Assassin's Creed 3 review: imperfect union

Game Info
Platform 360, PS3, Win, Wii U
Publisher Ubisoft
Developer Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date 10/30/2012

Assassin's Creed 3 has the distinction of arriving three years after Ubisoft made the series a yearly institution.

While the sort of Assassin's-Creed-2-side-stories Brotherhood and Revelations were fantastic and great, respectively, the series is at something of a breaking point. Everything since Ezio Auditore da Firenze's debut in Assassin's Creed 2 has felt like a more or less inspired retread of similar ground. Assassin's Creed 3 is a clear reaction to that.

Leaving the Old World behind entirely, Assassin's Creed 3 sees the series go bigger than it has before in the form of an open-world-ish action adventure set in 18th-century America. It deals with some of the same themes as previous games, sure — the nature of power, the influence of one person and their ability to make a difference — but it also explores the nature of revolution, the danger of good intentions, and the slippery slope of dogma.

Assassin's Creed 3 revisits previous systems and design, keeping the basic structure, but adding as well. It's more open. There's more to do. More to see. But that freedom and growth has brought challenges with it and exacerbated difficulties the series has struggled with since its first installment.

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Assassin's Creed 3 is once again split between the present and the past. Series anchor and modern Assassin Desmond Miles dives into the Animus again to find what he and his companions hope is the key to saving the world from a massive solar event. The secret to its location and purpose lay with Desmond's ancestor Ratohnhaké:ton, who finds a new name to accompany his Assassin destiny: Connor. Assassin's Creed 3 follows Connor's quest to unravel a Templar conspiracy against the unfolding American Revolution.

18th-century America lends itself better to the Assassin's Creed universe than I expected. The monumental architecture of Jerusalem or Rome is absent, but the streets of New York and Boston offer enough verticality and large structures to feel familiar to veterans of the series.

Assassin's Creed 3 has been rebuilt somewhat from the convoluted bloat of Assassin's Creed: Revelations' gameplay systems, but it remains one of the most mechanically sophisticated action titles around. Players navigate environments via acrobatic free-running and climbing, though Connor is the most nimble Assassin yet, able to slide under or quickly vault over objects in his path. Combat is a somewhat simplified version of the counter and chain kill systems introduced in previous games. Ostensibly this makes playing Assassin's Creed 3 easier, though it never felt particularly dumbed down.

For a character as nimble as Connor, it's surprising how often uncooperative feet are a problem.

Assassin's Creed 3's setting has dictated some major changes to the series' formula. Despite the vertical familiarity I mentioned before, there is a greater emphasis on horizontal movement in cities. Climbing your way out of a bad situation just isn't as much of an option as it's been before, meaning extended foot chases are much more common. It takes some adjustment, recalibrating strategies and tactics to the ground instead of the air.

This is often more complicated than it needs to be. For a character as nimble as Connor, it's surprising how often uncooperative feet are a problem.

Say there's some underbrush, which serves as cover, with a tree branch a few feet off the ground in the middle of it. The first time you push through, Connor might duck under it, rather than jumping on top of it, maintaining your hidden status. But if you need to beat a hasty retreat, maybe this time he'll just decide to jump onto that branch, exposing you to, say, every Redcoat on Bunker Hill.

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This is very, very common. Connor might do what you expect him to do 90 percent of the time, but the 10 percent where he doesn't might also screw you. This is particularly infuriating during foot chases. These have never been great in Assassin's Creed games, mind, but Assassin's Creed 3's emphasis on horizontal navigation instead of vertical pursuit means that every on-foot traversal issue seems to conspire against you. This is especially egregious in a pair of story sequence-critical missions.

If you're forced to give chase, you'd better hope you don't accidentally a) start blending with a crowd you didn't intend to blend with, b) get your foot caught on a random branch or crate sticking on the ground, c) adhere to a wall and peer around it, d) start running up a random street pole, e) have a powder keg near your feet that's scripted to explode or f) get tripped up by a guard, which will almost always allow your quarry to get away as you scream at Connor to "get the f**k off the ground."

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That's how I reacted to it, anyway.

Both of the story-critical foot chases in Assassin's Creed 3 are an abomination of design that directly contradicts the gameplay rhythm and ideas that the series has built over the course of five games now. This includes a late-game sequence that, as far as I could tell after, no exaggeration, about 40 tries requires that you run a specific route through a crowded, dock-side street, which would be bad enough even without encountering all six of the issues I just described.

Assassin's Creed 3's flaws are disappointing because everything else is so good

There are other problems. The social stealth element of Assassin's Creed was stretched thin in Assassin's Creed: Revelations, but it's almost at its breaking point in Assassin's Creed 3. Being able to blend into crowds doesn't cut it anymore it's too easy to get caught and the addition of brush to blend into barely makes up the difference. This is especially problematic during mobile eavesdropping missions, where being spotted or not keeping up will result in automatic failure. But it also makes pulling off perfect assassinations exercises in trial and error.

These are small sections of Assassin's Creed 3 comparatively speaking, but they are a thumb in the eye of what might be the most ambitious Assassin's Creed game. It's so disappointing because everything else is so good.

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Multiplayer

Since Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the series has had some of the coolest, most unique multiplayer suites around. Descriptions often reference the Turing Test, which is as apt as anything — you play the role of predator and prey amid hordes of AI, attempting to act the part of scripted automaton as you work toward your objectives. It offers a different dynamic than more frenetic multiplayer modes in first- and third-person shooters. It's more deliberate. Which is part of the fun. This mode returns in Assassin's Creed 3.

But Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed: Revelations faced a particularly bizarre challenge for games that sold nearly 10 million copies each: anemic player bases. Multiplayer is pointless with no one around to play with. While the rebuilt free-running might make the multiplayer game more accessible to players looking for an introduction, Ubisoft has smartly included a new cooperative multiplayer mode in Assassin's Creed 3 that should help even more.

Wolf Pack mode gives you and your partners a timer and a specific set of targets (scaled to the number of players). Once you kill enough targets, time is added to the clock and a new "sequence" begins. Each sequence makes the scenario more difficult — targets are spread further apart, or they might be more suspicious, for example — with less and less time to finish your assignments. Bonuses are awarded based on multi-kills, which are multiple near-simultaneous assassinations performed by you and your teammates, and targets of opportunity will often appear that when taken out add time to the clock.

While multiplayer in Assassin's Creed 3 can often feel like swimming with very sneaky sharks, the cooperative, frantic mindset behind Wolf Pack makes for some of the most fun I've had playing with others all year. It rewards teamwork and smart play without punishing you for other people being better. It sounds like a simple thing, but it makes a big difference. Which is good, since multiplayer now contains its own separate, massive story element, unlocked by playing multiplayer matches. In fact, the whole multiplayer offering is presented in-fiction as an Abstergo product — the corporate front for the Templar order.

It all makes for a much more engaging multiplayer suite in Assassin's Creed 3, and the co-op hopefully ensures that you'll be able to see it all if you don't have time to get to it right away. We'll check back in a couple of months to find out.

Assassin's Creed 3 has brought the series more in line with open-world titles than it's ever been before, shifting its sole focus on densely packed cities to larger environments and a sprawling frontier to explore. Assassin's Creed 3 assumes the wealth of tasks from other open-world games and achieves the impressive feat of making just about all of them fun, and making them feel consistent within its own fiction. Chasing Almanac pages across the rooftops of Boston may feel contrived, but hunting game and collecting pelts felt natural immediately. Clubs give structure and purpose to all the little tasks you could always do in Assassin's Creed at least since AC2 and grant rewards upon their completion, which makes them more interesting as a result.

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Side quests make sense in the world and do what Assassin's Creed as a series has always done best: leverage complex mechanics to create a ballet of violence set upon an urban stage. You also have a homestead to build up and maintain by completing missions that attract new artisans to your land, which ties into a new trade system. At first, Assassin's Creed 3's economy seems superfluous Connor doesn't buy upgraded armor the way his predecessors did, and weapon upgrades offer minimal improvements. But then you're introduced to The Aquila. Which is, essentially, a pirate ship.

Well, technically, when you're doing it for your country, you're a privateer.

Assassin's Creed 3 gives you a boat, some cannons and the reason to use them. Naval missions aren't the groan-inducing misstep that Revelations' tower defense element was. They depend on good positioning and out-thinking the enemy while accounting for wind and dangerous terrain waiting to wreck your ship. They are violent and bombastic and excellent, and the only thing missing is more of them. Once you get into The Aquila's missions, Assassin's Creed 3's economy takes on new importance you can upgrade the ship significantly, but man is it going to cost you.

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Barring the issues that I mentioned before, Assassin's Creed 3's systems all connect to one another more tightly than ever before. Learning Connor's abilities, how to harness them and what they're capable of, then pushing them as far as I could, was immensely satisfying. Watching Connor in motion, whether it be running through treetops or over stalls in a market, or performing double counter-kills, is breathtaking.

All of this is made more meaningful by Connor's development as a character. As in Assassin's Creed 2, you're again privy to a childhood and adolescence that shapes who Connor becomes and what his motivations are. But human relationships and the conflicts and troubles within play a bigger role in Assassin's Creed 3. It's a story of outsiders dealing uncomfortably with the approaching tide of change.

Ubisoft Montreal has done a fantastic job of painting the American Revolution as more than the white-washed right vs. wrong conflict of high school U.S. History classes. The well-known figures of the Revolution aren't saints. They're slave owners and drunkards, disgraced soldiers and commanders guilty of awful sins amid the Seven Years War. They're men willing to use the power of the printing press to sell the public a version of events like the Battles of Lexington and Concord designed to rally revolutionary spirit, regardless of whether that version is true or not. Neither side of the conflict is clean, and the effort to paint human characters with well-developed motivations is obvious.

To say more would be to spoil some of the surprise, but suffice it to say that Connor is a character pulled in multiple directions by conflicting loyalties and the nature of a struggle that threatens his people regardless of its "winners" or "losers." The political intrigue and the machinations of Assassin and Templar are almost a backdrop for Connor's development, somewhat reversing the balance of previous Assassin's Creed games. Connor isn't as likable as Ezio, but he's a more conflicted character, and just as interesting. His journey and resolution are often painful, but it packs an appropriately poignant climax.

It remained powerful even on my second playthrough. Once I understood the idiosyncracies of some of Ubisoft's more poorly considered design choices, I was able to navigate them without much issue. Without those glaring interruptions, all that ambition, all of the great additions and story beats resonated even more strongly.

Wrap Up:

Assassin's Creed 3's ambitions outweigh its flaws

Assassin's Creed 3 has a host of issues that pop up throughout the game, issues that by themselves have been enough to drag other titles under. But there's so much good in Assassin's Creed 3, it's so ambitious, so singular, that I can't stop thinking about it, and what's more, Ubisoft may have finally cracked the riddle of inventive multiplayer that doesn't rely on a large player base to enjoy. Even knowing that I'll encounter issues that make the game occasionally infuriating, I want to go back. And that, despite Assassin's Creed 3's flaws, is more than I can say for most games.

Assassin's Creed 3's campaign was reviewed on Xbox 360 debug and retail copies of the game provided by Ubisoft. Multiplayer was reviewed during scheduled sessions with developers and other press organized by Ubisoft.

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