There are few franchises in gaming that just make it. Even fewer are the games that override those logic barriers that tell you “I’ve seen this before,” “other games have done this better,” or “I’m confused” and you keep pushing on regardless. Assassin’s Creed III is the fifth game from Ubisoft Montreal, and over the course of the digital life of central savior-figure Desmond Miles all of these charges have been leveled. Despite a flawed mission structure, the original Assassin’s Creed opened a world of fiction-overlapping-fact so engaging and fascinating that the general audience wanted more. Assassin’s Creed II answered a lot of the first’s problems while introducing mind-bending twists that set in motion an apocalyptic countdown culminating in this fall’s release. Could Assassin’s Creed III take all the promise of a series that so often skirted the line of brilliance and disaster to bring us one of the year’s, and this generation’s, seminal gaming experiences?
Assassin’s Creed III wastes no time dropping player new and old alike into the narrative, as convoluted as it is. In case you missed ‘em, stepping into the single player story begins with a summary of the events preceding Desmond and company’s arrival in upstate New York, narrated by his own father William Miles (Star Trek’s John de Lancie). The relationship between father and son is a central tenet of AC3’s progression, both in the present day and once Desmond drops into the animus for another go-around, and arguably creates the deepest narrative tie of any game in the series thus far. For those uninitiated, Desmond Miles (voiceover artist extraordinaire Nolan North) abandoned his assassin heritage prior to the first game—before being dragged back into the game by Abstergo Industries, the 21st Century front for the Knights Templar. Turns out his dad is one of the assassin head honchos, so the tension between his departure from the brotherhood accompanied by his new role as the only man with the ability to save the planet from catastrophe is, as you might imagine, quite palpable.
Most of the gameplay of any Assassin’s Creed game takes place within the fictional construct of the animus—the deus ex machina that allows a user to access “genetic memory” and live the life of their predecessors, allowing Ubisoft to transport the player anywhere they wish, this time at the outset of Revolutionary War-wracked New England. For as much as I love the gorgeously detailed forests and historically important cities of Boston and New York, the time spent as Desmond in AC3 felt well-earned and much needed. Since AC2, Desmond has slowly been learning the skills and abilities of his ancestors to make him the skilled assassin he had never wanted or trained to be, and there needed to be payoff shown here. The amount of time spent outside of the animus is not even remotely close to that spent within, but you get a sense that Corey May and the writers of AC3 knew that Mr. Miles needed to show just how capable he has become. In particular, a late game return to one of the series’ key present-day locales from games past is especially rewarding. The return of Dr. Warren Vidic (Phil Proctor), your jailer and Abstergo mastermind, and introduction of a fallen Assassin to serve as a foil to Desmond’s redeemed Assassin bring the story full circle in many respects.
What the assassins and Templars are looking for lies in the memories of the Kenway family, another of Desmond’s lineage and the first line of his family in the New World. Barring an unexpected—but fascinating, and different—twist in the first three to four hours, you spend the majority of your animus time in the body of Ratonhnhaké:ton (Noah Watts), a member of the Kanien’keha:ka (Mohawk) tribe of the Iroquois nation. Ratonhnhaké:ton is quite the traveled man by journey’s end, with your path crossing the likes of Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Israel Putnam, and George Washington, in addition to a number of notable Templars on the side of both the Patriots and British/Loyalist numbers. Under the tutelage of ‘retired’ assassin Achilles Davenport (Roger Aaron Brown), and using the name of Connor, the world of Revolutionary New England is opened wide to your footsteps. Assassin’s Creed has always been a remarkable playground for the historically inclined, and there is no shortage of things to do while running through the streets and forests of the late 1700’s. While the primary story, discovering a key that is the doorway to mankind’s salvation or destruction, meanders on for the better course of 15-20 hours, the real meat of AC3 lies in what surrounds the life of Connor Kenway. The optional side missions in AC3 drew for me many a comparison to Rockstar’s 2010 western epic Red Dead Redemption: the wide open wilderness, animals to hunt, skin, and trade, and strangers to accept missions from. Some of these missions work brilliantly, the naval and Homestead missions being of particular enjoyment. Others, such as assassin trainee recruitment and ambient world missions to collect this or acquire that, could have used a bit more fine-tuning. Overall, the frontier presented in this game was far more interesting than the non-city areas of the previous four entries combined, and will be sure to tickle your exploration fancy if you’re up for it. A chance encounter with Bigfoot or the Headless Horseman might so incline you to check it out, too.
Technically speaking, Assassin’s Creed III is the finest this series has looked. That should come as no surprise, being this close to the end of a console generation, but AC3 offers some of this year’s most memorable moments visually. From the heights of mountain and tree-tops to the steeples of Boston meeting houses, the attention to detail so prevalent in past games is in full effect here. From Old North Church and the Old Statehouse in Boston to historic Wall Street and Broadway in New York, each city is full of landmarks from the nation’s infancy. None is as impressive as the Basilica di San Lorenzo and Venezia’s Grand Canal in Assassin’s Creed II or the Hagia Sofia in Assassin’s Creed Revelations, but the true revelation of Assassin’s Creed III lies in the frontier. The sheer vastness of the American northeast is captured brilliantly in the forests, streams, lakes and mountains of AC3, made enjoyable by the refined navigation tools introduced. It’s one thing to scale rooftops and swan dive into haystacks, but the effortlessness with which Connor traverses the forest was extremely welcome. Gliding from branch to rock face to rooftop and back again was the most fun I’d had traveling through an environment in quite some time, and it made the exploration of the world that much more enjoyable. Combat found some refinements as well, introducing new weapons (Connor’s tomahawk being one of the most useful in the series) and removing components from previous games found to be unnecessary (the hook-blade) or overly complicated (looking at you, bomb-crafting). Firearms also take a step backward, though this made AC3 far more historically accurate than the firearms of the Ezio saga. Still, I would have given up my second hidden blade for a bit faster reload on a few of the pistols. The crafting and trading mechanics also stuck out sorely, weakening an in-game economy that was practically nonexistent in the wake of fairly liberal purses available in Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood. These minor grievances only slightly mar a game that was, for me, a pleasure to roam around in even a month or two after release.
Should mapping and trapping the wilderness not suit you, Assassin’s Creed III has a multiplayer suite that’s far different from the majority of player-vs.-player online experiences you’ll find in modern gaming. Introduced in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, multiplayer has become a quiet selling point of the series. Rather than shootouts and fast-paced action, the online component of AC3 requires deliberate steps and quiet approach. The idea of hiding in plain sight, blending in with a crowd of characters that look like those in the match, makes the cat-and-mouse gameplay all that more enjoyable. Can you mimic the actions of the system’s artificial intelligence? When you’re spotted, can you pick up on subtle clues to find out who your pursuer is? While not for everyone, the audience that has picked up on Assassin’s Creed multiplayer has made it an experience I’ve enjoyed more than just about every other one outside of Journey this year. If you are looking for (somewhat) more traditional multiplayer fare, the addition of modes like Wolfpack (Assassin’s Creed’s Horde mode) and Artifact Assault (Capture the Flag) bring some variety to the suite. Add in a sprinkling of story, involving the return of the hacker group Erudito and a look at some of Abstergo’s “real world” influence, and AC3 has plenty to offer those who had their fill of the single-player component.
The story of Desmond Miles has woven through the fabric of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, and has taken some strange turns along the way. While the animus story of Connor was no slouch, and probably equal to some of the outings of predecessors Altair and Ezio, it was the story of Desmond that drew me more deeply into this installment. With relationships being such an essential part of both Assassin’s Creed III and Liberation, the developers at Ubisoft touched on an aspect of the human experience that can be simultaneously encouraging and painful, capturing a small fraction of it in their characters. As the Assassin’s Creed series moves on into what looks to be a new generation of video game consoles, this can only be seen as a strong step toward that future.
The Invisible Gamer review of Assassin’s Creed III was based on a retail PlayStation 3 copy and played to 83% Synchronization of the single player story, and three to five hours in the multiplayer. Assassin’s Creed III is available for the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U and PC.