I haven’t yet finished Assassin’s Creed III, and I haven’t even touched its multiplayer side. Yet this game, which I’ve anticipated since it was announced eight months ago, is already worth the buy. That said, I’m something of an idiosyncratic gamer, and what has always sold the Assassin’s Creed series to me is its varied environments, breathtaking cityscapes and thoroughly-imagined environments. This game brings back everything we have come to expect from an Assassin’s Creed game and improved on a number of areas. In particular, the story has far more depth, and the environment is more authentic and engrossing than it has ever been. But the game suffers from serious issues of disjointedness; its various elements don’t form a coherent whole, and the average gamer will find it overwhelming and chaotic. On the whole Assassin’s Creed III is a fantastic game, but it loses out because the developers made it too big without figuring out a way to glue it together.
You play as Connor, a half-English half-Mohawk assassin living in the Thirteen Colonies in the second half of the 18th century. In the classic Forrest-Gumpian fashion that should now be familiar to players of previous Assassin’s Creed games, Connor’s destiny is intertwined with the fate of the burgeoning United States: you will encounter famous faces like Ben Franklin, George Washington and Paul Revere, and you will witness and be involved in any great historical event that you can fit into. This trope, when juxtaposed with the relatively serious tone of this installment in the series, can at times feel hokey and out of place. At other times, when executed correctly, interacting with history in this way can be exhilarating.
The story has much more depth this time around. In Assassin’s Creed II, you played as the assassin Ezio against the corrupt and power-hungry Borgia family. The conflict was put in a black-and-white frame. Ezio and the Assassins were pure good, believing in freedom and liberty. The Templars, their mortal enemies, were pure evil, believing in exploitation and control. Assassin’s Creed III, on the other hand, presents more moral ambiguity. Connor is often characterized as naïve and closed-minded, believing in ideals of freedom that have no basis in the real world. The Templars are shown often to have purely good intentions, wanting not so much control as order and stability. They figure that with the right leadership (i.e. them) the world will remain peaceful and happy.
With their respective priorities, it is easy to see that Connor would back the colonists and the Templars would back the British. It is not all so simple, though. Given that the British were the primary source of law and order at the time, and given that assassination is not exactly lawful, most of the casualties on the end of your blade will be wearing red coats. But there are Templars on both sides, and as the revolution progresses you will find yourself fighting Yankees more and more often.
Mechanically, there’s no doubting that this is an Assassin’s Creed game. You will free-run, you will climb up the sides of buildings, and of course, you will assassinate people. All the usual tools of the trade are there — the hidden blade, the smoke bomb, the poison dart. There are even a few new toys — a bow for long-ranged stealth kills, a flintlock pistol for not-so-stealthy kills, rope-darts and more. There are also a couple of completely new game mechanics. It is now possible, for example, to climb up trees and jump from limb to limb, allowing you to traverse the game’s forested regions without ever touching the ground. This feature is a nifty addition and controls nicely, but it doesn’t change the overall gameplay: you will still climb stuff and stab dudes. Another addition is naval combat, which is tremendously fun and satisfying if given a chance.
I don’t want to linger for too long on the gameplay, though. I enjoyed it, but it’s not what makes this game unique and worth the buy. Eight months ago, after Assassin’s Creed III was first revealed, I wrote that I hoped the game would “remind me of why I fell in love with the series when it first came out.” I was talking about the unique sense of place and atmosphere that these games create, and I’ve been very pleased with what I’ve seen. A great deal of emphasis in this game is placed on reconstructing 18th century America and plopping you down in the middle of it. The streets of Boston would be familiar to the modern-day Bostonian, and they are full of all sorts of characters: town criers, tax-weary businessmen and noisy orphan boys to name a few. In pubs and at sea, men sing period-specific English drinking songs. For the segments wherein Connor interacts with members of his home tribe, the developer hired Mohawk consultants and voice actors to add a sense of authenticity to the experience.
On the Frontier (the name for the region in between the two major cities of Boston and New York) the game comes alive. It was speculated that this region would just be a showcase for the game’s new tree-climbing mechanics, but it turns out to be that much and more. The landscape is truly beautiful and alternates between summer sunshine and winter snows, giving it two different aesthetic charms depending on when it is visited. The wilderness is also rife with activity. Animals scurry about, and you can hunt them with a variety of tools to collect their hides or purely for sport. The terrain is dotted with small camps and settlements, and often they will have short side-quests for you to complete. You can also discover seven forts — infiltrating them, killing the commander, burning the powder reserves and raising the Stars and Stripes will surrender the forts to Patriot control and lower the tax rate for your trading activities. This sort of incentive is indirect and relatively minor, which reveals the game’s biggest and most fundamental problem.
The best parts of this game are tucked away to the side. They are in plain sight, but most players will glaze over them without giving it a second thought. They take the form of small icons on the game’s map—side-quests for which there is little incentive to complete. I’ll offer an example.
The part of the game that I enjoyed the most, by far, is called the Homefront. This is Connor’s home base, a large tract of land in Eastern New Hampshire on which initially stands nothing but a single manor-house and a wrecked man-o-war. As the game progresses, there are a series of side-quests called “Homefront Missions” — small icons on the minimap — which have Connor aid in some way a down-on-his/her-luck settler with nowhere to call home. Connor offers the settler a new home on his Homefront, and before you know it they set up shop. In this way a diverse community springs up on the Homefront and sets down roots. You watch the community grow, and help it along the way. When Prudence, a freedwoman farmer living on the Homefront, goes missing, you help her husband find her; when the French-Canadian miner falls for the colonial huntress, you help him court her. What was once an expanse of wilderness is now a happy frontier town. The Homefront is an essential part of the game’s narrative: it gives you a concrete symbol of what it is you and the colonists are fighting for. However unrealistic, it is a touching reminder of our country’s founding ideals.
Unfortunately, most players will never see the Homefront dream imagined. There is hardly a gameplay incentive for completing the Homefront missions. By building your town you increase the productivity of its residents, allowing you to craft a few useful items and send out trade caravans. It is tedious, though, to navigate all of these trading/crafting menus, and the game is easy to complete without the rewards you get from doing it. The same goes for many of the game’s other bells and whistles: naval combat is fun but almost entirely unnecessary. Exploration of the Frontier’s nooks and crannies is wonderful, but almost nothing in the game’s core narrative drives you to it. Assassin’s Creed III is packed with content, but it suffers from a severe case of segmentation. It’s a shame that only completionists like myself will end up seeing the best of it.