Available on Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3. PC and WiiU (reviewed)
Epic. A word frequently misused, describing any film with a three-hour running time and a handful of CGI battle scenes, yet another lazy Tolkien-esque fantasy saga, or a forty-hour RPG that drags on at least thirty hours too long. It is, however, the best word to describe Assassin’s Creed 3. This is the biggest, boldest and most ambitious Assassin’s Creed yet, with a story spanning two eras and over thirty crucial years of American history, with action ranging through bustling cities, hostile wilderness and the open sea. It has war, intrigue, espionage, ancient mysteries and beings from an earlier civilization, yet tackles themes like patriotism, paternity, colonialism, persecution and violence that will strike much closer to home. None of this means that it’s the best Assassin’s Creed, but you can’t knock it for trying.
This time the tale of modern Assassin Desmond Miles and the continuing battle between the Brotherhood and the Templars frames the story of a half English/Mohawk warrior, Ratonhnhakéton, who eventually becomes known under the more managable Connor Kenway. To tell you too much would be to spoil the twists and turns of the plot. Suffice to say that it begins before Connor’s birth and takes in the full scope of the American Revolution, with America’s founding fathers taking the cameo roles adopted by Da Vinci, the Borgias, Machiavelli and the Medici in the Ezio trilogy. The action flits between the Boston, New York and a fictionalized Massachusetts frontier encompassing the towns of Charlestown, Lexington and Concord, with interludes in the modern day and naval encounters in the North East coast. It makes even Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, with its enormous Rome setting, seem unambitious.
In many respects, AC3 isn’t a huge departure from AC2. It’s played from the same third-person viewpoint, Connor moves and eventually looks like a close cousin of Altair and Ezio, and the gameplay is the same combination of parkour-based platforming, stealth, swashbuckling combat and carefully staged violence. Yet the differences go far beyond the details, like the fact that you no longer have to press the A button to jump. This is a new Assassin, at loose with new weapons and abilities in a new setting. It’s not unfamiliar, but it also feels fresh and new.
The wilderness environments, which occupy you for a hefty chunk of the game, are where you’ll spot the biggest transformations. Stealth takes something of a backseat (though it’s still important) and there’s room to explore, hunt, track down collectibles and engage in a variety of sub-missions. As a native of the forests Connor isn’t restricted to the ground, and with a squeeze of the right trigger he’ll clamber up trees, run along their outstretched bough and leap from branch to branch, trunk to cliff and cliff to ledge. Enemies can be taken out at distance with a bow and arrow, strangled from a branch with a nasty part-knife, part-grapple contraption, or simply despatched with tomahawk or blade. And when you’re not dealing with vicious hunters, corrupt militia or the fiendish British redcoats, you might find yourself up against wolves or bears.
In the cities, it’s slightly more business as usual. There are still the primary missions that propel the plot, as Connor deals with targets, disrupts Templar plans or escorts leading patriots, but you’ll also still find stalwart AC activities, like climbing churches to synchronise views and gain information, eavesdropping, shadowing, taking over Templar areas or ripping posters off the wall to preserve your anonymity. Yet even here, you’re still aware that we’re not in Renaissance Europe anymore. With fewer, often lower buildings, wider streets and fewer hiding places the rooftops are no longer your domain, and your enemies are smarter, faster and better equipped with long-range weaponry. AC3 makes it harder to sneak past enemy patrols or evade capture – occasionally to a fault.