Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
You'll know about Desmond Miles, the modern day son of the Assassin Order and hopeful savior of the world. Like us, Desmond's apocalypse is pending. Having the developers tie themselves to the Mayan calendar puts a definite conclusion on the line. Somehow, some way, the series would end in time to coincide with our real-world timeline. Assassin's Creed III is that finale.
I thought about that as I set the disc in the tray. Earlier this year, Mass Effect 3 seemed to fail its biggest fans, turning them into a bunch of crybabies! As the opening cinematic played, I realized I was in a similar situation myself. Could a series I had been with since the beginning end, not just narratively, but successfully?
Assassin's Creed III opens on Desmond. He, his father, Rebecca, and Shaun have arrived at the mysterious First Civilization temple said to house all the knowledge they'd need to prevent the coming fire. While you waste no time getting strapped into the Animus, it will take you a while to feel free of the tutorial. Much of the game has been built new from the ground up, including the Anvil Next engine.
It's clear that Ubisoft has readied itself for the next-generation. Dynamic weather systems completely alter the landscape, affecting the light, texture, and effect of nearly everything in sight. Among the fire, fog, and smoke, rain and the general winter season are easily my favorite effects, so drastically changing the mood surrounding Connor that it affected the way I was playing the game. The same seemed true of the narrative, with George Washington finding himself in a dire situation in the dead of winter. Once you've donned your Assassin robes and entered the theater of conflict in the Revolutionary War, everything starts to feel right at home.
In the beginning, it's easy to struggle with the new combat mechanics. Beating up Templar guards now feels more like Batman: Arkham City than anything in the series so far. Countering with one button sets up further button presses. In that way, Connor carves his own path away from the Dark Knight and into an old-school brawler feel, just before the game brings in new enemy types and a few more combat options.
I found myself leading off with a pistol blast at my target's head. I know that doesn't sound like a very Assassin thing to do, what with the big focus on silence and stealth, but Ubisoft has done quite a bit to build out your abilities on the move. You can pick weapons up, you can push past unexpecting guards, and you can even assassinate while running. One such maneuver sees Connor stabbing one victim with his hidden blade and proceeding to spin and slash another with his dagger.
Much of this newfound skill in violence is thanks to the way our Assassin moves in his environment. Connor (and by extension Desmond) can climb trees and run along branches. Connor can perch in-between branches and climb higher up into the forest. The expansive Frontier environment is filled with nooks and crannies, in addition to some large forts, and tons of wildlife. Running from one end to another, you're likely to see many different species of game, a handful of troop patrols, and a ton of other things to collect, citizens to help, or Templars to kill.
Given this expanse of open space, you'd think the cities had been subtracted to compensate. Not true! Assassin's Creed III hosts large, varied landscapes for Boston and New York, both of which include some area outside and plenty of action downtown. Then you factor in the Homestead, a space that feels double the size of Ezio's Monteriggioni and twice as customizable too.
While previous games said you could affect the economy and citizenship of the Italian's Villa, it really only amounted to opening up all the shops and watching the cash flow in. Not so in Davenport Homestead. Short missions and other activities invite new residents into the space. Rescuing a logger from the river will allow them to move in and begin selling the product from their Mill. Remember though, you'll need to equip and send a Caravan to whichever town pays the highest. It's true that you can still make bank playing the economy, but you'll have to be dedicated to do so.
Assassin's Creed III also reminds me of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood in other ways. Without going into spoilers, the story is as expansive and engaging as II, while the mechanical improvements and multiplayer return from the sequels. The multiple districts call out to cities of ACII, while their sizes will remind players of Rome. By the time I finished the game's campaign, I had only completed 40% of the world's total activities.
You can liberate zones in each area and add to your Assassin order. While the people you recruit will still behave in-game as previous versions of the Brotherhood, how you get them to join your merry band of hooded warriors is completely different. Each zone in the world has a specific character that will direct you to help the people in the area. Once you've completed these smaller pieces—say, beat up some taxmen and burn small pox blankets—that character will ask you to do another mission with him or her.
In this way, Assassin's Creed III mimics a melding of the stranger missions of Red Dead Redemption and the collectible madness in Grand Theft Auto games, but rewards the player with both narrative and gameplay bonuses. The same can be said for Synchronizing Connor and Desmond's memories at high altitudes. The points put collectibles and more on your map.
Where Ubisoft's open-world game exceeds is in the entirely optional Naval missions. Adding to the already extensive amount of combat is a series of completely optional naval challenges. While I wondered how huge, heavy constructions of wood would fair in game, Naval battles are tense, challenging affairs. Positioning your ship against the AI so that you remain a threat and they do not is difficult enough, but boarding an enemy's ship is even harder. Still, excursions on the high seas are a hugely rewarding endeavor, should you feel up for it.
In fact, as entertaining as the narrative is, I found myself having more fun screwing around with the AI, smarter and more dynamic this time, and picking fights with guards than I've ever had before. My suggestion to you is to stop and smell the roses on your way, if only to stave off the game's close. At times, Connor's story can seem to last on and on, while at others it flies by at a breathless pace. More importantly, the son of British and Native American parents should elicit more of an emotional response from the player. Forces take advantage of, abuse, and generally mistreat Connor and, by extension, you. The path here is thankless, difficult, and purposeful, and Ubisoft reinforces it throughout the game.
Multiplayer returns with more tweaks, improvements, and additions. Chief among them are the Domination and Wolfpack modes. The first is much like any other domination game type you've played in other multiplayer games, but with copious amounts of stabbing, sneaking, and high-stakes confrontations. I've been a big fan of Assassin's Creed's competitive modes since the beginning and that's because there's nothing else like it.
Wolfpack is a cooperative experiment that succeeds at being the most challenging wave-based game mode in the marketplace. Players have to coordinate kills to score points, complete objectives, and keep the timer from ticking down to zero. It seems to be impossible to complete Wolfpack without proper communication, but reaching late rounds proves hugely rewarding in and of itself.
While Anvil Next does shine light on the inefficiencies of today's hardware, allowing a handful of visual hang-ups and a pair of mission glitches in my experience on console, it only makes me more excited for Watch_Dogs and what Ubisoft will be able to do in an open world in the coming years. Assassin's Creed III packs so much life and activity in, it's nearly impossible to miss, whether or not you've been paying attention so far. While the series doesn't need to provide any opening for continuation or resolution, given the way entire centuries of Assassins can be explored, I believe people will find respect in the finale, though it may be obscured by a layer of healthy confusion.
Give it time and Assassin's Creed III may prove itself the best experience this year. With the game's mix of a hugely interactive open world, a compelling setting, and a finely tuned combat system, I'm eager to return to delve even further into the Animus. Combining the best of the franchise so far, Assassin's Creed III doesn't disappoint long-time fans who've been with the series while also making it easy enough to jump in for the kill.
Copy provided by publisher. Review based on PS3 version.