Assassin’s Creed 3 should be the perfect game: it has a massive world to explore, an enthralling story, and an addictive multiplayer mode… but some sloppy execution keeps new protagonist Connor Kenway from soaring to the same heights that his ancestors achieved.
I love the Assassin’s Creed series. I’ve beaten every game in the “main” series on consoles, and I’ve even forced myself to try and beat the frankly terrible handheld entries in the franchise. I own multiple versions of NECA’s Ezio action figures (note to NECA: please figure out a way to make a figure that doesn’t fall over every five seconds,) and one of my most prized possessions is an exclusive Assassin’s Creed Revelations poster that Ubisoft gave out to E3 attendees a few years back. I’d even go as far to say that Assassin’s Creed 2 is my favorite game of this generation, and that’s saying a lot, considering all the amazing games we’ve seen during the current console cycle.
So it goes without saying that I was hyped for Assassin’s Creed 3. I preordered the game the day that stores starting taking preorders, and I watched every tantalizing trailer and screenshot that Ubisoft released in the weeks and months leading up to the game’s release. I fully expected AC3 to be my personal Game of the Year.
But if there’s one thing Assassin’s Creed has taught me, it’s to expect the unexpected. Whether it’s the revelation that a beloved character was actually a double-agent working for the Templars or the discovery of an ancient god dwelling beneath the Sisteen Chapel, the series has always found new ways to shock and surprise me. Assassin’s Creed 3 delivers its share of narrative surprises as well, but the biggest surprise the game has to offer is a most unwelcome one: while still a pretty good game in its own right, Assassin’s Creed 3 squanders some of its immense potential and ultimately falls short of the high bar set by previous entries in the series.
Let me start by describing all the things that AC3 does well, because despite my mild disappointment in the title, I still think that the game does more right than it does wrong. First off, the story in the game is fantastic: following a surprise twist at the very start of the game (which I won’t spoil here,) AC3, at least in terms of narrative, gets off to a great start and only gets better as it progresses. The American Revolutionary War provides a great backdrop for the series to shoehorn its long running Assassins vs. Templars story arc into, and AC3 manages to deftly juxtapose bombastic battle scenes with Connor’s personal conflict of wanting to promote American independence while at the same time guaranteeing the safety of his own Mohawk Indian tribe, who are almost guaranteed to be subjugated by whoever wins the war. The game’s story could have easily been a jingoistic tale of American nationalism, but AC3 takes great care to not sugar coat the historical conflict: there are good and bad characters on both sides, and the game manages to portray the founding fathers of America as believable, real people rather than the deified, infallible arbiters of justice they’re often misrepresented as in popular media.
Colonial America isn’t just an interesting setting for the story, but it also makes for a great location to run around in and explore. I was skeptical when Ubisoft claimed that free-running through the American wilderness would be as fun as scaling the towering buildings of Venice and Rome, but the AC team has really succeeded in making the game’s frontier as rich and varied as the cities of previous games. There’s a ton of sidequests to do and collectibles to find as well, and while these distractions make feel like busy work to some, I think that AC3 features the best optional content out of any game in the series: sure, running around a collecting lost pages of a book still feels like mindless, collect-a-thon filler material, but some of the other side missions, like hunting down pirate treasure and single-handedly seizing heavily defended British forts, kept me happily playing long after I had completed the main campaign.
The Achilles’ Heel of the series has always been its somewhat clumsy combat mechanics, and Assassin’s Creed 3 manages to improve the fighting engine by a such a large magnitude that I wish Ubisoft would go back and re-release all the earlier games in the series with AC3′s combat engine. Instead of simply standing around and waiting for the chance to counter attack (as was often the best strategy in earlier games in the series,) AC3 encourages players to take a more proactive role in combat: even Connor’s basic attack chains are devastating, and kill streaks are easier to achieve in AC3 than they were in Brotherhood and Revelations. If anything, AC3′s new combat system feels closer to the combat in Batman: Arkham Asylum than it does previous AC games; it’s kind of arcadey (some would say it’s button mash-ey,) but its definitely a huge improvement over the comparatively stationary and stiff combat the series used prior.
Combat in this game isn’t simply relegated to hand-to-hand combat either: the game’s biggest (and best) addition to the series are naval battles. When the naval battles were first revealed at this year’s E3, I was worried that they’d be a tacked-in minigame, similar to Revelation’s (terrible) den defense game. Thankfully, AC3′s naval battles are fantastic, and are far from the half-assed minigame I expected they’d be; they’re strategic and fun, and I honestly think that Ubisoft could’ve packaged the naval sections of this game on their own and made an entire, stand-alone game out of it. While running around and stabbing people in the neck will never get old, I found myself looking forward to the ship battles more than the traditional AC-style gameplay.
That’s because AC3 represents some of the most uneven mission design to be seen in the series since AC1. Yes, I’ve finally finished talking about AC3′s good parts and now it’s time to move onto the bad… and trust me, when AC3 decides to be bad, it becomes very bad. While most of the missions in the game still manage to be fun, there’s a good quarter of them that’ll likely make you toss your controller in frustration. Some of the missions in this game feel like they weren’t play tested at all: vague objective descriptions will leave you wondering what you’re supposed to do next, and you’ll often fail a mission and be forced to restart without understanding what you did wrong. Worst of all are the game’s chase sequences: you’ll often be tasked with apprehending a fleeing target, and these parts of the game are easily not just the worst parts of Assassin’s Creed 3, but perhaps thing to happen in the series altogether. These chases don’t require skill or reflexes; rather, they rely on tedious trial-and-error, and often force you to replay them over and over until you memorize the specific sequence of actions you need to take in order to pass them. Ubisoft says they’re aware that these missions are terrible and they’re planning to fix them with a future patch, but as of right now, they’re easily the most frustrating and rage inducing moments I’ve ever experienced in my 20+ years of playing video games.
The controls only add to the frustration in these sections as well: since the AC series has always been dependent on context sensitive actions, every game in the series has had occasional moments where the controls just spaz out: you’ll try to climb up something only to leap off it, or your character will just randomly leap to an object that was in the opposite direction that you intended. It doesn’t happen often enough to break the game, but it is intensely frustrating when it does happen (especially when it happens during one of the before-mentioned poorly designed missions,) and its somewhat disappointing that after five games in the main series and countless spin-offs, Ubisoft still hasn’t managed to work out all the kinks from the controls.
While the game’s combat mechanics have received a massive overhaul, Ubisoft seems to have neglected the game’s stealth. While the game’s massive, wide-open world is fun to explore, the spread out nature of everything makes it harder to play the game stealthily: everything is spaced so far apart that it’s hard to stealthily track a target from above as you’d often do in earlier games, and the crowds in the game are generally spread out in such a way that it’s hard to blend in with them when you’re trying to remain incognito. Stealth almost seems like an afterthought in AC3, and oftentimes direct combat will allow you to complete missions easier and faster, a design decision that seems almost antithetical to the theme of the series.
I have to stress that most of the missions in AC3 do manage to be fun: whether you’re charging across a battlefield to assassinate the enemy general on the other side or when you’re leaping from the treetops to take a target by surprise, the majority of the missions in AC3 managed to be fun and challenging without being frustrating… but when the game gets bad, it gets very bad, and there were times during a few particularly poorly designed missions (Sequence 5 has the most of them, by the way,) that I seriously contemplated trading the game into Game Stop or Best Buy just so I could save myself any further frustration. AC3 was supposedly in development for years, but it feels strangely rushed at times.
Thankfully, AC3′s multiplayer provides a far more consistent stream of fun for you to enjoy when you need a break from the campaign. The competitive experience remains largely the same as it was in Brotherhood and Revelations: the game is basically a hyper violent version of hide and seek, as your tasked with assassinating other players while at the same time remaining hidden from players who have been assigned to assassinate you. AC3 adds in a new mode where players are forced to stand within a small, confined area (thus giving away their position) in order to capture control points. It adds a new layer of strategy to an already strategic game, since you’ll need to coordinate with your teammates to keep opposing assassins off of you while you try to secure each control point.
AC3 also adds in a new co-op mode which is every bit as fun as the competitive multiplayer. Players must work as a team to assassinate an increasingly paranoid group of AI targets, who become increasingly difficult to kill as each wave progresses. It’s basically the Assassin’s Creed take on Gears of War’s Horde mode, and it’s surprisingly fun. AC: Brotherhood surprised players 2 years ago when it showed that AC could work as a competitive multiplayer game, and once again Ubisoft managed to pleasantly surprise me again by turning AC into a co-op game that’s just as fun and addictive.
Overall, Assassin’s Creed 3 is a game of very high-highs and very low-lows: when the game is good, it’s really good, and when it’s bad, it’ll make you want to snap the game disc in half. It’s still a good game overall, but if you were expecting Assassin’s Creed 3 to be as a big of an improvement over AC2 as that game was over the original, you’ll be sorely disappointed, as some sloppy design manages to negate a lot of the fun that AC3 offers. It hurts me to say it, because I really wanted AC3 to be a game that I’d sing praises about, but AC3 simply falls just a bit short of expectations. To sum it all up: Assassin’s Creed is a good game that should have been a great game.
Final Score: 8.0/10
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