The Assassin’s Creed franchise has taken players to the Crusades, the Renaissance, and now the American Revolution to save the world, letting them, like protagonist Desmond, see through the eyes of Assassins who lived hundreds of years ago. In Assassin’s Creed III, Ubisoft step up their game: the story, the visuals, the weather effects, and the naval warfare are nearly indescribable. In these areas, Desmond’s latest outing shines; in others, it does not. Let’s address the questions concerning most gamers: does Assassin’s Creed III live up to the hype, and does it withstand the transition from Ezio to Connor?
The game opens in the present day as Desmond, his father, Rebecca, and Shaun arrive at a temple of the first civilisation, which apparently holds the key to preventing the end of this one. Without wasting any time, however, he’s swiftly strapped into the Animus and takes control of an ancestor called Haytham Kenway. The game’s opening takes some time to ease players into the new mechanics and the feel of the new Anvil Next engine, but some veterans might feel frustrated as they are forced to relearn the game – almost redundant in the third instalment.
Once clear of the prologue, however, you’re introduced to the real new protagonist: Ratonhnhaké:ton, or Connor. At first, he seems to be a vessel for ideas rather than a strong character of his own, but perhaps this is because few heroes can live up to the charm of Ezio Auditore – and in comparison, you can’t truly warm to Assassin’s Creed III’s heroes, nor resent its villains. Despite that, Connor’s hot-headedness and hasty actions create room for some great writing, and this combined with the cinematic cutscenes make for one of the most immersing experiences since Assassin’s Creed II. It especially mitigates the otherwise repetitive pattern of killing high-profile targets or collecting information, which makes up most of the main missions.
Connor finds himself as a key figure during the American Revolution – both on and off the battlefield – but the game feels like a regular Assassin’s Creed again as soon as you earn your Assassin robes. Indeed, players might even become thankful for the prologue, as its back-story adds depth to the story, as well as a sneaky narrative twist. Ubisoft have recreated some of the more infamous historical events, such as the Battle of Bunker Hill and the dumping of the British tea, yet their attention to detail can be seen throughout the entire game. Dynamic weather is perhaps one of the more noticeable changes: the Frontier is layered with a blanket of snow in the Winter, and blooms in the Summer. There’s rain, snow, sun, and fog – all capturing an 18th Century aesthetic with muted colours.
The sheer magnitude of this game compared to previous instalments makes it a wonder to play and explore. You’ve innumerable things to do: progress through the bustling streets of Boston or the foggy city of New York; swing through the trees of the Frontier; make money selling resources from the Davenport Homestead; sail the vast Atlantic Ocean aboard the Aquila. Parkour feels more fluid and realistic than ever, and players can now hold down the B button to quickly perform cool flips and jumps over obstacles, streamlining the experience of dashing through urban and rural areas alike. The tree-running is also new, and can seem finicky and unpredictable compared to running atop buildings, but ultimately refines and completes the game’s parkour experience.
Similar to the previous games’ Monteriggioni, but on a much broader scale, is the Homestead. This upgradeable safe-house belongs to Achilles Davenport, one of the game’s best characters – who unfortunately does not achieve as much screen time as he deserves. The Homestead introduces, among other things, a more nuanced economy system: unlike Brotherhood, in which you would buy property and let money roll in, you have to earn your money by trading. (This is all optional, but recommended, as it adds hours of gameplay.) To do this, you have to complete a number of missions in which you see crafters, gatherers, hunters, and more befriend you as you allow them to live on the Homestead. In return, you can buy their goods and sell them via convoy to traders in the city for profit. These missions demand dedication, but offer a hefty amount of coin – and no Assassin’s Creed fan should have trouble finding the determination.
A less rewarding feature reprised from previous instalments is horse riding, which is cumbersome and takes away focus from unequivocally the most enjoyable part of any Assassin’s Creed game: free running. Although horses provide a faster way to travel, there is much more to enjoy by stalking rooftops and jumping between trees. The aforementioned dynamic weather comes more nicely into play with parkour too, as deep snow slows you down and snow knocked off rooftops gives away your position. The new combat mechanics are perhaps a little difficult for newcomers, but are rather enjoyable, somewhat resembling the combat of Batman: Arkham City, with the counter button paving the way for players to execute, throw, or disarm opponents – yet you’ll definitely feel more like an assassin than a Dark Knight, thanks to the imaginative animations, seeing Connor perform executions through complicated manoeuvres like running up walls.
Free running is also incorporated into combat: players can run up to two unsuspecting guards and take them both out at once, stabbing one with the hidden blade and then killing the other with the dagger. The imagination doesn’t end there either, with the introduction of the firing line; when taking on a number of opponents, a few may step back to form a firing line, giving players the opportunity to grab an enemy currently engaged in hand-to-hand combat and use them as a human shield. These sort of moves are all the more important now that you no longer heal during open combat. On the other hand, though, health regenerating quickly while incognito or between conflict makes the game a little easier, no longer forcing players to carefully seek medicine.
The greatest additions in this instalment are naval warfare and hunting. Like many aspects of the game, there’s more to experience with your ship, the Aquila, than demanded by the main narrative; players can take the time to upgrade and sail the ship, and even take part in recreational combat, which poses the challenges of considering wind direction and force with the boat’s sails and the position of your enemy vessel. Sailing is alone overwhelmingly fun, so I don’t doubt that many players will take to the seas. Hunting is also largely optional, and while it seems to resemble Red Dead Redemption’s “kill and skin” at first, it proves to be much more complex, with different tactics, bait, and traps playing an important role.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed III perfectly combines the primary concepts of the franchise’s previous instalments into a very enjoyable experience – although it is not without its faults. There are arguably more bugs than ever before, both visual and mechanical, and the formulaic missions undermine the game’s attempt to create a feeling of freedom. This doesn’t quite take away the brilliance, though; it remains a breathtaking experience to which no other open-world game really compares. Connor’s story, nimbly told around historical events, is fascinating and will no doubt leave players with questions even after its conclusion. Assassin’s Creed III is one of this year’s must-haves and has definitely lived up to its hype, even if it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.