Wow, I’m still a bit stunned here. I thought we’d be stuck in Desmond Miles’ recollection of Renaissance Italy forever as Ubisoft spun their wheels, milking the Assassin’s Creed franchise for all it’s worth… Oh come on! You can’t tell me I’m not the only one who was thinking that. That’s not to say that I disliked having to take up the mantle of Ezio Auditore for the entire length of three games: it was great fun, but damn, it’s good to be in a fresh new setting with the story finally out of the muddy rut in which it was stuck and moving along.
Platforms: 360 / PC / PS3
[I feel that what immediately follows in this here review should be marked with giant spoiler tags, for the sake of anyone who hasn't completed the previous games in the series, but still plans to. So I'm going to do just that. – Ed.]
Desmond and his friends are fully clued up about the otherworldly beings who lived on Earth long before man did, so they’re not even being mysterious and discreet about it any more. This time, they’ve arrived at the site of a massive, underground, hi-tech… fortress… or something, I’m not really sure what it is – but the important thing is that it holds the alien technology they need to save the world from the looming disaster that was hinted at in previous games. The problem is, it requires a key… a key they don’t have. I think we can all see where this is going. So Desmond has to buckle himself up in the Animus once again to experience the genetic memories of another ancestor, the last person known to have possessed the key, so that they can find out where it is.
The Animus puts Desmond in the shoes of a British man named Haytham Kenway, who travels to the American Colonies during the 1700s to search for signs of the “first civilisation”. This smooth pimp-daddy is probably one of the coolest characters in the series so far, but we only get to play as him for a short while. His quest leads him to help the Native Americans in the area around Boston, after which he’s seduced by one of their women, who gives birth to his son, Ratonhnhaké:ton – which I’m not even going to try and pronounce.
We start off in the boy’s childhood and follow him through to adulthood as he comes to terms with the world around him and his obligation to become an assassin to protect the innocent. To deal with people more easily in the racist era of Colonial America, he decides to use his paler, half-breed complexion to pose as a Spaniard by the name of Connor – which I can pronounce, so that’s what we’ll call him from here on.
I think AC III might have the longest scene-setting start-up of any game in the series so far. It takes hours before we’re finally in control of adult Connor, fully decked-out in his assassin outfit with access to most of the systems you need to really play the game. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on how much patience you have – but once the game finally gets going, you won’t be bored. The main quest takes quite a while to get through, and it’s varied and interesting, requiring Connor to do everything from simple assassinations to commanding firing lines, seeking ancient artefacts, recruiting followers and even taking part in the historical Boston Tea Party.
In addition to that, there’s plenty of sidequesting to be done. Connor takes up residence in an old assassin mansion, and he can find and convince other people to join him and set up their businesses nearby, turning the isolated homestead into a thriving town. The more missions Connor does for the residents of the homestead, the more varied the materials he can buy from them.
After stockpiling these raw materials, he can order the various craftsmen he’s recruited to construct all kinds of goods for trade, including food, medicine and weapons, and then send convoys to the various merchants he’s met based on the risk and profit factor. This might be cool or lame, depending on your gaming tastes. I find it quite engaging myself, but the menus used to control this whole thing need some serious streamlining. Having to construct items one at a time is a real pain, not to mention loading up convoys with items one by one – couldn’t we include the option to save various convoy loadouts or something?
The other menu-driven mini-game concerns the assassin recruits. As in previous games, you can send them on missions around the world, for which they’ll get rewards, items and experience that will eventually make them master assassins. It’s quick and easy to handle, and you can do it anywhere, any time, making it hassle free. When the assassins are gone, though, they’ll be unavailable to call on during a mission. When they are around, you can have them assassinate someone for you, walk with you as bodyguards, start a riot, or open fire on groups of enemies.
The more action-packed sidequests include things like delivering letters, looting treasure chests, finding all the missing pages of Benjamin Franklin’s almanac, hunting and skinning different kinds of game with several hunting tools and techniques, and investigating the fanciful stories of frontiersmen. You know, typical things for indulging your inner obsessive completionist. My personal favourite, though, is the naval combat.
A short while into the game, Connor will recruit an old shipmaster to renovate a damaged, legendary ship called the Aquila, which he can then captain in a series of sea missions. Connor is plonked at the steering wheel and tasked with manoeuvring the ship and commanding his crewmembers to fire cannons and swivel guns and even take cover when enemy fire or a huge wave is imminent. Connor has to destroy everything from enemy frigates to smaller gunboats to forts on the shore, and they’re not the only dangers. Stormy seas can potentially tip the ship if Connor doesn’t steer correctly, and navigating rocky shallows could potentially damage the hull – especially when a rogue wind suddenly gushes in out of nowhere. It’s surprisingly entertaining and one of the best parts of the game.
You may have heard that some of the game’s controls have been simplified, and they have – but don’t worry, it still plays like the Assassin’s Creed we’ve become accustomed to over the years. The simplifications are all streamlining efforts, reducing the amount of buttons we need to press at once to do things – like only the R1 button to free run and one button for all types of interaction.
But it’s the combat that has seen the biggest benefit from the control scheme renovation. Now, instead of holding down R1 (on PS3, obviously) and pressing other buttons for various effects, we now have something much simpler and more like the controls in the recent Batman games. There are only four buttons, attack, use support item/ranged weapon, block and grab. Holding down the block button will make Connor defend himself from frontal and side attacks, and tapping the block button just before an attack lands will make him parry the attack – no matter which direction it came from. After parrying, you can press the attack button to make Connor instantly kill the attacker. What’s really cool is that Connor can now parry and kill two enemies at once. The kill streak mechanic is still in there too, allowing Connor to continuously kill enemies without stopping, until he makes a mistake.
About the only beef I have with the combat system, (and this is a small, lean bit of beef) is that it doesn’t matter which weapon you’re using. Once you’ve mastered the instant-kill and kill-streak systems, the weapons all work the same way and there’s no distinct benefits to any of them. There is a new focus on firearms in AC III, and it’s realistically done. Since the guns in Colonial America are all front-loading flintlock types, you only get one shot before you have to go through the lengthy reload process – which you can’t do in combat, obviously. You can upgrade your belt to carry an additional pistol, and you can pick up un-fired muskets dropped by soldiers and use those. Alternatively, you can use Connor’s bow, which you can fire quite quickly until you run out of arrows.
Anyway, I’d like to go into more detail about the kinds of things you can do in AC III, but you’ll have plenty of fun figuring it all out for yourself. Hopefully I’ve given you the scope of this massive game. There’s so much to do that you’ll be kept busy for ages, and the story is so interesting and the graphics so beautiful you won’t become bored any time soon. In fact, the graphics are probably some of the best I’ve ever seen. No joke. It’s hard to believe that games can look this good.
The historical setting is fascinating, and you’ll run into plenty of historical figures from that era, including Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Paul Revere, and you’ll participate in famous historical events, like the aforementioned Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s Ride and the defense of Concord. I wish history was this interesting when I was at school.
There are plenty of accents to enjoy, mostly English, Irish and Scottish with a few European ones thrown in here and there. But the highlight, by far, is the Native American language spoken by Connor and his tribe. How many of you have ever heard a Native American language being spoken before? I sure hadn’t, and I would never have thought my first exposure to it would be thanks to a video game… you know, because they’re mindless time sinks that don’t stimulate your brain. [I facepalm at the very thought that this needs to be said, because it should be incredibly obvious. But then I remember that this is the Internet after all, so here goes: before anyone gets all uppity and threatens to shoot Matthew for writing the previous sentence, please remember that he is clearly being sarcastic, facetious, not serious, etc. You! Over there in the back! You put that knife away; there's no need for it here. – Ed]
Okay, I really am done now. Assassin’s Creed III is both intellectually engaging and tons of fun to play – a difficult combination to get right – and there’s plenty of play time for your money.