I will openly admit something considered a faux pas by a critic: preconceived notions. I found the original Assassin’s Creed interesting and entertaining, if a bit lacking in depth to support its length. Assassin’s Creed II opened up the experience, but still felt a bit on the long side. Then Brotherhood came around. The franchise’s overarching plot, focused on present-day assassin descendent, Desmond Miles, and a mysterious omen signaling the end of the world, drew me back into the story. However, it took a great deal of patience to finish the game. Brotherhood came off as a bloated expansion pack, an attempt at an annual cash-in rather than an experience of its own. Needless to say, I avoided Revelations, altogether; I could not sit through another Assassin’s Creed game in the Ezio timeline.
At first, the rumor of a new entry in the Assassin’s Creed series did not have me turning cartwheels, especially given Ubisoft’s propensity to turn the franchise into an annual series. However, when Assassin’s Creed III was announced, the first feature that caught my attention was the series’ new hero, native American, Ratonhnhaké:ton (Connor, as he is known by his English comrades and enemies). Developer, Ubisoft Montréal, also promised to turn the page on the series with a new setting, Revolutionary America, and a gussied-up new game engine. The “III” designation seemed fitting, and as I am something of an American history buff, I was officially interested.
AC3 kicks off the action on a surprising note. The first 5-10 hours of the game do not feature star Assassin, Connor, rather a mysterious Englishman with a secret agenda. This prologue not only serves as a thorough tutorial of the game’s mechanics, but also an important introduction of many of the characters and their motivations.
Connor’s story begins in his childhood. Raised in a Mohawk tribe in the wilderness outside of Boston, Connor finds his innocence shattered at an early age when tragedy strikes his people. The boy warrior becomes the apprentice of retired assassin, Achilles. Achilles, an elderly hermit who lives in the backwoods, is unwilling at first to train Connor, but soon discovers the boy’s determination to fulfill his destiny as an assassin. The two become like father and son.
Connor sets out on a quest to save his tribe from the encroaching English expansion into the new world. Along the way, the young assassin’s exploits intertwine with the Brotherhood’s centuries-long war against the Templars. As if that were not enough, Connor also finds himself joining the colonial separatist movement against Mother England. Rubbing elbows with American Founding Fathers, George Washington, Samuel Adams, and others, Connor becomes just as adept at stabbing Redcoats as Templar spies. However, what I found interesting about AC3’s story, and something I have to give the developers a lot of credit for, Connor does not discriminate between Redcoat and Rebel when it comes to defending the rights of his people. It would have been intellectually cowardly for the developers to limit Connor’s enemies to the Redcoats. Connor’s unblinking violence against the colonists who would oppress his tribesmen brings a great deal of validity and truth to the character and his motivations.
Our old friend Desmond Miles still fights the good fight against the modern-day Templars. While Desmond’s segments are still minimal within the scope of the game, you will guide Desmond through several harrowing mini-missions, which bring out his latent violent side.
The ending of the game, a source of much contempt among some players, is startling. I found it thrilling, and I am dying to find out what happens next, as it opens the door to what could be some very dramatic action in the coming chapters. If you are a fan of the series, there is no way AC3’s ending did not stun you.
Another of Assassin’s Creed III’s strong points is its new game engine. Along with graphical improvements (see below), on-foot traversal has been made more flowing and natural. Pressing the “high profile” button is all that is needed to initiate a climb or grapple – no more endless pounding on the jump button, Connor simply glides up the sides of buildings and trees with ease. This also works with leaping from ledge to ledge. The burgeoning cities and wildernesses of AC3 are more horizontal in nature than the mosques and towers of previous entries. The new free-running mechanic of AC3 makes it a joy to dash from rooftop to rooftop.
The vast expanses of wilderness bring with them the new ability to traverse treetops. Wilderness synchronization points reside at the tops of extremely tall trees, and high branches can be perched to hunt prey, both animal and human. Speaking of which, AC3 includes an extremely in-depth goods trading feature. As Connor forms relationships with artisans, and as he hunts and gathers resources, a vast number of items and consumables can be forged for profit or Connor’s own use. This is a way to earn steady income, as Connor will not buy businesses or send apprentice assassins abroad for assignments as Ezio did in his games.
The most exciting new feature in AC3 is the naval warfare. These segments are short, intuitive, and incredibly fun. Connor sinks man-o-wars, braves stormy tidal waves, bombards seaside fortresses, and narrowly avoids rocky crags at top speed. These are the most entertaining ship battles I have played in a video game since Sid Meier’s Pirates. I actually had to force myself to play these segments at modest increments so I did not run through them too quickly.
However, AC3 is plagued by several control problems that have existed since the first game. It is still easy to mis-time jumps, or accidentally jump in the incorrect direction. Controlling horses is also a frustrating affair, with horses trapped easily in the environmental geometry. The most damning criticism of AC3’s gameplay, which is common to every entry in the series, is the ease of combat. Once you figure out the rhythm of the combat (which happens quickly), any enemy can be dispatched without effort. There are the occasional stronger enemies thrown in, but they are easily dealt with by adding a dodge move.
I did encounter a bug here and there, but none that broke the game or hindered progress, and none that I could replicate. The game never crashed once in the 50-hour saga. The worst glitch I encountered was one that distorted shadows in the snowy sections of the game, but a driver update from NVIDIA solved the issue.
The new engine improves visual quality, but not in a breathtaking way. As with entries before, this Assassin’s Creed universe is plush, finely detailed, colorful, and filled with hundreds of NPCs going about their daily routines. The new engine brings with it more convincing facial animations, and (of all things) the most realistic eyeballs I have ever seen in a video game. AC3 also has the most realistic mud I’ve ever seen. There is nothing as pretty as AC3’s mud! Physics have also been improved, as characters seem to have more weight to them, and the awkward bending and twisting of ragdoll limbs have been minimized. I also noticed far less of the “zero gravity weapons” glitch that was a problem in previous games. If there were a pile of discarded weapons on the ground after a fight, and Ezio walked through them, at least one of them would slingshot across the screen 100 feet as if it had a rocket engine attached to it. That is mostly gone in AC3.
The forests are wonderfully detailed, and full of life. Small hares dart through the brush as beautiful rays of sunlight pierce through the forest canopy. Mist hangs lowly over lakes, and leaves flutter about. I live near the same forests portrayed in this game. I grew up around them, and I have hiked among them. I can attest that the developers have gotten the look, the sounds, and the terrain perfect. During winter, Connor trudges through waist-deep snow banks, leaving behind detailed tracks and trails, light glistening from the ice crystals blanketing the surface. AC3 is simply the most detailed, alive, accurate recreation of a forest I have ever encountered in a game.
If there is a problem with the visuals, it is more with the production design than the actual graphics. The two main cities in the game, Boston and New York, are extremely similar. This problem spans the other games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and is one the developers have obviously not solved in the fifth proper game in the series. While past entries in the series have changed color schemes to differentiate cities, Boston and New York have very few features to distinguish them.
Voice acting is top-notch, featuring a script perfectly in-tuned with the phrasing and colloquialisms of the 18th century. The score is also spectacular, featuring gorgeous melodies and themes during the segments when Desmond convenes with the precursor oracles. Sound effects within the game are plentiful, and authentic. The forest comes to life with a cacophony of sounds from wildlife to wind through trees, from flowing streams to the clopping of hoofs against the forest floor.
An epic journey through colonial America, Assassin’s Creed III is easily the best in the series, and a culmination of the best features the series has to offer. While AC3 does a lot things right, its most meaningful accomplishment is its intelligence and its ability to weave the war between the Brotherhood and the Templars into actual historical events. For example, in AC3, Connor takes part in the Boston Tea Party, but not in such a direct way as to alter history – it is quite brilliant.
Assassin’s Creed III succeeds at almost everything the series has tried (and sometimes failed) to do in the past four games, from story, to gameplay, to its sense of grandeur. It is my favorite game of 2012, and one of the best single-player games ever created.
As a postscript to this review, my enjoyment of ACIII finally inspired me to install Revelations on my PC. While I did not enjoy it as much ACIII, I thought it the best of the “Ezio Trilogy.” It was an intriguing – and surprisingly moving – end to the Ezio and Altaïr story lines.
STORY: A Connor’s introductory foray into the Brotherhood is the most interesting yet in the Assassin’s Creed canon. Desmond’s story leaves you begging for a sequel.
GAMEPLAY: B- Traversing the environment is smoother than ever, but some control problems from past games have stuck around. Naval combat is spectacularly addictive.
GRAPHICS: A- The plush, detailed graphics gamers have come to expect from the Assassin’s Creed series are even better with an updated game engine. Forests (and eyeballs!) have never looked better in a video game. Cities look too similar.
AUDIO: A A big-budget script with top-notch voice acting and immersive environmental sound effects highlight AC3’s audio section.
FINAL SCORE: A-