Assassin's Creed III full review
You can't argue with the mammoth quantity on offer in what's in fact the fifth in this series of historical action games. Assassin's Creed III is a giant sack full of diversions, putting even its famously content-packed predecessors to shame. Maybe its eyes are a bit too big for its stars'n'stripes-patterned stomach, though.
The old world settings of the previous Assassin's Creeds are left behind in favour of a move to colonial America, and a tale that waves in and out of that new nation's war for freedom from its British rulers. This means more firearms and squat brick buildings rather than towering minarets of Europe and the Middle East, but despite that and this game's much-hyped three year development time, playing it is a surprisingly minor departure from what's gone before. The heart of Assassin's Creed III is very, very similar to Assassin's Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations - that pick'n'mix of third-person-perspective free-running, swordfights and collection-centric minigames in a large, open environment. There are new activities and alterations to existing ones, but it's all just a new drizzle over the same cake.
Of course, it's a pretty great cake, and the new setting plus a largely highly impressive new graphics engine help it taste fresher than it otherwise would have done. Unfortunately, it's an awfully long time until you're allowed to eat this cake. Assassin's Creed games, involving as they do a hell of a lot of controls to learn compared to your average blockbuster action title, have always had over-long tutorial sections, and the fact that the hisotrical adventures are framed by a notorious, divisive modern-day sci-fi plot have also served to make their initial stages that much more drawn out.
Rather than addressing these long-standing issues, AC3 goes even further - adding a three-hour prelude/tutorial starring a different protagonist to Conner, the Native American assassin who's been glaring at the world from posters on bus stops for the last few weeks.
There are some smart storytelling ideas in this prelude and the cause of the later change in lead character, but execution is baggy and the fact that it takes so long to simply teach us how to do stuff we've already done for four games is infuriating. And after that, there's another couple of hours of learning to be done as Connor finally takes centre stage and brings with him a few new skills to get a long-winded handle on - specifically, hunting and skinning wildlife, and the brand new naval combat mode. These are the game's best additions, but the wait to experience them and then again use access them at will is torturous.
It doesn't help that Connor is such a dour and charmless fellow. This series has never particularly excelled at its characters, but in the last three games' gentlemanly Italian star Ezio it at least had someone likeable, so a move to a scowling blank slate is a shame.
Similarly, the game manages to rob much of the drama of the American revolution, as it's more interested in Connor encountering a parade of historically famous names and playing a gimmicking part in major events such as the Boston Tea Party and the battle of Bunker Hill than it is in the causes of the conflict. A narrower focus, both in features and in setting, would have made for a less drawn-out and bitty experience.
Two things you can't argue with, though, are the spectacle and the variety. The upside of the game jumping all over the place is a steady stream of spectacular setpieces - battles between large armies, cannonfire bombings of cities, high-speed ship chases, fortress invasions, fluid skirmishes with tomahawks and muskets and, best of the bunch, the grand sweep of the Frontier, a huge forest zone.
Here, from high up in the treetops, alongside plunging cliffs and skulking in the undergrowth, Connor hunts animals with knife, bow, bait and traps. It's not wildly different from the 'main' game, but a lot less frenetic thanks to the tranquil surrounding and the lack of easily-angered guards. Though watch out for the bears, wolves and bobcats.
Hunting animals rewards you with skins and meats which can be sold for a pretty penny, and on top of that is a deeply awkward sub-game in which you trade food, wood and herbs created by a slowly-increased population hanging around Connor's base, or use it to craft assorted ammo and upgrades. It's an ambitious move towards a fully-functioning in-game economy which represents frontier live, but it's laid low by being depicted as nothing more than a frankly awful series of menus. Again, maybe it was just one thing too many, too much quantity at the expense of more of the quality very much in evidence elsewhere in the game.
AC3 also offers a much-needed conclusion to the sci-fi conspiracy modern day story that's run across all five games. It'll prove divisive, it's characteristically mopey and very little of it will make sense to anyone picking up this game without having played the others, but the prospect of future Assassin's Creeds being free from it is a pleasant one. That it's even as present as it is here speaks to the problems AC3 seems to have had breaking with the past - layering more and more on top of a familiar structure instead of truly shaking things up. It's certainly an epic with dozens of hours of distraction in an often gorgeous setting, but perhaps it's too far away from the series' original concept of stealth and strategic take-downs.
Assassin's Creed III: Specs
- Available on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3
- PC version to follow.