For me, the Assassin’s Creed experience stopped being about the story ever since the convoluted conclusion to Assassin’s Creed 2. I derive my enjoyment instead from pulling up the typically populated world map and optimistically selecting the next main story mission. That icon is quickly forgotten as I’m distracted by a viewpoint, a Templar stronghold, a civilian in need, an utterly useless feather, or one of those chests that never yields anything worthwhile but draws you to it anyway with its enchanting chimes. Assassin’s Creed is the quintessential sandbox game, and if that’s how you approach it too, these are good times.
That’s not to say that story, setting, and characters aren’t important. They are; so much so that the lack of improvement in those departments led me to my leave the two previous games – Brotherhood and Revelations, halfway. Assassin’s Creed 3 though is fresh – new protagonist, new locations, new time period, and that makes all the difference. But boy does it take its own sweet time to get going! By the time the game’s new hero – Connor Kenway, gets to don his assassin robes, you’ll be close to halfway through the game, having spent hours catching up on the story, playing through the lengthy tutorial and prologue, and lending Connor a guiding hand through his formative years.
Those early parts though are great to get yourself acquainted with all that’s new in Assassin’s Creed 3. First and foremost is the Frontier, wild forests that throw up plenty of opportunities for parkouring across trees – a fun activity, but one that sadly isn’t included in too many missions. The Frontier itself is underutilised in the game and mostly serves as a place you travel through rather than to. Most of your travels will take you to the two big cities – Boston and New York, where you’ll aid the revolutionaries (freedom fighters) in their fight against the loyalists (British), all the while battling the Templars, who are doing their best to use the power struggle to their advantage.
For reasons I won’t divulge here, taking out Templars is a personal mission for Connor rather than simply his duty as an assassin, but you can’t help but feel that the centuries-old Assassin-Templar conflict is overshadowed by the American Revolution in Assassin’s Creed 3. This has partly to do with the fact that the characters, including Connor himself, lack the charisma and screen presence we’re used to. Comparing the stoic Connor to the charming Ezio isn’t fair though, owing to the former’s troubled youth and the ongoing struggles of his people. Still, I didn’t find myself rooting for Connor as I did for Ezio, and the Templars too came across as a far less sinister threat than you might remember.
A refreshing change this time is that the parts of the game outside the Animus do throw up some interesting scenarios. Desmond is now more involved, even getting his own missions this time around, the first of which is rather memorable. The more I played as Desmond though, the more I dread the series’ inevitable move to present day. Missions with Desmond feel plainly generic for most part, and while some of the platforming sections are fun, you’ll be happy to get back into Connor’s robes the first chance you get.
The gameplay mechanics largely remain unchanged, and in some places, are starting to show their age. What was revolutionary in Assassin’s Creed 2 now feels clunky and often frustrating. Nowhere is this more evident than in the foot chases. In Assassin’s Creed 2, each chase felt like a cinematic set piece – fluid, fast-paced and thrilling as if every crate, beam and ledge was put there specifically for that chase. Now, the simplistic controls often lead to unintended actions, such as hanging onto a beam rather than swinging onward, or clinging onto a crate rather than leaping over it. It doesn’t help matters that the game world itself is so much more detailed and cluttered now that there are far more interactive elements close to each other. For example, you could find Connor jump into a haystack rather than climbing the nearby ladder, breaking his momentum completely.
Seasoned players, however, will come to terms with these minor issues, because in the grand scheme of things, Assassin’s Creed 3 offers so much to do. New this time is Naval warfare, where you can take to the seas, take control of a ship and fight off British fleets with an array of projectile weapons. It’s a fun distraction. There are Templar forts to take over, almanac pages to chase down on rooftops, city districts to liberate, items to craft and trade at your homestead, wild animals to hunt using bait and traps, and so, so much more. Then, of course, there’s multiplayer, but I haven’t been able to connect to the game servers even once on the PS3.
Combat has been one of the weaker elements in Assassin’s Creed games, and it remains the same here. There are now lethal firing squads to contend with during close quarters combat, but for most part, the barebones block-and-counter system remains just as rudimentary, often making flight more of a thrilling option than the fight. Also rather disappointing is that stealth has been more or less done away with in Assassin’s Creed 3. Taking out a high profile assassination target no longer requires planning and strategy, rendering the entire cloak and dagger persona of the assassins quite pointless. The inclusion of the new rope-dart weapon, however, is a master stroke and its use in stalking enemies in the Frontier is easily one of the game’s highlights.
If you are heavily invested in the grand overarching sci-fi story behind the franchise and were hoping that Assassin’s Creed 3 would end with some grand…umm revelation, you’re going to be disappointed. But if, like me, you view an Assassin’s Creed as more about the journey than the destination, you’re in for a treat. Boston and New York, while totally unrecognisable from what they are today, are busy cities with plenty to do and see. However, be prepared for the new Anvil Next engine to drop to its knees in the busy areas with some terrible framerates on the PS3. In the Frontier, you have Assassin’s Creed like you’ve never seen it before. It is the star of the game, and my only complaint is that so much of its potential went untapped.