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Assassin’s Creed III: The revolution will be gripping but glitchy (review)

WHAT YOU WON’T LIKE

Assassin's Creed III

Glitches in the Matrix

Here’s an idea: Let’s make a stealth-assassination game where the stealth does not work.

Assassin’s Creed III doesn’t always seem to understand what it does well and occasionally builds missions around what it does very, very badly. Put mandatory stealth missions at the top of that list. Past Creeds let you sneak around pretty well; you could even hire a group of decoys to blend into. This one relies entirely on shrubbery and stationary crowds to hide in, posts highly attentive guards and officers who see through disguises as if you wore their mother’s underwear instead of a British uniform, and forces you to abandon cover when discovery instantly fails the mission.

Maybe Connor and Haythem just aren’t sneaky guys? But they can’t seem to kill anyone without making a big deal about it. Isn’t the hidden blade supposed to keep things quiet? Not anymore, apparently. “Stealth” killing a stray soldier on the outskirts of a small group virtually guarantees that every armed guard in the vicinity will soon arrive to harm you. I swear, I just wanted to erase those four guys. The six others who show up every single time makes it more trouble than it’s worth, and new/old combat mechanics don’t help.

The common presence (and liberal use) of musketry should’ve called for an overhaul to ranged combat at least, if not a deep, across-the-board revision to allow a more aggressive approach. No such luck. Guns, bows, and the new rope darts suffer from a control map that makes using them a slow-motion chore. Forget snap shots. Or moving.

Hand-to-hand fighting still strongly favors defensive play, but the window for executing fatal counters has shrunk to microscopic levels. That makes killstreaks tougher to activate and crowd control on a troop of angry redcoats much more problematic. Similarly, Connor can perform running assassinations — very cool — but the timing’s so vague and ill-defined that button-mashing and prayer are your best bets for pulling it off. At least fighting animals trigger quick-time events. Yawn.

A metric ton of bugs aid and abet these faults. You’ll need precision control over a horse prone to stopping dead in its tracks for no real reason. Connor doesn’t always feel responsive, either. A truly awful camera routinely swings behind buildings or posts in the middle of a fight, and the trees I perched in blocked my shots far more than the entire forest beyond. I watched a redcoat do a sweet pop-lock dance that froze him in place … and made it impossible to slip past him unnoticed. Mission failed. Enemy A.I. can spot you anywhere, but friendly A.I. is brain dead, and its stay/follow escort commands make it impossible to dismount a horse if you accidentally jump on one.

All this culminates in a final mission so poorly designed on so many levels that I find it hard to believe nobody raised their hand and mentioned it once during a three-year production cycle. It feels built solely to aggravate. Mission successful.

That became the fourth time I started actively hating Assassin’s Creed III and everything it stood for. It’s unfortunate, because the genuine frustrations are limited to a few isolated pieces of the game. But taken together, it’s enough to leave a slightly sour taste.

Assassin's Creed III

The Wolfpack hunts together! (Or not at all)

The Assassin’s Creed multiplayer remains one of the more original and evil games out there, and this Creed brings it back in full force with a few variants on old themes. But the two marquee additions, while not entirely without merit, don’t quite pass the sniff test.

Wolfpack sounds great on paper — a co-op game where four players must coordinate their kills to hit score quotas and advance. Those work great when you have four competent assassins who communicate and co-ordinate well. I played it sitting right next to three other game journalists calling their shots, and we pulled quite a lot of fun out of our spree. But without high-quality teamwork, Wolfpack quickly becomes a short, frustrating ride. Assignments that specifically require your team to assassinate four targets simultaneously simply fall apart. Forcing players to race the clock as well is just the cement icing on the cake.

Domination, a control points match, survives scrutiny a bit better, and the design shows a lot of clever touches. Only the team owning a control point can kill other players in that general area (much larger than the “hill” itself). The other team must resort to stunning hits and subterfuge via the Disguise ability. I frequently cloaked up as a different avatar and calmly walked straight through an occupied hill pretending to be another A.I. bot … and putting that hill in contention.

The cat-and-mouse works fairly well until someone applies a little something I like to call “tactics.” A few savvy campers can blend into their hill’s background, wait until they get an incursion warning, and then simply ice whoever just walked into the ring. And since assassinations always get the right-of-way over stuns, smart players can hold their ground pretty easily. That short-circuits the appeal somewhat.

Assassin's Creed III

Desmond rides again

It’s lucky that Desmond has such a rich cultural heritage — he seems to be 1/16th anything interesting from a game-design perspective — because playing as Desmond has become synonymous with soul-crushing tedium. It’s quite amazing how many worthless tasks Ubisoft’s developers handed him over the years. Now they’ve given him daddy issues as well.

Desmond does fare better than ever before, but his three missions play like narrowed versions of Connor’s game if you subtracted the interesting bits. One climbs, one hides, one fights. You can’t do anything else. They also lack the same prompts you get playing as Connor to let you know you’re hidden or that someone’s about to hit you with a stick. I’d guess the designers felt the Animus provided those icons; once out in the real world, Desmond wouldn’t see them. But it feels a bit ridiculous to say we’re playing a video game, then pretend we’re not playing a video game when, in fact, we’re playing a video game. Particularly since turning your heads-up display off throws the difficulty curve slightly out of whack.

Side missions to climb around the First Civilization vault reward you with some interesting backstory because you wouldn’t ever bother otherwise. But then, Desmond’s entire half of the story never did fly. Four people in a cave talking about the end of the world makes me think they’re loonies, not heroes, and nothing else gave us any sense of impending threat. Indeed, the games always showed way more interest in historical adventures than modern plotlines. It’s the armageddon as a dull sideshow. Finishing it feels more obligatory than purposeful.

I hoped to see Creed’s overarching narrative finally redeem itself. Nope. Every open question receives an unsatisfying payoff. I suspected it before, but I’ll confirm it now: You could easily excise Desmond and Abstergo (the Templars’ modern corporate front) from the entire franchise and be none the worse for it. Quite the opposite, actually.

CONCLUSION

Assassin's Creed III

Assassin’s Creed III capitalizes on its historical setting in ways few other games do, hitting several perfect notes and even throwing the best curveball in recent memory. As a crescendo piece, it misses the mark completely. Occasionally iffy controls and a few mystifying design choices also knock down an otherwise solid effort. I’d put it smack in the middle of the franchise … superior to the first game and last year’s Revelations, but nowhere close to Assassin’s Creed II or Brotherhood’s greatness. We’ll have to leave it to Assassin’s Creed IV to perfect the formula.

Score: 79/100


Assassin’s Creed III released¬†Oct. 30 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and comes out Nov. 18 on Wii U and Nov. 20 on PC. The publisher provided GamesBeat with an Xbox 360 copy of the game for the purpose of this review.

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