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Assassin's Creed III Review

Sparky Clarkson's picture

Everything is True. Nothing is Permitted.

Assassin's Creed III Screenshot

HIGH Swimming around a pier, climbing a ship, and using a rope dart to hang a target from a yardarm.

LOW As I walk past two men on a bench, I get notified that I have my first pursuer. The whisper noise starts just as one of them gets up and stabs me for 700 points.

WTF Approaching a fort, I found I could no longer hide in shrubs even though I wasn't observed. When I reached the captain, I found only an indicator hanging in the air, without a body to stab beneath it.

At one time or another, each of us has thought to himself "I ought to be in charge." We have all had that moment where we think that we should be making all the decisions, running roughshod over democracy and all existing power structures.

I want you to think about that moment.

Did you feel good about mankind's capacity for decision right then? No. In that moment you were animated by contempt for your fellow man. It was cloaked, perhaps, in benevolent intentions, but deep down, at that moment, you thought your fellow humans were just too stupid to rule themselves.

The mythology of the Assassin's Creed series concerns two history-spanning conspiracies. The Assassins, from Altair through Ezio and new protagonist Connor, have sought to preserve humanity's freedom to choose its own path, and make its own mistakes. Assassin's Creed III emphasizes this characteristic of his order by setting the action during the American Revolution. The Templars, in contrast, have sought to control mankind. This doesn't really boil down to a conflict between good and evil; the Templars seek to manipulate society for the benefit of everyone. Yet the contempt is still obviously there, in the Templars, and in the developers of Assassin's Creed III.

Perhaps that sounds a bit extreme, yet that's how I felt in Charlestown when I dodged towards the right as I reached the main street and got forcibly redirected by the game's sparkling black wall of thou-shalt-not-pass. That's how I felt when I sneaked up to Johnson's house to assassinate him and then got teleported to the other side of it after a cut-scene. That's how I felt when I chased down a man clinging to a log in a river, jumped in to save him, then jumped in again in a cut-scene, blowing an optional objective in the process. That's how I felt when I carefully planned a rope-dart attack on a thug in Boston, only to have him teleport over to his horse just as I was about to strike.

The developers seemed to be telling me that I didn't know how to have my own fun or how to make my own story in their little play world. "Here," they said, shoving me back onto the main street, "isn't it more exciting to see this church getting blown up? Isn't there more tension in having to approach the same house twice? Isn't this dive into the river more exciting when we animate it for you? Won't chasing this man on horseback be more fun?"

Well, no.

Assassin's Creed III Screenshot

My desperate flight through the bombarded back alley of Charlestown was already exciting. My approach to Johnson's house was already tense. What sense would there have been in stopping on that bluff overlooking the river and waiting to trigger a cut-scene I didn't know was coming? And carefully planning and executing my strike against the thug? That was the fun for me. I can guide my own experience in an open world game that has mechanics as varied as ACIII, and the view that I can't says much about the developers' attitude towards their players—not that Ubisoft have evinced any interest in really refining those mechanics.

The climbing in ACIII remains inconsistent; sometimes Connor will clamber over eaves or around corners, and other times he won't, for no apparent reason. The free-running still feels loose and approximate, and every chase involved at least one instance of Connor jumping in a direction I did not expect, or getting stuck repeatedly trying to climb a wall with no handholds until I patiently stopped and slowly walked him around the obstacle. I could just as easily have leveled these complaints at the first Assassin's Creed—with all this time, and despite a new engine, the series' core mechanics have not improved at all.

The opportunity to skitter up architectural wonders like Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore has always served as a salve for the series's shortcomings, but ACIII's array of isolated, blocky buildings contains absolutely nothing remarkable to climb at all. Only the tall tree of the wilderness is at all interesting, and in apparent recognition of this, the exact same tree appears multiple times in the frontier. This, as well as certain templated steeple designs, demonstrates that no time or iterative effort has gone into relieving the dreary repetitiveness of scaling viewpoints, although ACIII does shake up the formula by ensuring that following through with this chore won't actually reveal all of its sublimely awful blue-on-black map.

Combat has been redesigned so as to remove the player as much as possible, since I apparently don't know how to have an exciting swordfight in a game, either. Even in the first Assassin's Creed it was actually possible to break an enemy's guard by carefully timing sword strikes. Not so here—the counter-move has become the only real option in combat. The player is meant to wait around until a giant red sign appears above an attacking enemy's head (because we're too stupid to read an enemy attack), then deflect so that Connor can enter a developer-determined string of animations that ends at roughly the same time as his opponent's life. The choreography goes on for a drearily long time as Connor stabs away with abandon... so long, in fact, that the adjacent soldiers tire of watching it and attack again before it ends, which was the way I usually got injured, thanks to an apparent lack of cancels.

Luckily, the extended dance of stabbing can sometimes be short-circuited. Although apparently quite resistant to knives, the British troops are powerless against their nemesis, the wooden plank. As such, getting bumped into a wall or rolled over a bench is invariably fatal to them. Perhaps this vulnerability to blunt-force trauma explains the series's worst guard aggro model, in which every guard in the city will decide to murder Connor if he so much as brushes against anyone, even when incognito. Indeed, sometimes the guards will instantly try to end Connor if they see him running all by himself on an empty street, so dire is the risk that he might fatally bump someone.

Assassin's Creed III Screenshot

Having created this grim railroad of an experience, the developers apparently didn't even have the respect for the player to ensure that it all worked. In New York, the notoriety system (a core mechanic) seemed to be completely broken, with posters and criers never appearing and print shops never going away. On sidequests, targets would sometimes disappear completely, or not be carrying goods I was supposed to loot from them. Also in New York, the liberation missions that pry city districts from Templar control were almost irreparably bugged, with targets disappearing, enemies failing to materialize, or in one case, the whole district's missions vanishing permanently so it couldn't be completed. A major patch released over Thanksgiving has supposedly repaired the worst bugs, although there's no word yet on whether the patch has removed the bug where the player can occasionally direct his own experience.

The single-player experience isn't all dreary and oppressive, though. The rope dart is a wonderful addition to the assassin arsenal, hiding in ground cover nicely expands the stealth options, and the ship-based combat is a solid, if ill-fitting, offering. When ACIII offers Connor a chance to behave humanly, as in the village sidequests and some New York missions, the game feels like it's brushing up against a more interesting and mature take on its own mythology. This is all the more true because Connor, unlike the series's other major protagonists, seems to be aware of the historical import of the events he's taking part in. These sidequests, however, merely feed into a busted and obstructive economic system and a perfunctory Assassin's brotherhood feature, rather than articulating a humane Assassin ideal in their own right.

In contrast to the single-player campaign, the multiplayer offering remains fundamentally sound. It doesn't, however, really make a case for a new iteration. The new Wolfpack mode seems to have come into existence purely to give the game an analogue to popular horde modes, although Manhunt essentially provided this feature already. The new maps are certainly new, and with the exception of the Animus Core, largely inoffensive, but not detectably better than the maps that came with Brotherhood.

Server stability has been a serious problem in my multiplayer matches, in some ways more so than it was in Brotherhood. In addition, the game seems to have developed a very bad habit of spawning players in view of their pursuers, not only on the cramped maps used for Deathmatch rounds, but also on the full-sized offerings used for Manhunt or Wanted. In both of these modes I have spawned practically on the blade of an opponent, and had targets materialize right in front of me. In this regard ACIII's multiplayer is demonstrably worse than the games it presumably replaces. Players interested in the multiplayer metagame will find progression and its rewards unbearably cluttered, apparently for no better reason than to support microtransactions for extracting a few extra bucks from the player base.

At least the petty indignities of the multiplayer are optional and situated around gameplay that's solid and unique, if frustratingly stagnant. In the single-player campaign, however, it's impossible to escape the ham-fisted manipulations of the Assassin's Creed III development team. Although Connor Kenway fights for freedom in a war that was presumably about liberty, Ubisoft makes the player a slave to their particular vision. I can see the irony in that, but I can't see the point, even if it's for my own good. Rating: 6.0 out of 10.

Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 20 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed once) and 15 hours of play in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, sexual themes, and strong language. As with any online game, other gamers can make the language matter worse, though in my experience most players don't have their mic on, and most of those that do don't talk very much during or after matches.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Sound can be helpful in the single-player portion of the game, but is rarely essential thanks to copious visual cues. The subtitles, however, occasionally get scrambled or display too quickly to be read. Multiplayer presents an entirely different problem. Heartbeats and whispers mark the proximity of targets and pursuers, respectively, and have no visual counterpart. As a result, hard-of-hearing players will be at a substantial disadvantage, especially when it comes to avoiding pursuers. Volume settings can be used to level the playing field against friends, but against the general public an inability to hear will cost you several high-point kills per round.

Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3   Wii U   PC  
Developer(s): Ubisoft Montreal  
Publisher: Ubisoft  
Series: Assassin's Creed  
Genre(s): Stealth   Open World  
ESRB Rating: Mature (17+)  
Articles: Game Reviews  

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What did you think about the ending?

Hey Sparky,
Interesting that you post this as I JUST completed the main single player campaign two nights ago. I agree with pretty much everything you say regarding the single player campaign. It's clear Ubisoft is more interested in ramming the story / digital "experience" down the player's throat than actually improving the mechanics that give the player freedom and actually make him feel like an assassin.

For me it was frustrating that almost every stealth mission or fort infiltration degenerated into a battle royale where I am able to take out 50 rifleman by killing them one at a time as the others wait around for their turn to die. The game is not hard, and the combat is stale and unsatisfying, and the side missions are uninspired from a gameplay perspective (go to this marker on your map, beat up this guy).

The "Frontier" world that they created I thought was a breath of fresh air but alas there is little of import to actually do in it. The only thing that could be considered challenging is the optional stuff like collecting feathers, scaling viewpoints, or trying to complete all the "Optional Objectives" for 100% synchronization. The thing is, all that is tedious and extraneous to completing the main storyline, and you don't really get anything for it. I completed the entire game without actually sending any "traders" out on a journey.

I am curious as to what you thought of the main storyline with Desmond? The first AC I ever played was AC2 and I really enjoyed that game, but unfortunately I don't feel like Ubisoft really knows how to hone the core mechanics -- and they kept adding strange stuff like those half-assed tower battles in Revelations -- so really the only thing that has kept me playing the games was to see what happened with Desmond's storyline. I must say that I am pretty satisfied. AC doesn't have the most well-told story but I am still pretty satisfied the way things turned out at the end. At least it wasn't a crazy cliff hanger like at the end of Brotherhood.

Still love the multiplayer, though I really wish they would keep all the characters and maps from the previous versions as well. I mean heck, they're already existing assets, why not include them?

Ugh, Desmond

In all honesty I haven't ever cared for AC's futuristic frame story, and particularly not for Desmond. That's not to say that the Animus frame doesn't contribute anything - Shaun's caustic codex entries are a real draw of the series. But overall that level of the story has always felt too sparse and too focused on a really unlikable character for me to get into it. ACIII doesn't really do anything to change that. It had some opportunities -- in particular, there was a chance to develop some interesting parallels between the Haytham - Connor and Desmond - Bill dynamics. But, that never really panned out.

Desmond himself gets a better send-off than he perhaps deserved. That moment, however, feels muddy and remote, because "saving the world" happens off-screen. Having some nameless people stare up at a sparkling sky while string music swells in the background would, perhaps, have been too conventional, but it would have helped develop impact for that moment. As is, there's no immediate, human element in it, so it falls far short of, e.g. Ezio's final scenes in Revelations. Then Juno walks off the screen and you realize that Ubi has just pulled off a problem-swap, so the future story will keep going under pretty much the same conditions, making Desmond's final scenes even more meaningless. So I thought overall that ending was anticlimactic. Connor's ending, where he emerges from both the Revolutionary War and his own vendetta rather bitter and disillusioned was the better one for me.

I was done with the series

I was done with the series after AC2. I got so frustrated that guards could be taken out easily, but whenever one of the main targets was involved there was no way to kill them without it deteriorating into a chase with alarms ringing. That just sucked all the satisfaction out of the experience for me, and it sounds like nothing's changed here.

Re: Ugh Desmond

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

In all honesty I haven't ever cared for AC's futuristic frame story, and particularly not for Desmond. That's not to say that the Animus frame doesn't contribute anything - Shaun's caustic codex entries are a real draw of the series. But overall that level of the story has always felt too sparse and too focused on a really unlikable character for me to get into it. ACIII doesn't really do anything to change that. It had some opportunities -- in particular, there was a chance to develop some interesting parallels between the Haytham - Connor and Desmond - Bill dynamics. But, that never really panned out.

Desmond himself gets a better send-off than he perhaps deserved. That moment, however, feels muddy and remote, because "saving the world" happens off-screen. Having some nameless people stare up at a sparkling sky while string music swells in the background would, perhaps, have been too conventional, but it would have helped develop impact for that moment. As is, there's no immediate, human element in it, so it falls far short of, e.g. Ezio's final scenes in Revelations. Then Juno walks off the screen and you realize that Ubi has just pulled off a problem-swap, so the future story will keep going under pretty much the same conditions, making Desmond's final scenes even more meaningless. So I thought overall that ending was anticlimactic. Connor's ending, where he emerges from both the Revolutionary War and his own vendetta rather bitter and disillusioned was the better one for me.

Thanks for the response Sparky.

That's actually a really interesting concept that you bring up with the parallel between Connor and Haythem and Desmond and Bill. I never really thought about it that way. They SHOULD have done more with that. Too bad.

Yeah I know a lot of people were disinterested in or even hated Desmond. I am not attached to him as a character; he acted more like an avatar for the player for me. What I did really like was the concept of their being a parallel between the modern world and the past, along with the strange, vague sci-fi element with "Minerva," "Juno," etc... I'm just really glad they basically tied up the series -- at least in my view. I'm sure others will find plot holes and loose ends. I liked the moral dilemma that Desmond faced (although he didn't seem to struggle with it for very long at all) and the somewhat ambiguous ending that was open to interpretation.

You mention the ending of Revelations with Ezio... I think that ending would not have been as meaningful if there was no futuristic frame story. In particular I am thinking of when Ezio finds Altair's tomb and speaks up to the air something like: "Desmond... I heard your name once. I do not know how you can hear me..." It kind of gave me goosebumps. Somehow Ezio did indeed seem, as you said about Connor, "to be aware of the historical import of the events he's taking part in." Maybe not fully aware of the immediate historical events in his time period but instead the greater battle between the Assassins and Templars into the future. Hence, he knew somehow he needed to speak so that Desmond could get his message across time.

I really hope they don't try to continue the story because like you said it would make Desmond's final scenes more meaningless. They should just leave it alone and not milk the series with the the potential "problem-swap". They've already milked me enough and I can say I will probably not buy any more AC games unless I hear that they seriously overhaul the gameplay.

I keep seeing so many

I keep seeing so many reviews saying (in so many words) "Assassin's Creed III has almost entirely lost touch with the core component of the series," and then criticizing it for not being more like the first (and arguably worst) game in the series. I find it rather baffling that so many critics and gamers seem to be missing the point of what makes Assassin's Creed games special. It has nothing to do with being an "assassin simulator." If you want that, go try Thief or Dishonored. The "core component" of the Assassin's Creed series, at least from the second game on, has been immersing the player in the atmosphere of a particular historical moment and place. And in that respect, Assassin's Creed III shines significantly brighter than each game in the series that has come before it.

Remember all those reviews of the first Assassin's Creed that talked about how stale the gameplay got after the first few missions? And we want to go back to that now? No thank you.

I'll agree that it would be nice if Assassin's Creed III were a little more open-ended with its assassinations and a little less buggy, and had a more satisfying ending, but a step backward for the series it really is not.

Lambonius, I have read a lot

Lambonius, I have read a lot of reviews -- most I agree with -- and absolutely none of them thought the AC series needs to go back to being like the first game. The common thread among most reviews and players is that AC2 and ACB are the pinnacle of the series. AC1 has major flaws but AC2 significantly improved the mechanics. Nobody is criticizing AC3 for straying from AC1; people are criticizing AC3 for not being *even better* than AC2.

I understand if you think that the thing that makes AC so special is its ability to immerse the player in a particular historical period. There's something to be said for that, but if the gameplay is boring as hell, what's the point? The fans who are disappointed (myself included) with how the series has progressed are upset that the mechanics that are actually fun have not been improved much, if at all, since AC2.

In AC2 and to some extent Brotherhood, there was nothing more fun than carefully traveling to a location, scoping out the area, planning your advance, and then striking your target successfully without being detected. That type of gameplay has not been improved much in the most recent entries. In AC3, those types of missions were few and far between, and when you finally get to play the part of assassin, there is always some sort of annoyance, like being interrupted by a cut scene, or, after carefully sneaking up to a lone guard on the very outskirts of a fort, having him spot you just half a second before your blade goes through his chest, and then somehow magically he is able to ring an alarm bell in that moment so that every single guard in the entire fort runs out to fight you, so you either have to kill all fifty of them one by one, or you have to run around like a madman until you lose them and they go back to their posts. This type of AI and lack of user freedom is not what I would call improvement on AC2. This is *regression* back towards AC1.

That's not to say that there are not any improvements in AC3. The ability to move around hidden in brush, for instance, was a really nice addition, and expands the core stealth mechanics in a consistent way. Unfortunately, ever since AC2, for every step Ubisoft seems to make forward, they do something else to take a step backward. Leveling up recruits through menus? Half-assed tower defense? Courier fetch quests? Organizing trade caravans (again just by navigating menus)? Is this really the type of stuff that AC fans buy the games to do? I don't think so. Ubsoft needs to trim the fat.

In Brotherhood and Revelations I kind of just put up with the boring stuff because at least the main campaigns were fun. In AC3, they didn't even get that right. I remember the final assassination missions in AC2 and ACB being really intense and fun. In AC2 you *sneak* across parapets at the Vatican to assassinate the Pope. In Brotherhood you *sneak* across a battlefield and war-torn village before the final confrontation. In AC3 you what, chase a guy through a building? How lame! (Revelations wasn't much better). It's frustrating that the potential of this series has been squandered and as I said before I will not be buying another game if they make one.

You would have though that

You would have though that the game's progressivism would have made up for the terrible gameplay but I suppose not!

As an avid GameCritics

As an avid GameCritics reader / follower, the words 'trees' and 'forest' tend to pop into my consciousness every time I read an AC review on this site. As much as I respect the independence and maturity of reviews and debate on offer, I must admit to being repeatedly flummoxed by the relative negativity this site maintains towards the entire AC franchise.

For me, these games are the apex of what advancements in the capabilities of this generation of consoles have given to world-immersion gaming.

Yes the cut scenes are jarring, yes the climbing is sometimes (only sometimes) problematic, yes the fighting mechanics are somewhat simplistic but that misses the point entirely.

Stepping away from the technical shortcomings and considering the experience as a whole, quite simply, there is nothing like the AC series in the vision and beauty of the recreation of the various historical settings.

These games are first and foremost, escapist experiences. That they make you feel part of real periods in history lends a deep feeling of mythological relevance, which when energised by the parkour and high-conspiracy back-story, elevates them far above equivalent immersions in the usual geeky (and frankly tired) fantasy sword wielding, urban gun toting, or sci-fi laser blasting settings.

In the context of the accusations oft (and fairly) levelled at the gaming industry, look through the technical shortcomings, and you'll see a real gem of a series, unique in perspective, breathtaking in vision, and bold in execution.

Sick to the bone of shooters and role players, I want more. I want to run amongst bamboo trees in ancient China. I want to jump between the stones of ancient temples of central America. I want to stalk the streets of Victorian London. I want actively experience the settings that countless films and books have put in our minds.

A game, as any consumer product, deserves to be judged by what it intends to be and what it is for.

Maybe AC is simply not for GC?

Wow, Alv, it's like you took

Wow, Alv, it's like you took the words right out of my mouth (only stated more eloquently.)

I really don't have anything I can add to your excellently stated posts, except perhaps to say that I think one's appreciation of the AC series is directly related to one's interest in the historical settings. Stripped of those settings, the gameplay would become quite stale, quite quickly--the Desmond missions in ACIII felt that way to me. But inside the Animus, in the memories of those ancestors, the settings thrill, even with a few wonky game mechanics or railroaded missions. Personally, I can live with those because the larger experience is still so compelling to me. I wasn't amazed with the overarching Desmond narrative, but Connor's story felt very genuine to me, if a little drawn out. I loved watching him come to terms with the the harsh realities and moral shades of gray of the world in which he lived. He was a great lead character, in my opinion. Perhaps not quite as amusing as Ezio, but equally well fleshed out, in my opinion.

I think ACIII is really a flawed masterpiece. There are numerous design missteps, but the overall experience is still stellar, at least where it counts.

Game critics is correct about AC..

@Alv

I'm sorry to say it but just like in real life not everyone can become a doctor, not every gamer is good at knowing and having enough intelligence to know what goes into making a fun game for a wide range of people.

The reason AC gets a lot of hate is because assasins creed is really just a poorly made prince of persia, go pick up Prince of persia Sands of time or Warrior within, the combat is infinitely better then all AC games combined. AC2 is the best AC but even an older Ubisoft game has a better more well designed combat system. So if you've actually played many games from the same company, there is a serious quality problem between their most recently released games and the ones they made years ago.

I can pick up Sands of time today and have just as much fun as I did 10 years ago. I can't do the same with most AC titles barring maybe the 2nd because the combat system is just so rough around the edges and the game world usually doesn't have enough for the player to do in it that is actually fun.

The difference between games and movies is participation, if the things you can do in the game are not fun that is a bad game. 99% of the time you can have a great game with a bad story and not lose anything, but almost never can you have the reverse. A game that has a great story but shit gameplay.

If combat and moving around and doing things in the world IS NOT FUN it is a bad game! You can't compensate for it with cut-scenes and aesthetically pleasing non-interactive art of the game world.

So many games already try to wow gamers with lots of eye candy but a world that has nothing interesting to DO in it is not really a game but a barren waste-land of aesthetically pleasing art and one-off cinematics.

We can get movies by watching movies and they are infinitely better in that format. Modern games try to shoe-horn too much hollywood into them already.

The problem with AC3 is that the combat sucks. If the combat (actions you do over and over) is NOT FUN it doesn't mean you need to remove the combat from the game, it means you need to IMPROVE the combat so that it is FUN to use your assassin and do all sorts cool things to objects in the game world.

I wouldn't put it quite like

I wouldn't put it quite like that, Anon. I think Alv has a point in that it can be fun to walk around in these versions of the past (he does not have a point about any bias here, as I am a huge fan of AC1, 2, and Brotherhood). But there is a material difference here, in that all of the preceding games in the series have allowed the player to stand in the presence of some of the world's architectural wonders. Even when I didn't like what was going on in the previous games in terms of their gameplay, I could still enjoy what I was looking at.

This simply isn't so in AC3. Its world is entirely bereft of interesting buildings, and the only interesting platforming is in a forest. A forest! Maybe Alv lives in the middle of an urban island, but I can walk half an hour and see trees any time I want.

Meanwhile, the really interesting part of America at that time - the people and their philosophies - gets short shrift. Those founding fathers that even appear mostly get reduced to goofball cameos, and the only ones explored in any depth don't end up talking much about their motivations for overthrowing the only political system they had ever known. As an exploration of history, Assassin's Creed III is an even greater failure than it is as an action platformer. So, I give it no credit for that.

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