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Assassin’s Creed 3 marks another annual installment for Ubisoft’s historical sci-fi action series, and it’s undoubtedly the biggest Assassin’s Creed game to date. To say so might raise doubt among fans at first. After all, Assassin’s Creed Revelations was also bigger than all its predecessors, but rather than bigger being better, it felt bloated and encumbered by everything the developers tried to do. Assassin’s Creed 3 aims to make up for this misstep. Sure, it’s somehow longer and crammed with so much more content than any of its predecessors, yet the game carries its weight with surprising grace.
You’re still in Desmond’s shoes as he weaves between past and present, reality and what-the-hell visions of the First Civilization. For the first time, we step into the New World, leaving behind Europe and the Middle East to explore America in a younger state. Here, in the Colonies, Desmond reconnects with an ancestor of mixed Native American descent, named Ratohnhaké:ton but better known as “Connor.”
The New World
At its core, Assassin’s Creed 3 is still an Assassin’s Creed game. You’ll join the Brotherhood as Connor, then go about changing the world through the spilling of blood – Templar blood, to be exact – a veritable one-man army paving the path to revolution. Pseudo-parkour and free-flow combat we’ve become acquainted with carry over as foundations, though a dramatic shift in setting does see a few new additions to just about every aspect of gameplay.
New weapon types are expected, and the new toys in Assassin’s Creed 3 are incredibly fun, like Connor’s tomahawk and the always versatile sheng biao (rope dart). Swords, daggers, heavy weapons and other such categories remain, with an expanded array of kill animations and combat styles better suited to the new Assassin. Guns are a new thing, obviously, though the pistols and muskets of the era are cumbersome to use, crippled by lengthy reload times and some rather awkward shooting mechanics. The one redeeming factor is that you’ll probably never have to shoot a single person in the game, not counting the occasional mission objective or those rare moments where you find yourself completely out of other options.
Guns aside, Connor is an absolute beast in any fight with any weapon. The whole counter-based, free-flow combat system has been simplified in Assassin’s Creed 3, making fights go a lot faster and balancing with the game’s excessively aggressive guards. Blocking is no longer an issue, while successful counters are much easier to pull off, and rarely will enemies interrupt an assassination or kill animation once it’s been triggered. Yet the combat doesn’t feel dumbed down at all, only smoother and more intuitive than ever.
When out and about, Connor also proves more agile than Ezio or Altair, able to jump over or duck under most obstacles in his path. When it comes to stealth assassinations, however, the guy falls short. Though our new Assassins appears every bit as capable as his ancestors, the game itself seems less forgiving when it comes to quick kills. Running up to a lone target from behind and trying to hit the assassinate option doesn’t always register, and more than once I’ve found myself leaping past my intended target, who then alerts the entire area to my presence. Several hours into Assassin’s Creed 3, and I still haven’t figured out what the issue is. Enemies are also a great deal tougher than before, almost as easily riled as the Templars from the first Assassin’s Creed. Most go down easily enough in a fight, but remaining incognito has never been more challenging (or annoying). Guards seem to be keener on their surroundings than ever before, so the plethora of hay wagons and thick brush do little to deter their suspicions. Gone are the wandering crowds of civilians, removing one of the easiest escape methods from previous games, instead replaced by gatherings of one or two NPCs standing by a street corner or occupying a bench; even these are hard to come by, making stealth-based missions like eavesdropping (and there are a lot of them) more frustrating than they used to be.
The way towns are laid out now contributes to the overall difficulty as well. Not surprisingly, Boston and New York in the 18th century were not exactly architectural marvels, especially when compared to the urban sprawls of Europe and Middle East. Many of the viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed 3 are found atop near identical chapels or halls. What the smaller, less impressive cities mean is that climbing upward is no longer a viable option for escaping sticky situations. Plenty of guards occupy the rooftops, and most hiding spots are actually found on the ground. Whereas prior experience always taught us that higher ground tends to be the safest route, this is simply no longer the case in the Colonies.
Out in the Wild
While towns have been scaled down, the new explorable Frontier ensures Connor never runs out of room to run in or things to do. These new wilderness regions add an open world feel outside the towns, and provide an interesting distraction from your usual activities like gathering collectibles or wiping out Templar influence.
The concept isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it is new to Assassin’s Creed, and adds yet more hours of activity to an already lengthy game. Other than random dialogue encounters and more collectibles, quests for upgrading your wilderness homestead are also found in the Frontier. Usually, this involves running into traders, farmers, and other skilled NPCs and helping them out, then acquiring their services in exchange, thus expanding your base of operations much as Ezio did for Monteriggioni.
Hunting is another way of keeping entertained between missions, not to mention a decent source of income. Any of the wild animals found in the Frontier regions can be hunted, and their parts sold to traders for extra money. Clues tip Connor off to the presence of game, indicating where a trap can be set up. Obviously you’re free to kill anything any which way, depending on your preferences. Heck, Connor can assassinate animals too, if he manages to get the drop on them, whether from above or some bushes. Surprise attacks aside, combat against animals works differently from humans. Larger beasts like bears or elks trigger a sequence of quicktime events, rather than the signature free-flow style we’ve become so accustomed to. Failing them gets you mauled or gored. The QTEs aren’t all that elaborate, so they’re not too difficult to pick up, just a little boring by the tenth predator encounter.
If even the open frontier fails to keep you preoccupied, naval missions have taken the place of Revelations’ tower defense mini-game. Good thing too, because the naval battles in Assassin’s Creed 3 are actually a lot of fun, and I was surprised by how much depth Ubisoft squeezed into the sailing mechanics. While out at sea, Connor can actually command his crew to lower and raise sails to control speed, and in combat, fall back on two different cannon types to counter different enemy vessels. Other factors like shallow water, rocks, and wind will also affect how the player maneuvers The Aquila (his ship). Like the homestead, The Aquila may be upgraded and improved during the course of the game, though these improvements don’t come cheap.
Leaving the Animus
Although Connor remains the focus of Assassin’s Creed 3, Desmond is afforded some time in the spotlight. When he isn’t plugged into the Animus, you can explore his immediate surroundings, speak to comrades, and suffer through more cryptic visions guest starring Juno. Sounds familiar, right? But more than that, Desmond actually does have missions to partake in during present day, which is a pretty nice change of pace, and our leading man’s tirades are increasingly humorous, conveying a general sentiment of discontent and confusion that seem to echo the feeling many Assassin’s Creed players feel.
Surprisingly, the dynamic between Desmond and his fellows proved far more engaging than that shared by Connor and his allies. He, Shaun, Rebecca, and Miles Sr. feel like they belong together, and after what we learned in Assassin’s Creed Revelations, the present day deserves some time in the limelight. There were actual moments during the game where I wanted to burn through Connor’s sequences as quickly as possible just to trigger the next present day mission or some new dialogue.
Multiplayer is, of course, still a thing, and if you thoroughly enjoy the series’ competitive online modes, then you won’t be disappointed. Much like the rest of Assassin’s Creed 3, the multiplayer remains mostly unchanged, following the same structure as it’s always had, with the exception of the new cooperative “Wolf Pack” mode. Here, you and your allies are given a specific set of targets, whom you must kill within a set time limit. Once enough targets are downed, more time is awarded. With each new wave or “sequence,” targets become more challenging to take out.
Wolf Pack is certainly a welcome addition to the mix, and fans of control point gameplay can fall back on Domination, but whether Assassin’s Creed 3 can hang onto its online community remains a big question mark. While the series’ assassination-based multiplayer has always carried a certain refreshing novelty to it, that feeling doesn’t exactly last long enough to keep players interested. Inevitably, diehard players find the community pool shrinking over time, though certainly the new modes are an effort to mitigate this pattern.
Beyond gameplay, Connor sets himself apart from the Italian nobleman in how he interacts with the world he shapes. Ezio was very much a master of his own destiny, with a very clear goal in mind as he set out on his crusade against the Templars. Even Altair’s intentions were so much clearer than Connor’s. For all the good Ratohnhaké:ton set out to do, he becomes swept up in the current of change, a stranger among his allies, almost more of a pawn than his own man at times. His evolution is awkward to watch, even painful, as we watch him carry out the plans of America’s forefathers without fully understanding their cause or the repercussions of their joint actions. Never before has playing an Assassin felt more bittersweet, because anyone who studied Native American history already knows how this all ends. While Connor and the Sons of Liberty lack the same charm Ezio and his friends seemed to possess (Leonardo will be missed), the story they tell is also a different one.
Assassin’s Creed 3 at least shows us that Ubisoft is still willing to evolve the core franchise, by correcting previous missteps or adding more features in hopes of keeping the formula fresh. Assassin’s Creed 2 introduced base-building, and Brotherhood let players build their small army of trained killers; perhaps the open world Frontier seen in Assassin’s Creed 3 will remain a permanent fixture. Five years after we were introduced to Altair, Ubisoft proves that their vision for the Assassin’s Creed series hasn’t faltered. The ambition is clearly there, and to see it reflected in the game is nothing short of exciting.
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