Game Review: Assassin’s Creed 3 [PS3/Xbox 360]
It’s time once more to step into the mother of all narrative contrivances, the Animus, and interact with history by means of stabbing it from behind. Instead of the ecclesiastical vistas of renaissance Italy, in Assassin’s Creed 3 we’re treated to a more earthly setting in 18th century America, and a more grounded assassin through which to view it. It is an undeniably slow starter and many of the franchise’s past grievances remain; ultimately though, whilst perhaps not providing the touted franchise revolution, Ubisoft’s latest offering delivers an affecting story and set-pieces of a quality seldom seen today – ample justification to slip back behind the hood.
As far as storytelling is concerned, it’s an oddly paced affair. Once again charged with controlling the impossibly dull Desmond and his throng of unlikely annoyances, you’re flung back into the action seconds after the climax of Revelations. A new temple setting here and a dash of first-civilization nonsense there, and suddenly you’re back in the Animus, living out the lineage. Things start out glacial as you play as the enigmatic Haytham for the first four chapters of the game. This gargantuan prologue is eased along by the strengths of his character more than the situations within which he is drawn – he’s an instantly likeable guy, forming a stark contrast to the stoic, underplayed tones of the actual protagonist, Connor. If you’re itching to get back into assassin garb, be prepared to put in at least four hours of leg work to get there.
Outside of the Animus, it’s business as usual: the characters are un-engaging and Desmond’s plight is a conceited one – a disappointment certainly, but not a step down from previous entries – if that was your bag previously, you won’t have qualms here. The modern day has a lot more to give this time around, tying up many of the franchise’s loose ends. The historical setting, as with the other titles, provides the stronger yarn with themes of family, honour and corruption bursting from the colonial backdrop. Moral ambiguity is a recurring motif and one that’s especially interesting through the eyes of a one-man vigilante executioner. The political intrigue itself may be lost on some of us Brits not versed in America’s independence, but there’s enough here on a personal level to keep you invested regardless. Haytham embodies the storytelling at its best, with many of the illuminated political leaders coming up close behind. Connor himself is a stranger one to call. Far removed from the artistry, flamboyance and charm of Ezio, he is a hardened and unrelentingly to-the-point force, right from the off. It’s a bold move, especially as he develops little throughout the story, but one that, on balance, pays off. He represents those shunned aside during this period, and his new found brotherhood never erases that. For this reason he lacks the likeability of Ezio but more than makes up for it in contextual poignancy.
When you get down to playing the thing, Assassin’s Creed 3 mixes it up on a conceptual level more than it does a mechanical one. The new setting provides perhaps the biggest change, with the frontier made up of large forest-y expanses available to navigate on top of the bustling cities of Boston and New York. Connor no longer has a city to renovate, instead just a small personal community. Homestead missions can be taken on to increase your plot of land’s prosperity and they provide a lot of the extra-curricular meat, usually being fleshed out with the odd yarn. There’s a truly comprehensive economy system here, which grows as you build more businesses and save more lives. The issue is that money is never really a necessity. The entire game is easily manageable with the weapons you start with, and stocking up on ammo won’t break the bank. Whilst out in the wooded glade, hunting is an option although, again, given the lack of need for profits, it may only compel completionists. In urban areas, there are people who need liberating, Ben Franklin’s Almanac pages that need finding, towers that need climbing and, of course, fools who need assassinating. There’s certainly a lot to do on land but the bulk of the side stuff amounts to either killing or stealing something.
The most variety is found in the generally stellar story missions. Eager to not to fit into any specific paradigm for too long, Assassin’s Creed 3 sees the player command armies upon horseback, infiltrate huge British forts and even do some contemporary assassinating as Desmond. Easily the game’s biggest additions are the naval combat missions. Both deceptively simple to control and frighteningly authentic, they’re a real joy to play. Nothing ever really tops navigating your ship through a storm before opening fire upon the enemy and boarding them for the final kill. They’re as well-executed as they are beguiling. Unfortunately, to counter-balance this addition comes the dragging back of older, lamented structures. Eavesdropping missions, for example, provide some of the worst outings that bore as much as they do aggravate. Thankfully they’re fleeting and few, their legacy, in the end, drowning under the magnificent weight of the naval sequences.
Indeed, there are many more things to do this time around but, whilst on land, Connor controls nearly identically to Ezio and Altair. Disappointingly, Ubisoft have abandoned the “aggressive stance” malarkey found in early games, wherein you had to navigate modifiers before you were actually doing any damage or sprinting at full pelt. Traversal is now a one-button situation which, whilst not being a game-breaking problem, does deprive a very un-nuanced system of its last bit of sophistication. Combat, again, is simpler. Now it’s just a case of hacking with one button, defence breaking with another, and countering with a third when the on-screen prompt appears. Unlike the traversal, however, it feels like a genuine improvement. Connor is always wielding two weapons allowing him to move seamlessly between enemies and block mid-attack animation. And yes, it’s too easy, and yes, sometimes enemies do tend to stand around you and wait to attack, but they’re generally much more aggressive and satisfying to take down. The AI tends to struggle more when it’s on the lookout than when it’s engaged in combat. Sometimes a fluid stealth entrance will be thwarted by a super-human guard who spots you from miles away, and at other times someone will go from alerted to confused when Connor performs the, admittedly brilliant, act of stepping behind a tree. It’s inconsistent, but manageable.
The multiplayer suite is certainly improved but offers little in terms of innovation. The thrill and tension of surveying a crowd for your target is still alive and well and the new leveling system is comprehensive and expansive. The issue is the amount of time it takes to progress through the levels, and one can’t help but notice that the option is there to artificially rise ranks with real dollar – it feels cynical and out of place. Killing online is functional and supplemented with nice enough expositional sticks and carrots, but it’s never more than that and the appeal soon wears thin.
Given the new iteration of the Anvil engine, it’s disappointing that the presentation is as patchy as it is. The frame-rate is noticeably slow almost all the time and lip syncing ranges from weird to audio playing over a static face. Shadows are granular and, for the most part, wrong looking, the frontier’s foliage is completely hit and miss, and bugs are everywhere. That’s to downplay the scale and general authenticity of the world, however, which is strikingly impressive. The animation, also, is once again nothing short of breathtaking. Connor moves with a convincing weight, reacting organically to a now impossibly large amount of stimuli – his running animation really is a thing of beauty. Combat flows naturally and traversing through the woodland is exhilarating. The score is unremarkable but potent in bursts, succeeding in setting the less well-trodden scene with the voice acting faring similarly, never detracting from the overall narrative.
Assassin’s Creed 3 is a patently ambitious game, stretching its much-used formula over the biggest surface area yet. Naturally, cracks are showing, most of them manifesting as structural miss-steps and technical issues. Thankfully, the painstakingly well-realised world, the gargantuan set-pieces and the genuine ethical quandaries render this latest jaunt a thoughtful and powerful one. Somehow as outlandishly fun as it is historically evocative, Assassin’s Creed 3 is true escapism at its finest.