Assassin’s Creed III faces a daunting task, one that involves forwarding Desmond’s story (and possibly concluding it), shaping a new protagonist and his supporting characters, building meaningful additions on top of existing gameplay elements, and fabricating fresh conspiracies for theorists to dissect and discuss on message boards. Despite being the fifth release in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed III succeeds in these goals about 80% of the time, but that remaining 20% simply deflates series expectations.
From a historical standpoint, Ubisoft picked a unique backdrop for the rivalry between the Assassins and Templars. As the darkest time during North America’s colonization, the Revolutionary War saw as much fighting in the courtroom as it did on the battlefield. George Washington’s impoverished Continental army faced the might of the British regulars, while the state governments pursued a corrupt westward expansion of buying land without the Indians’ consent. In the middle of the musket balls and verbal exchanges, Connor Kenway comes of age. The naive native finds himself fighting for the rights to his peoples’ territory and running errands for the white men that swear on their defiance to Britain’s king. Allegiances made to recognizable faces such as Samuel Adams and Paul Revere further tear Connor between the warring sides, sowing seeds of moral gray areas throughout an already cryptic narrative. Students know about the war between the Americans, British, and Indians as written by the winners, but the exceptionally voiced characters speak their uncertainty of the battle’s outcome without breaking the fourth wall.
To say much more about the narrative – both the five-hour tutorial and the conclusion – would be a great disservice to anyone that has yet to play the game, so know that Connor plays a grander role in the Boston Massacre, Battle of Bunker Hill, and Boston Tea Party than can be illustrated in a high school history book. The assassination of key figures also falls in line with the dates of their actual deaths, and yet Connor is nowhere near as interesting a character as Ezio. Both begin their lives as victims of happenstance, their families caught in the crossfire of events initially beyond their understanding. But Ezio matured from a cocky, young womanizer into a well-spoken man with a strong sense of right and wrong during the events of Assassin’s Creed II, whereas Connor’s obnoxious attitude becomes exhausting before he first dons his Assassin wares.
The Continental militia will also attack Connor depending on his notoriety level.
Ubisoft wastes no time in painting the other commanders in a less than flattering light, and the characterization could not be better for it. George Washington’s ineptitude during early battles portrays him as incompetent, while Charles Lee’s manic drive for power reflects his disheveled facial features. As mentioned before, there’s no black and white picture of good versus evil in Assassin’s Creed III, and the writers leave you legitimately questioning the decisions of America's founding fathers and whether or not they were justified in declaring independence. The developers even make convincing arguments for the continued returns of Desmond’s companions – Shaun especially, as his views of American history and grammar provide a few worthy laughs in the Animus database.
Connor’s adventure does take its sweet time setting the stage, however, and the first five hours will drag on for players that want to start executing targets immediately. Do not rush these memory sequences. These critical moments support a later family dynamic between Connor and his father that – though sentimental and humorous – I wish the writers would have fleshed out more. The developers rush matters concerning Desmond, too. Ubisoft finally answers the questions that have labored about since 2007 at the cost of ending animosities between Desmond, Vidic, and the Precursors abruptly, excluding the assumed emotional payoff.
Assassin’s Creed III still contains its share of poignant moments, but the story plays second fiddle to the gameplay. Connor wields a tomahawk, bow, pistol, rope dart, and trip mines in addition to the standard hidden blade, and each bloodletting tool rewards experimentation, as Ubisoft continues to make chaining kills easier and immensely satisfying. Connor moves with a lethality and agility unattainable by Desmond’s older ancestors, ducking under heavy axe swings; tripping British grenadiers; burying hatchets in their chests; snapping necks in headlocks; or sticking a pistol in his target’s mouth, positioning him in front of another enemy, and pulling the trigger. The barbarous show ends in mere seconds with nothing except a few inputs required of the player. Think Batman: Arkham Asylum if Bruce did more than just break bones, except you’ll never see the Dark Knight spill blood quite like Connor’s assassinations. Players can gut men while sprinting, stab someone in the spine before body slamming him, or strangle guards by way of rope darts.
When you’re forced to stalk targets is where Assassin’s Creed III stumbles the most. I absolutely dreaded the handful of eavesdropping missions where I failed instantly if spotted, though the action is not immune to shortcomings, either. Several chase sequences left me swearing at the television like a psychiatric patient. Assassin’s Creed was never built for horizontal traversal. The appeal has always been climbing structures and leaping from scaffolds, rooftops, and synchronization points, but Boston and New York are less grand than Constantinople in their architecture. You’ll be lucky to find a church steeple or aging tree that provides the same feeling of vertigo. Instead crates, fences, and vendors line Boston’s streets and port. These obstructions quickly become a problem during the handful of pursuits that terrorize the crowded forums. Step an inch too close to that leaf bale, scrape that building’s corner, or miss that pole swing as you skirt around the clutter and the man will escape.
When enemies form a firing line, Connor can grab the closest target for an impromptu meatshield.
Once the frontier opens to Connor, then you can let your inner parkour fiend run wild. I never thought precariously swinging from tree branches 70 feet above the ground could be more thrilling than escaping a dozen armored guards across Rome’s rooftops. Connor’s frightening balancing acts could only be performed by someone raised on the land, and he’ll need a vertical advantage for the dangers inhabiting the forest floor. Using his Native American skills, Connor can track animals via clues, snare them in traps, and lure them with bait, but there’s more than enough creatures to simply stab as they cross you off the beaten path. Deer, rabbits, beavers, and other herbivores run away at first sight, while wolves, cougars, and bears will not relent until Connor’s blood soaks the ground. Predators also attack Redcoat patrols, and it’s hilarious every time.
Slaying these beasts does more than contribute to the frontier club’s challenges. Skinning animals provides pelts you may sell to peddlers and convoys, and the quality of the hide determines the resale value. Pistols will ruin the fur, while a precise kill with the hidden blade ensures maximum profits. You need plenty of pelts if you hope to make a living from hunting, too. Players work to rebuild Connor’s homestead, recruiting artisans, hunters, and farmers driven out by wild animals or the feral Redcoats. In turn, these people also produce resources for trading. That income accrues slowly, and ship upgrades do not come cheap.
On the high seas, Assassin’s Creed III unveils its best set pieces. The visuals come alive as ships trade cannonballs and splinters. These quests let players live out their pirate fantasies, chasing down a frigate before pulling alongside its hull and firing two dozen black powder cannons into the wooden chassis. The game only demands players take part in two of these missions, yet as soon as I unlocked another, I set sail to conquer the Atlantic once again. Connor’s ship outclasses any vessel one-on-one, so the game see fits to even the competition with a ratio of ten hostile ships to your one. Elements of strategy, like a chess match of life and death, factor in different ammo types. Setting vessels aflame does not immediately decommission them, evidenced by their return of several ensuing cannon volleys, while the more savage of you can bring down enemy masts with the chain shots, board the immobile boats, and murder the ship’s captain.
To my chagrin, there’s only a dozen or so of these privateer missions, and they’re bug free compared to the glitches that regularly sabotage the gameplay. Wagons and horses fall through the streets; soldiers and civilians clip through each other; and enemies break their scripted patrol patterns, a detriment when a 100% synchronization requires you to remain undetected. Some Redcoats would appear on the map, then disappear; characters took up sudden ventriloquism, conversing through sealed lips; and audio cut outs at odd times. The game also hard-locked my PS3 three times, and the uncapped frame rate randomly sways from a euphoric 60 frames per second to a dismal 15 frames per second that drags the action through molasses.
Unlike Rome and Constantinople, the frontier's weather does change based on the seasons.
Players won’t find bugs in the multiplayer, which remains the most underrated online experience available. Previous Assassin’s Creed entries used multiplayer as a narrative tool for Abstergo to train new batches of Templars. In Assassin’s Creed III, the Animus gains commercial use as a home video game system, though unlockable files hint at something more sinister. The cat and mouse gameplay works here and nowhere else, and no other online competition fills me with such paranoia, as each passing NPC has me reaching for the stun button while I blend with a crowd.
Ubisoft includes the same solo and team objective gametypes present in Revelations, but the new mode worth mentioning goes by the name Wolfpack, a cooperative outing that encourages players to coordinate their assassinations for point multipliers. Accumulate enough points and you move onto the next sequence (wave). With 25 waves in all, players need to work as a team for the bigger EXP bonuses, but Wolfpack is not your ancestor’s idea of Horde mode. The multiplayer rules of subtlety still apply. Sprinting towards the target NPCs lowers your point total and handicaps your teammates.
Assassin’s Creed III stands as one of the stronger entries in the franchise, delivering an adventure both ambiguous and exciting. With dozens of almanac pages, feathers, and trinkets to collect, frontier challenges to pursue, and assassins to recruit, Ubisoft offers plenty more side quests when not stalking prey from frozen tree branches or abandoned rooftops. But these distractions should not keep players from getting the answers we have yearned for over the last five years. If we survive the 2012 apocalypse, I cannot wait to see what conspiracies the developers devise next.
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: October 30, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2-4 (Cooperative), 2-8 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: PlayStation 3 (Reviewed), Xbox 360, PC, Wii U