I can't think of a single franchise that's surprised me as many times as Assassin's Creed has.
Release date: Oct. 30
When the first game came out, no one expected the 12th-century tale of Altair to be framed by a 21st-century sci-fi story. And by the end of Assassin's Creed 2, we'd learned of a race of superior beings who spoke through time in the guises of gods. Who saw that coming?
Now Assassin's Creed 3 has done it again, and even though we thought we knew everything about it, we had no idea what we were in for.
The story of Connor, a Native American Assassin with a pivotal role in the American Revolution, is still framed by the increasingly exciting modern-day exploits of Desmond Miles. But in between those two tales is another one, of another soldier in the eternal war between the Templars and Assassins. It's an unexpected journey that crosses an ocean and lends the game's plot more emotional gravity than the last four games had combined.
In that and more, AC 3 is easily the biggest departure the series has yet seen. And though not all its changes are for the best, Ubisoft's latest excels in all the right ways.
WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS…
Set in the year 2012, the modern-day story of Desmond and his tiny chapter of Assassins picks up right where it left off. The gang has discovered a vault in New England, left there by the First Civilization to prevent some sort of global cataclysm. Desmond and co. will spend the duration of AC 3 trying to find the key to the vault while getting babbled at by deific apparitions and venturing out for occasional field missions. Desmond's gained more screen time with each AC game, and while I don't particularly like him as a person, his story is what gives the others purpose, and his few present-day missions in AC 3 are nice, climactic departures.
But when Desmond plugs his brain into the Animus (a machine that lets him relive the memories of his Assassin ancestors), it's not Connor's face that greets players, as anyone who's been paying attention for the last year would have expected. It's someone entirely different.
In the interest of not spoiling things, I'll just say that you play as this character for several hours before stepping into Connor's capable moccasins. This lengthy prologue provides more emotional context for the entire story, not to mention a build-up and payoff the likes of which are rarely seen in this industry.
Make no mistake: the first five hours of Assassin's Creed 3 are a triumph, and the writing throughout the rest of the story maintains a high standard. By the end you might not even be sure who the bad guys are, and that's a massive improvement from previous titles' cartoonish villains.
Once Connor (known as Ratohnhake:ton in his native tongue) does take over, things speed up considerably, and you'll find yourself jumping forward in time as the Assassin subtly influences important events in American history.
Connor will make his way from the midnight ride of Paul Revere to the battles of Concord and Lexington. He'll sneak behind Redcoat lines at the Battle of Bunker Hill and chuck British tea into the Boston Harbor at the Patriots' infamous Tea Party. There's plenty of filler in between, and frequent leaps forward in time take a toll on the story's clarity. But it's those moments, when you're unsure what's real historical fact and what's been made up for the game, that will stick in your mind once you're done playing.
CONNOR'S LAST STAND
When Connor leaves his village for the first time, he's a green boy with a love of climbing and little knowledge of the outside world. By the end of the game, he's a hardened Assassin with strong convictions and a deadly pair of hidden wrist blades.
His evolution between those two points is fascinating from a narrative perspective, but gameplay-wise he's all Assassin. Fights in AC 3 are somewhat simplified, though as a result they're a lot more fluid, and Connor makes fewer awkward mid-battle missteps than his predecessors did. Overall I call it an improvement.
The hidden blades and his signature tomahawk prove the deadliest tools in his arsenal, but as usual for the series, they're complemented by an array of secondary tools; smoke bombs make for easy getaways, the bow is practically silent, pistols and bayonetted rifles prove most useful in the heat of a fight, and poison darts are the best for covert kills. Rope darts and trip mines are new; the former can reel in enemies from a distance or hang them from tree branches, while the latter does exactly what it sounds like.
Fluid free-running is one of the series' most enjoyable mechanics, and movement and climbing have been overhauled as well so that, in theory, Connor makes less false jumps and lands more often where you intend him to. In practice, that's not always the case, though dying or failing from a flubbed jump never sets you back very far thanks to a generous checkpoint system. And if you don't feel like running through miles of forest, there are fast-travel spots everywhere.
In fact, smart control tweaks and other small improvements characterize most aspects of the game. "Steal" and "fast walk" are no longer mapped to the same button, for example. Connor's got new tricks like the ability to whistle and lure enemies to secluded spots, or automatically hide in tall grass and shrubs. Free-running now only requires you to hold down the trigger, freeing the "A" button up to give you more control over jumps.
Moving through the new wilderness areas is as easy as moving through the 18th century towns of New York and Boston, which have been lovingly brought to life in a way that Ubisoft should take pride in. The attention to detail for which the series is known is most evident here, and as a former Boston resident, I could almost get around the city just by sight. They've done the same with Rome, Venice and other cities in AC games past, but I still find it truly amazing.
Connor will spend much of his time in and around his mentor's Homestead, a sprawling estate with acres of land. The simulation even has animals and weather now. You can spend hours hunting in the snow, hiring new artisans to hang out at the Homestead and provide raw materials for crafting better gear, and sending out trade convoys by land and sea. Or you can not.
I've heard complaints that Assassin's Creed games are supposed to be about Assassins, and that all this fluff dilutes the experience. I don't agree, but I see the point. But unlike in the previous games, where world-building missions were a constant distraction, AC 3 rarely insists that you spend time on non-essentials. The RPG elements take a back seat for once—I ended with the same ammo counts as when I started, and was none the worse for it.
Likewise with the naval battle missions; most are optional side quests. For the record, though, they're awesome. Taking control of a massive ship, with its weight and crew and slow-reloading cannons, couldn't be more different from the core AC gameplay, but I devoured the naval missions every chance I got. They're gorgeous and cinematic, and infinitely more interesting than any of the series' previous distractions.
There are no drastic changes to multiplayer, though a new mode called "Wolf Pack" provides more cooperative fun than past games' team-based game types have. It's another distraction, though an intriguing one for sure.
CHOPPING DOWN THE CHERRY TREE
My one real complaint is that everything surrounding the Homestead is surprisingly obtuse. It's not that I didn't want to play around there; I just couldn't figure out how. You can craft yourself new equipment, like a second holster to hold another pistol. But even if you find the right recipe, the game won't tell you where to get the right ingredients or how to find the artisan who can make them for you. Without this knowledge, my Homestead was all but useless to me.
Okay, I've got a few more: there are new types of missions, but they're hit-or-miss. Eavesdrop objectives that make you follow targets closely enough to overhear their conversations are tense and fun, while lame detective missions make you run in circles until you happen upon a clue. I love that AC 3 relies less on the hackneyed "Eagle Vision" mechanic from past games, but some of what's been added isn't any better.
Finally, Assassin's Creed 3 has about as many bugs as you'd expect of a game this size. I'm not normally one to complain about a glitch here or there, but when a major late-game assassination target stands blankly staring at a wall as I stroll up to him, blades extended, there's a problem. Some missions toward the end feel rushed like that, and little things—like Connor's changes of clothes not being reflected in cut scenes—further detract from the experience.
But those complaints didn't hamper my enjoyment too much. Assassin's Creed 3 is about being a particular person in a particular place, learning about a different time and experiencing a fantasized but reality-grounded version of "life back then." The shoddily-executed but well-meaning side quest "Encyclopedia of the Common Man," which tasks you with observing the everyday activities of the residents of the homestead, is proof enough of that.
And it succeeds fantastically where it matters most: in the movement, in battle, and in the setting it so thoroughly makes into a delicious virtual reality for players to savor and chew and digest. When Connor meets certain revered Founding Fathers, I knew I was seeing a more realistic version of them than any high school text book ever offered. Despite how you feel about Ubisoft's execution of this or that element, there's no denying that Assassin's Creed 3 is one of the most ambitious games ever created, and it's been pulled off with the bombast and aplomb that I've come to expect from the series.