There's something that strikes me upon putting the controller down at the end of Assassin's Creed III; something a little bit wrong. It's not the hopelessly abrupt cop-out of an ending, nor the smattering of awful epilogue missions that follow the near half-hour of unskippable credits. Neither is it the completion percentage that sits below 50%, even after over 35 hours of game time.
It's that, for all of those 35 hours, even though I've run down privateers on the open seas, pretty much single-handedly coordinated the Boston Tea Party, hunted elks, sabotaged fortresses stuffed with guards, and played hide and seek with a group of Native American kids, probably the most memorable moment I've had in the entire game has come in control of a character I've publicly lambasted. A character so devoid off charisma that he almost makes Alex Mercer appear interesting. Almost.
The most fun I've had with Assassin's Creed III has come looking at the back of Desmond's head rather than Connor's peaked hood. And that might just be the most damning indictment that I can give it.
Before we get into exactly why that is, let's discuss scale. Make no mistake about it, Assassin's Creed III is enormous. Between the budding cities of New York and Boston stands a gargantuan Frontier, filled with rivers, cliffs, caves, camps, dense woodland and forest, military forts, and civilian settlements. It's all bespoke, too, every inch of it crafted to allow for an Assassin to muck about with parkour in a natural environment.
The level of detail is truly impressive. AnvilNext might not have produced much of a leap in graphical quality, but the ever-changing weather conditions, the way that litter dances upon the breeze in the streets off Boston and New York, the numerous NPCs - both human and of the animal kingdom - that bustle about their business, they all create a feeling of a world teeming with life and energy. There's a price for this, of course; the pop-in is truly terrible, and there were one or two bugs that saw Connor glitching through rock, or being stuck in ravine that suddenly transformed into a shadowy wireframe, but by and large, the world of 18th Century America is one of the most beautiful, and well realised open worlds we've ever seen.
It's commendable, too, how much content Ubisoft have managed to pack into their enormous maps. As well as the usual plethora of contract assassinations, high spires (and now treetops) to climb and synchronise, feathers to find, and chests to loot, there are new things to do as well. Frontiersmen will provide exploratory challenges that lead you deeper into the uncharted forests, with one mission sending you far West to uncover the truth behind a supposed Yeti appearance. There are Templar forts dotted about here and there, that provide excellent little challenges in all-too-rare scenes of open gameplay. Stuffed with troops, these little murderous adventure playgrounds have you infiltrate a restricted zone filled with danger, kill the captain, blow up the powder store, and raise a rebellious flag.
But, for this writer, as I'm sure is true for many fans of the series, Assassin's Creed has always been about that narrative-driven, fairly open singleplayer experience - games that rest on the shoulders of Altair and Ezio. Following Ezio was always going to be tricky. After all, we went on a journey with the charismatic Italian that spanned the best part of 90 hours; a journey that was carefully measured over three games. It's telling, then, that instead of plonking you down straight away in the boots of the half-British, half-Mohawk Assassin Connor, you spend a handful of hours first in the company of a man named Haytham Kenway. He's smart, sharp, erudite, ruthlessly uncompromising, and handy with a hidden blade. He's also far more interesting than Connor ever becomes.
But you can have a central protagonist as a cipher for other more interesting things. Altair was hardly brimming with personality, after all, and Connor certainly lives in interesting times. His story spans years of civil conflict as the American War of Independence takes centre stage, and he is joined by historical heroes and villains such as George Washington, Charles Lee, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and Benjamin Church. You'll take central roles in the Boston Tea Party, and the Battles of the Chesapeake, of Monmouth, of Bunker Hill, and of Lexington and Concord. The plot basis for this game is exceptional, weaving Connor in and out of one of the greatest upheavals in history, at times with consummate flair.
The ambitious nature of the game in scope and breadth and narrative arc is there for all to see. But Ezio had three games in which to tell his life story; Connor only has one. The result, therefore, is a narrative that proves patchy. What should perhaps be a titanic battle for this young man's soul between Assassins and Templars alike gets left behind. The jumps in time are filled in by monotonous chunks of narration that fail to bridge the gap required for our suspension of disbelief. As such, we never get the sense that Connor understands the world going on around him, and the side characters that might offer him that are never fleshed out enough to really make sense. I didn't know a thing about the Borgias, and yet I never felt like I had to go away and research them. AC3's plot often leaves out too much, not only severing any emotional connection we might have been building, but muddying the waters of the plot too, often for no good reason at all.
Assassin's Creed III is a bit like Star Wars: Episode III in a way. There's plenty of drama, a few interesting side characters, and a thick plot set against a backdrop of titanic struggles and political warfare. Connor, just like Anakin, should be a compelling character, but we're never given time or opportunity to explore that. We don't get to go on his journey from a lost boy to a Master Assassin, not really. It's wholly unconvincing and not helped by the fact that his vocal delivery is almost as wooden as Hayden Christensen's.
But it's almost as if Ubisoft knew that. The first three hours or so are spent in the company of Haytham Kenway, and indeed when the game relinquishes you over to Connor, it's the moments in which Kenway reappears that prove the most engrossing. It's in the exchanges between the two that Connor shows signs that he might have some personality after all.
Of course, it's not all Connor's fault, as the mission designers appear to have done their best to ensure that you have markedly less fun than you ever did with Ezio. Too much time is spent shuffling, on two feet or four, between cutscenes. There's a bit near the game's conclusion where the game teleports you after one cutscene into the forest. Your navigation marker lies maybe 10-20 metres in front of you, but it takes nearly a minute and a half to get there because Connor is heavily wounded. After that, there's another cutscene. Staggering ten metres is not gameplay. It's padding. It wouldn't be so bad if the game hadn't made me chase cutscenes just for the hell of it quite a lot in the last thirty hours...but it had.
For all of the hard work spent on the open world, it almost seems at odds with the majority of the missions. Frequently linear, horribly claustrophobic at times, there's one, maybe two, scenarios that see you given a target and encouraged to experiment, and even then the routes open to you are far fewer than before. Worse yet, there are two sections that seem all too tower defence-esque. One sees you running between three sets of riflemen and telling them when to fire as you look to hold Concord against advancing Redcoat troops. Another sees you trying to repel an attack with a cannon over the course of three minutes.
Meanwhile, Desmond gets to base jump into an Abstergo base by climbing up an unfinished skyscraper and leaping off of a giant crane at the top; then he chases down a Templar operative by sneaking through a UFC stadium bustling with Templar guards and innocent bystanders; and then later on he marches into Abstergo itself and kills pretty much everyone in sight as part of a rescue mission.
I'm sure it wasn't always like this. Assassin's Creed has always had instafail stealth sections, but they've never infuriated me as much as they do in this game. Perhaps it's because combat is so easy in AC3, and the guards so jumpy, that outside of forced sections, you'll never bother using stealth anyway. But there's a distinct feeling that I'm not having as much fun as before, be down to an uninspiring central character, poor mission design, or the same sense of hand-holding that made FFXIII such a frustrating venture.
Except on the ocean, that is.
Running down privateers, duking it out with sloops, brigs, and war galleons, the Harbourmaster missions are the true surprise of Assassin's Creed III. Nautical encounters are intensely engaging, often incredibly close, but always satisfying. The fact that you can upgrade your ship - the Aquila - really proved to be the only motivation I needed for chest looting in the game, wanting to outfit her with extra cannons, burning shot, a reinforced hull, and a sparkling, deadly battering ram. It's on the high seas that the game truly comes to life, so much so that we rather wish they'd just remade Sid Meier's Pirates!...or simply had done with the Revolutionary War and done a series spinoff called Assassins!. The only gripe is that you can only board enemy vessels when the game script tells you to, rather than using your Assassin skills for any number of missions. Still, it's by far the most engaging aspect of Connor's journey, and made us realise we want a full-on Privateer sim more than most other things.
Assassin's Creed III is not a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, it's not even an average game. But it is something of a disappointment. The backstabbing Borgias had three games, the Revolutionary War only gets one, and it shows. There's a feeling of ill-fitting pieces, and too many frustrating moments by far. Free of the story, the hunting and the exploring will consume hours of your time, and it should. Making a home for yourself in the New World, and helping out your domestic neighbours is rewarding, as is going off on adventures in your ship.
The multiplayer, too, is worth a nod. It's grown into a more rounded, more polished experience that still draws a sharp contrasts to its frenetic peers with its stillness and reliance on, you know, actual assassinations. It's telling that series fans from the start might actually find more of worth online than offline this time around, and that's down to a consolidation of what made it good to begin with. Sure, there are more perks, more modes, and more to be done, but the central mechanics remain tight, and fantastically rewarding in a rather unique fashion.
If only that tight, taut gameplay was present in the main game itself. If only half of the content on offer even felt essential or meaningful in some fashion. It's almost as if nothing was learned from Revelations, and even that game at least had a tight, focused story, that rounded Ezio's story off with purpose and distinction. The majority of the elements of gameplay here are too disparate, too forgettable, with too much filler material between any moments of promise. It's a game you'll play for the love of the series, a game you might even enjoy in parts because of that; but it's a game that you'll constantly find yourself wishing was just... better.
- Hot damn that's a fat content offering
- The world building is superb
- Multiplayer still offers a true, rewarding Assassin experience
- But since when was multiplayer the best part of an Assassin's Creed game?
- All filler no killer
- Too many directives feel like chores rather than fun
- A terribly abrupt ending, twenty minutes of unskippable credits, and then awful epilogue missions
The Short Version: Bigger often doesn't equal better, that's the moral to be learned here. Assassin's Creed III loses sight of what made the first game and its sequel such attractive propositions, delivering an immense content offering brimming with excess. The 18th century world that Ubisoft have constructed is fantastic, but it's just not that much fun to be in.