Liberty and Justice for Whom? Assassin’s Creed III Review
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360
Assassin’s Creed has always been a huge and glitzy series, with locations and characters reminiscent the sprawling historical dramas of the 60s and 70s. The cinematic overtones and high production value alone are a draw to many players, but the core gameplay – the fluid, chaotic combat, the seamless freerunning, and the interaction with high-profile historic events – is what really keeps people on their toes. Assassin’s Creed III, set at the beginning of the American Revolution, sets out to concretely unify the overarching themes of the shared story of Desmond Miles with one final historic setting.
The first impressive aspect of Assassin’s Creed III is the setting. Your first assassination, played as the enigmatic, James Bond-esque Haytham Kenway (who has to have the most bland name ever created for a super assassin) in a performance of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera” hints at the scope and detail of the experience. The production team behind this game has truly outdone themselves. On top of fitting in quite a long excerpt of Gay’s opera – try just sitting there and listening for as long as you can, as that particular play is hilarious and thematically resonant – they’ve crafted an utterly beautiful, impressively seamless world.
The long prologue played as Kenway slowly pans back to reveal a huge playable world filled to bursting with rich detail. Redcoat uniforms are not only impressively detailed – even down to the facing colors on their coats and regiment numbers on some packs – but, between the prologue at the inception of the Seven Years War (where you play as Kenway) and the main course of the game during the Revolution (where you play as Connor), the game takes into account that the uniforms had changed subtly over the twenty-year time gap.
From there, the world only gets bigger. It’s the type of game world that’s related most closely with Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption, where hours and hours of offshoot missions await a curious player. Eventually, you’re able to explore an exhaustively detailed colonial Boston and New York, take sail all along the east coast, and explore a sprawling frontier wilderness in between.
Assassin’s Creed III, above all else, sets out to push the boundaries of the series as far as they will go. It doesn’t just stop at expanding the world map or the size of cities, but it continues to redefine the series’ core gameplay. Not only are the main missions impressively varied, but none of the side missions or even main side quests smack of repetition. Doing a mission to expand your homestead will be totally different from taking to sea to fight against Templar raiders or forts. Even the addition of naval combat, which seemed completely unnecessary at first, brings a comprehensive sheaf of unique missions and challenges, as well as some of the most exciting and original gameplay in the series. Desmond is also given much more to do, including a Dark Knight-inspired base jump onto a skyscraper in modern New York City, lots of exploration around his cave, and several run-ins with Templar agents and first civilization techno-gods.
It would be easy, amidst all this expansion, to lose sight of the core of the game and get lost among all the shiny new additions. But ACIII never loses sight of its main elements. In fact, if anything, the core gameplay has been streamlined and simplified since Brotherhood and Revelations, where it felt like Ezio was carrying a baggage train full of weapons and gadgets. Connor, or Ratonhnhaké:ton (which his mentor, the former Assassin enclave master Achilles Davenport, says he won’t even try to pronounce before bestowing upon him his white-person name), still has more sharp, pointy items than he could ever use in a single fight, but they’re much more focused this go-round.
You can assign tools to the Y button, such as ranged weapons (like your bow or pistols) or other tools like the rope dart, smoke bombs, or snares, all of which have different uses in combat or in avoiding combat. Other than that, you’ve got a selection of weapons, like your hidden blades, the tomahawk and knife combination, as well as your bare hands. Each of these has different motion-captured animations for combo and counter-takedowns, as well as strengths and weaknesses against different enemy archetypes. The one huge advantage to fighting with your hands is that you can disarm most opponents, and if you happen to disarm a redcoat who hadn’t discharged his musket, you can instantly use it to shoot a highlighted foe. This also allows you to kill higher-ranked enemies (such as grenadiers or officers) without having to slow down your combos to do so.
Assisting in Connor’s extremely kinetic fighting style is the fact that the game has stripped away its targeting system, meaning you no longer have to target single enemies to get into combat mode. Such occurrences are context-sensitive, but you can still locate and engage single targets at will when they become highlighted – this is mostly determined by the direction in which Connor is looking. It also means that being able to break contact and run away when you’re outmatched or low on health is much, much more fluid.
The developers have also refined the freerunning system, and although the game is hardly free from the series’ trademark goofy pathfinding errors (you’ll still find yourself running halfway up a wall two or three times before the controller recognizes your commands to go a different way, or flinging yourself off of a wall or tower at an angle that’ll turn you into a meat patty on the ground on account of oversensitive controls), for the most part, Connor is intelligent enough to keep going at pace without flinging himself to his death. Freerunning through trees is fun, quick and extremely fluid, which opens up new pathways and new approaches to combat and hunting. And since many of the game’s key set-pieces occur out in the wilderness, this is a huge boon to accomplishing your objectives.
Unfortunately, there are some points of the game wherein the developers have assumed the player will take the most direct approach to accomplishing an objective and have triggered it accordingly, meaning that an alternate path to the same objective may not accomplish anything, despite sitting or standing right on top of the objective mark. For instance, early on in the game, Kenway is told to climb to the top of a ship’s foremast, and if you climb up the ship’s rigging – the rope ladder stuff attached to the masts – the objective doesn’t trigger, and Kenway just stands there stupidly on the crow’s nest. Climb up the mast itself, though, and the objective is instantly fulfilled. It’s a very strange situation, and sometimes this error occurs in a much more important mission. Coupled with this is the sometimes arbitrary context for your single ‘use’ button. Sometimes I’d like to knock on a door and find Connor petting a dog instead. It doesn’t happen often enough to be game-breaking, but it’s certainly frustrating.
Also frustrating is the graphical glitchy-ness. Considering that this is the third – or fifth, depending on how you count – Assassin’s Creed game, you’d think that Ubisoft would have focused on getting rid of the texture pop problem that’s been dogging the game since ACI. It’s still there, along with a high occurrence of suddenly decreased draw distances, which can be disastrous in a pursuit. Of course, it’s more likely to happen in a chase, meaning that the draw distance problem is a big one. Overall, though, the graphical quality is incredible. The models and textures themselves are so detailed that it’s possible to see that the designers have overlooked some minor details – for instance, there are no regimental stamps on redcoats’ pewter coat buttons, and it’s easy to see that their hats are made of something over than beaver felt, based on the textures. Of course, the ability for a sharp-eyed, colonial clothing obsessed player to even see those errors testifies to the wonderful work the developers have done to bring the game world to life.
Voice acting is impressive, especially that of Connor/Ratonhnhaké:ton and his mother, Kaniehti:io, who speak not only English but Mohawk as well. The inclusion of Native American languages and voice actors lends the game some dramatic weight and helps to make Connor a three-dimensional character, which is something that the series has struggled with in the past. There are a few flops in the voice acting, such as George Washington having a voice actor who would sound more at home narrating technical manuals than voicing the father of the United States, and Desmond’s father, William Miles, whose voice simply doesn’t match his character model at all. The other characters and actors more than make up for any deficiency, however.
Character creation is yet another area in which Assassin’s Creed III excels. The prologue, and subsequent bait-and-switch, following Haytham Kenway, wouldn’t have worked without the solid voice acting and better writing that collude to produce a pitch-perfect 18th century precursor to James Bond. The twist of his reveal as a Templar wouldn’t have been quite so shocking if the man wasn’t so instantly likeable. Connor, his son, has the fiery temperament of Altair and single-mindedness of Ezio, but it’s tempered with humor and humility to a degree that neither previous main character could match. Connor is constantly calling the motives of the rebels into question, at times openly criticizing them for resorting too quickly to a violent option (which is a criticism modern historians have often leveled at the founding fathers as well). Although the game itself paints the colonists as generally sympathetic to the native cause – nothing could be further from the historical truth – Connor is much more critical of the rebellion and its architects than I ever expected.
It’s through the twist in the prologue and Connor’s skepticism that Assassin’s Creed III casts doubt on the morality of its own story. Not only is the Revolution itself viewed through something other than rose-tinted glasses, but by seeing that the Templars and the Assassins are generally going after the same result, using the same tactics, it asks you to consider what the real motives are behind the entire conflict. Formerly, the Assassins were considered the good guys, but ACIII asks if brutally maintaining the status quo is the best position to take. The morality of the movement – both the Revolution and the Assassin/Templar war that underpin it – is much messier than in any of the previous titles.
The multiplayer of ACIII also gets some expansion. On top of carrying over many of the old standards from Brotherhood and Revelations, it includes a few new additions. A mode called Wolf Pack brings a very welcome cooperative element to the sometimes stiflingly lonely AC multiplayer experience, tasking players to take down a number of NPCs within a time limit. There are also some standard multiplayer gametypes, one of which, Domination, plays suspiciously like a Battlefield engagement rather than an espionage game. Still, it doesn’t detract from the core of the multiplayer, which is still one of the most unique experiences you’ll find on Xbox Live or the PSN, since the focus is still more on thoughtful, tactical acts of violence rather than twitchy wholesale slaughter. Those familiar with previous titles’ multiplayer will be pleased, and those new to the game entirely will probably have a new addiction.
A sequel should be rated on its ability to deliver a familiar emotional experience – to give players the same ‘feel’ of the original – as well as implement improvements and expansion sufficient enough to warrant shelling out $60. On all counts, Assassin’s Creed III nails it. The developers have accomplished a difficult trick of comprehensively expanding the world map and including dozens of new elements, while simultaneously refining and streamlining what could otherwise be an unforgivably clunky experience. The story has never had a tighter unification of its themes, quite so intriguing a cast of characters and historic figures, and such a massive, ambitious scope. Assassin’s Creed has never been better.
Assassin’s Creed III earns 4.25 slaughtered redcoats out of 5.
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