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

The following review contains mild spoilers only.


It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel like jumping through trees and stabbing random Englishmen. Hey, it’s not like you’d have a better idea.

Fortunately, Assassin’s Creed III (releasing today on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Nov. 18 on Wii U, and Nov. 20 on PC) steps up as my morally flexible enabler. This time, the action moves up from Renaissance Italy to Revolutionary America as the Order of the Assassins and the Knights Templar bring their centuries-old conflict to the New World at the onset of the War for Independence. Their clashes in the 1700s revolve around the same “First Civilization” vault that 21st century assassin Desmond Miles hopes can somehow head off the impending apocalypse … scheduled for Dec. 21, 2012.

The key to activating those ancient technologies lies in the past. With the doomsday clock ticking down, Desmond once again enters the Animus to relive his ancestors’ adventures in professional murder and uncover the secrets they buried.

And so developer Ubisoft Montreal finally closes the book on the historical epic they started five years ago. The ride hasn’t always been smooth. As a franchise, Assassin’s Creed pulled off several incredible highs and sunk to a few disappointing lows (tower-defense minigames, anyone?). Perhaps then it’s fitting that Assassin’s Creed III, as the culminating chapter, does both.

WHAT YOU’LL LIKE

Assassin's Creed III

Viva la revolution

The plot moving Assassin’s Creed forward might involve Nostradamus’s predicted end-of-days, but its appeal lies in touring history as a highly trained killer. We’ve been a monk and a swashbuckler, and now we get two new archetypes to play around with — the English gentleman and the angry young rebel.

You might even wonder if you threw in the right game at first. The opening fifth of Assassin’s Creed III casts you not as cover-boy Connor but as Haytham Kenway, a cultured noble with hidden blades and unshakeable convictions. He’s like a 1950s action hero (I kept picturing Stewart Granger in King Solomon’s Mines), approaching problems with charm and pleasant optimism right before offering decapitation as a solution to people who offend his honor. I actually like Haytham as a character more than Connor, the impatient Anglo-Mohawk son he’s forced to abandon, though Connor’s arc resonates better.

Through Connor, we see the difficult birth of the American experiment … its flaws, its compromises, and its outright lies. We throw crates of tea into Boston Harbor. We ride with Paul Revere (amusingly portrayed like an extremely naggy Patton Oswalt). We fight at Bunker Hill, Lexington and Concord, and the Battle of the Chesapeake. We watch as the Founding Fathers sign the Declaration of Independence, and we get frequent reminders how, unlike Connor, they were realists, not idealists. It wasn’t lost on me that a chat with Samuel Adams about marketing the war as a struggle for freedom happened just a few feet away from a slave sweeping the floors of Independence Hall. The hypocrisies aren’t lost on Connor, either.

As with Italy and the Middle East before it, Ubisoft Montreal does an outstanding job in world building here. Rich details sell 18th century Boston and New York in all their rough glory, while the quiet stillness of the wilds feel particularly affecting in winter. The sound design doesn’t always keep up, though, and the audio even cuts out on occasion.

As big-picture as all this sounds, Haytham’s and Connor’s personal trajectories consistently entertain. The final confrontation between Connor and his nemesis in particular plays out beautifully (though a lack of interaction seems an odd choice, all things given). Getting there takes you through places and ideas that defined us as a nation, for better and worse, and these can be very powerful moments.

Assassin's Creed III

Variety is the spice of death

Stellar mission design and flow has been a major strength of the series since Assassin’s Creed II, and for the most part, the new installment follows suit. Sure, you spend the majority of your time sprinting, stalking, and stabbing, but the focus constantly shifts in interesting ways. As an example, one sequence has you ambush a convoy, sneak it past several checkpoints, quietly free a number of captives right under their captors’ noses, and then fight your way through a pitched battle to reach your target, all in rapid succession. The game maintains that level of variety throughout the campaign.

If that didn’t do the job, we also get a few one-off tasks that break away from the standard gameplay. Generals grudgingly give Connor command of patriot firing lines or have him man an 18-pounder cannon to hold off the British advance. Both qualify as tower-defense lite, but enjoyably so. Pulling them out more often would’ve become tedious, but limited to where they are, these both work nicely.

And I count the all-new naval missions aboard the Aquila, Connor’s heavily armed schooner, as a definite highlight. The bells, snapping sails, and creaking wood fire up all my pirate instincts, and I start hunting for a British armada to punch through. The Aquila comes with a serious learning curve — you simultaneously pilot the ship, call for more or less speed, dodge incoming fire, select which cannonballs to use, and order the gun crews to fire. You can also light up enemy vessels by tagging their exposed powder magazines with a single well-placed shot. That’s a lot to keep track of all at once, but it didn’t take long before I adeptly traded broadsides with frigates in the Chesapeake, laughing madly in the heart of a storm.

No lie, it’s annoying how a rogue wind always seems to hit the old girl the moment you put on full sail, but few things satisfy quite like landing a solid port-side salvo and then tacking to finish off your victim with the starboard guns. I could easily play the navel missions as their own standalone game. They offer action, strategy, and really big boats with lots and lots of upgradable firepower. Sold.

Assassin's Creed III

So much to see, so much to do

Unless you’re a superhumanly gifted speed runner, it takes at least 20 hours to plow through the campaign. Tack on a minimum 10 more to claw your way through all the side quests and activities available to you.

The Aquila offers a host of opportunities — escorts, races, pure seek-and-destroy engagements on the high seas — but you won’t run out of things to do on dry land. Assassin’s Creed III draws heavily from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood in that regard. Count that as a plus. You can recruit more assassins into your order and train them up for use against any redcoats in your way (you don’t even need to visit pigeon coops to send them on assignment anymore). Taking on liberation missions frees districts from English control. So does taking out a fort. You left Ezio’s castle back in the 16th century, but feel free to trick out Connor’s homestead and invite artisans, farmers, and hunters to work there. That also lets you play business mogul, selling goods made on your property for a tidy profit.

More content unlocks contextually. If you hunt forest creatures on a regular basis, a member of the Hunting Society will invite you into their club. You can’t buy a bunch of instant henchman anymore, but you can periodically start riots for free. Raid a redcoat convoy. Plant evidence on a loyalist snitch. Beat up price-gouging merchants. Burn plague-ridden blankets. Deliver letters. Play checkers. And that’s before you dig into all the side missions handed out by smelly frontiersmen, replacing the gently swaying prostitutes from previous games. Decide for yourself whether or not that’s an improvement.

It’s almost daunting how much you can do. Luckily, nothing’s mandatory. I completed the game without buying, selling, or upgrading anything, and I only performed a fraction of the optional content. Odds are I’ll go back and dig further into Assassin’s Creed III to see what I missed.

But first, I’ll have to get over some of its more glaring issues.

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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