One of the most important factors for any game developer to consider is that of quality versus quantity. Some would argue that an uncharacteristically long campaign is the mark of a good game. Others, such as myself, point those people towards Portal without saying a word. Recently, however, games have often been criticised for having alarmingly short and uneventful single-player campaign modes, and Assassin’s Creed III seems to have been designed with directly avoiding that critique in mind. Here we have a long, long game. While some parts of it might be fun and well-crafted, for the most part it feels alarmingly bloated, leading to a disappointingly inconsistent overall experience.
For example, the protagonist of ACIII is, apart from Desmond (let me just check Wikipedia) Ratonhnaké:ton, or, as you’ll know him, Connor. You won’t get to control Connor for about six hours after starting the game. Only once you do start to play as Connor does the campaign really kick into gear and feel like a true Assassin’s Creed title. In short, ACIII has a six hour introduction. And you know what? If even half of this introduction was necessary, or added enough to the overall experience to warrant its inclusion, I wouldn’t be so disappointed by it. As it is, far too much of it is filler and winds up being detrimental to the game.
Unfortunately, the first few hours is an accurate representation of the majority of the game. Revolutionary War-era America isn’t anywhere near as fitting to the style of game as mediaeval Damascus or Renaissance Italy. The rooftops are all a little bit too far apart to allow for pure free-running and the locations simply lack that grandiose scale provided by the settings of AC1&2. You might be pleasantly gliding across rooftops, not a care in the world, when all of a sudden you have to stop precariously on the edge of a building because the one in front of you is slightly too far away to make the jump. This stop-start free-running takes away from the sense of freedom that such a mechanic should provide.
The tree climbing makes up for this, however. I mentioned inconsistency, and the American Colonial Frontier as presented in ACIII has to be considered one of the best settings for sandbox gameplay, a stark contrast against the drab cities of colonial Boston and New York. The trees never feel too conveniently located, but you can trust that there’ll always be a branch in the direction you want to head. The character of Connor just feels so at home in the Frontier when compared to the cities – whether or not this was a concious design choice or simply a consequence of the poor design of the cities, I’m not sure, but it definitely works.
In the very first Assassin’s Creed game, using the “blend” feature – for those of you unfamiliar, staying hidden by becoming inconspicuous amongst other civilians – was extremely overpowered and often simply a win button. In ACIII, it has been downgraded significantly. In the missions in which the ability to blend is most important, particularly eavesdropping missions, all it takes is a direct line of sight between Connor and his targets for him to be noticed and the mission failed. When the targets begin to move, your only real hope is staying behind cover, as despite how inconspicuous you attempt to look, you’ll always be caught out if you’re in the open.
Combat has been watered down a bit since the last instalment in the series, and it shows. What used to require at least a certain level of skill has descended into a button-masher. One button swings the sword offensively, and the other button counters. You use the other button when an enemy has a big flashing red triangle above their head. Guns are included, but (and this is a positive note) they are loud, clunky, and all around unwieldy, as they should be for that time period. It’s not worth fiddling around with gunpowder when your sword, tomahawk, and hidden blades can do the job, and are far quieter. To go along with the inclusion of guns, you can now take an enemy as a human shield, but I tried it once and it didn’t work, so I resorted to sprinting up to the firing line and picking them off one by one, as the soldiers seemed to form an orderly queue to wait to be hacked down rather than all swinging at once. They’re polite like that.
The naval battles are a fantastic innovation – far less frustrating than the poorly constructed tower defence sections in Revelations, captaining the Aquila (named after the constellation whose brightest star is called Altair, ooh meta) requires a large amount of foresight and tactics. You have to allow for weather conditions and environmental surroundings, and it finally provides a valid place on which to spend the money Connor amasses through the campaign. God knows I’m not going to spend it on guns.
Unfortunately, Connor is grumpy, moody, and downright unpleasant. He’s got no sense of humour, no charm, and absolutely no personality. Compared to his predecessor Ezio Auditore and his womanizing ways, Connor might as well be a statue, he’s that dull. As much as I enjoyed the creative and fresh missions, I just had trouble motivating myself to walk (or, more correctly, leap) around as such a bland avatar.
In what might be a lucky consequence of ACIII not being developed by an apple pie American studio, the precarious setting of the American Revolution isn’t as “Yeah! America!” as it could have easily been. The patriotic path has been altogether avoided to the point where you’re not sure if you’re on the right side of the war as Connor. The Loyalists are presented as drunkards and criminals, sure – but so are the Patriots. I’m sure there’s another level of depth here that might be better appreciated by those with a more thorough knowledge of the Seven Years’ War and events directly succeeding, but I know I was grateful for Ubisoft’s expertly traversing such a touchy subject without falling into pure patriotism à la Call of Duty.
But there’s one big, ugly factor in ACIII that prevents me from enjoying myself all that much. It’s too hand-holdy. Far, far too hand-holdy. In essence, there’s an absurd number of objective markers and pop-up hint boxes. Take the introductory theatre assassination, for example – I know it’s the mission immediately after the tutorial, but every there seemed to be a new objective marker every five yards. Why not just point out the target, give me a general direction, and let me go for it? If there’s one thing about contemporary AAA game design that frustrates me to no end, it’s that the games seem to have no respect for our intelligence.
I guess I should touch on the multiplayer, seeing as it is part of the game. Apart from the The Ship-esque kill-or-be-killed multiplayer from the earlier games, a new cooperative multiplayer mode has been added called Wolf Pack mode. In this, players have to coordinate assassinations of specific NPC targets at different points on a map within a certain time limit. The closer the kills are synchronised, the more bonuses are awarded. Once the targets have been eliminated, time is added and more targets are provided. It’s another extremely creative multiplayer offering from ACIII, and will, hopefully, provide a fresh alternative to the (admittedly also very fun) pre-existing multiplayer, ensuring that people are still popping ACIII into their consoles for years to come.
Assassin’s Creed III is a big game. Huge, some would say. From chasing pages of Ben Franklin’s Almanac across the rooftops of Boston to captaining a ship on the Eastern Seaboard, all the way to prancing through the treetops of the Frontier and collecting animal pelts, Assassin’s Creed III does all it can to offer the grandest experience the series has ever seen. Unfortunately, technical glitches, writing, and pacing have all suffered as a consequence of the game’s scope, dragging it from being a great game to a good game. It’s fun, ambitious, and there’s a hell of a lot to be had – that is, if you can drag yourself though the first few hours. It’s very pretty though.
Select Start Media was provided with a copy of Assassin’s Creed III by Ubisoft for the PS3.