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Assassin’s Creed 3 Review

Pros

  • Epic narrative
  • Huge frontier setting
  • Excellent graphics
  • No end of missions, side-quests and extras

Cons

  • Minor technical issues
  • Artificial limits on exploration
  • Prolonged opening

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £39.99

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.

Assassin's Creed 3

Assassin’s Creed 3 – An American Revolution

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.

Assassin's Creed 3

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.

Assassin’s Creed 3 – Urban Jungles and the Wild Frontier

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.

Assassin's Creed 3
 
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.

Assassin’s Creed 3 – Combat

Close combat is also different, feeling faster and more fluid, but with more emphasis on countering enemy blows and striking rapidly while you have your foe off balance. To stop this becoming monotonous, some of the tougher redcoats and their Templar allies are resistant to the standard counter combos, forcing you to use defence breaking moves or simply work a little harder to put them down. It’s an effective system with its own rhythm and timing, but one that still forces you to be aware of the overall situation, making sure Connor doesn’t get overwhelmed from all directions, or shot to bits by muskets from a distance. And while the combat is hard, it never feels unfair. If you can’t take the odds, then it’s up to you to reduce them – and if fair means don’t work then try foul.

Assassin's Creed 3

Assassin’s Creed 3 – Pioneering?

The team at Ubisoft Montreal has done a great job here, taking the core Assassin’s Creed gameplay and giving it a new spin without wrecking what worked so well in the Ezio games. Movement in both the cities and the wilderness still feels fluid and natural, and there’s a joy just in clambering up a building or reaching a mountain vantage point – or even just getting from A to B.

Assassin's Creed 3

The new stuff also works well. Connor can use traps to hunt for smaller prey or stealth, tomahawk or bow and arrow to hunt for bigger animals, and – PETA beware – skins gathered can be sold, linking the activity in with the wider game economy. A persistent homestead now acts as a base, where people helped or rescued in the game’s homestead missions will live, contributing resources to be traded or used in a neat evolution of the town-building aspects of the Ezio trilogy. Meanwhile, naval missions offer a complete departure for the series. Both movement and combat are deliberately simplified, with a choice of no sail, half sail and full sail speeds, the wheel on the left analogue stick and cannons and more accurate deck-guns mapped to the left and right triggers. However, it’s still very satisfying, and sending an enemy crew to Davy Jones’ locker won’t get dull too soon.

Assassin's Creed 3

Assassin’s Creed 3 – Enhanced Graphics

Most of all, this is a spectacular and often beautiful game. While we can’t vouch for their historical accuracy, the locations are as rich and detailed as ever, and the character animation is consistently lifelike. Weather effects, like storm, rain and snow, are brilliantly handled, and if some of the vegetation looks flat or some faces look artificial when seen in close-up, it never does much to spoil the impression. AC3 isn’t quite a generational leap on from AC: Revelations, but it does look noticeably better.

With all that said, though, AC3 still isn’t quite the best Assassin’s Creed. It’s big, it’s clever and it packs in enough new features and ideas to embarrass most other threequels, but it’s still a notch or two away from the sky-high benchmark set by Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood. Partly, it’s the pacing that’s at fault. AC3 takes an awfully long time before it really gets going, with early sections dominated by disguised tutorials and exposition, and a slightly tentative approach that means the game only catches fire around six to eight hours in. Replaying the initial section on Wii U, we were struck by how dull and cut-scene heavy much of the early game is. You can see Ubisoft pushing for the feel of a grand generation-spanning saga, but the result is a long stretch of gameplay that actively put many players off.

We also can’t help wondering if the American Revolution setting plays better in the US than it does in Europe. After all, while Samuel Adams and Paul Revere are major historical figures over there, they’re not so iconic over here (perhaps because the British lost the war). Beyond this, there’s a suspicion that the mission designs aren’t consistently that great, with some great stealth and combat missions followed by the most mundane or frustrating ‘do three things then come back’ quests imaginable.

Assassin's Creed 3
 
And there are technical issues too. Playing pre-release Xbox 360 code, we had reason to hope that some of the glitches we’d seen had been ironed out by the time you played the game, but apparently not. Some colossal patches have helped, but we’re not the only ones to have experienced mission-critical characters disappearing or enemies and wild beasts that get stuck in the scenery. Even though the context-sensitive controls have got better, you’ll still find Connor making a disastrous move because you weren’t quite pointing in the right direction. And why are so many frontier areas closed off during sections of the game? Is it to ensure that the player doesn’t go off track, or to cover limitations of storage or memory?

The Wii U version isn’t immune to glitches either. For the most part it’s a solid port, feeling very close in look and feel to the 360 version, if a little more prone to frame rate collapse when things get really busy. Use of the Wii U Pad is restricted to an onscreen map and some shortcut keys for summoning your horse or selecting weapons, but having the map to refer to clarifies some of the more obscure objectives in some missions, and a larger radar helps in naval battles.

However, we’ve still experienced the same issues with the stuck critters mentioned above, not to mention some odd low-resolution textures and flashing shadows – albeit more pronounced in some sequences than others. The early scenes in Boston seem particularly problematic. We’ve yet to find a technically flawless Assassin’s Creed 3, and this one isn’t it.

It’s disappointing to find the Wii U port so slim on features, but we’d rather have that than some of the unsuccessful gimmicks of Batman: Arkham City – Armored Edition. And Ubisoft has supported one of our favourite features of Wii U; the ability to play the game on the Wii U Pad instead of your TV. Assassin’s Creed 3 is a huge game, and it’s not always convenient to stop the game just because someone else in your household wants to watch TV. Now there’s no need to. Flick the toggle in the General options screen and you can carry on playing on the Wii U Pad’s built-in screen. The detailed visuals hold up surprisingly well.

Assassin’s Creed 3 – Getting Better

These things spoil what’s otherwise a rich illusion of the American frontier, and mar the early sections of the game. But here’s the thing: AC3 is a grower. Where the first Assassin’s Creed stunned you for the first five hours then bored you for the rest of its duration, AC3 just gets better. The more you play, the more you become caught up in Connor’s adventures and the intrigue of the time, and the more engaging and coherent all the different shards of narrative and gameplay become.

Assassin's Creed 3

There are still dodgy sequences, like a reimagining of Paul Revere’s famous ride, while a strategy segment in the battle for Lexington and Concord falls a little flat, but these are always balanced by something much more exciting. Best of all, the Desmond bits are reasonably exciting this time around. The lad finally gets his own exciting missions, even if he has to spend a little too much time exploring a confusing and slightly dull First Civilization complex.

Assassin's Creed 3

If anything, AC3 is slightly too ambitious, and you suspect that a few fewer game mechanics and a slightly shorter story might have made for a tighter and more consistent thriller. Yet we’d always rather see a game suffer from an excess of ambition than a lack of it. And that’s why, on balance, we love AC3. Rather than simply dress its old game in a new period and new clothes, it does everything it can to shake things up.

Verdict

Epic in ambition, scale and scope, Assassin’s Creed 3 is anything but another lazy sequel. At times it even tries to do too much, and some might find the initial few hours a bit slow moving. However, persistence is rewarded with some impressive spectacle and exceptional gameplay. It might not displace Brotherhood as the high watermark of the series, but it revitalises what was in danger of becoming another tired franchise, and sets it back on track.

As for the new Wii U port, it’s not the most ambitious we’ve seen but it looks great and plays well and supports playing on the Wii U Pad instead of your TV. So definitely worth a go if you didn’t play it first time round.

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