Game Review: Assassin’s Creed III
Release: October 30, 2012
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, Wii U
Players: 1, 4–8
ESRB Rating: M
The lofty ambitions and the ensuing thread of development for the Assassin’s Creed series are probably almost as interesting as Desmond’s tale. The first one with Altaïr was insanely divisive with half of the world thinking it was nothing more than a nice proof of concept and the other half thinking it was a revelatory experience in open-world game design. Assassin’s Creed II, however, was a monumental leap forward regardless: new (likable) hero, new world, new mechanics, all three of which served to make the sequel a delectable treat. This upward swing was topped off by Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, generally agreed upon to be the best of the series. Ezio was further fleshed out with a mature storyline, the frustrating bits of Assassin’s Creed II were massaged over, and the new additions were just spot-on.
Assassin’s Creed: Revelations took a bit of a tumble. Instead of refining the old ideas of Brotherhood, Revelations tried to just stack on some new ones and call it good. In many ways, the end of Ezio’s saga was the most ambitious of the franchise, which is saying a lot given all the hopes and dreams dumped into the rest of them. That is, until now. You still play as a parkour/assassin expert in two different time periods, both trying to solve the same overarching apocalypse, and assassinate some important people along the way. You’ll jump from present day Desmond Miles, a slacker bartender turned assassin, to Revolutionary War-era Connor, a stoic Native American warrior trained in the assassin ways by one of the first to come to the New World. One informs the other as you attempt to subvert the faux-”Mayan” apocalypse on December 21, 2012, that was established a game or two ago.
And continuing from the previous games, it’s super fun to just run around the world. You’ll go between a half-wild, half-tamed homestead where you can build out your own frontier city; the actual frontier where you’ll find tons of wildlife and campers and whatnot; and Colonial America New York and Boston. While I found myself not actually clambering around rooftops as much due to the wide, expansive nature of these nascent towns, truckin’ through a snowy forest and shooting between treetops is unbelievably fun. Like, just as fun as climbing the biggest cathedrals of Renaissance Italy. It probably helps that Connor is the most agile of any assassin we’ve yet controlled yet. His ability to slightly strafe as he sprints alleviates so many false-climbing initiations and full stops against rogue walls that plagued past games.
This makes it a lot easier and more enjoyable to go about collecting feathers and trinkets and accomplishing side quests. And given that each little endeavor—whether to figure out how to climb a particular tree to get to the synchronization point or liberating districts so you can recruit an assassin—is always fairly short, they’re more like fun shenanigans than missions. I mean, the Peg Leg missions are a bit longer, but they are so worth it. Seriously, track down all those trinkets as soon as you get a chance because the missions you unlock with them are easily the best in the game. But the shorter ones are still nice little distractions. One homestead encounter had me break up a fight by using the two analog sticks to maintain two separate, shifting meters. It was a little one-off thing but a totally new and unique mechanic was cooked up just for it. The variety in Assassin’s Creed III is just astounding.
Not to mention the naval battles. That alone, given a few more months in the incubator, could be its own game. While the ship controls and the feel of slamming those big ol’ boats around makes a great first impression, I initially thought the actual battles were lacking. But then something clicked and I realized I was playing them like a dummy and everything made sense. Then, whenever new side stuff popped up, if any of them were naval missions, those were the ones I went after first. God I love being a pirate.
What I don’t necessarily love is, well, the rest of the game. Most of it is fine and functional, but enough of it is frustrating or baffling enough to where at certain points of my play through, I just stopped, put down my controller, and swore up at the heavens for several minutes. You’ve surely read enough about the final chase sequence and its problems, and it’s all true. There are about eight or nine different spots along the chase that you can bungle the whole shebang and have to start over. Each of those obstacles probably took three to five attempts (save for two where I got lucky the first time and managed to somehow supernaturally intuit the solution), and given that to reach those later roadblocks, you still have to run through four or so minutes of chasing and dodging, it all really adds up. I honestly don’t know how this chase, especially unpatched, made it into the final release.
And there were plenty of other frustrating missions. A fair amount would have a very obvious binary fail state where either you remain undetected or you have been spotted, and rarely is the situation where you have free reign to observe, experiment, and execute. It’s always you have to keep up with someone or continually find new eavesdropping locations or whatever would force you to keep moving. This in and of itself probably wouldn’t be anything worth mentioning except for the fact that actually moving Connor around is a nightmare. The addition of leaning against walls is a problem, sure, but also for as agile Connor feels as I mentioned before, his actual handling is painful. More than past games that also had this exact same problem, Connor has a great propensity for jumping along fences and leaning against walls and climbing trees and any other number of things that he loves to do besides jump into the hay so you can hide from the oncoming enemy patrol.
Which wouldn’t be a problem if I didn’t so desperately want to see the end of Desmond’s five-year story. And it’s not because it’s super-duper compelling or anything (I kind of lost the thread somewhere around Brotherhood) but rather because I’ve developed a false sense of loyalty to seeing this through to the end. It’s pretty much the same reason I keep watching The Office. The story of AC3 gets pretty interesting (and “opens” with a pretty good twist (I put “opens” in quotes because the opening is actually like the first few hours and feels like fooorrreevvveerrr)) around the middle, but soon loses steam and kind of grinds to a confusing halt near the end where it’s just a mishmash of deus ex machinas and contrived drama. But all the First Civilization stuff is still utterly fascinating. I could see the series going that direction next.
I guess that is the most exciting thing about Assassin’s Creed III: it so definitively closes this present day chapter of the assassin/Templar conflict, that it really can only go either super far into the future or super far into the past after this. I mean, it has to be because the actual game isn’t anywhere close to being that titillating. There are significant chunks of the game that are absolutely sublime and harken back to the times I had with Brotherhood, but so much of it is also infuriating. There is just so much in this game from hunting to crafting to managing trade routes to fighting and piloting ships to recruiting assassins to recruiting homestead inhabitants to—oh jeez, hold on. Sorry, I forgot to breathe and got lightheaded.
In so many ways, Assassin’s Creed III is the most ambitious and, on the meta-game level, succeeds because my curiosity in the Assassin’s Creed world has been reinvigorated. But for every two scoops of gameplay raisins in my bran flakes, the game also throws in a scoop of coagulating bug paste. I wish everything that faltered was as good as the stuff that soared, but it didn’t. I still enjoyed myself by the end, but about 30% of that was based on prior love for the series. And that 30% can have you endure some pretty rough chase sequences.
+ Naval combat is superb and should probably be its own game
+ Stunning visuals of seemingly limitless wilds and infinitely blue tropical waters
+ Collecting and completing all the side missions are a rip-roaring good time
- Chase sequences, stealth sequences, or pretty much any mission with binary fail states
- Connor, despite being more nimble, handles worse than any assassin before him
- Despite interesting mid-story turns, the Desmond conclusion is lackluster
Final Score: 7 out of 10