I remember the excitement and hype leading up to Assassin's Creed III's release. After three games with Ezio, we were getting a new assassin. A half-British, half-Native American assassin during the Revolutionary War! A brand-new engine that would allow for tree climbing and forest free-running for the first time ever! Revamped combat, a new frontier, naval battles; it all sounded so good.
After Assassin's Creed II and Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood the bar for the series had been set high. Some fatigue set in, as Assassin's Creed: Revelations revisited the same formula with new additions that weren't great. It had a tower defense mode that didn't fit the game and introduced bombs, which trivialized certain encounters if used correctly. Assassin's Creed III was a new beginning, the chance to learn from everything that came before.
So it was a shame that Assassin's Creed III didn't quite deliver.
It wasn't a horrible game, but I had the distinct feeling of missed opportunity. I think that feeling hurts more than if the game was just outright bad.
The problems start right from the game's beginning. Connor, our new assassin, doesn't even appear until the beginning of the game's fourth sequence - many hours in - and the "real" game doesn't start until the next sequence. In the previous sequences, you play as Connor's father Haythem Kenway. Haythem is a great character with some sarcastic wit, who'd probably be worth his own full game, but you're forced into three slow and meandering sequences with him. This throws off the game's pacing something fierce. Once you've polished these sequences off, you take over as young Connor, setting up his driving motivations for the rest of the game.
Even once Connor is a full assassin, the character doesn't get a chance to shine. His personal motivations are subsumed by the stronger personalities that surround him. The story just pulls Connor along in its wake, leading him from event to event in the American Revolution. There are moments when Connor's personality begin to peek through, notably when he finds out about General Washington's betrayal, but the payoff is blunted as the game sprints toward a conclusion. I don't know if Ubisoft ran out of time, but long boring sequences in the beginning leading to rushed ending sequences isn't the most satisfying way to tell a story.
Desmond is equally maligned. His story ends here abruptly, with little resolution for four games worth of character development. It feels like Ubisoft just got tired of Desmond as a framing sequence and while I agree, this wasn't a proper send-off.
The combat was revamped, but remains largely the same as before: counter, kill chain. Being able to counter with other weapons like the bow or rope dart adds some excitement, but later in the game, you'll probably stick with the hidden daggers or tomahawk. One thing that's notable is the absolute brutality of Connor. The character is larger than Altair or Ezio and that shows in some of his more brutal counterkills, which have a real sense of weight and intent behind them.
The frontier is impressive and there's a sense of calm momentum in just running from one end to the other, bounding from tree-to-tree. Unfortunately, when you're on a mission that takes you from Boston to New York for example, the frontier is a big roadblock in the middle of everything. You have to fast travel to the edge of Boston, walk across the loading border into the frontier, fast travel to the other edge of the frontier, and walk across the border into New York. That's not even going into the inter-city fast travel system, which requires you to slowly walk through dark tunnels that connect to other fast travel points around the city. It's the perfect manifestation of exact opposite of what I want from Assassin's Creed.
When it comes to what you do in the cities and frontier, there's some good. Forts replace Templar Dens from Revelations; you storm or sneak in, take out some guards, and raise the American flag to stake your claim. They're enjoyable, but once you've conquered every fort, it's done. The highs of the cities aren't as high as Rome and Constantinople, but they're still damned impressive. The Frontier and Hunting Club missions will also lead you towards some of the odder and more interesting bits of Connor's world.
There's also some bad. Assassination contracts, delivery requests, and courier missions give you something to do, but there's little context given when it comes to how they fit into Connor's world. Picking up an assassination contract adds a few points on the map and that's it. You go to those points and kill those people. There's no explanation, no background, just a thing you do because the UI told you to. Yes, this is true of most missions when you get down it, but usually there's the illusion of a reason given. Here, there's nothing.
And the instant-fail eavesdropping missions are quite possibly the most frustrating game mechanic in modern games. While trailing your eavesdropping targets, you have to follow a preset hiding path exactly or you're seen and the mission is over. One early eavesdropping missions almost had me throwing my controller. It's that bad.
The Brotherhood is replaced by single characters you recruit in each region, each with their own specific skill. It's a strong system that works, but it gets hamstrung in story missions, where you're not allowed to use most of them. The Brotherhood can still be sent on separate missions to make money and gain experience, but it's a shame the system wasn't more integrated with the rest of the game.
This lack of integration is a large part of my issue with Assassin's Creed III. There are great systems when taken on their own that aren't integrated directly into the rest of the game. In previous Assassin's Creed games, buying shops or upgrading your villa provided extra income over time. You took clear, simple actions for a clear benefit. The Homestead is a many headed-beast in comparison. You do missions to get Homestead citizens, and more missions to improve those citizens at their craft. The leads to crafting, which is simple, but trading is far more complex and can be largely ignored when you're completing the game. At some point I walked away from my Homestead and never went back. Not because it was bad, but because I stopped caring.
Naval missions were one of big additions to Assassin's Creed III, but while they're great on their own, they're also on their own. It feels like a completely different game from the rest of the proceedings. There's assassinations and free-running here, there's naval combat over there. Like the Homestead, it's entirely possible to run the story-based naval missions and never come back.
Despite how hard I seem on Assassin's Creed III, I do like the game. It lands ahead of the first game in my mind, despite its issues. The first Assassin's Creed was amazing at the time, but felt more like a proof-of-concept than a full, enjoyable game. The Ezio trilogy improved and refined that base, but you can consider them separate games from the first title; Assassin's Creed is slower and more methodical, compared to the high-speed, low-stealth murder fest of the latter games. Assassin's Creed III, being based on the new AnvilNext engine, is another proof-of-concept to me. It's Ubisoft saying, "here's all the different things we can do now!" without fully fitting all the various pieces together.
It's a flawed work, full of some gems, some half-ideas, and a number of bugs. But when I looked at Assassin's Creed III, I saw a solid foundation to build a further series on. It's a series I love, so I'm hard on it, but only because I want it to succeed. If you want to know if Ubisoft did succeed with the next Assassin's Creed you can just read my review.