Solo Gamer Review: Assassin's Creed III
Everything has been leading up to this. The Assassins and the Templars have been struggling for a millennium, and all their efforts are about to come to a final, climactic head on 12/21/12, the apocalyptic day at the end of the Mayan calendar. This paranoid conspiracy is the beating heart of Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft's blockbuster video game franchise that has spawned a total of five major titles (and a handful of offshoots as well). The most recent title, Assassin's Creed III, is the final release before the predicted end of the world, and with the stories of Altaïr and Ezio all wrapped up in a tight little bow, it also promises to be a major new chapter in the overall story, with even the game mechanics getting a hefty overhaul. Is this the best Assassin's Creed yet, or has Ubisoft finally lost its touch?
Picking up immediately where Assassin's Creed: Revelations left off, Assassin's Creed III opens with Desmond and his ragtag crew opening a secret chamber somewhere in Northeast America. There they find a locked door and it is up to Desmond to return to the Animus and relive parts of the American Revolution in hopes of locating the key. Things look dire, however, as the clock is counting down to the end of all things and the Templars are preparing to launch a satellite that the Assassins believe will do more harm than good. Desmond's journey puts him in the shoes of not one but two of his ancestors, Haytham and Connor, and even sees him trek outside the secret chamber in the present to confront the Templars head on.
|There's a lot going on|
Though this is easily the biggest and longest story in the canon thus far, it is also the most grounded in personal relationships. Desmond, now armed with a backstory thanks to his trippy experiences in the last game, is far more open about himself and feels like a more fleshed out character than ever before. He is also joined by William, his father, and their strained relationship is a focal point for much of the plot. Players who spend time talking with the ancillary characters of Shaun and Rebecca will also learn more about them, the modern Assassin order, what happened with Lucy, and much else. Desmond can also spend time exploring the underground and encountering phantasms of the ancient Juno, who explains much of what happened in the ancient past, before the last apocalypse.
In the Animus, Desmond becomes Connor, an Assassin living through the American Revolution. Where Altaïr was fanatical and Ezio was charming, Connor is humble and personable. In Connor's time, the Assassin Order is all but dead, and it is up to him to rebuild it, which he does by creating a homestead for people who have a hard time fitting in with colonial society. As half-native American, Connor himself doesn't quite fit in, finding his feet planted firmly in two worlds and two ways of thinking. He seems to care more about the plight of friends trying to get pregnant than he is with the revolution itself, though he is also driven to defend his lands from any who seek to exploit or destroy it, most notably the Templars. Though he finds himself aligned closely with the patriots during the war, brutally killing loyalists and Redcoats without a second thought, he frequently warns even the mighty General Washington that he has his own agenda that doesn't require him to be loyal to any side but his own.
Naturally, Connor finds himself stuck in the middle of nearly every important moment of the time and place, kind of like a cold-blooded Forrest Gump, from riding along with Paul Revere to commanding troops during the battles of Lexington and Concord. He takes cues from the likes of Samuel Adams and the Marquis de Lafayette, is involved with preventing a coup against General Washington, and most surprisingly of all, captains his own naval warship up and down the entire east coast. His story also heavily focuses on the social paradoxes of the day--Connor's mentor is a free black man, his native homeland is continually threatened by both Britain and the patriots, etc.--but the story never gets too anvilicious, even reminding players through present-day dialogue that it can be problematic to look at history out of context.
|Yes, Mr. Ebert, video games can offer social commentary|
From pretty much all angles, this is the best story in the entire Assassin's Creed universe. The overall mythology is brought to a satisfying level of clarity without explaining everything; the characters are more human and interesting than ever before; the plot contains layers of subtext, nuance, and recurring motifs that are rare in video games; the history is respected without being treated as gospel; and there are some truly jaw-dropping twists along the way.
[Story: 10 - We are dealing here with a whole new level of storytelling.]
Setting the majority of the game in colonial America presents a unique challenge for Assassin's Creed III, since all the previous games in the series were built on massive, tight cities with towering buildings and ancient colosseums to climb. Colonial America, even in the bustling hubs of Boston and New York, was sprawling instead of tall, with wide roads and a vast wilderness. Therefore, the freerunning parkour of the series had to be reimagined from the ground up. While the climbing prowess of Altaïr and Ezio is still there in Connor, his skill set is more diverse. He can travel through disjointed tree branches with ease, run through the occasional open doorway, blend in with absolutely any group of two or more, sneak among tall grass and dense bush, climb up the rocky faces of cliffs and mountains, and stowaway on traveling carriages.
|Connor is definitely a different kind of assassin|
The combat, too, has been rethought. With guns playing an increasingly large role in history, Connor has to be faster on his feet and more adept with firearms. Still, he is at his best up close, where he dual-wields weaponry with brutal precision and hypnotic grace. Though he is the quickest fighter we've ever seen in the series, he's also the biggest and strongest, making him a whilwind of heavy thuds and blood splatter. However, his enemies get more ferocious as well, nearly matching his efficiency by being less predictable and working together more. Connor can be fighting a group of Redcoats up close while a line of soldiers prepares to fire on him and a grenadier attacks from horseback. Players have to think fast to know which combos work on which types of enemies and when to tap the right button to use an enemy as a human shield against oncoming fire. The series has come a long way from the almost embarrassingly simple battle systems of the original, where a simple one-button counter move is all you need to know. Here, every button has a purpose, and trying to counter the wrong enemy the wrong way can have disastrous results.
Additionally, Connor is a hunter, trained under his native American heritage to use stealth and traps to take down his prey. As animals finally make an appearance, players can now spend hours upon hours in the American frontier tracking down everything from rabbits to deer and bobcats to bears, and like the game's human enemies, these different animals are best approached in different ways. Connor has plenty of tricks up his sleeve--he is an expert archer and can use bait to attract his prey--but my favorite is the rope dart, a whip-like projectile that can be used from the treetops to instantly hang an unwitting victim below.
-e. magill 12/11/2012