Review by Scottie theNerd

"A stab in the right direction, or is the series losing its edge?"

When you are this far into a series, it's easy to make a mistake somewhere. Perhaps the plot becomes dry, or too much gameplay is changed, or perhaps too many unwanted features creep in. Ubisoft has a tough job ahead with its successful Assassin's Creed franchise, and boldly moves away from the romantic Renaissance to the harsh frontiers and the political intrigue of Colonial America.

The series picks up the dual story of the modern-day Assassins with Desmond Miles taking the lead, but his virtual experience in the Animus takes on a new character. Parting from the charismatic Ezio, Desmond experiences the life of Connor, a half-European half-Mohawk warrior who faces conflict both in the politically unstable colonies as well as his own internal struggle of identity and loyalty. For players new to the series, the game does a decent job of recapping the major events and covering the controls and combat, though many of the references may be elusive without further reading. Though some find American history less than appealing, the manner in which historical figures are woven into the plot is remarkable. Far from being a “God Bless America” simulator, the Revolutionary War contains enemies on both sides as commanders cross moral boundaries and conspiracies threaten Loyalists and Patriots alike.

The look and feel of the game will be familiar with fans of the series. As with his predecessors, Connor can use a wide range of weaponry to execute awesome combat techniques, and traverse the crowded streets and rooftops of Boston and New York using his parkour skills. Following trends in the previous games, Ubisoft has tried to streamline these aspects of the game. Free-running is easier than ever, most notably in Connor's fluid interaction with the environment. When walking, Connor can “stick” to a wall and peek around a corner to eavesdrop. When running, he will push himself off with his hands. He also seems to pick his way through crowds more efficiently, and his climbing moves get him around faster than Ezio ever did. It's the sort of game that rewards the player by allowing them to pull off flashy moves with minimal effort, and considering you'll be doing this for most of the game, it's nice to make free-running less cumbersome. Apart from a few glitches that can get Connor stuck on ledges, the navigation part of the game is fairly smooth and is the least of the game's worries.

Apart from exploring the cities and unearthing the conspiracies that lay there, Connor can explore the massive Frontier. Toted as being larger than Rome from Brotherhood, the Frontier serves as a transition area similar to the Kingdom from the first game. However, there are far more places of interest as well as numerous mission and side missions. The Frontier is arguably the most beautiful area in the game, really showcasing the incredible visuals of the wild, untamed and untainted wilderness. Connor also comes across wildlife that can be hunted, which he can then trade in for money to buy weapons and items. The game features an active day/night cycle and changing seasons, which can alter his interaction with the environment. During winter, characters will struggle to trudge through the snow. Thankfully, Connor can also climb and leap through trees, which has been surprisingly well planned out and serves as a diverse alternative to running or riding.

Combat has received a general revamp. While Ezio was primarily focused on counter-attacking gameplay, Connor's combat is a balance of aggression and reactive defense. Instead of waiting for attacks, Connor can enter into quick combos to dispatch enemies and can break through defences of tougher opponents. Enemies too are more aggressive, and the combat really shines in these cinematic moments. Hitting a parry at the right time will put the fight into slo-mo, and the player can opt to use several attacks, with certain enemies being susceptible only against particular moves. This slo-mo actually works quite well, giving time for the player to plan kill chains in advance, yet forcing the player to react to sudden attacks mid-way. For example, Connor can use enemies as shields to block musket volleys or perform double-counters.

The latter is especially pleasant to watch. The animations are better than ever, highlighting the brutality of the Assassin, whether it is hacking away with his signature tomahawk or a flurry of stabs with his improved hidden blades. Double-counter kills are well choreographed and at times contain some slapstick battle humour, such as Connor causing enemies to shoot each other, or using an enemy's bayonet to stab someone else. The transitions between kill animations and the rest of the fight are seamless. It certainly carries the “cinematic” feel, and doesn't punish you for enjoying the show, though some players may feel that the game is too reliant on “quick-time event” presses instead of actual fighting.

Aside from the main storyline of hunting down Templars and getting his hands dirty in the events leading up to and including the Revolution, Connor can occupy himself with the usual range of side missions. Most notable is the inclusion of naval battles. Later in the story, Connor has access to his own frigate, which is used in its own line of missions and several times in the central plot. This has to be the biggest surprise in the game, being exceptionally well executed. The controls are simple and the gameplay is arcade-like, so it doesn't get bogged down in simulation-level complexity. As captain, Connor can adjust between full and half sails, steer the ship and direct broadsides. Many of the missions are incredibly challenging yet fun to play through, and sinking ships with grape shot or ramming a man-o-war really doesn't get old.

If war and bloodshed get tiring for you, there's the Homestead to retreat to. Serving as the “home base” for Connor, the Homestead is a region that can be populated by civilians that you help out along the way. Each one specialises in a trade and can generate income for your Homestead, and they also have their own stories and missions that see them grow as a community. The closeness of the Homestead community is a pleasant welcome and is actually one of the most enjoyable things you interact with.

The multiplayer side is the same dog-eat-dog (or rather assassins assassinating assassins, but you try saying that) kind of gameplay in previous instalments. It's fairly fun and challenging, and the concept is even better in AC3. I personally didn't find it very addictive after a while, but others can get more mileage from the reward scheme and story unlocks.

So far, the game is a nice addition to the series, but the game suffers tremendously from several design flaws and questionable features.

One of the largest complaints is the poor plot. Though the story is up to the writers' discretion, the way the story was told was too predictable, made use of too many simplified tropes and, apart from one particular twist, failed to show anything remarkable. The characters are forgettable, with perhaps one good one (Haytham Kenway – think James Bond with a hidden blade). Connor himself is a widely criticised character. Though his portrayal is strongly influenced by authentic research on native peoples, his stoic character comes across as too shallow and blunt, with his only motive being seemingly to kill a particular character. He's a tough character to relate to or understand, and a far cry from the charming Ezio that we've grown to love. If anything, he fails to appear to be like an Assassin, and he lacks a strong supporting cast. By the end of the game, it's really hard to see why the player has to go through such minimalistic plot development despite extremely heavy dialogue scenes.

The menus and interfaces are unbelievably clumsy and awkward, which is a huge shame considering how Brotherhood had a fairly streamlined method of accessing equipment. Worst of all is the Crafting system. Meant to replace the passive money-generating economy from previous games, players can use the Homestead to create items. Some of them are equipment upgrades, but the majority are goods which serve absolutely no function in the game. They can be traded on convoys, but you only really need to trade pelts, with every other item having no use whatsoever. Furthermore, items have to crafted or loaded onto convoys individually – they cannot be stacked or multiplied, and the screen doesn't remember your last selection, so you have to navigate through the clumsy menu for every item.

And just to put salt in that wound, some items require processed materials. Basically, if you want to create a particular pouch, you need sewing threads. To get threads, you need flax. You get flax, you buy them from your Stockpile page in your Homestead, then select them via the menu to craft (multiply that by how many you need), then you need to select the item to craft and voila! Yes, it's utterly ridiculous that you have to buy materials from your own homestead to craft other materials that are then used to make items that you don't need.

Even money seems to have no use. Sure, there are expensive ship upgrades, but there's nothing else to really spend money on. You can buy maps to collect chests and feathers, and you can buy weapons, but the combat system relies on one-hit kills from proper decision-making and reaction, so getting “better” weapons seems pointless when your base weapons already do everything.

Speaking of pointlessness, the civilian missions don't even bother to tell you why you're doing them. Practically any sandbox game, be it an Assassin's Creed game or GTA, will give you a short scene that tells you what to do and why you're doing it. The previous game allowed you to build relations with certain factions and eliminate important targets. Connor doesn't get that. You interact with a mission NPC, and your logbook gets updated with a list of random people walking around for you to kill without any relevance or rationale. Or you get a shopping list of items for Connor to fetch and deliver (even though you can sell them individually for far more profit), or letters to give. No reason, no time limit, no point. Even Altair's random flag-grabbing challenged you to complete free-running courses in a time limit. AC3 is insulting with its blatant omission of meaningful side quests.

And what happened to the Assassin Dens and Templar Lairs? The ones that challenge you to figure out how to free-run through dungeons and labyrinths under time constraints? What you get instead is an underground tunnel system with simplistic puzzles and an optional mission line that can be completed by moving forward and holding down the right mouse button until you have to move left or right.

Then there are small gripes and bugs that persistently annoy you. Controls are too sensitive, causing you to randomly jump off trees and into haystacks when you least want to. Lockpicking is surprisingly hard. You get lots of equipment that isn't explained and never has a use, but they keep on vanishing from your inventory at random points. Certain weapons are glitched and replace your selected loadout. The bugs aren't game-breaking in any way, but how does a game get released when bugs like disappearing items are blatantly still in the game?

The biggest disappointment is that you never feel like an Assassin. The story doesn't make use of the rich history of Assassins provided by the previous games, and instead seems to ignore all established lore and start anew. The poor mission design reflects this disengagement with the Assassin theme: instead of carefully planning out assassination on specific targets or using social stealth, Connor more or less follows a guy obsessively until he gets a chance to run up and chop him. There's nothing subtle about the way you approach missions – no stealth, no reward for being careful, and the optional objectives are counter-intuitive and frustrating to achieve at times.

Assassin's Creed III seems to be three lies in one. It's technically not the third game in the series; you don't do anything related to Assassins and the Creed is never mentioned or hinted at. It certainly isn't a bad game – it's deserving of a playthrough and it's quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, Ubisoft really set a high standard for themselves with Assassin's Creed II, and even the first Assassin's Creed is superior in many ways. For such a large development team and with time on their side, they did supremely well with the atmosphere and environment design, but everything else felt poorly put together.

What's interesting is where Ubisoft will take the series from here. You don't have to make a clone of previous games, Ubisoft, but some things aren't permitted.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 01/07/13

Game Release: Assassin's Creed III (US, 11/20/12)

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