Assassin’s Creed III was one of my most-anticipated games of 2012, but for a variety of reasons (money), I’m just now playing it here in 2013. Prettybird was generous enough to offer it to me as a Christmas present on the condition that I not drop off the face of the planet after putting the disc in. So I’m pacing myself. Pacingly. So, this belated review of a game that came out in October 2012…will cover less than half the game.
But the half-ness of this review makes a weird sort of sense, because the part I’m reviewing is the part before the game really starts. AC3 has, by far, the longest lead-in to the main character suiting up and knowing (most of) all he needs to know to corpsify some bad guys (or hapless guards). Connor, the character pictured in Assassin’s robes on the cover, all the trailers, and all the promotional material, isn’t even the first character controlled. Hell, we don’t even see a title sequence until two missions are done. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for exposition. Setting the stage and building up your characters makes for much more interesting, resonant stories. I wish I could say it worked like that. But I’m getting ahead of myself. SPOILERS ahoy, by the way. You know, if you’re putting the game off even longer than me.
The first ancestor Desmond – via the Animus – assumes the role of is an Englishman named Haytham Kenway. Still in Britain, he improbably climbs his way across a crowded theater and murders a gentleman in a balcony, taking an odd-looking amulet with him. It is actually a fun way start to things, and the theater is gorgeously detailed, right down to the dialogue of the actors that runs even as you hop from girder to girder backstage. Naturally, these events propel him onto a ship bound for the Colonies, and the game gets even prettier. The ocean is rendered amazingly well. Some shipboard swordplay and attempted murder later, Haytham finds himself in Boston and starts assembling THE A-TEAM. Serving as his right-hand man is Charles Lee, an enthusiastic sort. They help free some slaves, thwart and then kill a few assholes, and gain the trust of a native woman. She and Haytham have implied sex. Later, he inducts Lee into his secret brotherhood…which turns out to be the fucking Templars, not the Assassins.
Jolting out of the Animus, Desmond is stunned by this revelation…for all of about 10 seconds. Then he starts fighting with his dad, and the other people weigh in, and the utter gravity of having one of Desmond’s ancestors turn out to be the 18th Century headmaster of the enemy is totally lost. And instead of exploring it any further, Desmond goes back into the Animus and assumes the part of young Ratonhnhaké:ton, the son of Haytham and the native woman. They are of the Kanien’kehá:ka tribe, part of the Iroquois Confederacy. He and some friends play hide-and-seek, and then he runs afoul of Charles Lee, who has suddenly turned into a psychotic moustache-twirler, with little-to-no explanation as to why. Ratonhnhaké:ton is knocked unconscious, and later returns home to find his village burning and his mother dying.
These sequences are all largely spoken in the tribal language, which is very impressive, considering the difficulty of most Native American languages, and the paucity of currently-living native speakers. I can’t not applaud Ubisoft for going to such lengths, but on the other hand, it actually distracts from events and clearly made it very hard for the voice actors to put any kind of inflection in their dialogue. Emotional scenes are nearly robbed of their impact by flat, monotone recitation of the language.
The story skips ahead a few years. After a hunting expedition, Ratonhnhaké:ton undergoes a spirit quest of sorts, and learns that he must leave the village and seek out a member of the Assassin’s Brotherhood to train him and prevent the destruction of his people. (Um, heh, uhh…good luck with that?) And so he does. He meets up with a black man – Achilles – inexplicably living in a huge manor, and after the prerequisite “Go Away” schtick, Achilles agrees to train the boy he eventually dubs Connor. Connor learns and learns and learns and learns. He runs into Sam Adams and learns. He meets up with a ship captain and learns. He saves two guys who want to start a lumber mill…and he learns. That’s right, fully five chapters into the game and we are still essentially in Tutorial Mode. Granted, there is a lot to be learned, and it certainly can’t all be thrown at a player all at once, but damn.
It would all be helped if Connor wasn’t so awfully dull. Other than occasional flare-ups of hatred for Charles Lee and his father, Connor shows all the emotion of the old RPG characters whose only response was “…” Our previous Assassin, Ezio, wasn’t the deepest character, but he did have a personality. Connor just seems like nothing more than an instrument of destiny, and it makes it hard to connect with him. But perhaps that will change in the latter half of the game.
Play-wise, the game is choppy. Other reviewers have cited the bugs and errors as the game’s most glaring flaw, and there are certainly bugs. But the stutter-stop-stutter storyline also hurts gameplay in that I was never are allowed to get into a rhythm. Some frustrating missions with unclear objectives clog up the works. The controls also seem less fluid than in the AC2 games. The “weapon wheel” actually brings up a whole different screen, taking you away from the action.
But before it seems like I’m just trashing this game I haven’t even finished, I must say that it is very pretty. Large, varied environments with different seasons and weather are gorgeously done. Character models are incredibly detailed. And as a history geek, it IS still pretty cool to be traipsing around late 1700s Boston, bumping into Ben Franklin. All the stuff certainly has potential, especially the naval warfare aspect. I just hope now that Connor has suited up (seriously, I felt like I was watching Dark Knight Rises again), the story and the gameplay will mesh a little better and I’ll get into the epic-scale sandboxing that this franchise is so good at. And I will be sure and revisit this when I’m finally done with the game.
For now, though, I am a little disappointed.