Assassin’s Creed III: Early Thoughts

One of the problems with writing game reviews is that the process compels you to rush through each game as quickly as possible, so that you have an opportunity to share your opinions on a title while most people are still talking about it. While I enjoy having an excuse to tear through in a week a game that took tens or even hundreds of thousands of man-hours to make, it’s very different from the way I used to play games, and also very different from the way most of my friends still play them. In fact, I’m not convinced that game critics should be digesting new games this way either, but that’s a discussion for another time.

At any rate, every once in a while I choose a game to take my time with and really enjoy. Given that I’m a fan of the Assassin’s Creed series, a long-time resident of the Boston area, and a lover (well, at least a liker) of history, Assassin’s Creed III was a good choice for a title to really savor. Since I’m about 15 hours now and I’ll likely be taking some time off from the game after Halo 4 drops tomorrow, this seemed like a good time to share some of my thoughts thus far.

To get everyone on the same page: Assassin’s Creed III is (somewhat confusingly) the fifth major installment in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, Assassin’s Creed II having had two of its own sub-sequels within the trilogy. In this latest installment, our pal Desmond once again steps into the Animus to experience events through the lives of his ancestors in the hopes of unraveling secrets about the history of the Assassins and their centuries-long war with the Templar Order. This time the history lessons take place during the American Revolution and follow Ratonhnhaké:ton, a half-English, half-Mohawk assassin who thankfully goes by the more pronounceable pseudonym “Connor”.

Don’t eat the red snow.

My early impressions of the game are that while the environment is fresh and interesting and there have been some of positive changes to the gameplay formula, I’m surprised at how many parts of the game seem way more rough than they should, especially considering how much Assassin’s Creed III draws on the mechanics of its predecessors. Ubisoft’s decentralized model of development seems to be once again at work here, with some of the game elements being highly refined, and others feeling incredible awkward as hell.

First, the good news. The movement systems have been improved a great deal, so Connor can scale cliffs and skip across tree branches with the same finesse his predecessors reserved for scaling buildings and skipping across rooftops. As someone who has done a bit of outdoor rock climbing, I can say that all of the climbing animations appear fluid and natural, and are genuinely a joy to behold. It’s a good thing, too, because there’s plenty of mountains and forests in the New World to climb. Another positive new aspect are the naval battles, a series of mini-game side missions that turned out to be way more fun than I thought they’d be. Also, they’ve added a hunting mechanic, which (despite being kind of a rip-off of Red Dead Redemption) is a fun diversion when you’re roaming the New England frontier.

Now, for the bad news. The stealth systems have taken a step backward, with guards having much more heightened and far more unpredictable levels of awareness. Since there are also seem to be a lot fewer places to hide in colonial Boston, I find that after inadvertently sounding the call to arms, I frequently end up being running around for five full minutes before I give up and just stop and slaughter the dozen redcoats chasing me. The combat mechanics also have ticked up a bit on the awkward scale, and thus the whole “assassin” part of Assassin’s Creed III is somewhat less rewarding than it has been in the past.

In addition, I’m a little annoyed with some of the open-world aspects. Since I’ve been taking my time, I’ve been doing pretty much all of the side quests and optional missions, but they really don’t seem to fit into the story very well. For example, I’ve been going around and infiltrating various British forts, executing their commanders and blowing up their powder reserves before raising the ol’ stars-and-stripes. However, there’s been hardly any interaction with American Revolution at this point in the story yet (save a single conversation I had with Sam Adams), so I have no idea why Connor would be compelled to do this. I guess he’s just a completionist, jonesing for that 100% achievement.

In closing, so far Assassin’s Creed III has been a mixed bag across the board. (Example: new fast travel system, good; new menu system, not so good.) However, if you like the Assassin’s Creed series (which I do), the novelties this incarnation has to offer make it well worth playing. At this point I’m really too early in the story to comment on the plot (other than the first big twist, which I did not see coming and really enjoyed), but I’m hoping that in the end it turns out to be good enough to give Assassin’s Creed III a winning record overall.

What Do You Think?