Assassins Creed 3 - PC Review

Steam has a somewhat disheartening feature that logs how many hours you've put into a game. Early into my time with Assassins Creed 3, it read 7 hours played. My save game told me I was 20% through. By that count this should be a fairly meaty game of roaming the Eastern seaboard assassinating things. So why was I learning how to craft furniture?

Assassins Creed 3 doesn't know what it wants to do. Like an over-stimulated child, it sees something exciting, rampages off in its general direction until it becomes distracted, chases a new object and so on. Inevitably the child becomes tired and stops playing, having accomplished very little. 

Maybe this is a tad harsh, but Assassins Creed 3 is characterized by long stretches of activity that have nothing to do with being an assassin. You can't help but feel the time and effort spent crafting these features would've been better spent elsewhere. There is a solid game in here somewhere. You just have to sift through mounds of produce, pelts and plumage to find it.

The series leaves the Old World for Colonial Boston and New York. You play as a Aboriginal/English assassin named Ratonhnhake or Conner, honing his craft to protect his village from the evil Templars. The plot roughly follows the events of the Revolutionary War, in which Conner makes the critical difference at its most famous moments. I'm not going to belabour the point but you can largely ignore the plot. It's been a while since I played the first game in the series, and I'm not quite sure why the Templars are the bad guys  They keep talking about control, and who doesn't want a little control in their lives? I quickly found myself skipping the cut-scenes.

The lackluster story is not aided by the protagonist Conner. He is easily the most unlikable character in the series, if you discount Desmond and the super-friends. You start the game in the boots a suave and resourceful British man, swashbuckling his way through the earliest parts of the interminable tutorial section. I was bitterly disappointed when I was thrust into the boots of Conner the jerk. He is so unpleasant to his mentor and only friend you begin to realize why the village elder encouraged him to leave his childhood home and seek his livelihood elsewhere.   

As has become standard for the series, the work Ubisoft has put into rendering 18th century Boston and New York is tremendous. The cities are teaming with life. Vendors and patrons haggle over prices, carriages wind their way through the dirt streets and the masts of tall ships waiting in the harbour all provide a dramatic background for your exploits. Passing landmarks for the first time will cue you to read a little blurb about the building you are currently scaling. These details are crack for individuals with an interest in history and make playing Assassins Creed the third a much richer experience.    

Making a welcome return is the open and explorable frontier region between the cities. Here you are free to scramble through the treetops, hunting animals and red-coats alike. Though the free running across tree limbs can feel a little constructed, the joy of watching your assassin negotiate his way through the countryside more than makes up for it. The developers have put a lot of work into Conner's animation, and outside a few graphical hiccups like being ejected 40 feet into the air while scaling a tree, watching him swing between pine trees is spectacular. You can largely ignore the frontier, outside of a few required visits on missions, but you won't want to. Assassins Creed 3 is truly at its best as you wait in ambush for a British patrol or stalk a bear through the underbrush.

Unfortunately, the new urban environments do not lend themselves as well to the free running gameplay. In Assassins Creed 1 & 2 buildings were packed tightly enough together that the rooftops formed a highway of sorts, free from the interference of guards. In Boston and New York it feels impractical to travel via rooftop. Between the frequent dead ends requiring a three story drop and musket equipped guards who open fire as you try to clamber over the buildings, you will inevitably end up running along the ground. A bit of a comedown to say the least.

Combat remains similar to the previous titles and is really beginning to creak like an old wooden ship. Relying, again, on a countering system, I quickly mastered the tactics required to take out the four classes of enemies, rendering fights a formality. The encounters are wonderfully rendered with a terrific variety of animations that capture the brutality of tomahawking someone to death to an alarming level and this is very empowering. However, the cookie cutter enemies mean there really is only one way to tackle every fight. For such an open game, I am disappointed that Ubisoft didn't implement a fighting system provides the same level of freedom you experience while exploring. 

An unexpected pleasure of playing Assassins Creed 3 has to be the moments you find yourself behind the helm of The Aquila. Yes this somewhat undermining my earlier point about lacking focus on assassinating things, but these nautical sections are incredible! Watching your cannons blast apart massive Man-of-Wars as your Second-in-Command hollers orders to your crew is the most fun I've had in a vehicle section maybe ever. Sure, your ship's handling is more akin to a school bus than a deadly schooner (I'm sure its actually a frigate, what, do I look like a naval historian?), but you won't care and will be salivating waiting for the next encounter on the high seas.  

This brings me on to your ship's port of call, the Davenport Homestead. Comparing the time you spend here to a black hole that only consumes only fun wouldn't be too far from the truth. I get the idea, a lone assassin constructing a thriving base of operations to take down the better funded and organized templars, it just doesn't come off. Upgrading your homestead amounts to embarking on frustrating fetch quests to the furthest-flung regions of the game. Your home, described early in the game as nearly falling over, never changes. The only progress you see is the buildings that are erected as you attract more settlers to your land. The only benefit to upgrading your homestead is to make more money, and once you've made enough to spruce up your ship or purchase that sword you have your eye on, there is little reason to go home.

Assassins Creed 3 is also a game with mixed priorities. The glaring gap between the freedom you have when not on a mission to the constrictive, instant fail conditions placed on you during your assignments is immensely frustrating. There are side goals compelling you to tackle a mission a certain way and failing to do so prevents you from unlocking items in the game. You should be rewarded, not punished, for creatively solving problems.

These frustrations carry over into smaller aspects of the game, but it is indicative of the lack of focus I've alluded to throughout this review. The crafting menu is an abomination, kicking you back to the start every time you manufacture something. You can purchase new outfits for Conner, in game and through DLC, but anytime you enter a cut scene Conner apparently dashes off for a quick change of attire, and you appear back in your standard assassins uniform. Whether in the depths of the wilderness or sitting room of your home, Conner kicks up a mighty trail of dust wherever he goes. It's sloppy. So much of this pointless content could and should have been cut to focus on revamping the combat or making navigating colonial cities more exciting than going for a morning jog.

That is a good point to end on. The future Assassins Creed games need to do just that, get out there, get some exercise and slim down.    

Yes, this idiot is back

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