With last year’s Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the Assassin’s Creed series was in danger of growing stale. The first game set up the fundamentals of the gameplay, but never quite managed to bind them into a totally convincing game. The second game perfected the formula, and found a mission-based structure that worked, while the semi-sequel, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, extended it and added a whole new layer of depth. Sadly, Revelations couldn’t manage the same trick. The old missions were beginning to smell, and while it worked as a fond farewell to hero Ezio, neither a change of setting or a range of new game mechanics did anything to make the game feel fresh or exciting. Assassin’s Creed was a series in need of new blood.
With Assassin’s Creed III it has it. In fact, it has a new hero, a new setting, a new era, a new graphics engine and a whole new spin on the gameplay. It’s not that it’s a huge departure from what has gone before, or that you won’t experience a twinge of deja-vu from time to time, but Assassin’s Creed 3 feels like a real evolution. What’s more, it’s working on a whole new scale.
This time the story has moved on from the Renaissance Europe of Assassin’s Creed II and its sequels, to Colonial North America in the later 18th Century. The new hero is a half-Mohawk, half-British bruiser by the name of Connor, and while the Ezio games found their framework in the power struggles of the Borgias, the Medici and, later, the Ottoman Empire, Connor’s tale finds its focus in the events of the American Revolution. It’s a game that takes in The Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride and several of the deciding battles of the war against the English. All are neatly integrated into the usual Assassins versus Templars plot. It’s also a game where you’ll spend hours exploring the wilderness of the frontier, and where the action extends to the seas as well as land.
Assassin’s Creed III has actually been in development for over three years, with work starting at the same time as Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. It shows. A new graphics engine, Anvil Next, adds a new layer of detail and some expressive lighting to the world and its cast of characters, but also some spectacular weather effects for rain, storm and snow. The historical setting is as beautifully realised as ever, and while Connor’s hair has an oddly plastic look, some of the close-up character work is brilliant. Throw in some huge draw distances in the wilderness, and you have the most visually impressive Assassin’s Creed yet.
Boston might not rival Florence or Istanbul for size or magnificent architecture, but it’s tied into a sprawling wilderness map that takes in forests, raging rivers, forts, townships, mountains and Native American settlements. The central story missions take place both in Boston and New York and on the frontier, and when you’re not hunting Templars or stopping their British stooges in their tracks, you can be hunting deer, hare, bear or fox (amongst other things), collecting lost treasure or completing a series of frontiersman feats. Then you also have a homestead to look after, where you can complete missions to recruit new loggers, hunters, butchers and innkeepers, then sell their wares to make extra cash. It’s like the banks, the stores and the citadel in Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood, but a little more interactive and sophisticated. One thing’s for sure. You won’t be short of things to do.
And the shift from urban to country settings is reflected in an assassin who’s just as at home in the deep forests as he is racing across the rooftops, if not more so. Connor can scale cliffs and trees or hop from branch to branch with the same ease as Ezio navigating the Florence or Venice skyline, and once you get used to the environment and the new visual cues as to where you can and can’t manoeuvre, you’ll find a new joy in speeding through the treetops, then pouncing on a foe standing unaware below.
Combat has also changed. Where Ezio was most at home with a sword, Connor finds his main weapon in the Tomahawk, though it’s still supplemented by a range of pistols, hidden knives and a new bow and arrow. The fighting is ferocious, heavily based on counters, and big on really brutal fatal moves – some of the hacking and stabbing animations are definitely not for the squeamish. Combat in Assassin’s Creed III can be challenging and even frustrating, particularly as the British troops are armed with muskets and often deployed in numbers. This means you can’t get away with the simple hack-and-slash approach. If you don’t think tactically, use stealth, work your gadgets and call in allies, you won’t survive.
All of this gives Assassin’s Creed III a different flavour. The actual stuff of the missions, your basic tailing, murdering, infiltration, delivering and escorting, hasn’t changed, but the way you perform them has to, for the simple reason that tricks that worked for Ezio in Rome or Istanbul won’t work so well for Connor in Boston, New York or out on the wild frontier. It’s more challenging to sneak around or make daring escapes, and even harder to fight your way out of trouble.
Plus, if the basic gameplay has a new spin, then the new naval missions are a complete departure. The controls are pretty simple in terms of speed and steering, and it’s more about action than authentic naval strategy, but running down a Man O’War, wrecking its escorts and then pounding it to smithereens is a blast, not least because it all looks like something out of Master and Commander.
Put it all together and you have another classic historical thriller, with a great combination of action, scaling high buildings, racing through the pines, slashing through the villainous redcoats and sneaking through the cornfields towards unsuspecting victims.
It’s not all good news. I’ve seen the odd glitch while playing, particularly where animals or human characters struggle with the scenery in the wilderness bits. Also the framing narrative with Desmond Miles and the godlike ancients remains the weakest part of the game. Some missions feel unimaginative, or just variations on a theme, and some elements, like the Assassin’s Brotherhood, don’t work as effectively as they did in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood or Revelations. Most seriously, Assassin’s Creed III is a bit of a slow starter, with a huge prologue sequence that has high points but outstays its welcome, and a few too many tutorial missions. Once it gets into gear it’s great, but you have to put a good few hours in first.
Assassin’s Creed III isn’t as instant a hit as Assassin’s Creed II, but it’s a big, bold and brave historical blockbuster that makes great use of its frontier settings and naval combat to give the series a fresh new feel. There’s almost too much content and too many features to unravel, and it takes a little time to come together, but once it does it’s every bit as rich and rewarding as its forebears.
Combine a different take on the established stealth/exploration/action gameplay and a new, more advanced graphics engine, and you have a game that sets a strong foundation for the saga to continue. Assassin’s Creed might not be a revolution, but it shows a series taking chances in order to evolve, and looks all the better for it.