Assassin’s Creed 3 Review – PS3
As graceful as an eagle, the very symbol of a certain new nation, floating from rooftop to rooftop beyond most prying eyes, jumping… jumping… jumping. Hang on, he’s got stuck again. Assassin’s Creed III may well be powered by the AnvilNext engine, but this iteration hasn’t done much to iron out old faults – five-year-old faults.
Free running is one of the central features of all the Assassin’s titles, and it’s no different with ACIII. It’s always been graceful and fulfilling, but a mite flaky when it comes to corners, edges and some smaller items to hop over. We expected it to be a more satisfying experience this time around.
It is, in some ways – but the same problems rear their heads: jarring the first four times around, downright irritating the fifth. You will get stuck in animation loops on some walls, you will attempt – repeatedly – to mount an unmountable wall because the system hasn’t bothered paying attention to the change in direction on the analogue stick you have implemented in order to avoid being stuck in this loop (that you’re stuck in).
Essentially, Assassin’s Creed III plays on autopilot in the most part, and whenever things go wrong it’s near impossible to blame anything other than the game itself. Things do go wrong, and they go wrong enough that it’s just downright irritating. Five years. Five years to fix it. And that’s before we even get to the massive identity crisis on show here, but more on that later.
Back to basics though: this is the third ‘proper’ entry to the Assassin’s series and the first time we’ve seen a new protagonist since Ezio’s introduction in 2009. We’ll overlook the spoilerific minor revelation of the opening and go straight to this: you play as Ratonhnhaké:ton, soon given the far less exciting title of Connor, as he tries to make his way in the world as an assassin, taking on the Templars, encountering sci-fi bunk, dealing with family issues and generally stabbing a lot of people.
It’s a slow burner and you do expect a fair bit from it, but unfortunately when it does get going Connor’s back story just feels like a best-of from the TV Tropes website. Absent father? Check. Burned village? Check. Dead mother he tried to but couldn’t save? Check. Man involved in murdering his people one of the main villains in the piece and a Templar? Check. None of it is surprising, bar one brief (literal) “wait, what?” moment about five hours in.
This is because the opening five hours is basically introductory – far more linear than the rest of the game reveals itself to be and a bit too drawn out for its own good. Still, it does a job of setting things up, even if that set up lasts about the same length of time the entirety of Call Of Duty’s single-player campaigns tend to be. And let’s not go into having the concept of notoriety explained after five hours, when you’ve been dealing with the concept directly for five hours.
Anyway, back to that setting. ACIII takes in 30 years, before, during and to the end of the American Revolutionary War. During this time you will see cities change, the seasons go from temperate to snowy and back again, people grow older and relationships develop. But this system of time passing has a weird proclivity for not really acknowledging the time that passes. There are times a conversation is continued as if it ended minutes ago, when a caption has clearly just said “six months later”.
This confusion in itself isn’t confined to one area though – for example towards the end of the game Connor acknowledges in his narration that certain people have ‘moved on’, but then apparently learns this information afterwards in an epilogue mission. He reacts to this with shock. Even though he’s already told the player it happened. It’s confusing for him, it’s confusing for the player and it smacks of an unclear direction to the game. It’s not a huge problem, but it brings you out of the experience and as such is an annoyance.
One massive issue we take with Assassin’s Creed III, though, is its complete lack of challenge. Yes, there’s a hell of a lot of game in there. Dozens of hours, if you allow yourself to be taken in by it. But none of it – bar one of the very last missions – provides anything approaching difficulty or challenge. And that mission only serves to highlight just how flawed a system the game is built around – when it’s so utterly incapable of nuance, featuring a movement system based in absolutes and with no subtlety, there can be no challenge. There can be right or wrong. On or off. Hit or miss. There’s a reason it’s so very easy to get through 99 per cent of the game: there’s no way the studio can make Assassin’s Creed III a game that challenges the player without it feeling unfair – and chasing down the enemy at the end of the game makes this point stand out like the sorest of thumbs.
Most of these problems stem from a simplification – control has always felt like something wrested from the player in order to make things look better, rather than play better. ACIII takes it to another level, stripping free running down to one button. On one hand, it’s a lot easier than the stick-and-two-buttons system of before. On the other hand, it means you’re liable to fall into a coma while playing through lack of interaction on your part.
And this does, unfortunately, spread to combat. We were told pre-release that there would be ‘less turtling’, meaning players wouldn’t just stand and defend, waiting to counter. That much is true, but only because instead you stand still not defending, simply tapping counter then square to kill the majority of enemies you face. Those that can’t be taken down like this? Well, modify your deep strategy (it’s not a deep strategy) to countering then pressing X to disarm, before attacking. It’s simplified to the point of being insulting and, as a result, ends up rather boring.
‘Thousands of units on screen’ is not a lie, we suppose, but the ‘epic’ battles we were promised are half-baked at best, downright bad at worst. A few of them pop up through the game and require the player – for some reason co-opted as a temporary general – to aim cannons, give attack orders and hide behind cover. What this translates to is mowing down rows of slow-moving, identical Redcoats who all politely go and stand in just three or four positions on the battlefield. It does, at times, verge on absolutely awful – mercifully it only shows its face sparingly.
But Assassin’s Creed III isn’t a bad game – it’s just disappointing and yet another case of diminishing returns. We don’t want to seem too down on it; it’s just critique borne of intense frustration. Frustration at a game that could be so much more. A game that could treat players as intelligent, rather than one-button-pressing mouth-breathers with the attention span of a… ooh, a shiny thing!
If you want yourself to be taken on a ride; to play a game made for a lazy Sunday afternoon – that’s when Assassin’s Creed III is at its absolute best. When you don’t care to be challenged in any way, when all you want is to make people die quickly and easily before scampering off across colonial rooftops – that’s when Assassin’s Creed III finds its place. That’s when the AC series as a whole is at its best. That’s when it’s easiest to ignore the fact you’re playing something that still feels like it’s five years old.
And in those moments there’s a bizarre feeling of prosaic joy – the feeling of it all coming together. The flowing, balletic experience of free running has never really lost its appeal, the ease with which you can dispose of dozens of enemies serves as a tremendous power trip, and the ability to just ignore your objectives and search for hidden feathers, chests, trinkets and suchlike can be a fine way to spend a few hours should you so choose. There is fun to be had; there is a massive timesink to be had should you have both the inclination and – obviously – the time.
Special mention has to go to the world created by the team at Ubi Montreal. Connor’s Homestead, the cities of Boston and New York, the open sea and – especially – the wild, untamed frontier are all exceptionally well realised. Each has a strong identity of its own (it’s easy to tell which one is the ocean, mind) and is capable of that bizarre thing some games can do: it makes you have favourite places to go. Though admittedly our favourites tended to be pubs. Ah well.
It is a gigantic game world, too. While not quite pushing to the limits that Just Cause 2 set, Assassin’s Creed III provides a playground of land and sea that will take hours just to see all of it. There is fast travel available – and you will use it, no doubt – but there are times when you just want to jog it in, when you just want to go sightseeing and take the scenic route to your next objective. Or when you want to dive off a cliff into a lake before stabbing a bear, obviously.
Second special mention should go to the period in which things are set, if only for the old world insults thrown around and the fact at one point someone is called a “knobend”. Though there are cases of monumental overacting, like in the case of Edward ‘The Bulldog’ Braddock. Still, our fears ACIII would just be a vehicle for wailing on the Brits weren’t founded in absolute truth – while Connor works solely on the Continental army side of things, it’s not a clear cut case of ‘just killing Brits’. Which is nice.
In fact, it’s hard to nail down what Assassin’s Creed III ‘just’ is, as there’s a ridiculous amount of things to do beyond stabbing hundreds of men to death. This serves as something of a mixed blessing, it has to be said. You can upgrade your Homestead – your base of operations – by completing missions, which earn artisans who move into the area and provide materials with which you can trade of create items with.
Completing further missions – breaking up fights (rubbish), herding pigs (irritating), hunting a cougar (fun) – unlocks even more items to be produced on the Homestead to be made into other things (guns, clothes, consumables, hunting items and so on). It’s all optional and is little more than a distraction, but it can be fun just as with earlier management elements in the AC titles.
Then you’ve got the traditional collectibles – feathers, trinkets, treasure chests and the like – another optional element that can eat up a lot of time if you really want it to. Or just if you let it. Similarly the courier and delivery missions that sporadically pop up can eat into precious minutes if you allow them to, the sneaky buggers.
You can liberate areas of the cities Connor dashes about by taking on missions that activate as you pass by – allowing starving children to steal food, killing tax collectors or putting down rabid dogs, for example. Completing these helps unlock extra assassins to add to your fraternity, all of whom can be called on or sent on missions just as has been the case since AC: Brotherhood.
Hunting was pushed as a big element of ACIII, but it’s far too shallow to be anything more than a vague distraction – something you rely on when you want a bit of extra coin from selling beaver pelts or just a bit of wolf-killing to pass the time. It’s not in-depth or complex enough to warrant anything like gushing praise, with the manner in which you kill the majority of animals the same: drop bait, wait, stab. And this stuff about Connor only killing ‘what he needs’, as is the Native American way? We saw none of that, in fact only getting a warning for killing a ‘domesticated’ farm animal. Yes, we stabbed a pig.
We’re not even done listing what you can do as there’s just so much more – like replaying missions in order to achieve full sync (remember when you couldn’t do that in ACII because of ‘a glitch in the animus’? Sigh), which of course contributes to your quest to 100 per cent the game. If you can be bothered.
Then you get the naval elements – an important factor in the American War Of Independence no doubt, and these sections provide an excuse to get out on the rather beautiful open sea. They’re an interesting addition and one that we felt the need to shunt to a boxout, so you can read about them here. Do that.
The naval element of Assassin’s Creed III is interesting. It’s enjoyable in a rather shallow (pun!) way and provides a fun distraction from the main draw of running and stabbing. Players captain their own ship: steering, hoisting and… un… hoisting sails, firing cannons, boarding enemies and generally making a nautical nuisance of themselves. It’s another element that isn’t challenging – at least once you’ve got the hang of the rather basic mechanics of broadsiding the enemy – but it does work surprisingly well.
What we don’t understand, however, is why it’s even in the game in the first place. Naval combat was a big element of the Revolutionary War, no doubt, but from a storyline perspective it’s hard to take the leap from a young Native American man becoming a part of an ancient assassins order to suddenly being allowed to captain his own ship after being on board for about 20 minutes.
Though admittedly this is questioning that leap of logic in a game where a man sits in a magic chair to travel through time and ancient AIs talk to Nathan Drake who has to use an apple to help save the world. Also Q from Star Trek is his dad.
So actually it makes perfect sense.
That’s a lot of elements, and not one of them is really that satisfying beyond a very superficial level. It’s the identity crisis we spoke of earlier and it confuses more than it does entertains. Why the hell is Connor made captain of a ship about thirty seconds after going on a boat for the first time in his life? Why is an assassin about to take down the Templars trying to get a date for Norris (aside from being rewarded with iron ore and sulphur – no, really)? Why would you want to air assassinate a hare? We’re not saying you can’t lose time to these elements, we’re just saying they are – in the main part – pointless and take away from the central experience.
But there’s such an accomplished, confident approach to things it’s impossible to entirely write off Assassin’s Creed III. Sure, it might be vague in its explanations, having you fail a mission for being spotted when there’s barely even a hint that’s the case. And of course, there are the similar – if not identical – problems to previous games that pop up all over the place and drag you out of the experience. But there’s so much there – such a well-realised world to explore, such satisfying (if you can handle the simplicity and put up with the ease) combat, it’s just such a big budget production it’s hard not to be impressed. At times.
There’s a hell of a lot to love about Assassin’s Creed III, but there’s a hell of a lot to be annoyed with, to be confused by, to be irritated about because it hasn’t changed in five years. When a fault shows up in the first game of a series, you can write it off as an unfortunate mistake – it’ll get fixed. Second time around, you’d be less lenient. But fifth? That’s just silly. And while there aren’t any game-breaking legacy faults on show, the fact they’ve been around so long and not even a much-vaunted engine upgrade has fixed them gives us huge pause.
Pause for thought. Pause for consideration. Pause for realisation that this is a project of sporadic, superficial joy punctuated repeatedly with frustration, irritation and the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.
It’s a huge experience, no doubt, but just because you can put it in the game, doesn’t mean you should put it in the game. Assassin’s Creed III should become shorthand for that very sentiment. And it’s a shame, because while it is very good, it could have been so much more than it is.
Some interesting and fitting additions don’t entirely save an ageing formula from feeling stale. Assassin’s Creed III is fun and can provide a massive timesink should you give it the chance, but it’s a disappointing update all things considered, with all the pre-release promises made.