When Assassin’s Creed debuted in 2007, I thought Ubisoft set the foundation for a strong series mired by bizarre and often dull design choices. The leap to Assassin’s Creed II, with the engaging Ezio and a refined, expanded world, delivered the experience I had hoped for on the first go. Yet the series stalled after the worthy if unnecessary Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, with Assassin’s Creed: Revelations shoehorning in strange gameplay mechanics. In some sense, Assassin’s Creed III has the monumental task of restoring the series to its glory days. What better place to revolutionize the series than in colonial America on the brink of independence? Though franchise-spanning issues still plague this entry, Assassin’s Creed III is a massive undertaking with enough intriguing parts to make the whole an exciting if patchwork experience.
Perhaps more than any previous entry in this flagship series, Assassin’s Creed III includes a vast number of interconnected systems, economies and narratives that, for the most part, blend together in exciting fashion. Set around and in the midst of the American Revolution in the 1700’s, Desmond Miles (gracing us with Nolan North’s dulcet tones) must explore the life of yet another ancestor to prevent the impending destruction of the world. And though one would think that such a cataclysmic event might earn the majority of the player’s attention, Connor’s story is a long and fascinating one, combining some of the most famous events of the United States’ nascent years with the personal tale of the assassin’s life.
Connor’s half-Native American, half-English heritage plays an essential role in the game’s narrative. While this Assassin’s Creed gets off to a slow-paced start that has the first three memory sequences serving more as a prologue and foundation for what’s to come. Indeed, even on the gameplay front the first few hours of the game reintroduce latent assassins to the title’s modified platforming and combat mechanics.
While I certainly noticed the slower pace and wondered when the central plot might kick in, I was never bored by these earlier hours. Avoiding the story’s fun twists and turns in the beginning, these earlier missions shape what is to come in an important manner. Assassin’s Creed is attempting nothing if not to be epic and ambitious, and thus the beginning portions of the story raise the personal stakes for Connor in a way a quick cutscene may not have sufficed.
Players will control Connor from his time as a boy, through the terrors of his young life to the virtuous yet murderous adult he becomes. Connor’s lineage, dedication to his homeland and the setting are a fascinating take on a piece of history taught year after year in American classrooms. The British vs. the colonists has been a cut and dry story in the academic setting for those in the States, but Assassin’s Creed III puts a harsh perspective on the proceedings indicating that despite what freedoms the colonists may have earned, a whole people lost theirs in the process.
Connor may more so aid the patriots than he does the loyalists, but he is firmly set on a third side – protecting his tribe and preventing any further loss of life due to the greed of colonized hands. Though perhaps not as romantically engaging a character, Connor is a stalwart figure with whom we endure quite a bit of pain and strife. I thoroughly enjoyed watching him mature in this lengthy narrative. The inclusion of American history rarely felt overly like fan service to history buffs, the exception to the rule being the game’s use of Paul Revere in one particular mission, but rather most events fit quite nicely into Connor’s plight.
Desmond’s trials on the other hand certainly puts much on the line, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, and the build up to this point has been a journey I thoroughly enjoyed. The franchise has never shied away from tackling weighty subjects like religion and history while simultaneously dabbling into heretical territory. I wondered and anticipated how the story would conclude and unfortunately, I realized by the end of this tale that I had developed little connection to the characters or to what would happen.
How the story ends is almost exactly how I would have anticipated the narrative to culminate, and it was a major disappointment that after putting a spin on so many weighty topics, the ending failed to evoke any real satisfaction. Thankfully Connor’s story is a personal enough one that those who have rarely been invested in the modern era events should feel little disappointment. His far more personal tale comes together in a beautiful ending that ties the protagonist’s familial and societal problems in satisfactory fashion.
The dual nature of the storyline is not a new aspect of the franchise, but it is perhaps now more than ever indicative of how both the narrative and gameplay operate on a number of levels, some more successful than others. Freerunning largely remains the same from as it has in prior Assassin outings for better and for worse. Players will still hold down a single bundle to have Connor/Desmond run while an additional button adds more of a leaping prowess into the mix. Unfortunately, Desmond’s ancestry has consistently been plagued with a tendency to climb objects for which I am not aiming. Scaling the side of a building is still a joy, but it’s the little things, literally, that raise concerns, as while running Connor may simply decide to fail scaling up a pile of shipping crates. Nothing new to veterans of the franchise, but it’s unfortunate that this central system has not been updated.
More importantly when it comes to exploration, is the overall shift to a more horizontal movement rather than vertical. While colonial cities like Boston and New York certainly have plenty of architecture around which to maneuver, the stores and churches of these locations pale in comparison to Renaissance Italy and Crusade-era Middle East when it comes to heights. As a result of this, more buildings have staircases, hanging signs and wooden awnings that allow players to avoid stepping on the dusty trails.
This alteration is noticeable at first, but by the time you make it to the wooded areas of the game, you may not mind the transition to a less towering landscape to traverse. For the first time, Connor can climb through the trees much as Ezio and Altair have ancient cities and the experience felt like the first time I scaled Damascus or Jerusalem. Connor is more graceful and nimble than any assassin before him, and this newer geometry translates into some beautiful animation work. I found myself purposefully forgoing the faster route in order to spend a few more moments among the branches in the frontier of New England.
Regardless of where you explore in the game, Assassin’s Creed III is visually stunning. Occasional lip-synching bugs or stiff animation bugs aside, colonial America in the game makes me nostalgic for a time in which I never lived. Towns are densely populated with crowds acting in varied and realistic manners. The architecture may not ascend to the stunning heights of Renaissance Italy, but the cities are so well built and animated that standing atop the bell towers of a church while looking into the Boston harbor can still make for a breathtaking sight. The wooded areas of the game are even more gorgeous. With running streams passing through gorgeous cliff sides and tree lines that are an absolute joy to explore, these areas are a highlight of the game in terms of visuals and freeroaming.
Part of what makes the woods so fun to travel through is the fantastic sound design. While the soundtrack cannot match the heights of Jesper Kyd’s previous works in the franchise, Lorne Balfe admirably provides an engaging suite of music that still captures the feel of the time. Yet the sound effects are just as impressive as the included music. I was caught by how great the crunch of snow sounded beneath Connor’s boot, or how the sounds of the city faded in and out of range as I ran along New York’s docks. The experience can be so engrossing, only complimenting Connor’s rooftop-hoping adventures.