Assassin’s Creed 3 is a game that, if games were reviewed solely on their value for money, would be perfect. It is one of the largest games made recently and that scale is not a result of vast distances to cover slowly ala Skyrim or ultimately unrewarding clumps of activity as plagued Just Cause 2 but simply an unrivalled density of things to do. Any session of the game will result in the player finding huge numbers of distractions which will significantly slow their progress through the already large and rewarding campaign. Ultimately, this scale becomes daunting; with so much choice of activity to perform, deciding which will be the most fruitful in any given play session becomes difficult – and indeed, given that so much of the game’s most interesting content is hidden behind the side-missions over the main storyline, a player may become so overwhelmed by the number of tasks they lose interest before seeing all of the good parts.
Yet for a player looking for a game of significant length, ambitious scale and which ultimately is a refinement and culmination of the now extensive Assassin’s Creed series, AC3 is the ideal game. Its mechanics are the most refined and polished of a series entry, its new additions (natural landscapes over Renaissance cities, sea battles and a more militaristic tone) are much-needed redefinition of a staling formula and it is most of all immense fun to play. Much of this fun comes from the refined and accessible controls and how they are tightly linked to strong visual feedback; in the same way as the recent Batman games made the player’s end of the bargain almost a rhythm game of reading cues and seeing patterns, and then translated this into fluid and impressive-looking acts of superheroism, Assassin’s Creed allows one to become Errol Flynn or Inigo Montoya with only three buttons. While the combat is ultimately still the vaguely rhythmic flailing of previous titles, it is now linked much better to the visual feedback of seeing the player-character stylishly defeat enemies. Indeed, this mechanic – of counter-kills and one-on-ones, of grabbing enemies to put between you and musket-fire, and of grappling with bears in the forest – is so rewarding the player is often tempted to abandon their stealthy Assassin ways and go out picking fights just to see what action-film antics occur.
What is more, while ranged weapons are still a useful option – protagonist Connor has his bow-and-arrow and pistol to hand – AC3 does a fine job of showing how much of a liability early blackpowder weapons can be. In many stealth games a firearm is your go-to weapon should you be rumbled; Solid Snake carries an arsenal of rifles, grenades and machine guns. No Call of Duty game is without an exciting car chase after the protagonists’ infiltration goes south. Yet in 1700s Boston, a musket is a ponderous stick which once in a blue moon can kill a single redcoat with an impressive bang. While a gun is thus no longer the tool of empowerment it is in most games for the protagonist, AC3 clearly places it as the enemy’s tool of oppression; British captains cock their pistols with a snide remark and stylish pose. Redcoats form squares and firing lines and unleash hell. The military have guns, and the discipline to overcome their limitations. The Assassins have sword and axe and trap and must overcome this. Thus even the combat mechanics – while little changed from the almost automated duelling of previous titles – enforce the themes of the game, themes of overcoming an organised military with guile and a different set of skills.
It is here that the sea battles, while tremendous fun and visual and aural tours de force, seem incongruous. The game is mostly about being the right man at the right time – to suddenly become a sea-captain, firing broadsides at the Royal Navy, is a shift in perspective that undermines the rejection of military strategy for guerrilla tactics that defines the rest of the game. They feel very much like a discrete minigame – almost even the entertaining prototype of a sea-battle game that never was. They are ultimately the Ace Combat of naval warfare, a simple matter of lining up trajectories and crosshairs and firing, but as with the swordfighting the immense disconnect between input and feedback makes the simple strategies seem more meaningful. Bioware talked when they made Dragon Age 2 of a “button-awesome connection” whereby inputs were rewarded with strong visual and mechanical feedback, which translated into entirely too many inputs needed to complete even basic combats – unnecessary buttons, and a canned and dull kind of awesome. AC3 pares back its inputs at all times to the barest minimum but in so doing strikes a fine balance between the interactive film and the strategic game. While each encounter is very winnable if taken alone, it is how the player begins the encounters and which encounters they begin that matter.
In story terms, AC3 feels fresh and inspired after three Renaissance-set titles; the America of the late 18th century is very much a new world for a franchise whose premise was wearing thin. There is a lot to like about seeing perhaps underestimated or misunderstood history through the alt-history lens of the series’ time-travelling conspiracy metaplot. While it is perhaps an understandable complaint that framing the British as villains is a little hard to stomach, the British as depicted in AC3 are sneering, corrupt pantomime villains with highly variable accents; it is not a direct assault on brave British troops or the essence of Britishness, but instead an attack on a heavily fictionalised kind of period drama antagonistic force who, had trains been invented, would be tying maidens to rail lines. This very heightened atmosphere, made even more so by the colourfully-portrayed real historical figures intermingling with fictional Templars and Assassins, is really what makes the Assassin’s Creed games – it is a Hollywood bumble through history with enough of a grasp of reality to keep the attention.
Yet it is not a game without flaws; notwithstanding occasional visual errors and glitches including warping soldiers, teleporting assassins, flying muskets and invisible guards, there is an overreliance on slow walking missions and slightly clumsy tailing sequences in the main storyline that almost actively deters players from wanting to do them. Given the choice between exploring the forest, boxing with bears and blowing up forts, or following someone as they blather on at a snail’s pace, the main plot will generally come up lacking. AC3 is a game which has created such an interesting and living world that to constrain it with tightly-scripted plot missions feels like doing it a disservice. Furthermore, the outdoor wilderness settings are perhaps a little ambitious for the engine; some treasures and items, and especially the tall tree viewpoints, are nightmares of clumsy grab points that end generally in frustration which stands out all the more in a game which so often gets its free movement right. On top of this, while locking the interesting sidequests behind the item-location activities encourages the player to do them it means at times the game loses its illusion of freedom as the player is forced back into continuing the main story for want of things to do.
I have not talked about AC3‘s very long prologue sequence, or modern-day missions; they are inherently divisive, for the modern-day sections of the story are generally the most unpopular in the series as a whole. Similarly, the extended tutorials intended to introduce the characters and mechanics often irk players who simply hunger for the freedom to explore, fight and collect that the main game offers. Yet AC3 makes a fine attempt at sweetening the pill. The Desmond missions are now Mirror’s Edge freerunning escapades in modern settings, while the prologue section sets up a plot twist blindingly obvious once it has happened but nevertheless likely to shock. It may not be to everyone’s taste but it is certainly more enjoyable than some such sections in previous titles.
Thus, as an Assassin’s Creed game AC3 is the most ambitious yet the most refined yet; it is almost unmatched in density of content and unique in setting. Yet it at times feels like this ambition – the desire to be the biggest, the most exciting and the most different – overwhelms the good ideas in a sea of almanac pages, delivery quests, treasures, trinkets, riots and sundry tasks that in retrospect are just time-fillers. However, when playing the game – exploring Boston, and the forest, and the other locations – those acts of busywork remain exciting and interesting and most of all always temptingly close to each other to encourage the creation of chains of completion across the rooftops.