Assassin's Creed as a series may have gotten off to a rocky start thanks to the first game's clunky controls and bad AI – not to mention the fact that the pre-release material didn't mention Desmond or the modern setting at all – but the series has grown into its own beast and through five games has become one of the grandest tales of its medium. Ubisoft has gone to great lengths to research the various time periods in which the stories took place, and also blended the tenets of various faiths and conspiracies throughout history to meld it into one grand epic, and it works. Not only does the Assassin's Creed series function as an amazing set of period pieces, but also as a fantastic modern action game, and Assassin's Creed III puts an appropriate cap on the tale that's apparently been 75,000 years in the making.
Assassin's Creed III is, if you pay attention, actually 3 different stories all converging at one location in history: December 21st 2012. There's the story of Desmond, the ex-bartender turned modern assassin who's using the animus to relive his ancestral memories so he can stop the end of the world. Then there's Connor, the assassin that Desmond takes over during the American revolution. And finally there's the story of those who came before - an advanced race of humanoids that are responsible for masterminding the entire conspiracy as well as most of human history in one form or another. There's a good chance you may not actually know half of that, but you're expected to going into Assassin's Creed III, and if you don't then the opening cinematic as well as the main story do plenty to get you up to speed as you go along. It's also very evident that Ubisoft is dedicated to telling a grand, epic tale because the first four or five hours of the game has Desmond playing a seemingly unfamiliar assassin before Connor is even introduced! The beginning seems slow, and it can be frustrating feeling that maybe the game is wasting your time with someone that isn't the protagonist, but the conclusion of the prologue is more than worth the time spent building up to it.
Once you are granted control of Connor, you're guided through the early stages of his life that function as the proper tutorial section wherein you're taught how to use different abilities and hunt for animals. Like the prologue, the development of Connor is kind of slow, but it serves an important role in his character arc and gives him all the motivation he needs to grow as a person and do the things he does. While the plot does hover around the American revolution in the 1770s, showing Connor to be the igniting flame that spurs on the Americans, much of the actual narrative focuses on Connor's personal struggles, hardships, and motivations. It's a very intimate story about a man and the relationship he has with not only his people, but the foreigners who are taking over his land and the complexities of his unconventional family. The assassin brotherhood doesn't play much of a role, either, which is odd but makes sense given the fact that at this point in history the brotherhood has mostly been wiped out or driven into hiding. Instead, Connor meets up with an old man named Achilles who teaches him the ways of the assassins and acts as your mentor, rather than a full brotherhood that you get indoctrinated into.
The story is granted a boon of legitimacy thanks to the great level of detail that Ubisoft has put into the world. Every little detail concerning Boston, New York, and the American frontier seem to be authentic or at least historically accurate, and everything is alive and active at all times. Assassin's Creed: Revelations was alive and gorgeous, but nothing in the series compares to the natural beauty that is the American frontier. While the early American towns may seem more drab than Constantinople, Rome and Jerusalem of iterations past, I think that comes simply from familiarity; Boston and New York in their early years remind me of my hometown, while other cities in the previous games felt foreign and therefore exotic. Every character has its own unique voice, language, and accent related to their location and heritage; living in Canada, I know there's a subtle difference between Quebec french and France french, and the subtle changes in dialect are apparent if you pay close attention and that shows a dedication to accuracy few developers are willing to put forth. Natives have proper accents unique to their tribes, Americans in Boston and New York sound distinct to one another, and it doesn't matter where you go there's something beautiful to listen to, especially the appropriate and moody score. Special mention once again goes to the costume design, which is even better this time around than it was in the Ezio's time, something I decided to pay attention to thanks to Connor's unique additions to the traditional assassin costume like the band of feathers or symbols on his arms. However, the game isn't without its technical issues. Throughout the game I encountered many minor animation issues. Furthermore, the draw distance is poor and you can actually watch things form in the distance as you get closer, and shadows seem patchy, and flicker. None of these issues are significant though, and have no impact on the gameplay but serve as a persistent minor distraction throughout.
Amongst the many things you can see and do in Assassin's Creed III, the one thing that stands out above all else is the naval combat aboard the Aquila. I don't purport to be an expert on revolution era ships, but I have spent enough time sailing a yacht to say that captaining the Aquila feels like it should, and it's a truly invigorating way to break up your time hunting, exploring, and tree climbing to keep things interesting. The splashing waves of the open sea, stark cliffs, and tropical storms that you encounter while sailing offer a stark difference to the homely, earthy feeling that comprises the rest of the game. Sometimes I even forgot I was playing an Assassin's Creed game, and started thinking like perhaps I stumbled upon an alternate reality where video games based on movies were good and I was playing Pirates of the Caribbean, a notion that was further reinforced by the score that sounded strangely similar to the Hans Zimmer pieces that accompanied the film series. Everything about the naval missions is exciting and fast paced, from the chase scenes, to the gun battles, right down to the boarding of the enemy ship and capturing their leaders. If you like these missions enough, there are even upgrades to be purchased to improve your ship and customize it. Ubisoft, if you're listening, you could make an entire side game comprised of nothing but this (elaborated on and greatly expanded, of course), and I would buy it and I know many others would.
The naval battles may be the pinnacle of my experience with Assassin's Creed III, but that's not to take anything away from the beauty of the rest of the world. Both of the main cities you visit are massive, almost as big as Rome from Brotherhood, and the frontier is so awe inspiring, the first time I visited I had to stop for 5 minutes to take in its beauty. I was expecting the frontier to be huge, but not nearly as active or organic as it was. The water, cliffs, hills, valleys, scattered settlements, and forests really feel homely, and that's what it was meant to do. I was fully preparing myself to be disappointed because I wasn't expecting anything to be as engaging as climbing some of the taller buildings in previous entries in the franchise, but the combination of rock climbing and tree climbing more than made up for those supposed inadequacies. In fact, hopping from branch to branch as I darted through the trees was more engaging and natural feeling than scaling any building in any game in the series. High praise, but it's true. More special mention goes to the weather effects on display; at some parts of the story, the world is covered in snow and the frontier looks and feels entirely different despite it mostly being the same, not to mention running through snow is an absolute chore since it slows you down and you leave visible tracks wherever you go. The rain and fog are also so incredibly effective at conveying sorrow or desperation when the scene calls for it that I failed my fair share of missions thanks to my insistence on appreciating the fidelity of the pouring rain and lightning effects or the haunting nature of a port blanketed in a thick layer of fog.
Exploration is constantly engaging thanks to the sheer volume of things you can do as you're slowly unveiling the world. Like all previous Assassin's Creed games, your first objective when exploring is to find the viewpoints, climb to the top of the tallest buildings, trees, or cliffs, and synchronize to expose a wealth of collectibles that can be found. From there, the most prominent thing to find are the eagle feathers, which are almost entirely found exclusively in the frontier. I have no idea what they do, but open world games certainly need collectibles to give the player reasons to explore and find all they have to offer, and the mini-obstacle courses you need to traverse to get each feather tests your skill and ability to climb. In addition to the feathers, you must also find all of what is known as the peg-leg trinkets, items used to exchange for information on hidden locations that can be accessed throughout the world. The third type of generic collectible is the scattered almanac pages that can be seen floating in between buildings in the city; each set of them, consisting of 4 pages a piece sorted by location, offer you a recipe to craft an invention for your arsenal or homestead. Naturally, there are also treasure chests littered about, many of which protected by redcoats that you must dispatch before claiming your prize, and if you don't have the proper key you must pick the lock, which is pretty simple and involves using both analog sticks and the R1 button. Don't worry about having to manually search to collect everything, you can buy maps to help you out with finding all the items. Even with a detailed and easy to follow map, collecting all the game has to offer will take upwards of a dozen hours.
If collecting various stuff isn't enough for you, there are also plenty of side missions to keep you occupied. In the cities, there is a series of liberation missions designed to help Connor become popular with the locals by aiding them in their quest to rid their homes of their oppressors and otherwise help their way of life. These missions usually consist of saving locals, protecting them from violence, or saving them from natural ails such as smallpox and rabid animals. There are also your general assassination contracts that have you scouring the towns for disguised Templars and dispatching them; these missions are pretty simple and straightforward, but can keep you busy if you're at all interested in extending your time with the game and are completely optional. The one case of major busywork was the delivery missions and mail courier jobs that have you picking up packages and letters to deliver them to people all over the world. None of these side missions compare to the grandiose scale and fun factor of the naval, battles, but the story missions do.
I may be in the minority here, but one thing I actively miss from the Ezio saga was the town and economy building aspects. I liked purchasing property and gaining various armor and weapon upgrades, I liked building my empire and becoming a driving force in the economy. Connor may be involved in the development of the local culture, but not in the direct way Ezio was. There's a few various mini-games and side quests that involve setting up trade routes, and manufacturing goods to help the locals out, but it's only explained in passing and can be entirely ignored in lieu of Connor's Davenport Homestead, where he and his mentor Achilles live and operate. You can seek out various settlers in the surrounding area and convince them to come to your homestead and settle there, offering you access to new supplies, materials, and abilities. You can also play a series of minigames, but none are particularly engaging. There are also various clubs you can get into such as the brawlers club, which gives you special bonuses for beating enemies in a certain way.
One of the features that featured prominently in the game's pre-release hype was the hunting mechanic, but in the end it's just not that important. I recommend killing and skinning every animal you come across, but that's simply because it's one of the most consistent ways to get money by selling the pelts or keeping the materials to craft things yourself and set up trade routes. There are many ways to go about hunting, mostly involving investigating random clues to determine 'an elk rested here', then you go after the elk in question and lure them to a killing spot or snare them, catching them for later. Killing with a gun or arrow will ruin the pelts, but properly tracking and catching them will give you pristine materials, which can in turn be sold for more money and used for more crafting. They clearly put a lot of thought into it and it could have been deep and involving, but I killed most of my prey by simply running past it and stabbing it in the throat or in the case of predators, letting them attack me and counterattacking in the process. Remember, Connor is a native, so never let him kill an animal without skinning it first: that is an insult to the land.
The one thing I didn't think would be changed at all was the combat. The very first game in the series was clunky but functional, but the Ezio saga was wonderful to play and every new iteration that came up felt a natural fit and I was able to re-acquaint myself with the controls with ease. This is not the case with Assassin's Creed III. There are no major control changes, but there are some alterations to the combat that make it much more tactical and fun, not to mention far cooler to look at. You can press square or triangle to attack with a blade or firearm, respectively, or you can wait for a red triangle to come above an assailant's head, and you press circle to counter followed by your choice of attacks. Pressing X will attempt a disarm, which is far more effective on some enemies and required to combat certain higher ranked enemies without being pummelled into submission. One of the coolest features of combat is the prominent inclusion of guns. In previous games, Ezio was the only one to get a firearm, but in this game every enemy has a gun of some sort and they're not shy about using them. You can disarm them and use the weapons against them, or you can wait until they line up in typical redcoat fashion and display a yellow triangle above their heads. At this point, you can grab a hostage and have them shoot at your hostage, and it's honestly really cool.
Battles are far more engaging this time around due to the badass nature of them. While the combat animations were always pretty cool and sometimes outright brutal in the previous entries in the franchise, Ubisoft has gone all out with some of the best and most brutal looking kill animations yet. The coolest combat scenes come when two enemies attack you at once and you successfully time a counter animation, what follows is nothing short of badass, using one enemy’s weapon against the other in a gloriously choreographed fight, or in some cases even using the environment around you to inflict additional damage. Normally I don't care for style over substance, but given the fact that the game requires strategy and consistency, the cool factor is a bloody delicious icing on a scrumptious cake. In fact, the entire game has a certain visual flair that's honestly on par with some of hollywood's best cinematography. Connor's additional weapons such as the tomahawk and rope dart are both remarkably useful and really fun to use, especially the rope dart. Perhaps I may be a touch sociopathic, but there's nothing more satisfying than tossing a blade at an enemy from a branch, only to fall back off the branch and hang him there for all his friends to see.
This is all a matter of natural progression from one entry to the next. As players get more bloodthirsty, it's up to the developers to deliver, and they do. However, they have also improved and expanded upon the synchronization constraints from Brotherhood and Revelations. While each mission in the aforementioned games had a base completion requirement and an optional additional requirement to get the best score or 'full syncrhonization', Assassin's Creed III gives each mission multiple optional objectives, as well as a prerequisite that you fulfil each and every goal in a single play through, which means you can't go through once and beat the arbitrary time constraint then go through a second time to get the special kill style requirement; no, to get full sync, you need to beat the game the way it tells you to with no errors. This can be incredibly frustrating on some levels, especially the chase missions that require you not run into any pedestrians despite the fact that you're chasing an enemy through a crowded street. One of these chase missions was also the subject of the one gameplay related glitch I encountered in the 40 or so hours I played on my first play through.
I'm a primarily single-player gamer, so to me the multiplayer that was introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood seemed completely unnecessary, but after giving it a shot I saw it to be one of the most unique and refreshing multiplayer modes I think I've ever played. I admit I didn't play much in Revelations, but I am drawn to it here. The same modes return with one significant addition: domination. Normally I'm not one to praise stagnancy in a genre, and I'm especially not fond of rewarding a developer for taking an idea from another, but domination mode in Assassin's Creed III is basically Call of Duty's domination mode, except with Assassin's Creed multiplayer gameplay. Teams have to hold one of three points by hiding in a crowd and getting points for killing or defending that position without exposing yourself as an assassin. Seriously, I never thought I'd say this about a multiplayer mode, but I'm addicted and the blend of territorial disputes and stealth is really appealing, doubly so when combined with the more traditional kill contracts that are the mainstay of the Assassin's Creed multiplayer modes.
Assassin's Creed III is truly the total package. Sure, it had some persistent visual issues, and there were some things that were omitted or changed, but for every issue the game had there were 5 improvements or additions to make up for it. Connor may not be the charismatic protagonist Ezio was, but his story was as epic in this game alone as Ezio's was in three games, and the world he inhabited was not only massive but engaging. Once you get past about 12 hours in campaign gameplay, it's really hard to judge just how 'long' a game's story is because a person's individual skill comes into play and their experiences will greatly differ so the playtimes fluctuate so heavily. Personally, it took me just under 20 hours to complete the main story in Assassin's Creed III with an additional 20 or so dedicated to collecting and doing side missions, which is nothing to speak of the potentially limitless amount of enjoyment you could get from the multiplayer. Granted, you could maybe get through it in 15 hours if you were rushing, but with so much beauty and depth, why would you rob yourself of that? Assassin's Creed III is a true epic from it's slow burn start to it's climax which is the most decisive ending the series has yet to offer. Don't miss out on this gem.
This review is based on a PlayStation 3 copy of Assassin's Creed III.