Assassin's Creed is a franchise that shows first impression shouldn't always be the only impression. The first game was rather flawed, but each sequel introduced new ideas and mechanics that improved the experience. Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood could have felt like a cheap cash-in, but it is one of the most polished iterations of the game to date. Assassin's Creed: Revelations may have been a step back, but there was little reason to think Assassin's Creed III would repeat Revelations' mistakes. In a way, that assumption was right. AC3 makes a bunch of new mistakes on its own.
AC3's plot is shockingly unfocused for what should theoretically be the end of a trilogy. The story is divided into two parts, with one part set during the Revolutionary War. Here, players take control of Ratonhnhaké:ton ("Connor" for simplicity), a Native American Assassin who is seeking to kill the Templars who destroyed his village. The other part of the story involves series mainstay, Desmond Miles, who has two weeks to figure out how to stop a giant solar flare from wiping out life on the planet. Desmond must use the Animus machine to travel back into Connor's memories and find a long-lost key that may hold the secret to saving humanity.
Alas, both stories are poorly executed. Connor's story doesn't start until you've spent nearly five hours playing as his father. These hours are slow and incredibly difficult to invest in, as players are aware that they're not playing as the guy on the box, so most of what they do is meaningless. It leads up to a twist that might be fun if the game didn't spoil it for you in the Database. Connor's story occurs for reasons that feel inexplicable. He goes from event to event with little explanation, and his motivations are often inscrutable for the wrong reasons. He speaks about plot twists when we have no idea how he learned about them, and he joins sides for no clear reason. His plot fizzles to an end, although there are a few strong scenes along the way. Desmond's plot is involving the solar flare lacks a sense of urgency, characters are introduced and dropped at a moment's notice, and the resolution is not satisfying for the end of a five-game plot arc. Desmond has been the co-protagonist of five games, but he still feels like a secondary character at this point.
AC3 represents one of the least-polished big-name games I've played. Even from the beginning, there is a general lack of care and effort that seems drastically out of place. A number of basic mechanics are glitchy or function oddly, so it's hard to believe they were properly playtested. Standing out are the Perfect Synchronization optional objectives, which, in theory, represent fun extra challenges that you can complete to make missions more difficult. They involve things like preventing enemies from doing too much damage, avoiding being seen, and performing certain kinds of assassinations. This was how they functioned in the excellent Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Here, they rely on fiddly mechanics, unclear objectives, or poor design, bringing attention to how little time and effort seems to have been put into the game. The mechanics are frequently frustrating and awkward for reasons that have nothing to do with challenge. These optional missions make the game worse by forcing you to pay attention to its least-polished aspects.
There are other bewildering gameplay design decisions. For one, AC3 is terrible about explaining anything to the player. Most of the new mechanics are halfheartedly mentioned or tossed in without comment, and the player is expected to know they exist. Even basic mechanics get little explanation. I was able to understand how certain things worked because I had played all of the previous Assassin's Creed games, but I can't imagine a newcomer or someone who hadn't played the recent games could come in and be anything but lost. This is even stranger when you consider that the game has an incredibly long tutorial area, taking well over five hours to get down to business. This tutorial is good at explaining certain things, but it drops off bizarrely for others. The in-game manual isn't very useful, either.
Mission design is incredibly inconsistent. There are a number of primary plot missions that feel half-baked, involving long and boring "eavesdropping" segments or unexciting combat sequences. That isn't to say there aren't some amazing set pieces. There are a few times when you get into the middle of a battle during the Revolutionary War. It's unfortunate that these are bookended by such unexciting adventures. Several missions also rely on annoying mechanics that aren't fun to play, even when they're working well. Assassin's Creed 2 and onward managed to make the cast fun and exciting. Here, I have trouble remembering most of the characters aside from their roles in American history. Ben Franklin is the closest to reaching Leonardo Da Vinci-style likeability, but even he falls short.
A few game mechanics are properly explained and functional, but they still feel lackluster. Many quests involve a bare minimum of effort. Delivering letters, for example, involves going up to an NPC and hitting the "talk" button. Without any justification, you'll be given a bunch of letters to deliver to other NPCs. You do this by walking up to them and hitting talk, whereupon they will repeat the same "thank you" message. Many of the side-quests follow this pattern without the pretense of a story.
In previous games, there were Synchronization spots located around the city that you could climb to gradually reveal the map. They still exist here, but they leave large areas of the map uncovered. This is rather frustrating and a strange step backward. You'll often find important side-quests or other information hidden in patches that are not visible on the map, forcing you to wander around in hopes of triggering them. Likewise, the quick-travel mechanic added an unnecessary feature where you have to explore underground tunnels to use it. Exploring tunnels simply involves following small clues to find exits, but it's so boring that I often skipped unlocking new quick travel points so I wouldn't have to spend time in an underground tunnel, groping around for an exit.
There are a number of side-quests, but many are not very fun. Hunting, for example, takes up an incredible amount of time for a very simple mechanic. You can hunt and trap animals to skin them for claws, pelts and other goods. You can then set up a merchant caravan to trade these goods, and a homestead to upgrade the caravan and craft more goods to trade. It sounds exciting and interesting, but it ends up being needlessly convoluted. I like that the developers attempted to make it more interactive than Assassin Creed 2's manor, which passively generated money, but they went too far into the other direction and added a bunch of features that needlessly add time without adding complexity. It's a shame because it is a cool mechanic in theory. Had it been well implemented, it would have been a great way to make money. Instead, it's just tedious.
Some changes were positive. The game drops the "marionette" movement style introduced in the original Assassin's Creed in favor of a simpler style. The jumping mechanics are much improved, and it's nearly impossible to accidentally jump in the wrong direction or fall to your death. You can even run along trees, which is an incredibly neat mechanic when it has meaningful value. Moving around is easy, and it's a delight to run around the Revolutionary War-era wilderness — or even the rare trips that Desmond makes to modern-day cities.
Combat, on the other hand, has been simplified to the point of irrelevance. Previous Assassin's Creed games put too much emphasis on counter-attacking, but in AC3, every fight boils down to three things: wait for the enemy to attack, press the guard button, and either press the counterattack button (when facing regular enemies) or the disarm button (when facing elite enemies). Taking damage isn't a meaningful threat, as your regenerating health bar assures that you'll be topped off at a moment's notice. Previous games used a health potion system that theoretically had a similar effect, but there's not even an option to avoid healing. The combat is reminiscent of Arkham Asylum in its simplicity, but without any of the hidden depth or potential for improvement seen there. Even Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood managed to make the fighting more visceral and exciting. The combat animations look amazing, and some of the more pitched fights are a delight to watch — if not to play.
Far worse and far more frustrating is the constant and unending tide of bugs. It's not hyperbole when I say that I didn't go more than 15 minutes without encountering some glitch. Some of these are relatively tame, such as finding enemy weapons floating in mid-air after defeating them or seeing guards randomly walk into the water and drown. Others bugs were aggravating, though. Guards would inexplicably get stuck in place when they were supposed to be patrolling, so it was impossible for me to advance. Quest givers would activate, and then they'd stand there empty-eyed until I left the area and returned to trigger them again. I expect some bugs in an open-world game, but I encountered more errors in the first five hours of AC3 than I did in the entire franchise.
There is one bright point amid the rest of AC3, and that is the naval battles. Early in the game, you'll gain access to a ship, the Aquila, which is completely under your command. You can use it to undertake naval missions that usually involved pitched battles against other ships. Compared to the rest of the game, this mechanic is incredibly polished and shockingly well implemented. Controlling the ship is easy and fun. You move the ship with the left analog stick, and you can raise and lower sails at will. Full sails give you top speed but poor maneuverability, half-sails are slower but more maneuverable, and no sails let you slow down and avoid obstacles. You also have to pay attention to the wind, as going into the wind with full sails will hurt more than help. Combat involves maneuvering your ship against other ships. Your cannons are located on the sides of the vessel, so you have to figure out how to best position yourself to launch a full broadside barrage while not eating one in return. You can also use a smaller gun to target enemies, or you can go full-speed ahead and use your larger ship to ram a smaller one.
The naval battles are fun. They actual thought and effort and are such a step up from the boring on-foot battles. They're not overly tough, but the mechanics are simple and extremely playable, and I found myself wanting to replay battles just to see what happens if I try a different tactic. You can also upgrade your ship, adding extra cannons, new kinds of shot, and better rudders for more maneuverability. They represent a high point for the franchise, and a naval-focused Assassin's Creed spin-off might be enough of a game to stand on its own.
Graphically, AC3 is a set up from the previous games, but it comes at a somewhat inconsistent cost to the art design and detail. The previous games were set in some of the greatest cities of the world during their heydays. They featured amazing architecture and large, crowded areas. In comparison, America feels empty and bland. Some of the wilderness areas are breathtaking, but the cities are developing. The character models veer between good and bad. Sometimes, their faces display surprisingly subtle emotions, and other times, it seems as if they're emotionless mannequins.
The voice acting is similarly a mixed bag. Some of it is very good, and some of it is awkward. I'm not even a novice speaker of Native American languages, so I can't judge the accuracy of the pronunciation, but many of the actors fail to convey emotion. The American and English actors are similarly mixed. Some are wonderful, and others are so stiff that it's hard to believe they were cast in the roles.
Assassin's Creed III's multiplayer mode is similar to those seen in the previous two entries of the franchise. There are a few new modes that may interest the faithful who've enjoyed the previous games. The new "Wolfpack" mode, where players work together to take down enemies, is quite fun. Beyond that, you'll find much of the same as in Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Balance changes have been made, but you'll only recognize it if you're a fan of the previous games. Stunning has been changed to be less effective, and some powerful moves have either been nerfed or made more difficult to obtain. The big selling point is that most players will have moved on from Revelations to AC3, so any players interested in keeping up will want to get the new version ASAP.
Assassin's Creed III is a disappointing finish to a franchise that had been going uphill until this point. Assassin's Creed: Revelations may have felt a bit tired, but AC3 feels rushed. There are good ideas here, but they did not receive the time and polish they needed to be great. The number of bugs and the lackluster implementation of other mechanics make it a game that is more frustrating than fun. There are several bright points, including a wonderful naval battle system, but they're lost in the mediocrity. It feels like Ubisoft's teams forgot everything they learned from excellent titles like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. Die-hard fans of the franchise will find a lot to like here, but everyone else should go back and try the older, and better, Ezio-focused games.
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