Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Assassin's Creed III - Review


Although never quite reaching the open world vastness of something like Skyrim, Assassin’s Creed III delivers a believable, coherent take on America just before, during and after the Revolution.  Previous titles in the series have allowed gamers to run, jump and climb their way over renaissance Italy and the soft reds of a beautifully realised Constantinople but AC III is a very different beast.
 Before we get into that though it’s worth mentioning the quite brilliant opening five or so hours of gameplay.  I’ve never seen a title try and pull off anything quite like it before, that it manages to hook you in brilliantly before slapping you in the face with a great twist is a testament to some pretty decent script writing.  That it didn’t leak to the gaming press beforehand is even more impressive.

After that opening you (as Desmond Miles) take control of Connor via the animus.  If any of that sentence, including the bit in brackets, does make sense, well done.  If not, don’t worry, you’ve just never played an Assassin’s Creed game.  Connor is half Native American half English and he sets off on a quest to take vengeance on those who killed his mother.  Needless to say after a couple more hours of play he’s a fully fledged Assassin with a home of his own and an array of skills and tools at his disposal.  His story slips in and out of the history of the American Revolution, you’ll be throwing tea into Boston harbour and joining the battle for Bunker Hill etc.  It’s not all Brit and Templar bashing though, there’s some serious doubts raised over the Assassin’s methods throughout and far more than before, the lines between good and evil blur.

Connor is not, as you may have read, as immediately likeable as Ezio.  Ezio carried three games because he was such a charismatic lead and arguably one of the great creations in gaming of recent years, but Connor is a different character entirely.  For me, it works really well.  He always seems slightly detached from what’s going on around him, to be honest far more like an Assassin should be.  The more time you invest in some of the side quests the more you’ll enjoy Connor as a character.  Hunting and the naval missions in particular, whilst entirely optional, really help to bring some much needed colour.  

The biggest difference between this and the Ezio trilogy are the environments.  Whilst the two cities on offer (Boston and New York) give you some scope for free running, the streets are much wider and escaping guards is not as easy as it used to be.  Jumping from street to street over the rooftops is often less appealing than simply taking to the route below.  The really big change though is the third environment simply called ‘the Frontier’.  This huge slice of land is the bridge between the cities and the safety of home but it might end up being remembered as one of gaming’s great ‘places’.  The free running here, whilst very easy to pull off, is just a joy.  Running, jumping and swinging from branch to branch across swathes of forest, with no rooftop guards to impair your progress, has to be one of the most liberating experiences I’ve had on a console.  Connor’s more animalistic running style looks perfectly suited to this effortless tree top ballet and I’m fairly certain it’s a deliberate move on the developers part.  This is his natural environment, the one you’ve seen him grow up in, the cities and their odd wide streets, are not home and he looks out of place in them.  Particularly when he’s in full flight.

Combat controls have been tweaked and although marginally easier than before it’s essentially the same three combo moves without the added annoyance of targeting an opponent.  It can make for fights that feel like they have a natural ebb and flow to them, occasionally it can feel too clunky and simplistic.  The real challenge with Assassin’s Creed games is to try and complete each sequence with a 100% synch.  The idea being there’s a definitive way the memory went and it’s up to you to try and replay it as accurately as possible.  For example you may be tasked with getting on board a ship and blowing it up for a 50% synch, but doing it without being spotted gets you 100%.  Some of these can be incredibly hard to achieve but generally they’re good fun to attempt.

It may fall short of true greatness because so much of the innovation here is hidden away in optional side missions.  The naval challenges where you captain a ship, literally in control of the wheel and ordering your guns to fire, are simply genius.  Yet you could miss them out entirely.  The homestead missions which allow you to build the skills of the inhabitants in your patch of wilderness, are a great change of pace and a lovely distraction from the main story.  But again they can be ignored.  It's an odd choice to make so much of what brings your game to life avoidable.

The closing sequence has been widely ripped to shreds but having done it on my fourth or fifth attempt (I was prepared for around ten times that many tries) I can happily report that if you find it a deal breaker you probably shouldn't have picked up a pad in the first place.  That said Connor can be a pain to control at times, a problem all the previous titles have been plagued by.  It's an annoyance to be pulled out of the theatre of the game as Connor jumps off a building to certain death when you intended him to make a comfortable jump to a near by chimney.  It's not to frequent though and for the most part he does as he's told.

It lacks some of the emotional clout of Ezio and Altaïr's final journey in Revelations, there's nothing close to that slow walk up the hill as old age creeps up on Altaïr, but if you complete the homestead missions there's a lovely pay off at the end.

The series, in its current guise, has been brought to a fitting close, where they go next with this is anyones guess but I have a feeling Liberation on the Vita may point the way with it's more streamlined vision (review soon).

AC III is a flawed but brilliant ride.  Drink in the Frontier though, it's all that's best about gaming.
★★★★☆