The Assassin’s Creed series is Ubisoft’s most lucrative asset. More than Tom Clancy, more than Prince of Persia: Assassin’s Creed is to Ubisoft what Call of Duty is to Activision, or Battlefield to EA. It’s their go-to franchise. What separates Assassin’s Creed from those two and many of its contemporaries, however, is that this is a franchise that has managed to improve with each subsequent game. Without tampering with the formula that made the original such a novel concept despite its repetitiveness, Ubisoft Montreal has constantly raised the bar, elevating their narrative capabilities while fleshing out their version of world history. With Assassin’s Creed III, the French studio has managed to craft not only one of the finest pure action games of the generation, but perhaps the best title in the series.
Assassin’s Creed III largely tells the story of the birth of the United States, seen through the eyes of a young Native American named Connor, a moniker bestowed upon him by his trainer after he has received the calling to join the Brotherhood. Prior to this, you’ll briefly control an English nobleman who goes by Haytham Kenway, shortly in London, and soon thereafter in colonial Boston. Haytham’s story spans the whole game, coinciding with Connor’s, but as a playable character only serves to introduce (or familiarize) players with the staples of Assassin’s Creed gameplay. But anymore on how he influences the overall campaign, I will not say. After the initial few sequences, players will control Connor for the remainder of the game (and of course Desmond in those few present-day segments).
Ubisoft has always had a knack for manipulating history to fit their narrative goals. It’s one of the finest points about the series as a whole: getting to learn about many of these major historical events, but with a far more entertaining twist. Assassin’s Creed III spans 30 years, covering the bulk of the American Revolution and hitting nearly every major focal point: the Boston Massacre, Tea Party, the Battles of Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Chesapeake Bay, and more. In the more immediate timeline, Desmond and his merry band of dwindling adventurers continues to seek answers buried in the past of his ancestors in order to stop the oncoming solar flare on December 21, 2012. It’s timely, for sure, but the series always felt at its weakest trying to tell the story about a bunch of characters that, for each of the games, you saw so little of.
A number of quality of life changes have been made to the overall look and feel of the series: characters move with more fluidity and animations transition much more smoothly than in previous games. The series’ staple platforming-made-easy formula has been stripped down even more, making the game’s primary means of travel even easier. Combat, as well, now feels a lot simpler, with counter-kills still being your number one offensive maneuver, but without the need to hold down any button to enter a defensive stance. You’ll simply block and counter with a single button press each. Particularly impressive are the kill animations, especially those rare cases where you’re being attacked by two enemies simultaneously and perform a double counter-kill.
When not gallivanting across the frontier or meeting up with Samuel Adams for a pint, Assassin’s Creed III offers a ton of optional collectibles, side quests, and pure exploration that simply dwarfs the previous games by comparison. The usual stuff like courier missions and assassination contracts return, as well as series’ “favorites” collecting feathers and treasure chests, but new to the franchise are naval battles, the homestead, hunting, and an assortment of other collectibles that each, in their respective ways, opens up other new and exciting activities.
First, the homestead: no longer are you burdened with having to purchase and renovate different parts of the city. Now, Connor gains access to a quaint little village that serves as a base of operations. Throughout the game you’ll encounter experts of various professions – craftsmen, hunters, doctors, etc. – who you can then recruit to set up shop at your homestead. Doing so gives you access to various goods that you can then manage and sell to other shops. This will become a major source of income late in the game once you’ve invited a decent number of residents. You’ll also find and collect various recipes throughout the game, allowing you to craft new weapons for yourself, among other things.
What makes the homestead such a natural and significant improvement over the previous iterations of a simulated economy is that those people who come to live on your land are not just nameless faces. You’ll carry out quests for them, which increases their profession rank and thereby the quality of goods they can produce, but you’ll also get to know them on a personal level. Many of these residents are offered a chance at a better life by moving to the homestead, and because of this wish to repay you in kind. You’ll witness a birth, a wedding, camaraderie, and even a little drunken brawling. As much as characters like Samuel Adams and George Washington are essential to telling the story of the American Revolution, the characters at the homestead are essential to telling the story about Connor as a man – who he is, what he stands for, and how he will be remembered.
Secondly, the naval battles, like the homestead, are purely optional missions that populate over each new sequence. You’ll gain access to your own personal vessel early in the game and can purchase upgrades and various modifications to it as you see fit. These will come especially in handy in some of the later naval battles that are required. The missions are brief diversions to the game’s familiar elements, lasting no more than a few minutes on most occasions. There is another optional side quest that involves traveling the east coast in search of a pirate’s lost treasure, and you’ll visit some exciting and exotic locations in the process. I would be remiss in not saying that I would love to play an entire multiplayer game designed around Ubisoft’s implementation of naval battles.
You’ll be introduced to the game’s basic hunting mechanics just as you gain access to Connor. There are a few interesting tricks up this sleeve, such as using bait and traps to lure in your prey, or performing leaping kills on some of the more sizeable animals, but ultimately hunting proves rather useless and extremely mundane. Some of the more aggressive prey such as wolves or bears can be put down in the same way any normal enemy can, by evading their attack and performing a counter. The spoils you’re able to collect are dependent on the weapon you used and generally the smaller the weapon, the greater the yield. Early in the game it’s a quick and fairly easy way to make some cash, but once you have access to the homestead and begin to assemble an adequate crew, hunting can be completely ignored.
The game’s scope is certainly nothing to gawk at. The frontier alone is roughly the size of all of Brotherhood’s Rome. Add to that the areas of Boston, New York, and the Homestead – all of no modest real estate – as well as some of the secluded, one-time only areas found in various missions, and this is absolutely the largest Assassin’s Creed game to date. The first few hours as Connor will be spent simply exploring every inch possible of the frontier, and if you’re like me, getting to all of those synchronize points early.
The addition of snow as a weather effect is impressive, and as a hindrance on the ground also amusing to see as Connor tries to trudge his way through the waist-high white powder. The trees themselves are also finally introduced as a platforming element, allowing transition through the woods to be made in style, but on many occasions you’ll find them a bit of a nuisance to navigate. Their imperfect design as compared to the flat-surfaced buildings you’re used to climbing makes them feel a little less fluid than running across the rooftops of a city. Occasionally you may even find yourself unable to leap from one branch to the next, not because it’s impossible, but simply because of the imprecise positioning of the trees.
Assassin’s Creed III does so much right on the surface that it’s unfortunate that the game is littered with a number of bugs and oversights. Mind you, nothing on the level of L.A. Noire that prevents you from finishing the game, but frequent loading issues, texture pop-ins (or unfinished texture loads), intermittent freezes, quest icons disappearing or not appearing at all, some quests not activating initially, and more constantly rear their ugly heads. The team at Ubisoft Montreal worked so hard to put out a game that lives up to the standard of their series, and in many respects they have raised the bar again, but it’s the finer details and the cut corners that in the end hold this game back from getting the total praise that it deserves. Although if you’re a diehard fan of the series, I guess you could chalk all that up to glitches in the Animus.