Assassin’s Creed 3 was always destined to be an epic undertaking for both its producers and players alike. To date, the series’ lavish recreations of pivotal periods and places in history have already seen its swarthy heroes clambering around the Crusades and free running through the Renaissance, gate crashing a selection of humanity’s defining moments and rubbing shoulders with some of its most famous personalities along the way. Ubisoft’s über franchise doesn’t so much have an affinity for the grand stage, more of an addiction to it.
The inherent problem with epics is that they’re naturally bloated beasts whose thirst for spectacle can all too easily leave them drowning in self-indulgence. It’s an issue Assassin’s Creed already has some experience with – let’s not forget, this is a trilogy now on its fifth episode – and AC3 carries with it the expectation not only that it will outshine it predecessors, but also bring some coherence and closure to the series’ increasingly weird and weighty fiction. A fiction that includes an ancient war between Assassins and Templars, infuriatingly oblique space gods and the fate of humanity resting with a guy who relives repressed ancestral memories from a sci-fi recliner seat that looks like a partnership product between DARPA and DFS.
It’s a lot to ask, and, for better and worse, Assassin’s Creed 3 answers with trademark epic aplomb.
After running its previous protagonist into the ground, Ubisoft has finally escorted Ezio Auditore off to an Assassin’s assisted living bungalow for a well-earned sit down and glass of Sangiovese. The great luxury the franchise’s premise affords its creators is the ability to flit around the embers of history alighting on those that burn the brightest. And for AC’s post-Renaissance renaissance it’s charted a new course for the New World.
The American Revolution is yet another era of tumultuous conflict and change ripe for constructing fiction around. An evocative setting pockmarked with monumental events and legendary figures that, to top it all, are of direct relevance to many of the AC audience. It’s like Assassin’s Creed catnip.
Covering a vast sweep of life and landscape, Assassin’s Creed 3’s story sprawls over 30 years, two major cities (New York and Boston) and an unblemished expanse of frontier wilderness in between. From the powder keg colonialism that preluded the war, through the incendiary insurgent actions that sparked the fighting and the decisive blood and thunder battles between red coats and revolutionists, the size of the game’s ambition, both temporal and geographical, really is a sight to behold.
As world-builders, Ubisoft have outdone any of their past creations. Whether you’re taking a stroll along Boston docks on an early summer’s morning with seagulls circling overhead and sailors scurrying about their work on the piers, or clumsily struggling through the pristine snows of a wintery forest causing deer to dart for cover, AC’s 3 settings are evocative to the point of opulence. The sense of time and place and the period attention to detail are so rich, just existing within the environments, soaking up the scenery, is a sumptuous pleasure in itself.
Of course, there are still glitches. While it may be one of the most impressive sandboxes Ubisoft has ever built, AC3 doesn’t seem any further advanced in eradicating inexplicable open world oddities like vanishing NPCs and skipping sound effects. To their credit though, one thing Ubi have managed to do is turn the tortuously dull text book-style information dumps that add to the Animus database into engaging asides thanks entirely to having them written by British tech-head Shaun who likes nothing more than a wry prod at American patriotism and a knob gag, or seventeen.
There’s lots of virgin territory to cover then, but like previous entries in the series, there’s an induction process to endure before you’re free to go and play Assassin. The game’s prologue stutters and stretches to around four hours, changing characters, crosses continents and constantly constricting your options as it tries to introduce gameplay systems and set up backstory, until, finally, you’re introduced to new hero Connor Kenway.
Ezio was always going to be a hard act to follow, but the part English, part Native American Connor is the right choice for this particular game. While he’s nowhere near as easy to warm to as his Florentine forefather, if all Ubisoft could have mustered was some sort of Mohawk sex magnet it would have been unimaginative, inappropriate and incongruous in equal measures. Instead Connor is the strong and silent type, as sincere as a first kiss and a concise embodiment of the naive and headstrong nature of his people (the British).
While his playboy predecessor would have happily bedded ever busty Bella Donna north of Naples, Connor has clearly never thought once, let alone twice, about raising his tent poll in a fair maiden’s tepee. Despite this, both men retain similar motivations, and Connor acts as the straightforward centre to a complex setting and story, surrounded by a supporting cast of malevolent and menacing villains and revolutionary heroes with the necessarily dull nobility that, in reality, forges nations.
Connor’s also a more adept Assassin than his predecessors. He climbs more quickly and easily, falls less frequently and wields a wide variety of period weapons, from his trusty tomahawk to flintlock muskets, many of which he can perform assassinations with. The combat system has been improved thanks to the addition of Batman-esque balletic movements and enemies now attacking en mass rather than politely waiting their turn. But while all this flamboyant and free flowing killing looks entertaining and feels empowering, it also marks a disappointingly generic shift for the series.
Connor is so overpowered in combat he’s more action hero than assassin. The cunning stealth that was the series’ original selling point has been sidelined to the optional full synchronisation objectives in many missions. And those missions, particularly the story ones, struggle to innovate as they try to shoehorn Connor into actual historic events. The most disappointing revelation in Assassin’s Creed 3 (aside from the ending) is that Ubisoft have allowed the fulcrums of its franchise to become its most stale and compromised components.
On the plus side, while AC has previously been at home in the big city, the wilderness is definitely Connor’s natural habitat. Free running along tree branches and scaling craggy rock faces soon becomes second nature and Ubisoft have put the gigantic open spaces they’ve constructed to much more purposeful use.
Over previous Assassin’s Creed games, Ubisoft has worked hard, while not always successfully, to build out a diverse range of distractions to take up your time. In AC3, however, the abundance of these makes less for a series of bullet points for the back of the game box and more an artillery dump of ancillary features. Aside from the traditional ascents of towers, and now trees, to find viewpoints and feathers and running delivery errands, Connor can lose himself in a diverse range of enterprises from liberating forts, developing his homestead by recruiting various skilled waifs and strays, collecting, crafting and trading items and snagging almanac pages that the careless Ben Franklin has allowed to escape his grasp and now flutter mischievously on the Bostonian breeze.
Of all these activities, special mention must be given to two which Ubisoft has almost developed into fully fledged pastimes. The frontier is stuffed full of different species of animal and hunting them can be honed to a fine and satisfying art by learning the locations and behaviour patterns of each. There are even special challenges that allow you to investigate local legends and try and track and take down mythical beasts. Even more enjoyable though, is the chance to take to the high seas and play ship’s captain in true Master and Commander-style, fighting cannon ball-fuelled, timber-shivering battles that open up trade routes and searches for pirate treasure.
Away from the consuming single player story, the cut and thrust of Assassin’s Creed’s multiplayer is sharper than ever. Unique amongst the vast majority of Triple-A online offerings, AC’s signature mode is not some sort of weapons-free free-for-all but a patient and stealthy game of cat and mouse where each player hunts one opponent while being hunted by another. Blending seamlessly into your surroundings and avoiding revealing your hand until exactly the right moment to play it are vital to success.
The perks system has been expanded but remains deftly incorporated, avoiding excessive gimmickry in providing additional aids to distract opponents and go undetected. Two new modes have also been added. Domination is a team vs. team battle to control areas of territory, while Wolf Pack is AC’s attempt at hoard mode and the better fitting of the duo, although both are little more than repurposed shooter stalwarts and stand firmly in the shadow of the regular multiplayer mode.
When you’re finally done with Desmond and Connor and have left Britain down a colony, there’s a distinct sense as Assassin’s Creed 3’s credits role that this is a watershed moment. AC was a series born on a giant scale with great ambitions and even greater expectations. Undeniably one of the defining franchises of this era of gaming, it’s an excellent representation of the capabilities and limitations of the current generation of consoles. In true epic style, Assassin’s Creed 3 luxuriates in the world and web of gaming strands Ubisoft has created. It’s an ending. Not exactly the one you may have wanted, but it’s a liberating experience in many different ways.
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