Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Garden of Eden: Assassin's Creed III Review

Utterly. Batshit. Insane. There is really no other way to convey the wild storytelling of Assassin’s Creed III. After spending the past three games with Ezio Auditore, ACIII finally introduces new protagonists, not the mention an entire New World. The time-bending meta-story of Desmond Miles is also heavily featured, eventually wrapping itself around into the present day. Multiple location shifts span decades, making Assassin’s Creed III feel like the most expansive entry yet.

Ubisoft’s action/stealth/ RPG/ stabbing simulator franchise has become one of the best of this generation. From the original’s release in 2007, the series has expanded in amazingly new and fresh ways with each new iteration. Well, make the almost every iteration. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Revelations was a good game, though seen by some as the series spinning its wheels. Major changes have come to the franchise in Assassin’s Creed III, however, and this game’s incredible scope and dense storytelling are both its greatest asset and biggest downfall.

The AC series has leaned further and further into its sci-fi meta-story with each new entry. The present day character of Desmond Miles has spent plenty of time reliving the experiences of his Assassin ancestors at this point, and has experienced quite a few bleeding effects from his time in the Animus. The Templars, under the guise of the Abstergo corporation, are hot on his heels, and Desmond’s makeshift team of allies must rush to find the secrets of the past in order to prevent Templar control of the present. In addition, the Mayan “end of the world” 12/21/12 date plays a major role in the series, as if there wasn’t enough going on. How the Templars, Assassins, and the apocalypse all fit together can sometimes be a confusing mess of conspiracy theories, double agent characters, and convoluted alien prophecies.

A New World.
Assassin’s Creed III brings the in-Animus action jumping forward from Ezio’s adventures in the Renaissance, to the founding of America and the early days of the 13 colonies.  As such, the landscape and setting of ACIII is quite different than past games, with large amounts of wilderness surrounding the dense streets of Boston and its outlying settlements. The early hours of the game are startlingly unique to the series, with a long trip across the Atlantic aboard a ship with a mutinous crew. Following some intense plot twists, the real meat of the game doesn’t even open up until several hours into the story. If you thought Ezio’s story in Assassin’s Creed II took some time to get going, you’re going to be in for an even longer set-up in ACIII.

The setting of ACIII takes place primarily in the early days of New England, and the region is beautifully realized. Wide-open vistas are full of tall pine tress, and are densely populated with wildlife ripe for the hunting. While exploring the Frontier does not quite reaching the level of necessity or quality seen in Red Dead Redemption, it is a welcome addition to the series. Stalking wildlife through tall grass or setting snares for hapless rabbits is far more enjoyable than some of the past side activities in the series, although the only real reward for doing so is selling the collected pelts to vendors in town.

The major cities in ACIII are wonderfully realized, with clapboard and brick houses lining the busy streets. Anyone who has been to Boston can attest to the fact that the city was seemingly laid out by M.C. Escher, and those twisting streets are accurately portrayed here. The sudden twists-and-turns provide copious ways to escape pursuing enemies, and new mechanics such as bursting through open doors make the player to feel even more nimble than before.

Hot man-on-man action in the forest.

 It is unfortunate then, that the game engine sometimes seems to struggle under its own weight. When the action spills out into streets filled with people, soldiers, animals, and environmental effects, the framerate can sometimes take a staggering hit. At some points early in the game, the action seemed to slow to sub-10 FPS.  In addition to framerate woes, there is a surprising amount of pop-in. It can occasionally feel almost like playing games from previous generations, particularly when enemy soldiers magically appear 50 feet in front of the player. At this point, it’s clear that a new generation of hardware is incredibly necessary in order to allow series with a scope as far-reaching as Assassin’s Creed to thrive.

When everything is working in the game’s favor, the action is as great as players have come to expect from the Assassin’s Creed series. The main protagonist, Connor, is equipped with all the requisite assassin skills, and packs a few new surprises as well. In addition to the previously mentioned hunting tricks, Connor’s weapons draw from his Native American heritage. The tomahawk replaces most of the hidden blade’s functionality from previous games, and new weapons such as the rope dart provide new ways to stab guys in the face.

The ally system introduced in Brotherhood is here as well, although it is introduced rather sloppily. First time comers to series could easily overlook the entire mechanic and never be the wiser. At this point in the series, there is much that is expected of the player, that it sometimes seems as though the game would be near impenetrable to newbies. While it is understandable that Ubisoft wouldn’t expect people to jump in with the concluding entry, it wouldn’t hurt to give returning players a refresher course every now and then.

Tool tips, system messages, and Animus updates constantly pop-up in the corner and it is easy to overlook them all in the heat of action. Several other systems seem to be downright missing from ACIII, as regenerating health replaces the need for doctors of the previous games. There is also no discernable way to change the hue of Connor’s clothes, something that was a fun way to customize previous games. While seemingly in service of streamlining the player’s experience, it is sad to see some of the more RPG-like elements stripped from the series.

Historical figures once again play a major part in the storyline, each with humorous and education Animus entries to accompany them. Throughout your journey, players will interact with Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, Sam Adams, and several other people you might recognize from history class. Major points in the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars serve as set pieces here, so don’t be surprised when Paul Revere asks you to accompany him on his famous Midnight Ride.

Major landmarks are lovingly recreated, and those familiar with New England will feel a particular amount of pride and familiarity with the landscape. Previous settings such as the Middle East and Rome were enjoyable, although only recognizable as historical places, far removed from the present day. With Assassin’s Creed III being set in America, it provides new context for historical events that took place right in our own backyard. Watching an Assassin scale a building you’ve actually been to is a surreal experience.

These guys are still looking for something. I guess.

The game has an incredible sense of propulsion, driving players through the lengthy campaign. There is a wealth of content in Assassin’s Creed III, though the twisting and turning plotline is told well enough to drive most players straight to the next story beat. All told, when you get right down to it, Assassin’s Creed III still plays like Assassin’s Creed. But it is the quality of the storytelling and the accompanying cinematics that pull the series along. Both stories, that of Connor’s adventures in the late 18th century and Desmond’s quest for the secrets of the Precusors, are the true draw here, and it is a thrilling adventure to see them through to their bombastic conclusions.


This review is based on the Xbox 360 single-player campaign. The technical problems described herein may differ on other systems. Multiplayer is also included, although not played for review.

Christopher Linendoll is hiding in the shadows. He can be reached via Twitter, or found in the hummus section of your local grocery store.


  1. I have spent roughly an hour wandering around Boston petting cows. Is that a bad thing?
    I also thought that the voyage to America with the mutinous crew was awesome. It makes me think that Ubisoft could make an awesome pirate game.

    1. Petting animals is Game Mechanic of the Year 2012.

  2. Good game. The narrative of Connor was the best story of any Assassins Creed to date. The ambiguity well done. The Templars were no longer cartoony compared to Ezio trilogy, and went back to AC1 in that regard.

    However my biggest gripe of the game was the inventory and UI interface was a step back from the previous 3 games. Changing inventory would take you to a menu, instead of pausing the screen.

    The smoke bombs with the hidden blade does not work as effective compared to the previous games.

    The history was well done. The naval battles were awesome.

    The homestead was not explained very well. The homesteaders only level up by how many homesteading missions you complete for that skilled worker. Main way to make money is kill bears and sell the pelts in the Caribbean.

    Desmond is the Milhouse of the series. While he is the only playable protagonist that loosely relates to all 5 games, he was nothing more than an afterthought.

    Anyway ending does a good job of setting up future of more games, however best for them to stick to the past.