Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed saga continues with the fifth game in the series, Assassin’s Creed III.
It is all change this year as the Renaissance era Italian setting of the last three games gives way to the 1700s and the American War of Independence.
We’ve also got a new protagonist in the half-English, half-Mohawk assassin known as Ratonhnhaké:ton or, as his friends like to call him, Conner Kenway.
Before I go on, I’d like to just explain to the uninitiated exactly what the Assassin’s Creed saga is all about. You see, whilst the main part of the game is played out in a historical setting, it is actually a simulation created by a device known as the Animus. And if you think that is a bit odd, just you wait.
In the first game, modern day bartender, Desmond Miles, was kidnapped by a shadowy corporation called Abstergo Industries, which is actually a front for the Templars, that’s right the Templar Knights of old.
It turns out that Desmond is descended from a lineage of assassins who have been fighting the Templars for centuries. Both sides seeking control of some ancient devices known as pieces of Eden.
These devices predate humanity and are the key to preventing a disaster due to happen on the 21st December 2012. Yes, next month.
In order to locate the pieces of Eden, using the Animus, the Templars send Desmond’s consciousness back in time via genetic memory of his ancestor, Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad.
By experiencing Altaïr’s life as an assassin during the time of the Crusades, Desmond witnesses, first hand, the ancient conflict between the assassin’s and the Templars.
In the first sequel, Assassin’s Creed II, Desmond is rescued from the clutches of Abstergo by a group of modern day assassins.
At the assassins’ request Desmond agrees to enter the Animus once more; this time to experience the memories of another of his assassin forefathers, Ezio Auditore.
In the follow up games, Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed Revelations, the story continues to follow Desmond and Ezio as they both work together across time to unlock a secret that could save mankind.
For Assassin’s Creed III the action shifts to North America, with Desmond and his group of modern day assassins setting up shop in strange ancient ruin, which in itself is full of secrets.
After a brief recap, Assassin’s Creed III begins. Desmond’s first experience in the Animus starts before the birth of our new hero and follows the events that lead Conner’s father, Haytham Kenway, from England to Colonial America.
The game starts slow, lacking the hook you’d expect to suck you in. It is only at about the six hour mark, after a huge plot twist, a burning village and the introduction of a vengeful young man that the game opens itself up and actually gets going.
And boy, does the game open up. Assassin’s Creed III is massive, in both scope and geography. It also features more environments than any other game in the series.
Not only can Conner leap across the rooftops of 18th Century Boston and New York, there is also a huge frontier region dotted with settlements and townships.
Whilst I can’t deny that the game environment is fun to explore, it does sometimes feels like vast, impressive but empty sandbox. To be fair, there is a lot to do, probably more than in the last game.
But whereas Assassin’s Creed Revelations was mainly set in the relatively small city of Constantinople, Assassin’s Creed III’s huge play area means that activities are often spread far and wide. Thankfully the game has a decent fast-travel feature.
The game’s main missions follow the birth of the United States of America, from the Boston Tea Party to the British parting shot on Evacuation Day. Along the way I found myself rubbing shoulders with historical figures such as Paul Revere, John Hancock and George Washington himself.
As an Englishman, I was a bit concerned that Ubisoft (a French company) would play up the whole evil British “taxation without representation” thing to appease their American audience. That isn’t the case at all.
Instead, Ubisoft have provided a realistic snapshot of life at the time, balancing the lofty ideals of the Patriots with their somewhat contradictory ethics.
The core Assassin’s Creed gameplay returns for this instalment, but with some minor tweaks. Conner can free run across rooftop as before, but unlike previous game, he can also scale trees and run from branch to branch.
As with the previous games players are encouraged, for the most part, to take out opponents in a stealthy assassin-like way. By giving players new ways of concealment like moving hay carts and foliage to sneak about in there really isn’t any reason to go in all gung ho; except that it is rather good fun.
The game’s combat is much improved, there’s none of the dumbed-down button mashing of the previous game this time.
Attacks and counter attacks must be carefully timed in a manner very similar to the Batman Arkham Asylum and Arkham City games. Some opponents will need to have their defence broken in order to take them down.
Whilst we’ve had guns in previous Assassin’s Creed games, by the time of the Revolutionary War they are a soldier’s weapon of choose.
As such, it is also not wise to leave too much distance between Conner and the musket equipped soldiers, unless you want to be peppered with lead shot.
As I mentioned earlier, for what purports to be a stealth game it is very difficult to resist starting a fight. Do be mindful that the British are a persistent bunch (which is one of the reasons that you are reading this review in English) and are pretty relentless when provoked.
Start a fight in a town and you must either finish it or risk running about with half the town watch in tow, muskets at the ready. Soldiers will attack in multiples and so it is easy to get overwhelmed if cornered.
As well as the main missions, there are plenty of other activities and side quests dotted around the various locations.
I found myself hunting animals in the Frontier, carrying out Liberation missions in the towns and inviting skilled tradesmen to settle and contribute to the economy of my homestead. There are loads of thing to do, but by far the best side missions are the naval missions.
Some six hours into the game Conner becomes the proud own of his own ship, The Aquila. On approaching a harbourmaster ,either in one of the cities of in front of the ship’s mooring , I was invited to choose to either fast travel to another harbour or to pick one many naval missions on offer.
For the first time in an Assassin’s Creed game Ubisoft have provided me with a mini-game that I actually wanted to play. Captaining my own ship, fighting against the wind and the waves was a tense and exhilarating undertaking.
The missions on offer involve protecting trade routes, escorting ships and taking on the might of the British Royal Navy.
The British gunships do seem a little too fragile, but they are filled with munitions and that is probably why they combust so easily. But when Conner is up against a British man-o-war battleship, it is easy to see why Britain ruled the waves.
Taking on the mightiest of the British fleet involves gauging the wind direction, your ship’s alignment and the timing of cannon shots.
Each of the naval encounters features unique environments. The locations range from the open sea to tight rocky channels and the weather from the calm crystal waters of the Caribbean to the heart of a raging storm.
I could play the naval missions all day and I hope that Ubisoft see fit to bless us with more as DLC in the future.
I mustn’t forget to mention the part of the game outside of the Animus.
The Desmond sections of the story, as in the the previous games, continue to be rather subdued and distracting against the richness of the historical setting within the Animus.
This time out we take Desmond on a bit of globe-trotting via sequences obviously prepared by studios drafted in outside the core Montreal-based development team.
Whilst they do serve to explain the context of the overarching story Desmond’s adventure still feel clumsy and bolted on.
Assassin’s Creed III provides Ubisoft with their first opportunity to show off their much lauded AnvilNext game engine, which does a nice job of polishing up the visuals.
The likes of last year’s Assassin’s Creed Revelations looks like a blurry mess compared to the crisp graphics of Assassin’s Creed III. The new engine does, however, seem to be pushing the Xbox 360 so its limit.
In detailed areas, when it gets busy, there is a noticeable frame drop, like the video is skipping; this is especially noticeable during the sweeping cut-scene camera moves. It is a small price to pay, however, for what are otherwise some of the nicest highest fidelity graphics I’ve seen on the Xbox 360.
As well as offering up nice graphics, AnvilNext also allows for different weather conditions and seasonal changes, and it’s not just aesthetic either, walking in the winter snow is hard work and slows Conner down.
Similarly, it is easy to accidently run into a hostile troop of British Readcoats obscured by fog.
As well as the epic single player campaign disc, there was another disc included in the pack. The second disc is the multiplayer game, brought to us by Abstergo Entertainment. A game within a game, as it were, and suitably branded as such.
The Assassin’s Creed multiplayer game is an acquired taste that I've been nibbling at since its introduction in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood. As much as I try, I can't really get into the multiplayer stealth gameplay.
Spending most of the time slowly walking around a map, trying not be do anything that the multitude of AI characters wouldn't do is a bit dull, to be honest.
It is the sort of gameplay that I can see myself falling back on when my fingers are too full of arthritis to pull the trigger in Call of Duty. Despite it running contrary to my personal taste, it is a different type of multiplayer game from the norm and Ubisoft should be congratulated for trying something a little different.
For all its ambition, and as much as I enjoyed playing it, Assassin’s Creed III is flawed on so many levels. It is a huge game, too huge for just one studio to handle.
Taking a leaf out of the Hollywood special effects rule-book ,Ubisoft enlisted multiple studio around the world to produce the game. And, predictably, what we’ve got is an epic product of uneven quality.
Whereby previous Assassin’s Creed games have been flawlessly executed, Assassin’s Creed III just lacks the polish of the previous outings.
Several times the AI threw a wobbler as I went about the level in a manner that obviously the programmers never anticipated. A late night lake swim turned into a catastrophe as Conner fell through the scenery to his death. I could go on.
There was nothing that was a real showstopper, and I’ve seen worse in a new release, but this is Assassin’s Creed and I expect better of it.
So be fair, the game mainly undulates between great and excellent, but in some places the gameplay does get downright annoying.
Incredible set pieces that filled me with adulation were bookended by the most uninspired and conceded bits of mission design the like of which I can only pray resulted in someone getting fired from Ubisoft.
Taxiing Paul Revere around houses so he can knock on the doors and tell them that the regulars are coming was mind-numbingly dull, especially as the game’s horses do not travel well though woodland.
For the Assassin’s Creed III to tell such a legendary part of the American birthing myth in such an uninspiring way defies explanation.
Despite the above, when all is said and done Assassin’s Creed 3 is a fantastic experience the likes of which most developers can only dream of pulling off. It does have more than its fair share of issues, but the game’s greatness overshadows all of its failings.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Assassin’s Creed saga is one of the most intelligent and well thought-out plots ever to have been told in videogames.
Ubisoft has masterfully crafted a pseudo-myth based on real historic events that effectively gathers up a host of esoteric tales and weaves them into one.
Assassin’s Creed III is a good example of the sum of the whole being so much better than that of its parts. The game is as such a magnificent experience that I have no problem in overlooking its faults in the final assessment.
I just can’t judge the game the same way that I would others. Assassin’s Creed III stands on its own; the perfect amalgamation of epic, intelligent plot and entertaining gameplay and, after THAT ending, I can’t wait for the next installment.
Lasting appeal: 9.0