The third ‘proper’ entry in the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been an extremely long time coming. First revealed at the back end of 2011, Assassin’s Creed 3 promised an epic setting, an engaging narrative and a quasi-historical look at a time period rarely frequented by the world of videogames. The American Revolution, it turns out, is indeed a worthy setting for a piece of interactive entertainment and, for the most part, the approach to exploring it works brilliantly.
As with everything, though, the good comes with the bad. Nothing in this world is perfect.
Everything in Assassin’s Creed 3 is bigger than the series has seen before. The story is longer, the characters more numerous, the world a great deal more expansive and the frequency of side-mission distractions greatly increased. You may have read about the new Frontier zone, a massive swathe of land that realistically and elegantly strings together rivers, woods, mountains and coastlines.
Like it all not, a lot of time is spent exploring and traversing the Frontier as you travel between cities and embark on missions set in the area. At first it’s annoying and time consuming; the environment allows for just as much climbing, jumping and travelling above ground as the cities do, but the visual language is completely different. If you’ve played previous games you’ll be able to nimbly make your way around the digital re-imaginings of 1770sBostonandNew York, but those skills are no help amid the dense forests and cliff-sides.
However, patience and practise are rewarded. Once you start to see the trunks and branches in terms of hand holds and balance beams, new protagonist Connor shows ape-like agility and finesse. Ambush an enemy convoy by laying wait at the top of a tree, climb a rock wall in a bid to collect a rare eagle feather and dive from a fallen tree into the lake below to escape your foes… all of these skills become second nature. The Frontier really does provide a new way to play Assassin’s Creed, its size and scope letting you experiment like never before.
The cities, too, are not what we’ve come to expect. Previous cities in the series’ history have been characterised by densely packed buildings, painted in bright colours in a bid to reflect the heat and glare of the uncompromising sun. Cities on America’s north eastern coast are different from those of Italyand the Middle East, however. Made of English-style brick and/or wood, Assassin’s Creed 3’s cities are spread out and feature wider streets. That means more time is spent on the ground as it’s simply not possible to get from one side of a city to the next by leaping across rooftops.
Like the Frontier, it takes some time to get used to and requires a degree of unlearning what you already know about the series in order to take on board the new style. That’s not to say that the game’s urban areas feel any less imposing. In part, that’s thanks to each metropolis’ residents who are more numerous and diverse than they’ve ever been. Animals, children, town criers, guards, gossipers, store keepers and other workers occupy corners, fill streets and generally act as both obstacle and prospective helper as you wander the streets.
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The fauna allows plenty of opportunities to blend in and take the stealth approach to those missions that allow it (which is virtually all of them), but a quick getaway when spotted can sometimes be an issue. Working out how best to manage the crowds can be the difference between perfecting each segment of your quest and merely getting through it, the dynamic nature of the world preventing you from figuring out the perfect path with continuous re-tries. Combine the crowds with a weather system that changes as the story takes you through seasons and years (from sun to fog and rain and snow) and you’ve got a world that really does feel alive in a realistic, natural way.
However, this epic outlook on design comes at a price. It’s not only the environment that throws up something new every half an hour or less, it’s everything else. You’re continuously being taught new tricks (some optional, others essential) to aid you on your journey, new characters are introduced very frequently and more than ever you find yourself spending an incredible amount of time travelling from place to place (by horse, by foot, by ship). Yes, fast travel is available once you’ve visited a place, but using it does have the affect of removing you from the aura of the world.
The result is that the intimacy of previous games is lost amid the sheer quantity of plot lines, characters and land mass. Whereas the adventures of Ezio tended to focus on a few characters within one or two starkly defined environments, Connor’s story takes place in a much wider realm and with many more threads pulling him in different directions.
It’s not easy to identify with specific characters as a result, meaning (despite their historical origins) they can feel throwaway because they don’t stick around long enough to grab your attention and tickle your curiosity. That’s not to say they’re poorly written, there are just too many to make things feel cohesive. I guess what I’m trying to say is that sequences in Assassin’s Creed 3 tend to feel like episodes of a TV show, rather scenes from a movie.
Still, on a technical and gameplay level it’s difficult to find serious fault once you’ve adapted the skills you’ve gained from the previous games to the task at hand here. Assassin’s Creed 3 really is the next level for the series, a level that expands on pretty much every element the series has thrown at us in the past.
Whether or not that’s a good thing will depend on what you’re looking for from a game of this type; a wide open world in which the power to make your own gameplay decisions is key, or a tightly woven story that plays with the possibilities of being able to look into the memories of one’s ancestors. Once again, the open-world and the precise narrative have proven to be difficult beasts to intertwine.
Despite that, there’s no question that Assassin’s Creed 3 is a tremendous achievement and one that deserves to be played and appreciated for what it is: an exploration of gameplay possibilities within a world and era that has largely been untouched.