has been refined too. It’s a lot faster and scrappier and even if it does absolutely nothing interesting, essentially giving up and becoming a slightly worse version of the Arkham combat, it is bearable and at times actually fun, something I haven’t been able to say for the combat in an Assassin’s Creed game…well, ever. There are a few nice fixes, like tapping a button to enter windows after the nightmare that was getting inside in Unity, but this feels like putting a bandage over a problem rather than actually fixing it. The core mechanics are rusty as hell and Assassin’s Creed still really needs to take a couple of years off and reboot all of its gameplay systems. Since that won’t happen, Syndicate does feel like the best it’s going to get.  
 
Assassin’s Creed is a series known for introducing pointless new tools that you never use and marketing the hell out of them, but lo and behold the new tools in Syndicate are actually useful and fun. The most notable is the grapple launcher, which essentially allows you to Batman your way around London. I have mixed feelings on this; Ubisoft essentially admit with this tool that climbing, a core part of the Assassin’s Creed experience, has gotten stale. So rather than replacing it with something else of radically altering the mechanics, it simply eliminates the need for climbing. In practice however, it is fun and satisfying and it’ll be impossible to go back from this in future Assassin’s Creed games. You can also drive around carriages, which has been significantly overhyped as it’s essentially just an (even) more unwieldy version of the horseback riding seen in the earlier Assassin’s Creed games.  
 
One area where Syndicate excels is in its side content and general breadth of things to do. London is split into districts under control of gang leaders and completing side activities such as assassinating or kidnapping Blighter lieutenants and liberating child laborers in factories shifts the balance of power towards the Rooks. These culminate in street fights which eventually allow you to liberate a particular area, lowering Templar presence and generally allowing everything to get a bit more safe. This side content achieves where Assassin’s Creed games often fail; they’re satisfying to complete, make narrative sense and build towards a sense of progression. There are also more story focused missions involving real life figures such as Charles Dickens and Karl Marx, which are generally quite interesting if rather shallow. There’s an extensive leveling system for both Assassins as well as the ability to upgrade your gang. Unlocking new abilities is undeniably satisfying, although the economy doesn’t really work. Getting money isn’t a problem, but many equipment and gang upgrades require materials which are most reliably found in fairly mundane side activities, like hijacking coaches, races and fighting tournaments. You never feel like you quite have enough, which the cynic in me wonders was to nudge people towards the microtransactions. I won’t harp on about those; they’re so repugnant and pathetic they’re essentially beneath my notice. You can play fine without them and if you have a single mote of intelligence you’ll steer well clear.  
 
My major concern going into Syndicate was the technical side; the frame rate was probably the worst thing about Unity. Syndicate isn’t technically perfect, in fact it isn’t even technically good, but it has reached the minimum standard for acceptability, a relief after Unity failed even to hit that. The cost of that is that the crowds, so impressive in screenshots but unplayable in action, have been cut down. If you were to compare screenshots of Unity and Syndicate you’d probably think Unity the prettier game, but in motion Syndicate wins by miles. The frame rate dipped occasionally, but the flow of play was never significantly disrupted by the technical oddities prevalent in the genre. Syndicate actually looks bloody lovely and I’ll never get tired of the thrill of exploring a faithfully realised vision of world gone by. It’s the only real reason I keep coming back to this damn series. The voice acting is fine, with no real stand out performances. A pleasant surprise was in the music, which changes as you move through different London districts. I’ve never particularly noticed the music in Assassin’s Creed games (Black Flag sea shanties aside), but its actually threaded throughout in a canny and engaging way here. They brought in a new composer, Austin Wintory for this one and I really hope they keep him around.  
 
Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is no masterpiece, but it’s a playable and generally enjoyable historical adventure which is good enough for me. Perhaps my standards should raise, but I keep enjoying these games just enough to keep going. Every time they release an Assassin’s Creed I don’t like they follow up with one I do (III-Black Flag, Unity-Syndicate), which means I am not getting my hopes up for next year. If, like me, you still feel an inexplicable fondness for this creaky old monster of a series, skip Unity and come back for Syndicate. 

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Well…that wasn’t as bad as I’d feared…but it wasn’t good either. I’m a bit of a sucker for the Assassin’s Creed series, though even I have to admit that the series has only seen three truly great games out of seven (2, Brotherhood and Black Flag). Unity definitely isn’t up there with those games, although I still overall liked it more than Assassin’s Creed 3. One thing that is certain is that this is not the revolutionary next-gen Assassin’s Creed game we were promised; in fact last year’s Black Flag outshines it in almost every regard.

Unity takes place during the French Revolution, one of the most fascinating time periods that the series has ever covered. Arno Dorian was orphaned at a young age and was raised by Francois de la Serre, a Templar who nonetheless greatly respected Arno’s Assassin father. Arno and de la Serre’s daughter, Elise, grow close and become lovers. Tragedy strikes when de la Serre is murdered and Arno is framed, sending him to the Bastille. The onset of the Revolution allows Arno and the grumpy Assassin to escape together, with Arno training as an Assassin to examine the Templar conspiracy at the heart of Paris.

So, that probably sounded a bit incoherent and that’s because it is. Putting it bluntly, Unity has by far the worst story of any Assassin’s Creed game so far. If it wasn’t for Destiny, Unity would in fact be my most disappointing game narrative released in 2014. The problems are myriad; the actual plot is convoluted and meandering with no strong narrative core to keep you going. The romance with Elise is probably meant to be this core, but it’s not particularly convincing. Arno himself is easily the blandest protagonist in franchise history, despite early attempts to set him up as the successor to Ezio. I thought Connor was boring, but at least he had the core of his identity struggle between his British father and his Native American mother. Arno has nothing. He is a void. Elise is a much better character and would have made a much better protagonist, but she’s held back from protagonist duty due to her crippling disability of being female rather than a stoic white dude.

Of course, the biggest problem is that the French Revolution has almost no bearing on the story. This story could have taken place at pretty much any point in history. The Revolution is just happening in the background whilst we focus on the much more boring struggles of byzantine scheming between the Assassins and the Templars as well as a dull romance. You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the modern day story and that’s because there really isn’t one, apart from some Assassin lady speaking to you sometimes and telling you how well you’re doing. Lazy doesn’t even cover it. Ubisoft dropped the ball badly here. I can’t believe I’m saying it, but I think Watch Dogs had a better story.

So, does the gameplay make up for it? Well…yes and no. We’re back in Ezio Trilogy territory, with the Frontier stuff from 3 and the ship stuff from Black Flag gone. Some will be happy about this, but it left Unity feeling a bit empty. You’re doing the same sort of stuff as the Ezio trilogy, but with less variety. There are some welcome changes, such as an ability to descend much more easily and the addition of a crouch button. The crouch doesn’t really work though with the stealth actually being better in Black Flag. The whole thing is still clunky, which has been the curse of the series for a long time. Assassin’s Creed has always been a series greater than the sum of its parts but, well, Unity is just the sum of its parts. The free running is a bit more fluid, but not much more so than in the earlier games. The combat is a lot tougher to encourage stealth, which is a good thing, but it’s still a whole amount of not-fun every time it comes up. There’s an upgrade system and a greater focus on equipment, but it’s essentially just smoke and mirrors to create an artificial sense of progression. Previous games didn’t need it and Unity doesn’t either. Ever since Assassin’s Creed 2, all the games (Revelations aside) have had something interesting to set them apart, a mechanic which defined that game. Brotherhood had the…er, brotherhood, 3 the Frontier and Black Flag the sailing. What will we remember Unity for? Well, there is nothing. This is Assassin’s Creed at its most generic and consequently the hardest to defend.

It’s not all doom and gloom though; Unity has some of the best side missions that the series has ever had. The Paris Stories bring you into contact with some familiar faces from the time, such as Madame Tussord and the Marquis de Sade as you complete missions for them, lending them a bit more intrigue than the anonymous assassination missions you received in previous games. The Murder Mysteries are great as well, as we investigate a series of areas scouring for clues before accusing the correct culprit. They’re a bit like a simpler dumbed down LA Noire, but I enjoyed the way they broke up the pace of the game. The lack of a modern day element is sorely felt, but they are replaced with the Helix Rift missions which see the player catapulted into another time period, with the best being a brief sojourn in Nazi occupied Paris, allowing us to climb the Eiffel Tower. Nonetheless, Unity never really comes together and represents the moment where I finally got sick of the core Assassin’s Creed mechanics. Oh, and there’s Co-Op, but online Co-Op is 100% not my thing, so I played one mission, hated it and moved on.

There are moments in Unity where the game genuinely looks to be fulfilling its next-gen promise. Treasure them. When you’re perched above Notre Dame watching the vast expanse of Paris below you, while hordes of people seethe below you desperate for liberty, it’s hard not to be completely stunned. Then you descend to street level…and then frame rate descends along with you. Ubisoft promised the biggest crowds in the series and they delivered, but not like this. The frame rate dips, the people glitch in and out of existence, their clothes constantly changing, any immersion crushed. I’m very forgiving with bugs, I really am; unless they render a game unplayable, I’m not sure that I’ve ever played a game which was genuinely ruined by bugs, but Unity is it. This is a game which needed months more work, but god forbid Ubisoft didn’t release two Assassin’s Creed games in a single year. This is all post-patch by the way. The game is playable, but once again Ubisoft have created a game which looks amazing in screen shots and dreadful in motion. It’s a shame because the art direction itself is top notch. The people who likely are most upset about this aren’t the fans, but the dedicated and hardworking people who lovingly crafted this wonderful Paris for us only for it to be ruined by the greed of the Ubisoft higher ups. It must be devastating.

The voice acting is competent, but bafflingly British. I get why they didn’t go for French accents as they did with Italian accents in the Ezio Trilogy, but that doesn’t mean I like it. It’s just so ridiculous and doesn’t help in the slightest with the feeling that Ubisoft half-arsed the setting. I know it’s a strange thing to fixate on, but this to me is a classic symptom of everything that’s gone wrong with Assassin’s Creed and, arguably, Ubisoft in general. Where Assassin’s Creed 2 was a game which took risks, even a risk as minor as a main character with a European accent, but Unity is terrified of anything that might possibly alienate its core audience and that includes French accents apparently.

Despite the overwhelmingly negative tone of this review, Unity is still a competent and regularly enjoyable game. There are flashes of that old magic, but the big corporate Ubisoft machine is crushing the soul from what started as one of the most inventive and exciting franchises in gaming. I have no doubt that there’s a lot of talent behind Unity and with another six months of development this could have been a genuinely great game. I’m not so pessimistic that I’ll say we’ll never have another great Assassin’s Creed game, but the trust is gone. Black Flag won me back but Unity has lost me; Ubisoft went from being the best of the ‘Big Three’ (EA, Activision, Ubisoft) to arguably the worst. Hell, at least your annual Call of Duty game functions.ACU_hero

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Shadow of Mordor is proof of something I’ve been banging on about for ages; there’s nothing wrong with nicking other games’ ideas if you have one really good one of your own. Sure, Shadow of Mordor takes a lot from Assassin’s Creed and the Arkham Games, but it also has a killer feature, one guaranteed to be plundered for many years to come.

Shadow of Mordor takes place in between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and details the final downfall of Mordor into the desolate wasteland we see in The Lord of the Rings. Talion is a ranger of Gondor, who watches the Black Gate of Mordor. He and his family are murdered by a senior member of Sauron’s army, but Talion is returned from the dead possessed by the wraith of a mysterious ancient elf. Talion travels Mordor seeking revenge against those who wronged him and to discover the secret behind his elven companion and the reason for his resurrection.

The actual plot of Shadow of Mordor is serviceable, but not especially exciting. Perhaps I’m just not versed in Tolkein lore enough to pick up on a lot of stuff. There are some great moments, such as appearances from Gollum and any moments involving the scene-stealing Dwarven monster hunter Torvin, but by and large this is your standard revenge story. Don’t get me wrong, Talion’s better than Aiden Pearce of Watch Dogs, my new gold standard for generic vengeance driven protagonists, but he’s not exactly dynamic. Shadow of Mordor’s appeal isn’t in its actual scripted plot, but in the best emergent storytelling I’ve ever seen in a game. I’ll get to that.

The fundamental gameplay of Shadow of Mordor will be very familiar to many people. You’ll do lots of Assassin’s Creed-esque climbing and assassinating, with a stealth system which is actually significantly better than that seen in Assassin’s Creed. The combat is almost exactly the same as the Arkham games, down to the specific button presses for different types of finishers. As opposed to gadgets you have wraith powers with not dissimilar effects, with the enemy types of the Orcs in Mordor also paralleling that of the goons on the streets of Gotham. This really isn’t a bad thing; no open world action game has hand to hand combat as satisfying as the Arkham games and it’s oddly gratifying to see a game company giving up even trying to improve on it. The addition of a bow and arrow does shake things up ever so slightly though, with the option to take out foes from afar. The upgrade system is complex but very satisfying. You can use Mirian, earned from side quests, to upgrade things like your health and ability to slow down time when aiming your bow, as well as traditional EXP to boost your abilities. Your weapons can also be upgraded, being infused with runes taken from fallen Orc Captains. It probably sounds overly complicated, but Shadow of Mordor has one of the most satisfying progression arcs of any game, you start out weak and powerless, but by the end you’ve gained enough fun and varied abilities to be a true force of nature. I know that the received wisdom is that games should get more challenging as they go along, but I actually quite like this approach of a game getting easier and easier as you become more and more powerful. I completed the second half of this game’s content in about half the time I completed the first and it was very satisfying to be able to confidently stride into encounters that I would have shied away from previously. For example, caragors are deadly Mordor creatures and early on in the game something to avoid at all costs, but by the end you’ve gained the ability to instantly tame and ride them, allowing you to take down swaths of foes which might have previously caused you serious trouble.

The main selling point of Shadow of Mordor is the much touted ‘Nemesis’ system. In each of the two main areas, five Orc Warchiefs command Sauron’s armies, and you must work your way to the top and take them down. To do that you must work through the randomly generated group of orc underlings which make up the command structure. If you defeat an orc their space in the command structure is left empty, and if one beats you its power is boosted and it may be promoted. You can interrogate low ranking orcs to find out intel on higher ranking, such as strengths and weaknesses. Early on in particular, knowing these details is absolutely vital. Some captains are highly armoured, immune to ranged and stealth and surrounded by armies, but have a terrible fear of fire, so luring them towards barrels and oils and setting them off can leave them terrified and defenceless in your hands. Each Warchief has bodyguards which can be taken out to make the eventual final conflict easier. You can either hunt particular orcs by scanning their general locations or waiting for events marked in red in your map, which see the orc involved in some kind of event that you can ambush. These can be hunting trips, duels between orcs, feasts or a range of other events. Later in the game you gain the ability to ‘brand’ orcs and brainwash them to your side, sending them to perform particular tasks like assassinate other orc leaders. There’s something wonderfully satisfying about branding all of a Warchief’s bodyguards then sending them all after the chief at once. In such encounters, if you keep your branded orc alive they will gain in power and be even more useful for your bidding. Although randomly generated, the orcs are bursting with personality, and you will soon come to hate particular orcs who you clash with again and again, as they taunt you anew each time. Finally taking down an orc you’ve battled and lost to repeatedly is a truly wonderful feeling. It’s this emergent storytelling which is the true star of the game. The Nemesis system is a fantastic idea that I cannot wait to see stolen by every other developer under the sun.

Shadow of Mordor is a lengthy game, with a decent length main campaign and a hefty amount of genuinely fun side content. You could spend hours and hours messing around with the Nemesis system though, so once you’re done with the assigned tasks I think that this is a game world you could genuinely want to spend time in. The complaints about this game are mostly quibbles; I really hated that failing in side content, such as getting spotted in a stealth mission, forced you to run back to the mission start point rather than letting you just go in fresh. It felt like an irritating way to punish failure, in a game which generally punishes failure in one of the most interesting ways I’ve ever seen.

Still, the complaints to be levelled at Shadow of Mordor are far from deal breakers. It steals from and then betters many other games with similar mechanics; I have a feeling that the developers of Assassin’s Creed: Unity and Batman: Arkham Knight might have been made slightly nervous by this game. The bar has been raised.2687622-5233999916-middl

Watch Dogs for PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

If there’s ever been a game which has fallen victim to its own hype, it’s got to be Watch Dogs. From the stunning E3 reveal to release, anticipation spiralled downwards and downwards, until Watch Dogs was released to a fair amount of apathy from the gaming community (not that this hurt sales figures mind you). I have no sympathy whatsoever for Ubisoft though; Watch Dogs had one of the most obnoxious marketing campaigns I’ve ever seen. From the ludicrous amount of collectors editions, to their fumbling of the visual downgrade, to the ridiculous description of Aiden Pearce’s baseball cap as iconic before the game even released, Watch Dogs became synonymous with the idea of games as a product, rather than games as an experience. It’s a shame really, because behind all of that Watch Dogs is actually a pretty damn good game, and if Ubisoft had cut down on the hyperbole it might have been much more warmly received.

Watch Dogs is set in a Chicago under the sway of CTOS, a city wide network run by the shadowy Blume Corporation and follows Aiden Pearce, a hacker and criminal, who at the opening of the game has successfully robbed the Merlaut Hotel with his partner Damien. Whilst hacking their accounts, Aiden comes across a strange file, before being intercepted by another mysterious hacker. Scared for his family, Aiden flees with them to the nearby town of Pawnee. In a tunnel, an assassination attempt crashes the car and takes the life of Lena, Aiden’s niece. Aiden becomes consumed with vengeance, and uses his prodigious hacking skills to hunt down those responsible for Lena’s death, in the process discovering a conspiracy stretching all the way to the top of Chicago.

The story isn’t exactly ground breaking, but it gets the job done, with a good supporting cast and some nice villains. Watch Dogs has one crippling narrative problem however, and that is its protagonist Aiden Pearce. Aiden is possibly one of the worst protagonists in gaming. He’s a bland, gravelly voiced anti-hero cliché, utterly devoid of anything approaching personality. He makes the Master Chief’s and Marcus Fenix’s of the world look like Hamlet. He’s also utterly unsympathetic; I think we’re meant to feel sorry for Aiden, but all I felt was disgust. Don’t get me wrong, games can get away with unsympathetic protagonists, but they have to at least be interesting or entertaining; look at the trio from GTA5 for an example of this done right. You can also sort of get away with a boring protagonist if they’re likeable enough. What you can not get away with is unsympathetic and boring. That’s Aiden Pearce. There are some members of the supporting cast who could have made genuinely interesting protagonists, but none of them are grumpy, male or white enough to qualify. Aiden is a millstone around Watch Dog’s neck, a character who drags the entire experience down.

Watch Dogs is hardly the revolutionary experience Ubisoft suggested, but it is nonetheless a fine addition to the open world city game genre. Where it was promised as something which might dethrone GTA, in reality Watch Dogs is closer to the similarly canine sounding Sleeping Dogs; a game which takes most of its cues from GTA whilst offering some cool features of its own. The main feature is, of course, the hacking. This is usually accomplished by holding a button over a reticule, causing the desired effect to occur. This can be the raising or lowering of bridges, or appearance of road spikes, or cause transformers to explode, taking out enemies. In fact, at its best, there are times where objectives can be finished without even making a physical presence in the location, simply hopping between security cameras and using the environment to take out enemies. I liked to use a hybrid approach of hacking and quick headshots, assisted by the bullet time ‘focus’ that can be activated with a click of the right stick. The combat is actually really good, significantly better than GTA5s, with Aiden being much less of a bullet sponge than your average protagonist, requiring a fair bit more thought and strategy. You probably could play the whole game guns blazing, but it’d be hard, and not as much fun. Watch Dogs has also come under considerable flack for the driving, which is even more arcadey than that in Sleeping Dogs, but I actually liked it, particularly when using a bike. Watch Dogs just plays very nicely, lacking the chunkiness which can often blight this genre.

This is also a massive game. The main story is lengthy and pleasantly epic in scope, and there’s a vast amount of side stuff. Happily enough, it’s actually all a lot of fun, particularly compared to Ubisoft’s usual efforts in this department. This is a Ubisoft game, so it follows the Assassin’s Creed/Far Cry 3 structure of climbing high points in the map to unlock surrounding side content, and there is a lot of it. The collectibles are actually pretty worthwhile, with the ‘voyeur’ collectible letting you gain glimpses into people’s lives, some of which are hilarious, and some actually really moving. The side missions are numerous and varied, and never really got dull for me. You can even ‘check in’ to areas in the map Foursquare style, if that’s something that appeals to you. The biggest side attraction however are the ‘Digital Trips’, surprisingly deep mini-games which throw Aiden into bizarre situations. There’s ‘Madness’, which sees Aiden seeking to mow down demons in a hellish nightmare world. There’s ‘Alone’, where Chicago has been taken over by robots and Aiden must stealthily liberate it. Next is ‘Psychedelic’, where Aiden bounces around the world on colourful flowers. Finally there’s ‘Spider Tank’, in which the player takes control of the titular vehicle and wreaks havoc. All are incredibly fun, and well developed, with most even containing their own skill trees. There are plenty of things to quibble with about Watch Dogs, but value for money is not one of them.

Much has been said of the visual downgrade Watch Dogs suffered between the E3 showing and release. Again, Ubisoft shot themselves in the foot because Watch Dogs actually is quite a nice looking game, but it will never seem like it compared to what was promised at E3. Particularly in the rain at night, Chicago looks beautiful. The rustic charms of Pawnee outside Chicago offer a nice variety. The character designs are generally good, although Aiden is ridiculously over designed. The voice acting is generally brilliant, particularly in the case of fellow hackers Clara and T-Bone. The exception is, once again, Aiden. You noticing a pattern? Thankfully even Aiden can’t ruin the music, which is synth heavy and tense, and really helps to bring a solid edge of drama to the proceedings.

Watch Dogs is far from perfect, but I actually liked it a lot. It’s been widely written off, which I think is slightly unfair, although I won’t be shedding any years for Ubisoft over this. The inevitable Watch Dogs sequel, which I hope is over a year away but probably isn’t, should be able to fix a lot of the problems here, and Ubisoft will have another franchise to push obsessively. If you can separate the game from the business, Watch Dogs is a damn fine game and definitely worth a go.watch-dogs-video-game-wallpaper

Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry for PS4, PS3 and PC

I really like the idea of releasing DLC separately from the main game. It means I can trade things in for maximum pay back and not miss out! Freedom Cry skipped the Wii U, so the PS4 release was my only opportunity to give it a go. I’m glad I did, although it wouldn’t have been the end of the world if I hadn’t.

Freedom Cry takes place several years after the conclusion of Black Flag, and follows Adewale, a former slave and Edward Kenway’s ex-quartermaster upon the Jackdaw. Now an active member of the Assassin Order, Adewale’s ship is sunk during a battle against Templar forces, and he washes up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. There, he is caught up in the Maroon Rebellion against the French colonialist slave-owners, and sets about freeing as many slaves as he can.

There’s a certain satisfaction in a game where you just know that you’re on the right side. Assassin’s Creed games tend to tread a narrow moral line; I mean, those guards you just dispatched probably had families right? They were just doing their jobs. That moral ambiguity is gone in Freedom Cry. Adewale is a former slave, and these are slavers. Go forth and murder. Still ,there are affecting moments. One scene in particular was as stark and disturbing a condemnation of the horrors of slavery as Twelve Years a Slave. Adewale is a great protagonist, with the best combination of charm and nobility we’ve seen since Ezio. It feels a shame to see him relegated to DLC supporting role; he could easily have headlined his own game. Freedom Cry is a satisfying, self-contained narrative which feels relevant to the overall story of the series, unlike the disappointing Tyranny of King Washington DLCs for Assassin’s Creed III.

Freedom Cry plays basically much the same as Black Flag before it, taking place on a small stretch of Haitian coast and Port-au-Prince itself. Adewale is armed slightly differently to Edward, with the twin swords swapped for a single, large machete and the pistols for a big ol’ blunderbuss. They’re more brutal weapons than we saw Edward armed with, but satisfyingly so. New items and weapons are unlocked by freeing as many slaves as possible, with new numbers of freed slaves offering new rewards. I’m not quite certain if I’m comfortable with the horrors of slavery being quantified this way, but it is how it is. Slaves are freed in a series of ways, with some simply being one at a time as they’re transported between jobs, with others being more elaborate, such as the taking of huge slave galleys and the stealthy elimination of all the guards on a plantation.

There are some good new musical cues for Adewale, which suit the setting well, and the visuals are as nice as ever. I was surprised to find that the visual difference between Wii U and PS4 was less than I expected, with the PS4 doing very little with its vastly higher graphical capabilities. I would still argue that the Wii U is the definitive console version of the main game.

Freedom Cry is more of the same, which is fine, because I loved Black Flag. In some ways it’s quite a conservative DLC release, particularly compared to Assassin’s Creed III’s nuttiness, but it’s still a well-made, polished experience which loyal fans of the series will enjoy.assassins-creed-4-freedom-cry-cheats

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag for Wii U, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

Well, talk about a pleasant surprise. After Assassin’s Creed III, a game I consider to be an utter disaster, my hopes were not high for the Assassin’s Creed franchise. The prospect of a new game the following year didn’t fill me with enthusiasm, and I thought I was done with this series. Happily, I’ve been proven completely wrong with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the best Assassin’s Creed game since the second one, and a game which scratches an itch I didn’t even realise I had.

Black Flag takes us back in time from Assassin’s Creed III, focusing on the adventure of the stoically dull Connor’s grandfather Edward Kenway, a Welsh pirate who left to seek his fortune during the Golden Age of Piracy. Edward soon becomes a pirate of some renown, rubbing shoulders with historical pirates such as Bartholomew Roberts, Anne Bonny and, best of all, Blackbeard. A chance encounter sets Edward against the Templars, who seek access to a First Civilisation temple with the help of an enigmatic figure known as the Sage. Although not a revolutionary such as Connor or Ezio, Edward’s personal material interests align with the Assassin’s as he works with them to find the Observatory before the Templars and achieve the fame and fortune which he believes to be his right.

Of course, this is an Assassin’s Creed game so you’re not actually playing as badass pirate Edward Kenway, you’re playing as someone reliving the genetic memories of badass pirate Edward Kenway. After series protagonist Desmond reached his confusing and nonsensical end in Assassin’s Creed III, the present day story shifts to a new, unnamed silent protagonist. You are an employee of Abstergo Industries, a game company which seeks to create videogaming experiences from genetic memories taken from an Animus. They’re working with a French company known as Ubisoft (hmm) to create a game based on the life of Edward Kenway, and you are a researcher for the game…yeah. Of course, there’s a wider conspiracy going on, and it’s not long before our protagonist is recruited by a figure known only as ‘John from IT’ to investigate the Templar cult at the head of Abstergo.

The plot for the 18th century stuff is a bit of a mixed bag. On the one hand, the actual stories of piracy and adventure are incredibly compelling and enjoyable. The stories of great pirates such as Blackbeard and Mary Read are compelling, exciting and surprisingly emotional. I loved the story of the pirates defending their haven of Nassau from the auspices of the British Empire, and overall Black Flag has the best cast of supporting historical figures in any Assassin’s Creed game. However, there are some major draw-backs. I’ve always been a staunch defender of the First Civilisation, Assassins vs. Templars storyline which has underpinned the series, but in Black Flag for the first time it felt tacked on and forced. Edward’s reluctance to join the Assassins means that the wider plot often feels remote and pointless, and returning to it drew from the far more enjoyable grounded narrative of Edward’s adventures with history’s greatest pirates.

One element of the plot that I did love though was the present day sections. Is showing the development studio of the game you’re currently playing self-indulgent and silly? Well, yes. It’s not necessarily even done particularly well. Still, for a major AAA game release from a huge publisher to attempt something so meta and clever must be applauded. This is the territory of quirky indie games, but with the resources that Ubisoft have at their disposal we have both a really interesting undermining/parody of the AAA focus grouped game development of a blockbuster, as well as an expanding of the intriguing modern world setting. That said, the Juno storyline is forwarded an infinitesimal amount, and is more about deepening our understanding of this setting and what’s going on there. The self-deprecation of these sections was highly appreciated, and a couple of intriguing connections to the heavily anticipated Watch Dogs certainly don’t go awry either.

So, from a gameplay perspective Black Flag bears most in common with Assassin’s Creed III. The combat is the same, the free-running similar and the stealth systems and sailing pretty much the same. See, I hated the mechanics of Assassin’s Creed III, so I’m as surprised as anyone that Ubisoft was able to salvage those mechanics into working well. The free running feels satisfying again (if not quite as much as in the first two), and combat is, at least, functional. Best of all though is the massive improvement in stealth mechanics. For a series based on assassinations, the Assassin’s Creed games have had some horrible stealth mechanics. They were worse in III, but they weren’t great to begin with. Although it’s not going to exactly give Dishonored a run for its money, stealth is finally a viable option in an Assassin’s Creed game! It’s much easier to tell where you are hidden from the enemies, and although it’s still irritatingly contextual, the indicators are finally clear. Ubisoft subtly fixed the broken mechanics of III, but it’s impossible to deny that the mechanics are still pretty clunky. Much like GTA5, I can’t help but wonder why these huge companies are seemingly incapable of creating satisfying controls. Still, all said Assassin’s Creed IV simply plays well, which cannot have been said for III.

The main draw of Black Flag is the massive expansion of the sailing sections from III, but with us now exploring an open world filled with things to do. The ship combat was epic in III, but an extra element of chaos and strategy in Black Flag ticks a nautical itch I didn’t even know was there. Boarding an enemy vessel is a surprisingly fluid, organic and fun experience which never stopped feeling epic the dozens of time I did it during my time with the game. This is the most content packed Assassin’s Creed game to date and best of all it’s all actually fun. Alongside the story missions filled with epic set piece moments are optional assassinations, naval contracts and a handful of other fun diversions. Now, I’m an adult and collectibles in games don’t hold much draw for me anymore, but goddam it if I wasn’t going to meticulously seek out and collect every single optional sea shanty for my crew. As a side note, I played Black Flag on Wii U, and although having the map visible at a glance was nice, it’s a shame that nothing else was done with the tablet controller. Still, it’s pleasantly superior to the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions (if not quite up to the PS4, Xbox One or PC versions), so I was happy enough with it.

Similarly to Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the out of Animus gameplay is completely different to the in-Animus gameplay. Rather than running and assassinating we’re walking and…er, hacking. There are a handful of different hacking mini-games, which aren’t nearly as challenging and cool as those of Assassin’s Creed II, but certainly weren’t bad enough to get dull. Ubisoft probably take the right approach in Black Flag by making the large majority of the modern day stuff optional. You probably only have to play about half an hour outside the Animus, but if you’re one of those people (like me)who enjoy the modern setting, there are plenty of intriguing chunks of lore to be gleaned by exploring the Abstergo Offices, and hacking it’s computers, in more detail. The voices to abandon the modern setting have gotten even louder with this instalment, and I do wonder if Ubisoft will one day make the modern stuff entirely optional. This would be a good way of pleasing long term fans such as me without potentially alienating new-comers to the series, or those who are simply sick of this element.

Black Flag succeeds well in its presentation, although the usual Assassin’s Creed niggles are present as well. Although the environments are gorgeous, and the ocean highly atmospheric, there are all of the little glitches and weird moments that we’ve come to expect from this series. Still, this game provides that immersive pirate experience I’ve always wanted, and the visuals play a large role in that. The music is suitably pirate-y, with the sea shanties standing as the clear highlights. The voice acting is up to usual Assassin’s Creed standards, with Edward’s voice actor helping to make him stand up alongside Ezio. The supporting cast are brilliant, such as the cross-dressing Mary Read, with the surprisingly nuanced portrayal of Blackbeard standing as the highlight.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has rescued the reputation of a series which, at its best, can be one of the most inventive and interesting in mainstream gaming. If the rumoured pirate spin-off is real, I’ll be thrilled, but I’m mostly excited to see where Ubisoft go next. It feels good to be excited about the future of Assassin’s Creed again. images (1)

Assassin’s Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington DLC for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC

I was really, really disappointed by Assassin’s Creed III. It’s a glitchy mess, with mechanics which fundamentally don’t work, but with the odd redeeming piece of genius slotted in there. I wouldn’t have bothered with this DLC if the premise hadn’t intrigued me so much. This DLC was released in three parts, The Infamy, the Betrayal and The Redemption. I decided to review all three together when they were done rather than each individually, as the episodic nature of these releases interested me, and had potential to be something very clever; that was naive of me.

The Tyranny of King Washington begins as Connor awakens in a strange alternate reality. Here, George Washington had come into the possession of an Apple of Eden, and corrupted by its power, has declared himself King and rules as a dictator. On a more personal level, Connor is shocked to find his mother still alive in this reality, and responsible for enraging Washington to such an extent that he is wreaking bloody vengeance upon the entire Native American people. Connor is drawn into the rebellion against Washington, with his campaign against him bringing him back to the Frontier, then Boston and finally to New York, the seat of Washington’s power.

The Frontier and Boston are disappointingly unchanged, with the new missions taking place entirely in locations that we’ve seen before. New York is slightly better, with a striking pyramid under construction by Washington dominating the sky line and altering the feel of the city. The alternate history concept of The Tyranny of King Washington is an intriguing one, but all too much the world of Assassin’s Creed III seems unchanged. New York was a nice step, but it’s not enough.

There is an element of fun seeing famous historical figures either becoming patsies for the corrupt Washington monarchy, such as Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold, or parts of the rebellion, such as Sam Adams or Thomas Jefferson, but this is really the extent of the fun. The plot looks like it’s leading towards some interesting places towards the end, but it doesn’t really. The rich potential for this sort of setting just isn’t lived up to in The Tyranny of King Washington, which is a bitter shame as it was the plot which most drew me to this release.

Unlike a lot of DLCs, The Tyranny of King Washington actually introduces some new gameplay elements, and these are a surprising amount of fun. Connor gains access to three ‘spirit animal’ powers, earning one in each instalment. These powers sap Connor’s life, so they must be used carefully, and deciding when to use them introduces a rewarding risk/reward tactical element. The power of the wolf, introduced in ‘The Infamy’, allows Connor to turn invisible for a short time, making the interminable stealth sections much more fun, as well as to summon a pack of ghostly wolves to fight at his side. The power of the eagle is introduced in ‘The Betrayal’, and is my favourite of the three. It allows Connor to fly between ledges, as well as launch long ranged aerial assassinations, and it makes traversing the rooftops of Boston and New York much more fun. Sadly, the third power is by far the worst, the power of the bear, simply allowing Connor to smash the ground and send out a blast radius which throws back or kills nearby enemies, as well as breaking down barriers. It’s not particularly fun or interesting when compared to the wolf or the eagle. Overall though, these powers are fun and work well, but the whole experience is held back from being too much fun by the underlying flaws in Assassin’s Creed III’s mechanics.

 

The game is as clunky, unsatisfying and unintuitive as ever, and at times is actually worse. The plot requires Connor to be a constant target, but this means that Connor is relentlessly being chased or attacked by guards, with no way of lowering infamy as in the main game. A decent run across one of the environments is simply impossible, as you will be attacked along the way, with little way to avoid it. As I said, I’m aware that the plot demands this, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

This DLC is at least a rich feeling package, with well directed cutscenes, and decent voice acting. The voice acting for Connor is actually better and more human than in the main game, which is nice, with Washington coming across as suitably malevolent.

The biggest issue with this DLC however is that most common of issues; it’s shockingly overpriced, even by Ubisoft standards. Splitting the story into three parts isn’t a clever storytelling technique, it’s a way of masking how lacking the content of this release is. A purchase of all three parts will set you back 2400 Microsoft Points (or whatever your virtual currency), for about seven hours of gameplay. By comparison, each of the excellent Borderlands 2 DLCs offer twice as much content for a third of the price. This is a simply pathetic release, and I really need to learn to be more cynical. The debacle of the Darksiders II DLC should have warned me never to trust in a Season Pass, and I’m so utterly disgusted by the failure of this product to deliver value for money that I doubt I will ever purchase another one again. Sadly, this anger is the greatest impact that this DLC made upon me.

Like the vanilla release, The Tyranny of King Washington contains flashes of brilliance in a sea of mediocrity. Yes, the alternate history plot is interesting, the animal powers are fun and the ship battles still rock, but they can’t elevate the experience above the incredibly flawed mechanics, all whilst offering staggeringly bad value for money. Even at half price this would be too expensive.

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Far Cry 3: Deluxe Bundle DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

As much as everyone hates it, pre-order DLC is here to stay. Locked on disc content is an infuriating fact of the game industry these days, with very few companies remaining pure (please Nintendo, please remain pure). I normally don’t bother with such things, but decided to give this one a go, because from the sound of it, the content was worthwhile and fun to play. These missions don’t feel like they’ve been stripped from the main campaign to sell back to us; I’ll never forgive Ubisoft for their frankly offensive Assassin’s Creed II DLC which did just that, or Bioware for the DLC exclusive Javik character in Mass Effect 3. The Deluxe Bundle DLC for Far Cry 3 isn’t nearly as bad as that, but is certainly a…ahem  ‘far cry’ from a decent DLC package.

The Deluxe Bundle DLC is a packaging together of the different pre-order DLC available for this game, with the main attractions being the Lost Expedition package, which contains two missions, and the Monkey Business DLC, which contains four missions. The Lost Expedition stuff doesn’t really have much of a story, but is packed with some eye wateringly awkward and out of place gaming references to things such as Portal and BioShock, although there is an interesting tie to the Assassin’s Creed universe which opens the possibility of Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed sharing a setting. The Monkey Business stuff introduces Hurk, a dumb, overweight American who pulls Jason into his attempts to join the Rakyat tribe by enlisting his help for a few missions.

This DLC doesn’t really add any new locations, and a disappointing amount takes place underground. Far Cry 3 was at its best in the open air, and these more constrained environments aren’t conducive to the open ended approach which made the game so successful. I’d love to see a DLC which added a new island, one quite different from the two in the main game, rather than being forced to fit into the constraints of the existing locations.

The Monkey Business pack is undermined by the fact that Hurk, clearly intended as comic relief, severely grates as a character. Perhaps if played alongside the main game Hurk would fit into the plot better, a naive and jolly idiot in a game filled with dark and tormented characters, but this character really does this DLC no favours. There’s not much plot to this DLC, certainly nothing which feels relevant to the main story, which is probably for the best as that would be a recipe for fan backlash.

The Deluxe Bundle is more of the same, but that’s not really an issue. I loved Far Cry 3, so more Far Cry 3 is something that I certainly appreciate. There are some really cool set piece moments, one during which you man a machine gun on a boat sticking out in particular, but by and large it’s just standard Far Cry 3 stuff. If you want something which adds something particularly new and interesting, perhaps you should  look elsewhere.

The Deluxe Bundle is, as these packages go, not that bad. There’s a decent amount of content here, but not enough for the price. For half the price this would be a decent package, but as is usually the case with DLC, there’s simply not enough content for the asking price. Far-Cry-3-Deluxe-Bundle-DLC

Assassin’s Creed III: Hidden Secrets DLC for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC

Ok, just a quick one today. It’s no secret that I was unbelievably disappointed by Assassin’s Creed III, but despite that I still bought the Season Pass. The reason? See, starting soon is a three part DLC series starting known as ‘The Tyranny of King Washington’, set in a parallel universe in which George Washington crowned himself king, and Connor must take him down. I think that this is incredibly awesome, to the point that I’d happily put up with more Assassin’s Creed III to see how this plays out. With the Season Pass comes this pack, Hidden Secrets, a collection of the Pre-order and retailer exclusive DLC for the game, which I decided to give a go, because it was basically free.

This DLC is made up of a couple of new naval missions, which as the best part of the main game are certainly welcome, as well as a less successful new ‘Pegleg’ style mission set in a Mayan Temple. The Mayan Temple looks great though, with a pleasant jungle feeling rather than the forest of the main game. Of course, nothing is actually done with this different setting, but it…erm, still looked nice?

There’s no plot linking these missions, or any real sense of context, but considering that this is simply a collection of separate DLC packages this isn’t really surprising.

The Mayan mission, the main draw of this pack, sadly exposes a lot of what was wrong in this game. The structure is entirely linear, with an overreliance on scripted events with a constant wrestling of control away from the player. This DLC is also incredibly short; to complete all the new missions shouldn’t take you more than half an hour.

The Hidden Secrets DLC pack is most certainly not worth the money if bought separately of the Season Pass. I cannot emphasise this enough; do not buy this DLC separately. However, if you already have the Season Pass, give this a download, why not? If only for the new naval missions, which ran out in the main game far too soon. news_hidden_secrets_dlc_710x390tcm1976104

Assassin’s Creed III for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC

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. assassins_creed_3

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