Enter Assassin’s Creed III, and Desmond Miles once again sits atop the Animus, his magical, science-fiction way-back-machine, for his fifth sojourn into his family’s bloodied and oddly historically-significant past.
As 1753AD coalesced around me, rebuilding itself polygon by polygon, texture by texture, I felt a confidence that Assassin’s Creed III would be a product of Ubisoft Montreal’s learned successes and mistakes. A confidence that was reflected in the familiar, fluid, self-assured gait of my character as I strode into, wait, the London Opera? What is thi-
I swung the camera around and was surprised to see that the character I was controlling was in fact not the figure from the front of the box, but an older, weathered Englishman, with a disarming look about him and a velvety accent to match. Assassin’s Creed III opens with a refreshingly unique sequence that I am reluctant to detail here, but which pours a delicious grey into the gaping moral expanse between the Assassins and the Templars established by earlier entries in the series.
Unfortunately, once the opening sequence is complete and the player takes control of Connor (Ratonhnhaké:ton, if you’re nasty), too little is done with this confusion of Assassin and Templar motivations and agendas. What follows is a somewhat predictable revenge plot, led by a naive protagonist for whom responsibility is in equal parts—gleefully and dutifully accepted.
Ubisoft’s portrayal of the American Revolution proved to be a pleasant surprise, an alternate history that worked hard to neither deify nor demonise either side of the conflict. Most of the famous characters from the period are well-rounded, each exhibiting failings or weaknesses that history lessons generally don’t cover. However, Connor’s active participation in each of the pivotal moments of the revolution did begin to stretch the suspension of disbelief, especially in his role as chauffeur to Paul Revere during his midnight ride.
It seems that the criticism levelled at the original Assassin’s Creed regarding sparse and repetitive side missions was taken to heart. As the series has progressed, more and more has been added to the periphery, and Assassin’s Creed III features some of the most cluttered area maps I have ever seen. Each of the major areas in the game are absolutely lousy with things to do, up to the point where it actually becomes annoying. It didn’t take long before I realised that delivering letters wasn’t really something that an up-and-coming assassin would, or should, be busying himself with.
In place of the villa from Assassin’s Creed II, Connor establishes a homestead away from the prying eyes of the British and Patriots alike. The homestead can be populated with inhabitants who bring unique skills and abilities to the group. These inhabitants can also be upgraded, which in turn allows you to painstakingly use them to craft items, which can be sold via complicated trade routes for a profit, the money from which can then be spent on, err… more trade items? I guess? The entire trading system is an unnecessary mess, and seems to be little more than a concession to the period of the setting. This is exacerbated by the fact that upgrades for Connor’s gear are also crafted via this system of cluttered and obtuse menus, except for the items available in the stores.
Connor’s gear progression is unnecessarily obfuscated by this decentralisation. Though, as it turns out, Connor is horrifyingly proficient with any of the items that he can acquire throughout the game, so if you chose to completely ignore the upgrade and crafting system, you would be unhindered in your progression. The only real need for money is in upgrading your newly acquired and refurbished ship, the Aquila. Assassin’s Creed III introduces naval combat scenarios to the mix, which are an absolute delight, albeit tenuously connected to the plot.
Players are tasked with piloting the Aquila, ordering sails to be reefed or unfurled, calling for broadside cannon fire, choosing the type of shot to be loaded, warning the crew to brace against rogue waves or incoming ordinance, and targeting exposed powder stores with light swivel cannons. One of the most tense and atmospheric sections of ACIII was a naval engagement against three Man-o-War class ships, at night, during a storm. Seeing one of those monstrosities seemingly rise up out of the night as it crested a nearby wave with the moon behind it, its three rows of cannons hungry for a broadside… it was a chilling and lonely experience, and to my mind, unparalleled by anything delivered by the series to date.
Having played both the Xbox 360 and PC releases, it is frustratingly difficult to definitively recommend one over the other. When the PC port is doing everything it is supposed to, it shines. One of my primary problems with the Anvil engine has always been how it renders shadows on consoles, and it is no better on AnvilNext. However, the odd and obtrusive grainy effect that occurs on both the 360 and PS3 is non-existent on the PC. The framerate on PC was also vastly superior, as I would expect from my Nvidia GTX580, but it varied wildly in environments that allowed for a long draw distance which, let’s face it, was most of them. The dearth of graphical options in the PC release, which you can see below, was also rather disappointing.
This also highlighted the biggest problem with using a mouse and keyboard to control Connor. When the framerate bottoms out, movements of the camera would hang and then jump, often leading to unintentional turns when free-running. The controls are clearly designed around the demarcated button types of a controller, and as such feel somewhat messy and unintuitive on a flat keyboard. This subsequently requires the player to rely more on on-screen prompts, and to think about their controls. A wired 360 controller quickly became my preference.
So, while the PC delivered more frames and prettier pictures, the 360 version was more reliable overall. I should also note that should you choose to buy a PC copy at retail, you will be forced to use Ubisoft’s uPlay launcher for managing your game. Your product ID cannot be redeemed on Steam — if you want it on Steam, you’ll have to buy it there.
Assassin’s Creed III is an easy game to criticise due to its vast array of moving parts. The core experience of playing as Connor, the updated combat and free-running systems, the amazingly fluid tree-traversal, and the changes to his fighting style are all excellent, and are true advances for the series. Unfortunately, the full weight of the negatives atop this solid core are impossible to ignore.
The inclusion of so many unnecessary time-wasters, overly complicated mechanics and tacked-on period concessions imply an insular design direction, which could have greatly benefited from the input of someone outside of the Assassin’s Creed team. Like Connor, Assassin’s Creed III seems to be desperately beholden to its heritage, and ultimately confused about what it wants to be.
- Free running has been simplified, and is less likely to misinterpret inputs
- Combat has been further refined and bolstered, over AC:B and AC:R
- The tomahawk is BADASS
- The core of the Assassin’s Creed experience is intact, and well implemented
- Naval combat is intensely fun, if somewhat out of place
- The subject matter is interestingly and deftly handled
- You will be buried under sundry optional missions
- Questions regarding the validity of the assassin’s motives continue to be brushed aside as mere ramblings of dying evil men
- The teased blurring of the line between Assassin and Templar is left unexplored
- The upgrade system is ultimately useless and poorly implemented
- Sparse graphics options and poor keyboard/mouse controls