This reviewer has a confession to make. Despite being a well-rounded gamer who finds the time to play many of the latest and greatest releases, my only full experience of Assassin's Creed is the experimental first game. This means that I'm fairly familiar with Altair and his run-ins with the Templars from the Crusades era, but in terms of that Renaissance trilogy that introduced Ezio and more refined style of gameplay, I'm much less informed. Which begs the question, why am I writing a review of Assassin's Creed III, the fifth (main) game in a relatively young but immensely popular series? Well, despite what conspiracy theorists may imagine, it's simply a matter of perspective. Ubisoft has described this third game as a fresh take on the open-world assassination theme, one that new players can enjoy without a blade kill-o-meter that's already in the thousands. This is backed up with a new setting and time period that trades the nations of Israel and Italy for the less pious shores of America during the 18th Century. This puts us slap-bang in the middle of the American Revolution, which not only gives us access to the founding flintlock fathers of today's Glocks and Berettas, but also paints the British as the oppressive antagonists.
I doubt that many British gamers will feel the same way about stabbing a Redcoat in the back as a young German might feel about gunning down a Nazi in your typical World War II shooter, but in those moments where you butcher your way through a Templar fortress only to lower the Union Jack before raising the Stars and Stripes, you can't help but feel a slight twinge of nationalistic disapproval - even if it's agonistically clear that the British were absolute bastards at this point in time. That said, the way in which Ubisoft placed you in the boots of a politically neutral character deserves a fair amount of praise.
The man in question is Connor Kenway, a half-English, half-Native American member of the Mohawk tribe who joins the Brotherhood of Assassins after his village has a run-in with the Templars. It starts out as a fairly typical revenge story, where Connor hunts down the lower ranking members of the Templar order before moving up the ladder, bbut when each character is fighting for an ideal that they truly (and perhaps more importantly, convincingly) believe in, the monologues they utter as they bleed to death feel surprisingly genuine. There's also a strong father-son dynamic that, at least by gaming standards, manages to switch between moments of conflict and light humour with relative ease and elegance. Connor is a likeable character who is forced to make a lot of tough decisions in his struggle with the British and the Templars - most of which the player has little control over.
By comparison, Desmond Miles returns s the wooden protagonist who has to deal with the impending doom of the modern day. The chapters where you take control of Desmond as he sneaks through an airport and Templar stronghold are thankfully brief, as they feel tacked-on and forced when weighed against the evocative and open-ended nature of the main game. We also get to witness the final fate of Desmond as he learns more about the First Civilisation while delving deeper into his ancestors' memories, although as a grand conclusion it's far from satisfying.
One thing that fails to disappoint, however, is the vibrancy of Connor's open environment. The game world consists of Boston, New York and the surrounding Frontier - and while the traversable area is much more condensed than the likes of The Elder Scrolls, it's highly satisfying to break away from the main quests and explore the untamed wilderness and inner city avenues. With the streamlined free-running system, whether you're stalking a target across the treetops or scaling the spire of a looming church, making tracks here in the world of Assassin's Creed III is rarely a chore and almost always a pleasure.
History buffs will get a kick out of helping out George Washington in The Battle of Monmouth and assisting Ben Franklin locate the lost pages of his almanac, while for the rest of us, the tactical combat offers an absorbing, if not particularly demanding style of engagement. Stealthy takedowns with the hidden blades are the surest way to victory if youíre keeping a low profile, but when the toilet fodder collides with the rotating blades, the generous countering system means youíll rarely be in over your head. As soon as you see a strike coming your way, a quick tap of the counter button delivers a quick and satisfying execution Ė or if your foe is a little more resilient, you can disarm them before mashing out a simple combo.
The eraís muskets and pistols add a new dynamic to the combat, as they can dispatch most enemies with a single shot, but on the downside they take upwards of seven seconds of uninterrupted fumbling before they can be fired again. The enemies also get in on the gunpowder action, peppering Connor as he leaps between rooftops, but if you can quickly grab one of their allies before they pull the trigger, you can use them as a bullet shield before moving in for the kill. You can even use new Rope Darts to strangle an unsuspecting Redcoat before hanging them from a tree, although we were disappointed to learn that the Assassin Hatchet could not be used for scalping. For shame!
Outside of the visually acrobatic (if not slightly formulaic) combat, the world of Assassinís Creed III offers a range of interesting distractions for those who wish to veer off the central path. The most basic are mini-games like checkers and bowls, which provide a few minutes of laidback gambling should you feel like you could use the extra pocket money. And for those itching for a bit of swashbuckling action (which seemed to be a lot of you since the next game is all about it!) the sailing side-quests are a welcome addition Ė and when we say sailing, we donít mean a dingy the size of a bathtub with a bedsheet sail, we mean a full sized ship with a crew and cannons. The act of sailing itself is no more complicated than switching between full and half-sail to adjust your speed and steering angle, but in terms of crafting a sense of place thatís so tangible in its saltiness that this ranks as one of the most fun nautical moments of gaming. Not that I do much nautical gaming, besides Wind Waker. Huh. I guess itís not that much of an achievement after all. You can fire your broadside cannon, turning an enemy ship into kindling or, if youíre feeling particularly fancy, you can use the pinpoint Swivel Guns to detonate a single exposed gunpowder barrel. Completing these oceanic missions will earn you money that can be spent on ship upgrades like reinforced hulls, sturdy battering rams and coolest of all, flaming cannonballs.
Our only criticism with the boating ballistics is that they arenít used more often in the main campaign, and as a result, seem tacked-on and irrelevant. Anyone who rushes through the main quest will only find themselves at the helm on a handful of occasions, but for those who invest the time, wearing the captainís hat can add quality hours onto an already-generous package. This also goes for the Homestead hub that starts out with a rundown mansion in the middle of nowhere. But as you discover farmers, miners, seamstresses and even tavern-keepers who are looking to live a peaceful life far away from the conflict, you will build a thriving community where raw materials can be crafted into tradable goods and useful upgrades. But again, in the big scheme of things, this feature can be often overlooked and is subsequently left with an add-on vibe to it.
With Connorís numerous skills as a hunter, such as setting snares near food sources and hiding in the bushes while dishing out bait, he can also get the jump on everything from raccoons and hares to cougars and bears before turning them into Bobcat Pendants or Beaver-tooth Knives. This can be useful at the start of the game when your coffers are low, but once youíve enlisted one of six potential recruits to the Assassinís Guild and sent them on one of the many sub-missions, youíll earn a steady income that grants access to choicer weapons fairly quickly. And even then, the starting weaponry is technically more than adequate to see you through from start to finish, so the area for improvement feels like wasted potential as Connor feels powerful enough already.
And thatís one of my biggest criticisms with AC3 as, despite playing as one man who stands between two warring nations, you often feel like you could riposte your way through both armies with ease. The other slight tarnish is the overall lack of innovation in the mission structure, as even though there are one-off moments where you take charge or a gun line or hurl crates of tea into the sea, the objective often boils down to the following, infiltrating or killing. These are the cornerstones of the assassination business, to be sure, but variety of the spice of life for a reason, and ship battles and animal hunting may do their hardest to divert attention away from that, but I feel an Assassinís Creed game is only as good as its assassinations.
That said, these are relatively minor niggles that do little to detract from a thrilling and visually awesome (I ran out of buzzwords, okay?) adventure. The game world beckons you close with its prosperous cities and untainted valleys, the story sucks you in with its morally ambiguous characters and tragic inevitability, and the gameplay administers the killing blow with its rhythmic combat and compelling distractions. And whatís more, you donít need to be a veteran Assassin to enjoy it.