Ubisoft has settled into an admirable regularity with the Assassin’s Creed saga, but it’s the first time since the second chapter that the series has undergone a major revision. It’s a far cry from the iterative plodding that predates this entry, and the key to this revitalisation is the American Revolution – a more compelling, dense and grounded backdrop to the eternal Templar-Assassin conflict, but also one that at times feels needlessly bloated.
That is to be expected, given Ubisoft’s penchant for milking each setting dry for historical reverence, as the game transpires over the 30-odd formative years of the United States. But not content with a sequel based around a more complex narrative, driven by infamous events of the era, Ubisoft has created an open world that dwarfs its predecessors in both scale and ambition.
Through its atmosphere and meticulous faithfulness to its facsimile of 18th Century America, Ubisoft has created nothing short of the benchmark for which all other open-world games will be measured in years to come. No doubt other developers will look upon this sizeable expanse, mouths agape, and the sheer wonder of its art direction is not lost on the player either. Whether it’s the critters that roam the frontier and can be skinned for profit, Red Dead-style; the snow-flecked rooftops of Boston; or the undulating waters of the Atlantic, the scenery is incomparable by today’s lofty standards.
It’s a world, stunning as it is, that the game takes a leisurely pace digging into. The first five to ten hours of the game are spent during new protagonist Connor’s (tongue-flummoxing real name: Ratonhnhaké:ton) pre-Assassin days, establishing narrative footholds in various small pockets of the game’s map, and this flip-flopping around the epochs of his life come with the subtlety of a daytime soap opera. It’s only once the trademark garb is ceremoniously donned, all the predictable narrative twists and turns are spelled out and the hit list of timely villains – whose early introductions belie their later laughable pantomime wickedness – is outlined, that the game finally proposes to kick-start.
But it doesn’t – at least not with in the manner that it should. The backbone of missions are formed by notable incidents of the age, front-ended by cameos that’ll have historians rolling their eyes in derision, and it soon becomes abundantly clear that Ubisoft’s self-indulgent fascination with its own storytelling impedes the gameplay on a fundamental level. One mission involves Connor taking command of three firing lines repelling the advance of Redcoats, later mounting a cannon to stave off a similar advance, while another sequence has him escorting Paul Revere on his famous midnight ride; each differs slightly in gameplay terms, but what they share is a lack of meaningful agency. Such missions devoid of interactivity are rife, and often everything just falls back on a blood-drenched skirmish or a ropey exit to maintain interest. But perhaps the most surprisingly dour note is how linear everything feels. Somehow Ubisoft has taking a prosperous open-world setting and made it feel like a corridor.
Assassination missions come out worst in this regard. A very precise route, while perhaps not immediately obvious, is often the only way to reach an enemy undetected, the game ushering players towards executing its handful of big bads in a way it has already predetermined, either with patience masquerading as strategy, or blunt assault within the game’s large-scale set pieces. There was a time when Assassin’s Creed enabled players to track targets, study routes and decide which of these two methods would prove most fruitful, but Ubisoft has reinstated the training wheels in an effort to appeal as broadly as possible. Occasionally the game decides it can’t even trust the player to dispatch a target, switching to a cut-scene to finish the job and commence the victim’s sanctimonious parting words. It’s a blow that fundamentally undermines the player’s actions up until that point.
It’s often these areas of fragmented gameplay and misjudged relinquishing of controls that outline the wayward focus of a developer more concerned with spinning a yarn than crafting a fulsome game. While chapters featuring Desmond have always been the least invigorating of the narrative’s two timelines, one particularly ill-judged sequence has the former mixologist scaling a skyscraper, parachuting off the crane protruding from its rooftop and landing on the helipad of a neighbouring tower. It sounds enjoyable enough on paper, with the game’s signature parkour mechanics put to spectacular use in the trappings of its modern-day setting. But as Desmond reaches the apex of the construct, the running, jumping, parachuting and landing are all interrupted by multiple cut-scenes. This is not a lone offence, as the game constantly disrupts otherwise enthralling sequences with incessant breakers, leaving a game that was once trumpeted for its fluidity feeling needlessly fractured.
But by no means should the quality of Desmond’s brief chapters be a barometer of the overall worth, with Ubisoft more or less embracing their direness by appearing to commit as few resources as possible to these meandering excursions.
It’s wise, given that the world inside the Animus needs as much nourishment as possible. The nascent municipalities of both Boston and New York are a staggering sight to behold, and Ubisoft has wisely cut the chaff to bolster these pockets of Colonial America with engaging side quests. The most notable are the Liberation missions, offering a wider freedom of approach as you seize forts from Redcoat control, while outside the main cities the Frontier offers tracking and Homestead quests that do much to paint a beguiling picture of the time. They succeed, much like Revelations and the games before that, because of the diligent balance between activity and story, input and spectacle; where previously the series has been plagued with features needlessly bolted on, here is a choice crop of supplementary diversions, confidently delivering where the majority of main missions struggle.
They don’t all work, of course, as Assassin’s Guild side quests are an arbitrary, unfulfilling venture, much like the dutiful exploration around the dreary oubliettes located beneath the streets of Boston and New York, both of which should and most likely will be ignored. But there’s a wealth of content here that stretches beyond just delivering another annual entry, as the breadth of scope branches entirely into new genres. Naval warfare is the true showstopper of the piece, imbuing a real sense of empowerment and adventure through a series of privateer contracts that could just as well span their own entire game – which, at times given the lack of character coherency with Connor, it does.
The protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III is portrayed as a less poised individual than the series is used to; one unsure of his abilities and own indignation, which in some respects feels like a step back from Ezio’s stoic gravitas, and in others carves a figure that’s more touchingly relatable. In some respects his personality has been reflected in his move set, the focus put on showmanship, so controls have been stripped back to further emphasise the flow of combat, with large windows to counter and little input required for the player to exterminate a whole regiment of enemy soldiers. It pales in comparison to Rocksteady’s similar work on Batman: Arkham City, with a lack of quickfire gadgets and clear directives that enable the player to lead the attack, rather than just observe it.
It’s indicative of Ubisoft’s approach, so wary of the player discovering their own enjoyment, or missing key information, that it so fervently handholds through what should be its most spectacular moments. At times this reduces entire chapters to tediously long treks between cut-scenes, a lot of which feel like less than worthwhile narrative additions. It’s an odd occurrence of a game giving and taking away in equal measure. Moving forward, Ubisoft needs to decide whether what’s more important, telling a story or making a game, because Assassin’s Creed III fails to accomplish either with any great success.