Assassin’s Creed III (PS3)

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The runaway success of the original Assassin’s Creed took me by surprise, but the visuals, setting and basic gameplay conceit was enough to earn itself millions in sales and birth a game franchise to rival the biggest in the industry. Although embryonic compared to what the series has become, that first game was also enough for Ubisoft to put it to work as an annually available franchise as Assassin’s Creed 2, Brotherhood and Revelations followed in quick succession, each bringing their own refinements and overhauls into the fold.

Assassin’s Creed III has followed Ubisoft’s annual release schedule, but it has the distinction of being a fresh new start for the series with an all-new main character and setting, but with much of what we expect from an Assassin’s Creed game intact. Some of what I’ve enjoyed in the previous games has been lost in this latest outing, however, while some frustrations persist, and even though Ubisoft has very clearly showered Assassin’s Creed III with seemingly limitless resources, the game’s basic gameplay enjoyment has taken a back seat to presentation, story and sheer volume of content.

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Assassin’s Creed fans will be well versed in the setup of the series, but for newcomers we can go over a very basic overview of the story: Organisations known as the Assassins and Templars have been fighting for centuries to control, guide and protect humanity from itself by keeping certain balances in check, using clandestine operations to do so. In addition, and throughout history, an ancient precursor race has hidden secrets to great power in our timeline allowing some of Earth’s greatest leaders and warlords to reach positions of incredible influence.

The Assassin and Templar scrap has continued to this very day, and now under the auspices of the Abstergo corporation, the latter group has created the ‘Animus,’ a device that makes it possible for a user to dive back into the lives of their ancestors and essentially relive history. If you were related to Leonardo da Vinci, for example, you would be able to live out a day in his life in an all-too real world.

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Chief protagonist of Assassin’s Creed, Desmond Miles, has some very important ancestry and has so far ‘become’ the Assassins ‘Altair’ in 12th century Jerusalem and ‘Ezio’ in 15th century Italy, all in an effort to uncover powerful secrets and defeat the Templars in the modern day. Assassin’s Creed III sees Desmond take on the guise of Connor Kenway in the 18th century, and in the time of the American Revolution, giving you the chance to ‘Forest Gump’ your way through important events such as the ‘Boston Tea Party’ and ‘The Battle of Bunker Hill,’ and even directly take part in Paul Revere’s infamous gallop through the countryside to warn of ‘the coming of the British.’

This also gives you the opportunity to meet up with famous and significant personalities of the time like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, in a story that deals with the harsh realities and vastly differing ideologies that lead to the birth of a nation, taking opportunities to provide strong cases for the motivations of the occupying British and colonial settlers that resulted in the ‘American War of Independence.’ It’s also a coming of age tale that touches on the meaning of fatherhood, which is fitting – this was the time of the Founding Fathers of the United States, after all.

This story, and the unfolding tale of Connor and his part in the Revolutionary War, is presented in astounding fashion. Ubisoft has spared no expense with Assassin’s Creed III delivering cinematics of extraordinary quality brought to life by unbelievably convincing voice acting, wrapped in a vast world bustling with life and activity. Boston and New York of the 1700s may be unrecognisable compared to these modern-day cities, but they have nonetheless been recreated in incredible detail while the outlying wilderness of the ‘frontier’ is immense with soaring mountains and dense woodland.

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The first two hours of Assassin’s Creed III’s prologue had me captivated – I was astonished by the production values running the show and faithfully let the game string me along as it introduced me to its tale and core gameplay systems. No matter the number at the end, this is an Assassin’s Creed game through-and-through, allowing me to run through city streets, clamber up building walls in seconds, and free-run my way across rooftops, supports and structures at will. Combat is familiar, too, and I soon re-learned how to take on over a dozen armed enemies by counter-attacking, throwing, parrying, disarming and finally slaying them one-by-one in effortless style.

But, the prologue continued. Hours into Assassin’s Creed III and the main story still hadn’t begun in earnest. Hours more, and I was still learning basic concepts and being introduced to new ways to interact with the world. It would be fair to say that the game is packed to bursting with activities to take part in – everything from petting animals and baiting, snaring and hunting wildlife, to playing board games, renovating your headquarters, buying equipment, taking on side missions and finding feathers (again!).

Later in the game, you can take to the seas in a ship of your very own while steering the vessel and laying down cannon fire. Later still, you’ll be able to send Assassin recruits out on missions up and down the coast of North America, which nets them experience, while your core combat abilities are imbued with these recruits’ skills, too – when in need, you can call in a group of Assassins to help in a fight. Your range of hidden blades, tomahawks, bow and (very slow loading) muskets and pistols further extend your options in a fight, but if in severe danger, there’s always the chance to run for your life and vault over obstacles, flow across buildings and lose yourself in a crowd.

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For all of these activities, actions and abilities, however, Assassin’s Creed III still feels empty to me. It still feels incomplete and lacking in detrimental ways, and a lot of the issues I found with the game stem from its most alluring feature: The enormous open world. It’s one thing to create a virtual landscape dense in activity and variety, but another thing entirely to naturally draw players through that world and invite them to invest themselves in everything it has to offer. Beyond a few cursory investigations lead by curiosity, I didn’t feel the need to complete side missions, or capture segments of the city, or chase after rogue Alamanac pages for Benjamin Franklin.

I was content to fast travel from mission to mission, but even this system (designed to swiftly move players from one plot point to the next) is hobbled by the designers’ desperate, clamouring need for you to see the world they’ve created. You’ll have to make multiple uses of inter-world travel before getting to your destination – you can’t just zip straight there, as a method (I assume) of reminding you of all of the great activities you have waiting for you in the cities and wilderness. It’s OK, Assassin’s Creed III, I don’t want any.

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This world is hampered by a severely crippled framerate, too, and usually hovers just above acceptable levels, but in more populated areas as you sprint and free-run through the city, it’s not uncommon for Assassin’s Creed III to be reduced to a choppy herky-jerk slideshow. Framerate issues are usually not a major problem for me, especially if it doesn’t impact gameplay, but in this case my experience was seriously affected as the game tried to render the world and simultaneously acknowledge my control inputs, some of which went ignored at key moments.

These input issues are aggravated by Assassin’s Creed III’s fidgety nature, where the game’s open-world character controls aren’t quite refined enough for tight spaces and precise movement – I lost count of the times that Connor decided it was a good idea to latch on to objects or climbable surfaces that I was actively willing him not to, or the occasions that he thought it was a good idea to jump off of a roof (or not, as the case may be) while in an intense chase scene.

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Assassin’s Creed III also employs a fair amount of automatic control, which can not only be at odds with the actions you want Connor to perform but can also fail to activate at all. Sneaking through tall bushes, for example, will automatically have Connor crouch down and hide, which is handy for stealth, but I can’t manually crouch and conceal myself at will, which becomes a problem when I’m trying to sneak past guards and the system doesn’t work. This makes the game’s instant fail missions all the more frustrating to work through – an issue that is in turn worsened by the poorly communicated fail states and overall mission goals.

Broken mission scripts (where the game won’t continue until you reload your checkpoint), invisible Quick Time Event prompts (which lead to ‘Death by Wolf’ a number of times), the overly complicated menu and purchase systems and the counter-productive bonus mission conditions (which reward you for completing non-compulsory objectives) are just some of the other incredibly wearisome difficulties I had with Assassin’s Creed III, and that’s not even mentioning the game’s insistence on killing animals, an act I don’t enjoy in the least despite its virtual nature.

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In-between sessions in the campaign, I sought refuge in the multiplayer of Assassin’s Creed III, which continues on from the intriguing modes found in Brotherhood and Revelations. The features have been expanded somewhat but the base remains the same in that you’re able to pick a character per session, imbue him or her with set abilities and perks, and then stalk around a world populated with dozens of AI characters while your real-world human opponents act as hidden prey in amongst the crowds. Using the provided clues, it’s then up to you to suss out who is being controlled by a player and who is an AI character, and once you do, you’ll need to assassinate your targets.

Both solo and team-based modes are still here in multiplayer, but Ubisoft has added a wave-based game type called Wolf Pack where you’ll need to work through increasingly difficult enemy targets. It’s a nice twist on what has become the Assassin’s Creed multiplayer formula and enjoyable with a team that works together… if you can get into a game, that is. At the moment, waiting for the servers to find and set up a game for you takes a significant amount of time, while end-of-game server disconnects (robbing you of your accumulated experience points) and outright failures to connect to the Ubisoft servers are still problems over a week after the game’s launch.

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Straight up, I didn’t much enjoy my time with Assassin’s Creed III and my experience with the game can be typified by the word ‘frustrating’ – the twitchy nature of the controls and the wasteful, desperate handling of the enormous and rich open-world had me clutching my controller very tightly indeed. I can handle what has in the past been lovingly referred to as ‘open-world jank,’ with things like floating objects, disappearing people, cloth physics exploding, repeating conversations, horses trying to climb walls, ‘telepathic’ dialogue, citizens stuck in place and many other endearing oddities, but a relentlessly sluggish framerate and inexplicable, brutal instant failure missions are just some of the disappointments I endured.

Presentation-wise, Assassin’s Creed III is an astounding game with amazing characters, an immense and detailed world, and hundreds of extra activities to take part in – fans of open-world games will be able to squeeze dozens of additional hours out of the title beyond its main campaign. With an unbelievably slow burn to get events started, however, and not much reason given to venture out into that enormous open world, even Assassin’s Creed fans may balk at the proposition of going on this latest adventure.

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Although the game’s multiplayer seems inconsistently operational at the moment, this is an issue Ubisoft is sure to iron out in the near future, and while frustrations were ever-present for me, the challenging story and expertly crafted cinematics of Assassin’s Creed III are both examples of the best that videogames have to offer. I’m just not sure if the parts in-between are worth the viewing.