The Assassin's Creed series has certainly evolved. The leap from the original Assassin's Creed to its first sequel is notably huge, but even the jump from AC2 to AC: Brotherhood was big enough to make a difference. Things tapered off a bit when Revelations was introduced, which I think had to do with player fatigue of the annual entries. For the most part, the series has seen decent advances from one sequel to the next. While Assassin's Creed III tries to make a leap or two, most of these changes fail harder than Connor jumping from the wrong side of a synchronization point.
Let's talk first about what the newest sequel in Ubisoft's premier current-gen franchise does right. For starters, the setting of colonial America is an interesting change. AC: Revelations felt a little long in the tooth despite featuring some stunning, digital re-creations of classic architecture, so this change in scenery feels long overdue. AC3 is a little less visually impressive when you're running through the streets of Boston and New York, but when you venture into the frontier, it definitely picks up.
Connor bounding from tree to tree feels flawless and retains the same excellent navigation hook that previous Assassin's Creed titles have offered. It is easy to figure out viable paths through the wilderness, and while it can take a little longer to get accustomed to these paths, when they start to click, you'll find it hard to keep your feet on the ground. I had some difficulty with the synchronization viewpoints in the frontier areas, most of which require you to climb a massive tree to a particular limb. Climbing wasn't much of a problem, but coming down often resulted in death, as the viewpoint made it difficult to spot the right spot to jump from, so I would normally dive safely into a mound of leaves and twigs. This becomes less of an issue in town, but it feels like the previous Assassin's Creed titles gave you a little more leeway in jumping.
From a visual standpoint, AC3 looks pretty solid, but it's not a clear step up from previous entries. Character models and the accompanying art design start to show a little age here, and while a couple of characters stood out, like Charles Lee, others are less striking. I love Connor's design when he's fully outfitted in assassin gear, but getting him to that point takes a little too long. On the technical side, the Xbox 360 version seems to hold up pretty well, but there are some noticeable frame rate drops for busier action sequences, and texture loading is sluggish at points. There's also a fair amount of pop-in when running around the frontier, which isn't surprising considering the vast field of view.
One new addition — and about the only side content that I actually enjoyed — is the new naval battles. At an early point in the story, Connor gets access to a large seafaring ship, and he runs through a tutorial of the navigation and battle. This is done from a third-person view, similar to the view you'll have of Connor throughout the game. The benefit is that it really transplants you into the action when you're behind the wheel, and it makes the battles feel far more dynamic than some sort of blown-out, overhead map view that I'm used to seeing in naval combat.
Naval combat is also simple enough that it never feels overwhelming, even when you're facing off against eight or more ships at once. You have access to two types of guns or cannons: one allows you to fire in any direction at the expense of strength, and the other weapon is the standard portside cannons that can be outfitted with different ammunition types. Travel controls are more like a slow-moving car than you might expect, so navigation is easy enough. You have some speed control with three options for sails, but moving at full speed makes you susceptible to rogue winds, and it's also more difficult to navigate reefs and other obstacles.
One of the reasons the naval battles work so well is that they are not shoved down your throat. You could ignore them outside of the tutorial and a later mission that requires it, and you wouldn't miss a thing. They provided just enough amusement and fun to break up the other monotonous, chore-like features that have bloated the Assassin's Creed experience, and I feel that it's the only thing worth salvaging from this entry for future sequels. Also, outfitting your ship with new parts represents the only major money sink in the game. If it weren't for this mode, you'd find little to do with all the money amassed from opening hidden treasure chests.
With that out of the way, let's talk about the rest of Assassin's Creed III and its disjointed mess of a campaign experience. While I enjoy the setting of the game and was really happy to control a new character, Connor doesn't get enough character progression to feel particularly engaging. For me, part of that was due to the huge span of time that the game tries to cover. We're introduced to an extremely young Connor and skipping around from there. The "twist" at the end of the third sequence is completely mismanaged, considering every bit of promotional material for the game lets you know that something is coming. Time wasted in the first three sequences could have allowed us to have much more face time with Connor as a character, and it could have given him more of a chance to be a likeable character. As it is, he is stoic and honorable, but he's nowhere near as endearing or interesting as Ezio from AC2.
Outside of Connor's story, things get worse. I've never found Desmond's story to be fantastic, but since it's the lynchpin that holds together all three games, you would think there would be a better resolution than what you'll see at the end of AC3. I'd consider this to be one of the most disappointing endings this year, and even though there was a big public outcry surrounding the Mass Effect 3 ending, I think AC3 has that beat. There's almost zero resolution, featuring a vague cliffhanger that does the exact opposite of making me anticipate a possible fourth mainline entry.
I also found the majority of the side content in AC3 to serve little purpose in advancing Connor as a character, either in story or gameplay. There are familiar elements, so you can still visit shops and buy equipment, new weapons and outfits. However, the armor system from previous entries is gone, and the health system is replaced by a regenerating bar that removes some identity from the series, bringing it more in line with modern standards.
Also, buying and using new weapons feels mostly useless, in part due to the simplicity of the combat, and due to the changes made to weapon damage, defense and speed allocations. Most weapons seem to excel at one thing and fall short in others, but the way of determining those strengths and weakness is by an on-screen graph that does an awful job of comparing stats between new weapons and the one that's currently equipped. I never, ever purchased a new weapon throughout the entire game, and I went with my default inventory. I never felt crippled or hindered in combat, either, so while I may have found a better replacement for my tomahawk or sword, I didn't see the point in switching.
Speaking of combat, the excellent system featured in previous games has been abandoned in favor of a system that relies heavily on a one-button counter system. On the surface, it doesn't feel like a huge change from the previous entries, but as the game progressed, I didn't feel that combat was a challenge, and while enemy types changed to a certain degree, almost everyone in the game could be defeated by hitting the counter button and then hitting the attack button to perform an instant kill. A couple of enemy types force you to disarm them first, but you still must hit the counter and disarm buttons before going in for the kill. All in all, every combat situation given feels more like an annoying distraction than anything resembling fun.
The same can be said for a couple of other side activities. Hunting is introduced, and while I like it in theory, its purpose is lacking. You can track animals via highlighted clues in the environment, which point you to places to look for prey or lay traps and spread bait. Once you successfully kill an animal, you can skin it, giving you a handful of inventory items that can be used for selling or crafting purposes. Hunting works fine, but the economy in AC3 is so useless and the crafting so broken that everything related to this new activity feels worthless.
Crafting lets you re-create usable items like arrows, snares, etc., and more unique items, like alcohol, food, etc. A lot of the stuff you can craft is used to craft more stuff or sell. Earning cash in AC3 is incredibly easy if you seek out treasure chests hidden throughout each area. By "hidden," I mean move to the icon displayed on your minimap once you buy a map from a local shop. The economy system becomes massively unbalanced from the cash found in these chests, so you'll see little to no worth in crafting for money.
Selling goods is sort of a nightmare. You're given the option to load up carts to send to shops from your central hub, the Homestead, but you can only load these caravans with a single item at a time, so you can't stack multiples of a single item. The caravans take about 10 minutes to complete a run, so by the time one returns, you've most likely moved on to some other area or mission. On occasion, a caravan comes under attack, and the game does a pretty poor job of letting you know. If you react slowly, you'll lose the caravan and goods. Since your cash return on sending out caravans is so minimal, I hardly see the point in this effort.
To circle back to why the crafting is broken, we'll discuss the Homestead for a minute. Early in the game, Connor stumbles across a mentor-like character who owns a run-down house on the frontier. The idea for the Homestead is that you'll slowly bring it out of its state of disrepair, but that progress is never detailed or evident to the player. As a way of improving the Homestead, you take on side missions that eventually draw in new characters, like hunters, an inn keeper, woodworkers, and so on. Each of the characters, in turn, gives you the ability to craft new materials specific to his or her skill set. By finishing the Homestead missions, you can level up those characters and craft better items. It becomes absolutely mandatory to level up characters if you hope to build anything beyond the most basic goods, but the leveling system seems to be completely broken.
By the time I hit sequence 10, nearing the end of the game, I had given up on crafting. Despite finishing a number of Homestead missions, which should advance the level for each crafter, every member of my Homestead sat at level one. Even if I wanted to craft the higher-level items, including the unique Ben Franklin inventions, I was pretty stuck. I headed into forums and FAQS and found my issue also affected other players, and the consensus seems to be that you need to tackle Homestead missions during the original sequence instead of waiting until later. This isn't really the way I tend to play video games, and I'm pretty disappointed in the unnecessary punishment for holding off on a side-quest or two. It's not clear whether this is intended or just a bug, but with no fix weeks after release, it's a clear annoyance.
One last, shining beacon in this mixed bag is the online portion of AC3. In carrying over the multiplayer that made AC: Brotherhood such a stand-out entry, Assassin's Creed's online play continues to enthrall. You can take on the role of a number of unnamed assassins and attempt to blend in with a number of NPCs while trying to kill other player targets; the intense gameplay has yet to be effectively mimicked by any other series. Knowing that you've been spotted and attempting to frantically avoid an assassination can be a nail-biting experience and remains just as fun here as it did two games prior.
There has not been a lot of change to that experience in Assassin's Creed III, but two new multiplayer modes have been added. Domination has a team of players attempting to control and defend specific locations on a map. The other, Wolf Pack, is a co-op mode more akin to Horde-style modes popularized in other games; it teams you up with other players against increasingly difficult NPC characters.
As a whole, Assassin's Creed III feels lacking. Considering how positive most early impressions were coming out of E3, perhaps my expectations were set too high, but there are clearly a number of disjointed elements that feel half-finished or poorly thought out. This is the issue of having so many cooks in the Assassin's Creed III's development kitchen, and the final product ends up being far more disappointing than I would've expected. It's not without some merit, and it's not something to skip if you're invested in the universe or overarching story, but if you found your interest waning with Revelations, AC3 could be the final nail in the coffin for some players. It's worth a rental, but I wouldn't classify this as a must-play game.
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