A brave new world
It’s often the case in an annually released franchise that things like innovation and refinement wind up being marginalized in order to accommodate such a short development cycle. To its credit, Ubisoft has always tried to incorporate new elements into each iteration of Assassin’s Creed, with varying degrees of success (*cough* tower defense *cough*). Assassin’s Creed 3 is the most ambitious game in the series to date, and they have pulled out all the stops (or at least a significant number of them), bringing in a slew of new elements and showcasing why this has indisputably become the company’s flagship franchise.
Given the series’ penchant for incorporating historical events into its narrative, it was all but inevitable that Colonial America would make an appearance. The locale is only one of the many changes the game brings to the series. The developer has also implemented a dynamic weather system, added a menagerie of animals (both wild and domesticated), brought in a variety of new weaponry, and incorporated naval battles into the mix as well. Each of these elements adds something to the experience to one extent or another, and brings a touch of much needed variety to the game.
The weather system is dynamic and quite well done. The story spans decades, and changing seasons reinforce the sense of time’s passage. Darkening skies and booming thunderclaps herald the arrival of torrential rainstorms during the spring. During the cold winter months your brisk jogs through the countryside can become laborious slogs as you encounter drifts of snow up to your knees. It’s beautifully done, but unfortunately it’s limited to these extremes. You won’t experience a light dusting of snow, or a gentle summer drizzle.
A variety of animals have also been added to the game, and their inclusion certainly adds a note of realism to the game. The wilderness areas are teeming with digital life, from rabbits scampering through the foliage to bears fishing in streams. Rats and stray dogs roam the streets of the cities, while ranchers tend to cows and chickens on their outskirts. It brings a vibrancy and legitimacy to the world that makes earlier entries seem a bit sterile by comparison.
The combat system continues to evolve, and you’re given some new toys for your arsenal, the most interesting of which are the rope darts, which are just what they sound like. They can be used in a number of creative ways, such as hanging guards from trees, or pulling them off rooftops. There are a number of other interesting applications as well, and they can be a lot of fun to experiment with.
Flintlocks are less exciting, since their slow reload times make them fairly impractical in the heat of battle. Sure, you can get off a shot for a quick kill, but it takes several seconds to reload, and the other attackers are unlikely to just stand around and wait for you to rearm. Similarly, the bow you have at your disposal is slower and less powerful than the old wrist-mounted crossbow. Ironically, striving for realism in representing the firearms of the day results in a significant step backwards compared to the equipment you had available in earlier games.
The newly implemented naval combat is quite impressive, though rather straightforward. Missions generally amount to ‘blow the enemy fleet out of the water’, or ‘protect your ally by blowing the enemy fleet out of the water’, or ‘follow someone to an inevitable ambush, then blow the enemy fleet out of the water’. Nonetheless, the combat is easy and accessible, and a heck of a lot of fun. Taking the helm of a rolling ship and heading into battle on a storm-tossed sea is pretty damned awesome, particularly at night. Unfortunately, if you were hoping to explore the ocean, riding the tides and discovering new ports of call (like I was), you’re going to be a tad bit disappointed. The open world freedom of the rest of the game is completely absent in the nautical sections, as you’re limited exclusively to missions.
The in-game economy has gotten a radical makeover. No longer can you purchase shops that then funnel you an endless stream of money. This time if you want to amass a fortune you’re going to have to work for it. Recruiting people to populate your homestead garners you raw materials. Doing favors for them increases their abilities, and in turn what goods they can provide. Building carts and trade ships allows you to ship those goods to other locales, which in turn brings in the money. Even things like weapons pouches require the acquisition of the right materials, and the proper craftsman (or woman) to work them. It’s a deep, well thought out system, but it could stand to be streamlined.
The story starts off slowly, but builds to a fairly satisfying conclusion. Throughout the course of the campaign you’ll meet a number of historical figures, and take a role in some pivotal moments in the years surrounding the American Revolution. In a way, having a greater familiarity with American history than with, say, Renaissance Italy detracts a bit from the experience. I’m pretty sure a Native American joining Paul Revere on his infamous midnight ride would have gotten at least some mention in the textbooks. (On the other hand, Paul gets a lot more credit than he should have… look up ‘Israel Bissell’ if you want to see what I mean.)
Unfortunately, though he has a more complex backstory, the main protagonist Connor Kenway winds up feeling less interesting than previous leads. He comes off a bit like Anakin Skywalker, in that he’s just a bit too whiny and unlikeable to be a particularly sympathetic character. As a result some moments that should be amazing lose some of their impact. However, the story is solid and has a few good twists, and Connor isn’t so annoying that you don’t care about his tale at all. Overall, though, I think if could have been a bit more impactful with just a few tweaks.
This game also sees a conclusion to the Desmond Miles storyline, and I’m happy about that for a couple of reasons. First of all, it opens up future games to literally any time or place in history, as (presumably) we’ll be entering the Animus through a different person with a different genealogy. More significantly, though, is the fact that I never cared about Desmond at all. In fact the only character outside the Animus I ever felt even a marginal connection to was Lucy Stillman, and she died two games ago. (Oops… spoiler.)
Multiplayer is still as fun and chaotic as ever, and there are a number of new perks added to the mix. The biggest new feature is Wolfpack mode, a co-op variant in which you and up to three of your friends can take down A.I. targets in a race against the clock. Fulfilling certain conditions grants bonus time, but as you advance the time limit becomes increasingly sadistic. It’s sort of the AC answer to horde mode, and I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of it in future games.
Things aren’t all puppies and cake, though. The new game engine results in increased draw distance and some beautiful vistas, but there are quite a few graphical issues as well. At one point during a cutscene I had what appeared to be a leg growing out of the side of my head. Animals and pedestrians occasionally disappear as they approach your position. Branches are sometimes separated from their trunks by several inches of dead space. Fortunately, in a game like this, these issues can be rationalized as a “glitch in the Animus”, and can be easily overlooked.
There are some other somewhat disappointing elements to touch on. The two cities of Boston and New York are architecturally unimpressive compared to earlier locales. They also seem very similar to each other, with few distinctive landmarks to keep them from blurring together. In addition, the much touted tree climbing is a bit of a letdown. It could be remarkably fun, but your routes through the canopies are disappointingly linear, with few branching (bad pun) paths.
Also, the game sometimes seems to forget that you’re an assassin, particularly when it comes to sidequests. Many of the tasks you perform amount to drab fetch quests, like delivering letters, or collecting items to fill a shopping list. Call me crazy, but bringing someone a jar of honey, two beaver pelts and a bottle of castor oil hardly seems like a task worthy of my in-game abilities (though it’s right up my alley in the real world). Even the assassination contracts are rather dull, simply requiring you to kill a number of people scattered throughout the map. There’s no skill or tact involved… you simply find them and stab them. It feels like a missed opportunity, which could easily have been done in a way to require some effort and creativity.
Luckily, these things aren’t enough of a detraction to take away from the fun. The game is epic both in its scope and the sweeping narrative. It’s beautiful to look at, plays fluidly, and adds a lot of new elements to the franchise. While there’s certainly room for improvement, what defects there are don’t undermine the enjoyment to be had. Oh, and stealth killing bunnies is disturbingly satisfying.
Tested on 360