Ratonhnaké:ton isn’t an obvious successor to Ezio Auditore as the lead character in an Assassin’s Creed game.
Connor, as he will come to be known, has a calm assuredness and resolute, dark stare. He lacks the arrogant edge that was such a striking, and eventually likeable, element of the character of his Florentine ancestor, Ezio Auditore.
In previous games in this series, the protagonist’s links to the Brotherhood of Assassins were his driving force. Altair and Ezio were bound to the order and all of their decisions and motivations were those of the Assassins. Connor’s primary concern isn’t really that of the dilapidated Colonial branch of Assassins – he simply joins up for a bit of direction and training. Connor’s primary motivation is to end the exploitation of his people.
It’s this minor distinction that keeps Connor’s character interesting. Otherwise, the cautious voice acting and seriously overplayed humourless stoicism that accompanies most American Indian portrayals might leave us a bit indifferent to his concerns. But his occasional naivety and obvious frustration are endearing in a character that might otherwise be too serious to be likeable.
Veterans of the Assassin’s Creed series will likely already have their bond with the Brotherhood. In fact, that bond is something that Assassin’s Creed III repeatedly plays with over its lengthy course. So it’s important for this game to make sure we quickly bond with Connor, too. Otherwise his impetuous nature and slightly divergent goals might lead us to distrust the character we’ll be controlling for most of the game. Connor isn’t the only playable character here.
Desmond Miles is the true protagonist of this series – Altair, Ezio and Connor are merely his simulations. So it’s not surprising that Desmond features a little more here, with specific story missions involving him (and removing the Animus assistances like warning indicators and mini-map). But you’ll also play the first few hours as Haytham Kenway as you’re guided through rudimentary missions that act as tutorials. It feels like the distinction is being made more forcefully than ever that this is Desmond’s story you’re playing. And yet the most enjoyable, and still the vast majority, of sections are still very much the historical ones.
The core Assassin’s Creed experience is still very much here. The free-running, climbing and combat have all been honed to make them more accessible, fluid and enjoyable. Free-running is much easier, with the right trigger ensuring – for the most part – that you only ever make safe jumps.
Running through trees will take a little getting used to. You’ll have to essentially learn what textures and geometry of trees make which methods of access possible. Some have stubbly branches which can be climbed up, most don’t. Some are felled so they present a convenient angle to get into the canopy. Branches jut out at different angles and heights that aren’t immediately obvious as climbable. It’s not as obvious as the ledges and sharp lines of the buildings we’re used to scaling but it soon becomes clear enough and it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable, fluid sequence when you manage to string together a lengthy run through the trees of the frontier.
There’s more to climb now too, Connor can grab vertical crevices to scale cliffs and large trees so it’s not all just about looking for the shiny horizontal ledge any more.
Combat has seen a major overhaul. It’s slightly lazy, if perfectly valid, to characterise the new combat style as “similar to Arkham City.” It’s still counter-based but there are a lot more animations and each move links into the next with much more fluidity than any previous instalment that I often found myself picking fights with impossibly large groups of enemies simply to enjoy beating my way through them.
The game’s enemies have been the source of some minor contention on this side of the Atlantic. Despite the complications of nationality (addressed here) that existed at the time, there were fears that the colonial setting would just be an excuse to beat up on the British. This isn’t strictly the case. The American Revolutionary War acts as a backdrop to events, rather than a major catalyst of them. There are many instances where the colonial militia are the “enemy” but for the bulk of the game, it’s Redcoats you’re targeting.
There is more to the narrative though. This series has always been adept at subverting our traditional understanding of history and that’s not uncommon here either. You’ll hear (and read) far more criticism of the colonial cause than you might expect from a game that will live or die on its North American success. All in all, I felt that they handled a potentially tricky situation with typical humour and grace. In many ways, the complexities of the historical setting and the conflicts it entails are mirrored by the widening grey areas in the conflict between Templar and Assassin. These games have always been complex and intelligent, Assassin’s Creed III is perhaps the smartest yet.
Scale and Setting
This is a huge game too. Not just in the lengthy single player storyline but in the masses of side missions you can undertake. You’ll have the staples like collection and delivery missions but there is also a trading mechanic, bolstered by the rebuilding of your homestead and surrounding lands. Essentially, you’ll be able to assist travellers as they pass through the wilderness around your home and convince them to stay and add their skills to the region. This enables you to create goods from raw materials and trade up to earn more money with which to buy weapons and upgrades for your ship. Ah yes, your ship.
Much has been made, pre-release, of the naval combat and in a region and time when sea travel was so important to the struggles of everyday life, it’s a thoughtful inclusion. Combat at sea feels powerful and there’s a finely balanced juxtaposition in the navigation of huge naval vessels that makes them simultaneously feel heavy and lumbering while not being uncontrollable in tight spaces. It’s largely relegated to a series of optional side missions but there are occasions when taking to the seas is essential to progressing the story so there’s more benefit to those side missions than simply lessening the risk on lucrative trade routes – you’ll do well in certain story missions for having practiced in a ship.
Trading is a fairly quick and easy way to make plenty of money. You can dispatch your wares to stores with an inherent risk to every voyage and they earn you money while you get on with other things. Initially, all your goods for trading will be items you’ve hunted for.
After the initial hunting tutorials and some early cash-hoarding, hunting is a little bit under-utilised by the game. There are systems built in but they’re largely voluntary and for the vast majority of Assassin’s Creed players, the careful stalking of deer or baiting snares to catch rabbits will probably hold less interest than the quick-time confrontations with bears or elk. Given the improved fast travel system, spending all that much time off-mission and in the various hunting regions might be something most players pass on.
That’s a shame because these forests and valleys are teeming with animal life and plenty of extremely enjoyable free-running routes. Coupled with the hustle and bustle of the two large cities – Boston and New York – that feature in the game, this is an enjoyable world just to exist within. There’s so much scope for those interesting little self-inflicted mini games that open world fans will often inflict on themselves. Can I catch that guard with a rope dart and hang him from this tree before the patrol marches back around? Can I hide in those bushes and assassinate the last guy in that column without his colleagues noticing? The bustling wildlife of the surrounding countryside also offers plenty of emotional engagement. Two exciting, successful confrontations with large, angry bears in quick succession were exhilarating until I ran over the hill and found two tiny, now orphaned, bear cubs obliviously wrestling with each other.
- Improvements to all the core controls.
- Huge open world with plenty of side missions and extra things to do.
- Compelling storytelling with some real high points.
- Suffers from some of the usual open world glitches.
- Takes too long to really get going.
- Some of the storyline missions could be better.
The pacing in a game with so many optional missions and diversions can often suffer. Strangely, Assassin’s Creed III suffers mostly from pacing issues in the early, quite linear sections. The tutorials, such as they are, drag on for far too long for those of us who have played the previous titles and I can imagine they’d be similarly tedious for anyone who arrived at this game after watching the action packed trailers (don’t watch the launch trailer, incidentally, unless you’re happy to live with spoilers). Of course it’s important to demonstrate the traversal, stealth, combat and clue-based detection systems but funnelling the player into them for the first hour or so feels frustrating when you know there’s a wide open world ahead of you. You just want to get through all the boring learning and get to leaping off rooftops and stabbing people.
It’s these more tightly scripted sections of the game that let it down slightly. The opening chapters, the escort missions, the eavesdropping sequences where you have to follow and listen in. Sweeping away the dynamism of such an expansive set of mechanics and such a large game world narrows the scope of our enjoyment into those tightly defined corridors too. Suddenly limiting the options also limits the pleasure that is so expertly delivered by the open nature of the game.
Generally, Assassin’s Creed III delivers most of the things that fans want. It’s a fresh new setting wrapped around the familiar core mechanics. We’ve lost the less engaging elements that they experimented with in Revelations while adding a couple of new tricks to the range of gameplay. Sneaking, running, climbing and combat have all been marginally improved but will still feel incredibly familiar and there is the usual spattering of open-world game glitches which – before the day one patch, at least – might make elements of the game incredibly frustrating for some.
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