Assassin’s Creed III is an excellent game. It might even be a great game, depending on how you define that amorphous notion of ‘greatness.’ Explaining why, however, is a trickier proposition that may depend entirely on your own idiosyncratic interpretation of Americana.
See, you already know where you stand with regards to Assassin’s Creed, and not just because it came out two weeks ago. The fifth installment has many of the same mechanical strengths and weaknesses as previous outings, so if you’ve liked those, you’ll probably like this one too. The difference this time around is that Assassin’s Creed III takes place in Boston and New York during the American War for Independence, and that decidedly patriotic setting might deter some gamers.
Me? I grew up in Massachusetts, so this is personal. The state no longer has the vast swathes of untamed wilderness that it did in 1776, but I’m nonetheless rather nostalgic about a place I still call ‘back home.’ I’ve consequently been anticipating Assassin’s Creed III since the day it was announced because I wanted to see how Ubisoft would handle such a momentous (and potentially thorny) historical era.
Now that I’ve played it, I think Ubisoft got it right. And it’s fantastic.
To be sure, the game is nowhere near perfect. The developers have opted for breadth instead of depth and the bullet-point history lessons stick to key facts without delving into too much speculation. History buffs will likely view the game as a novelty, identifying noteworthy people and places with the same fervor as comic nerds spotting obscure Easter eggs in an X-Men movie, but ACIII at least never feels dishonest, embracing the vagueness of historical fiction to insert an assassin into pivotal revolutionary battles without fully overshadowing any genuine history.
The assassin in question is Connor Kenway, the son of a Mohawk woman and an Englishman who gets dragged into the struggle for colonial liberation once men on both sides of the conflict begin making claims to aboriginal land. He teams up with the Assassin Order, and the ideology of “Give me liberty or give me death!” serves as an unparalleled backdrop for the titular Assassin’s creed.
Contrary to trailers that portrayed the wholesale slaughter of Red Coats, the British Regulars are not the bad guys. In fact, everyone just kind of assumes that independence is a foregone conclusion, leaving the Templars and Assassins to fight a war within a war to determine the political destiny of the United States. There are heroes and villains on both sides of the continental divide and plenty of unruly colonialists get tomahawked in the face.
I can’t imagine why that wasn’t in the promos.
In any case, ACIII ultimately succeeds because it pays tribute to American ideology without devolving into blind jingoism, striking a delicate balance that avoids the most obvious narrative pitfalls. To paraphrase Stephen Colbert, Assassin’s Creed III just feels right, thanks largely to a truly astonishing sense of place. The frontier wilderness is stunning, while Boston and New York both have architectural signatures distinct from anything we saw in the Holy Land and Italian settings of previous titles. If Assassin’s Creed II was a vertical game, then ACIII is horizontal, with angled rooftops and broad thoroughfares that can’t be jumped in a single bound.
The resulting gameplay differences are subtle but undeniable. ACIII favors short bursts of guerilla warfare rather than infiltration, leading to shorter missions (that may or may not be a criticism) and the most streamlined Creed storyline thus far. The sandbox, meanwhile, relies heavily on frontier exploration, and virtually every design element – from the trade-based economy to the hunting challenges – draws on that do-it-yourself pioneer mentality.
So while there are a few inevitable missteps, the developers have nailed all of the intangibles – visuals, voice acting, writing, etc. – to the point that even the ordinarily dry database entries are fun to read. They’re written from the perspective of a snarky British assassin who constantly tweaks American mythmaking with witticisms and asides, and the attention to such minor details is indicative of the game’s approach to history – hardly anything is presented in absolute terms – as well as Ubisoft’s commitment to an all-encompassing colonial aesthetic.
Of course, there are plenty of technical elements to criticize. For one thing, ACIII is a slow starter. Connor is absent for the game’s first five hours – until then, you’re playing as his father – and while Haytham Kenway is a well-conceived character, the extended prologue nevertheless feels like twiddling your thumbs while waiting for the real game to begin.
Other problems are more endemic to the series, particularly with regards to overload. The game buries you beneath a veritable deluge of flavour text and tutorials and much of it vanishes before you’ve had a chance to process the information. Many of the game’s more intricate mechanics and plot details only make sense after extensive trial and error, making ACIII an unforgiving game for beginners.
ACIII is also intermittently buggy, although it’s mostly the harmless “that rifle is floating in midair” kind of buggy and not the “my fucking game just froze” kind of buggy. Concerns like texture popping and the occasionally spastic AI have been imported from previous games, and while this is the most coherent AC plot to date, the premise remains completely bonkers with an ending that is yet another WTF in a series packed with such moments.
Measure that against everything the game gets right, however, and the good far outweighs the bad. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to suggest that Assassin’s Creed III is the best title in the franchise, if only because Ubisoft has made incremental improvements with every release. From the combat to the free running to the fast-travel system, every mechanic is just a little bit better than it was with Ezio Auditore, and the new stuff – especially the surprisingly thrilling naval battles – all enhances the experience.
And yes, that includes the handful of missions set in the present day. They feel more like concept demos for Watch Dogs than anything else, but they do manage to demonstrate that Assassin’s Creed should eventually be able to make the transition to 2012.
For lack of a better cliché, Assassin’s Creed III has a frontier spirit that embodies the ideology of independence, and you don’t need to be an American to appreciate that more universal philosophy. But it does help. The game resonated with me because it depicts a home and a history that I’ve absorbed since kindergarten and I enjoyed rediscovering the past through such a richly crafted game world. Your results may vary, so feel free to tell me why after you’ve played the game.