The urban sprawl of 18th Century Boston and New York, verdant fields spreading in all directions, a vast untamed wilderness crammed with cliffs and ancient trees, and the wide open ocean; Assassin’s Creed III had the promise of a truly huge open world set amid a powder keg of armed conflict, revolution, and turmoil. Four hours in, I was still being told how to play. Six hours in I was swinging from trees, leaping off buildings, and murdering a significant amount of my countrymen and yet I still felt as limited and constricted as I had before. It’s the largest and most grossly laden game in the franchise, and possibly the worst.
Almost triple digits in length, it buckles under the weight of pointless collectables, needlessly drawn out systems, countless mini-games, and twin stories drowning in over-exposition. What we are left with is a title that feels like the product of a round table discussion in a room where there are no bad ideas, when instead it needed restraint and an editor, desperately.
The introductory chapter starts the whole experience off on the wrong foot, and it never regains its balance. We begin in control of Desmond, once again. A character so bereft of personality that I consistently forget that he’s meant to be the central protagonist. It is the poorly told science fiction tale constantly churning behind the scenes that I’ve found to be the most awkward facet of the series, and it’s at its most jarring here. Early on in the game, Connor is told in no uncertain terms that he’s just a tool, and that it is Desmond who is really important, yet I believe that was Desmond’s quest thrown by the wayside and the focus of the franchise was entirely on the historical settings, it would do far more good than harm.
Eventually we get to escape the near contemporary setting, and jump to Georgian England. For the next few hours it’s all about Haytham Kenway, and players are treated to a long tutorial and a mini-adventure that takes him across the sea to the Americas. It takes rather a long time until Connor is introduced, and it’s extremely hard to get invested in the early parts of the game, knowing that Haytham is only a temporary protagonist.
I was, I must confess, getting pretty tired of following people around, watching cut scenes, and being taught how to play a game that I’ve pretty much already played four times. Finally getting control of Connor doesn’t change much, as the game immediately begins the second chapter of tutorials, with the assassin in training starting off as a young child, then a teenager, and then, at long last, an adult member of the order.
If it takes that long to set the scene and train players there must be a problem, in this case there are two. There is too much going on, and the pacing is criminally bad. The majority of the activities which one can participate in appear to be there to make the game incredibly long, because we all know it’s unacceptable for a triple A title to run under less than fifty hours. The hilariously overly complex crafting system really epitomises this padding.
Finding pages of Benjamin Franklin’s almanacs — spread throughout the towns and cities of the East Coast — unlocks special upgrades, but you don’t get access to them immediately. Instead, you must order them to be crafted by people living at your homestead; a little village that you construct throughout the game. These upgrades have very specific ingredients and must be crafted by particular individuals, so you must also find these people, get them to move to the homestead, and then perform missions for them to unlock the ingredients for the upgrades. It’s not just Franklin’s little gifts that require all this effort, it extends to pretty much everything you might consider making.
I didn’t do very much crafting, unsurprisingly.
I struggle to think of any remotely interesting diversions that don’t involve killing, though there are plenty of them. Being an assassin obviously doesn’t pay the bills, because Connor is also a detective, but more Scooby Doo than Sherlock. Hearing rumours about mythical beasts or spooks will set the fellow on a mission to uncover their existence, and they are rarely anything but disappointments, with the monsters turning out to be nothing but mundane things given supernatural qualities by the over active imaginations of hunters and silly townsfolk. The investigations themselves amount to listening in on conversations and walking to places.
The aforementioned killing does offer up some enjoyment, though. Combat is, admittedly, a simple affair reminiscent of Arkham City, though considerably easier. It’s flashy, however, and empowering. New weapons provide interesting sport, like dragging people off their feet with a spike on a rope, or pulling the old “Get over here!” move. As per usual, there are forts to attack, and whole armies of unsuspecting soldiers to slay, and Connor slices through them with effortless efficiency. It doesn’t do much to help the misnomer of “assassin”, and if there was any pretence of stealth and subtlety left after the last outing (there wasn’t) then it has certainly vanished now.
Unfortunately, having supernatural, near god-like powers of murder removes any chance of tense moments, and never once is the player required to think tactically, or employ any methods other than an all out attack. There’s simply no need. Even when a row of armed men are firing off their rifles, there’s no risk of them doing any real harm, even if you don’t manage to grab a human shield. By the half way mark fights seemed more like cut scenes. Instead of attempting to make the combat more challenging or immersive, the synchronisation mechanic is used. Missions often come with a rather long list of caveats for complete success; kill five redcoats with an air attack, throw six redcoats in the water, takes less than 50% damage — it’s so bluntly artificial.
The mission objectives themselves leave a lot to be desired, with Ubisoft relying on a lot of escort and stalking nonsense filled with instant fail conditions. NPCs walk with the haste of a man with no legs, and following them is a ponderous, thankless task. With so much fluff being added to the formula, it beggars belief that so much of the same tired nonsense still remains. Fortunately, the playground in which these frequently monotonous tasks exist in is a gorgeous space, lovingly crafted with fine attention to detail. Both urban environments and the wilderness are busy, filled with life and a multitude of paths, obvious and secret. It is in the cities where things seem most alive and interesting, however, where the many buildings — some grand and some dilapidated — create staircases in all directions, and scattered all around are the aimless wandering masses, shouting and gabbing, often offering yet more diversions.
Weather and seasons are a welcome introduction, breathing new life into areas with rainstorms and snow. Assaulting a Templar fort under the cover of darkness, with storm clouds rolling across the sky and thunder overpowering the sound of drums is worlds apart from assaulting the same fort during a lovely afternoon in the middle of summer. It’s a small thing that manages to add a bit of drama and tenseness where the mechanics fail to do so. The weather also has a slight impact on the gameplay, with snow making it slower to move through the wilderness, and rain making visibility lower.
Bizarrely, it is the rather inconsequential, detached naval missions that made up the majority of the moments where I actually found myself having fun. They are simple, straightforward scenarios, but remarkably high in drama and tension. Cutting through the sea, Connor’s vessel obliterates cliff-top fortresses, enemy armadas, and navigates choppy waters filled with deadly rocks. Sailors run around the deck, clambering up the rigging, shouting and yelling as the ship is bombarded with enemy cannon-fire — it’s all rather stirring. Such battles can be jumped into from the moment you get control of adult Connor, and don’t really fit with the pace of the main narrative, but that didn’t feel like much of a negative given how little interest I had in said narrative. In a bout of surprising common sense, Ubisoft decided to refrain from making players jump through forty different hoops to upgrade their ship, and new cannons, thicker hulls, and all manner of additions can simply be purchased at the docks.
Assassin’s Creed III’s plot is unlikely to be lauded by anyone, and is lacking in interesting characters, let alone sympathetic ones. Connor is a dreary, bored chap, who merely exists to kill a bunch of people and help Desmond find apples or whatever the hell this series is all about. He scowls a lot and utters monotonous sentences in a manner that made me think that he wanted to be there about as much as I did. He did, at least, make me appreciate Ezio a lot more. The goateed Italian and his journey from roguish lothario to tired leader was infinitely more compelling than his successor’s journey from some kid, to some guy.
Being a catalyst rather than an actual character, he finds himself in a string of historical events, and inexplicably has no problem with being at the very centre of them. Remember when that big Native American fellow dressed up like a ghost threw lots of tea into the water to save his tribe and caused the Boston Tea Party? Yes, good times. For a secret organisation, the Assassin’s sure like to be in the limelight. From the Tea Party to the revolution, Connor is there in the middle, being really, really dull. These events rarely feel significant compared to their actual historical counterparts, and the way they are connected to our sullen hero personally is haphazard at best. The Boston Tea Party becomes a minor scuffle in which a tiny village is saved from a rich white fellow, for instance, and is all the less interesting because of it.
It’s a shame, too, because clearly a lot of effort has been put into historical research, mostly into data entries that most people will lamentably skim over. At times it is as if somebody slapped a mediocre video game onto a detailed piece of historical fiction, and then added in alien ghosts because they were worried history wouldn’t cut it with a modern audience.
Obsessive collectors and those who rate their gaming experience on potential hours played will likely find a lot to keep them busy in Assassin’s Creed III. It’s so overflowing with content that I’m amazed it wasn’t oozing out of the box when it arrived on my doorstep. But it’s all just stuff, lots of pointless stuff, and it never feels like it ties together to make a cohesive experience. Playing the game was a chore, but at least when I’m sweeping the hallway or washing the dishes I get something tangible out of it. All I got from this was the desire to play something — anything — else.