Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series finally moves out of its 16th century European setting and into revolutionary America. As before, you take the role of Desmond Miles, a modern day member of the secret Assassin order fighting against the powerful Templars while simultaneously trying to avert the end of the world. And again, this will involve him searching the genetic memories of his Assassin ancestors for clues left behind by the enigmatic First Civilisation, creators of humanity.
The assassin ancestor in question this time around is Ratonhnhaké:ton (or Connor), a half Native-American warrior who finds himself caught in the midst of the American Revolution. Proximity perhaps renders the American revolution a more mundane context than say, the assassination of a pope, or the crusades, but Ubisoft, as always, reproduces its subject matter with great faithfulness and vividity. There's none of the fantastic Italian architecture that we've seen in the past few games; what takes its place is the rough wilderness of the frontier and the modest urbanity of New York and Boston, beautiful in their own way.
With fewer buildings to jump around on and the fact that not all trees can be climbed, this is perhaps the most grounded Assassin's Creed game yet, which is not a bad thing, because it helps give the game a different feel.
The game is quite slow to start. Connor is not even to be seen for the first couple of hours of gameplay, and then the next hour or so is spent watching him grow up. There are several stretches where the only thing players are required to do is walk around and periodically press a button, and one wonders if there weren't better ways to deliver the story. Once it does get going, though, you'll find that it's woven quite densely.
In the first place, there's the American revolution, which is perhaps, sadly, the least interesting aspect of the story. Then there's the relationship between the Assassins and Templars, which becomes quite intriguing as the story progresses. Stated simply, Templars desire order and harmony for humanity, but only under Templar control. The Assassins value human freedom, at the risk of chaos.
For the first time in the series, you might find yourself wondering if the Assassins are indeed in the right. Finally, the game sees Desmond wandering through a First Civilisation ruin haunted by a ghostlike projection of Juno, recounting mournfully her people's efforts to stave off the global catastrophe that once more threatens the Earth. These last two themes throw up some really intriguing questions and possibilities throughout the game, but aren't really taken to any satisfactory resolution by the cliffhanger ending.
Nevertheless, the sci-fi part of the story, which once seemed doomed to go the way of Lost (into absurdity) seems less chaotic now, even if the ending has a somewhat Matrix-like flavour to it.
All said and done, the last thing Assassin's Creed can be accused of is dumbing things down. Contrary to fears that the game would take a blindly pro-patriot stance, the larger historical scenario is portrayed in quite a balanced way, probably doing more to promote accurate history than most history textbooks. What isn't as well-weaved are some of the finer plot points of the game; Connor's relationship with various characters, whether Assassin or Templar, Loyalist or Patriot, veer suddenly from trust to enmity and back again in a manner that is hard to swallow, even if one grants Connor the impetuousness of youth.
When Assassins Creed first came out, the amazing free running acrobatics were matched only by the mundane side missions and non-story content the game offered. The series has, with each iteration, tried to add more and more stuff for people to do beyond the main storyline. With Assassin's Creed 3, this endeavor reaches a new level of refinement.
There's a fantastic (and great-looking) naval mode where you take the helm of the Assassin flagship and fight some really cool battles at sea. Assassin recruits are now specific individuals with their own stories and weapons instead of randomly generated bots.
Connor can hunt various animals using traps, lures and other tools (yes, grizzly bears can indeed be assassinated with your blade). There is an estate-building mechanic as in previous games, but it's been expanded to a much higher level of sophistication. Connor can encounter and recruit various craftsmen who can be persuaded to work at his homestead, opening up various types of resources which can be traded or used to craft goods. This system, like hunting, is completely optional. Assassins who feel a strong distaste for the market economy can carve through the game with their tomahawk without too much difficulty.
Assassin's Creed is still not a particularly challenging game to play, even with a combat system that makes it slightly harder to just chain counter-kills endlessly. Sadly, most of the difficulties players will face will probably come from annoying camera angles while in combat, occasional twitchy responsiveness during chase sequences, or glitches in guard movement patterns. Thankfully, there is still a fair amount of challenge required in order to achieve full synchronisation, which requires players to fulfill bonus objectives in each mission.
Multiplayer is similar to previous iterations, with a new co-op addition for the gentler ones amongst us who prefer to hunt computers over humans. It's still not something that you'll get addicted to and play for months on end, but the execution is solid and budding assassins (or rather, Templars, since the multiplayer story sets you as one) will surely want to put in several hours into it.
Annual franchises get stale when they seem to be putting out games that aren't very different from each other. Assassin's Creed 2 and its sequels may have been guilty of this in the eyes of gamers; Assassin's Creed 3, however, offers not just a tangibly different setting but content that is significantly expanded and refined over its predecessors.
One wishes of course that the gameplay was a little more challenging, that the story was slightly less sequel-oriented and better resolved. One also expects that eventually people will utterly tired of the free-running and assassination mechanics of the series. But all of that said, Assassin's Creed 3 is a strong game with a very wide range of content to enjoy.