If there’s one thing the Assassin’s Creed series has demonstrated from the beginning, it’s that players will never receive what they expect. This began with the first game which cleverly concealed its larger story in all marketing and press materials. Desmond was a complete unknown before players actually got the game in their hands, and those expecting a simple story about an assassin in the 12th Century instead found themselves whisked back and forth between a present-day conspiracy and a heavily story-driven set of assassination missions.
We should have been suspicious then, when in the lead up to Assassin’s Creed 3, the newest release in the series, all of the pre-release material focused on Connor, a half-English, half-Native American man who lived in Revolutionary War-era America.
Indeed, Assassin’s Creed 3 is supposed to be the final act in the series, but in defying expectations, the developers at Ubisoft instead have found themselves at the head of one of the biggest missed opportunities in the history of gaming.
The opening sequences of the game set the stage for the thrilling finale, wherein all will be revealed and the world will be saved. I eagerly stepped into the Animus, expecting to find out about the series’ mysterious new protagonist. It was not meant to be, however, as Assassin’s Creed 3′s prologue seems to go on forever, never giving you full control of Connor for about 5 hours, roughly a quarter of the 20 hour campaign. These opening hours meander along, sucking all of the excitement out of the narrative, punctuated by a “twist” that is both unnecessary and never capitalized on. By the time you take control of Connor proper, the game has squandered the opportunity to bring players into its world, instead choosing to force players to endure repeated (and lengthy) tutorials on tracking, hunting, and other peripheral elements of the gameplay. Even after taking control of Connor in his adult state, the story really doesn’t get moving for another few hours, putting the player almost halfway through its 12 memory sequences before really forming the plot and giving the player a sense of purpose. It serves to highlight that the narrative in Assassin’s Creed 3 is padded to the point of lengthening what is really an 8 hour narrative into a 20 hour narrative. The game refuses to just get on with it, instead slowing its pacing down to a meandering, goopy mess.
The “revelations” the story offers up don’t really feel earned, either. Even though we’ve spent 5 games with Desmond and company, Ubisoft has never given us the chance to empathize with Desmond, which renders the events at the end of the game pretty limp. In fact, it’s probably a criticism that can be levied at the entirety of the series. By constantly splitting its narrative between two large groups of people, I feel like we’ve never really gotten to know any of the characters in the Assassin’s Creed universe, except for Ezio (which took 3 games covering his entire life).
So yes, the narrative falters and disappoints. It wouldn’t be as important, though, if the gameplay held up, right?
Unfortunately, the lack of focus in the story also extends to the gameplay. The primary gameplay thrust of the game (namely, assassinations) is marginalized to the point of near nonexistence in Assassin’s Creed 3. Your first proper Assassination doesn’t take place until past the midway point of the game, and it (and most of the subsequent ones) don’t feel the result of planning or precision. You can literally run up to your assassination targets and stab them in the face with the hidden blade, and the game doesn’t punish you for this approach. You might not get “full synchronization,” certainly, but there’s no progression system in the game, no reason to strive for synchronicity save achievements. The economy doesn’t have much of a place in the game, either. There’s no need to purchase weapons, or ammunition for your weapons. I played through the entire game with just the tomahawk and hidden blade, never needing any of the other weapons such as the pistol, bow, or others.
Additionally, the secrets that were present in past Assassin’s Creed games aren’t here, either. There are no glyphs or hidden crypts as in past games. The one main collectible, pages from Benjamin Franklin’s Almanac, are poorly thought out. They flutter in and out of view seemingly at random, always tantalizingly out of reach, and typically leading you into trouble before suddenly disappearing without reason. After trying in vain to catch the first 3 or 4 that came across my view, I gave up on chasing them, instead focusing on the main storyline.
Now, astute readers may have realized by now that I have criticized the game for not having many assassinations and for not having that many hidden extras. So, what did I spend the bulk of my time doing? Chases and eavesdrops. In a cruel twist, Assassin’s Creed 3 somehow goes backward in its design to the first Assassin’s Creed, offering little to no mission variety. Of all of the missions in the game (there are 4 or so missions per each of the 12 memory sequences), I would say half of them involve an eavesdrop, while a quarter of them end in some type of infuriating chase. The problems with these mission types are roughly the same: they typically have an instant-fail sequence attached to it (and the widely spaced out checkpoints don’t help matters) and they emphasize horizontal movement, which has never been Assassin’s Creed’s strong suit. Many of the actions in AC3 are contextual, meaning that you will find yourself diving into bales of hay while pursuing someone, or you’ll find yourself moving into view instead of “sticking” to cover, depending on how the camera is positioned. Assassin’s Creed 3 compounds these problems by throwing annoying obstacles in your path during these sequences, which cause you to divert your path and accidentally climb up a building, or jump into a well when you don’t intend to.
The final major gameplay issue is with the structure of the game. Instead of having the game center around cities with a wilderness between them, Assassin’s Creed 3 has two relatively small, nondescript cities, surrounded by a massive wilderness. Typically, missions will take you from your home base (the aptly titled Homestead), through the Frontier/wilderness, and into town, then back. Fast travel is available, but each area must be traveled between, creating a menu-load-menu-load-game loop that again only serves to slow everything down to a crawl.
On the bright side, there are a few really nice additions to the series. The first is the aforementioned Frontier, which is a completely open area where players are encouraged to explore and hunt, the proceeds of which can be used in trade for money or items. Traversal through the trees in the Frontier is brisk and fluid and is the biggest source of kinetic enjoyment in the entire game. The naval battles also standout, and it feels like more effort went into them than into the rest of the game. It’s a shame then that they are so underutilized.
Aesthetically, the series continues to standout in terms of audio. The Native American elements of the soundtrack are interesting, while the traditional score is stirring and effective. The game also allows for some silence, and some of the quieter moments in the Frontier are a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the cities. The voice acting is generally good, although I found the Native American performances to be stilted. I’m not sure if this is a product of the words being unfamiliar to the actors, or if the cadence and rhythm of speech is authentic to native tribes. Either way, it’s the weak link in an otherwise excellent audio package.
Visually there are some problems. The engine is definitely starting to show its age, and while Connor is detailed, the rest of the models are pretty nondescript. The environments are detailed and expansive, but they suffer from severe pop-in that gets worse as the game goes on. Players will see grass “inflate” into existence from a flat texture to a 3D texture, people will appear and disappear as you pass them, and shadows will start blocky and low-res until you get closer. The lighting is subtle (a pleasant change of pace from the heavy bloom that most games employ), and the weather effects are nice. Wintertime on the Frontier feels suitably cold, and the deformation of the snow as you move through it is a nice touch.
Multiplayer is still such a strange beast for this series. It’s arguably the most interesting AAA multiplayer in gaming, yet at this point barely anybody is playing. What a shame.
Assassin’s Creed 3 should be the culmination of everything the Assassin’s Creed team has learned over the past 5 games, but it appears to have regressed. The repetition that got people so up in arms back in 2007 rears its ugly head here and a lot of the interesting lore of the series has been replaced. There’s nothing particularly compelling about the gameplay, and the narrative takes too long to establish stakes and get players invested.
I opened with the theory that these games should be known more for their ability to defy expectations than anything else, and Assassin’s Creed 3 is no different. In my case, I expected excellence.
A copy of Assassin’s Creed 3 for the Xbox 360 was provided to us by Ubisoft for the purposes of this review