Delving into a new Assassin’s Creed game isn’t as easy as launching the application. To me, it’s a state of mind. Ingesting the history rich lore and decorative fiction so eloquently fed to us by Ubisoft Montreal is, to me, the main event of the years gaming. I switch everything else off, wrap myself in a blanket, and stare at my monitor for four days straight as I delve deeper into the world of Desmond and the Assassins. My PC becomes my Animus in the most unhealthy way possible. In a way, I’m a total and utter Assassin’s Creed fan boy – but I’m also a reviewer who takes pride in objectivity and critical thinking. Ubisoft Montreal weren’t going to escape my critical incision, even if they’d won me over in the past, but in rebuilding animations, combat and a new world from scratch, they really did deliver more of what was needed, whilst culling elements that weren’t. In short, Assassin’s Creed III is a somewhat tainted triumph, and here’s why.

Haytham Kenway the best acted and written character of this decade?

The late 18th century, where this installment takes place, is introduced in tone by way of Haytham Kenway – a man with charm, charisma, and, most intriguingly, the abilities of an Assassin. Kenway marches through a grandiose theater as a play proceeds in the background, only to – after a brief discussion – climb the theater, traversing the stadium over thousands of guests, clambering over the stage rigging, to reach and murder his target. The audio, background noise, Foley, voice acting and facial articulation are all magnificent, and this is something that runs throughout the entire game.

Assassin’s Creed III sets itself up to be magnificent, and although this sharp jump into the relatively near past might have put a weary anticipation into the hearts of many fans, Ubisoft Montreal begin the game by diffusing any worries we might have had. This is a rich, vibrant era built upon European themes of expansion and economic growth, and the towns of Boston and New York portray this with no sense of expenses spared. In a word, Assassin’s Creed III opens up shouting “we’re back, and we’re classier than ever.”

Assassin’s Creed III hit suave right up to 11 and didn’t look back

Aside from Haytham Kenway being perhaps my favorite videogame character for this decade – voiced by the fantastic Adrian Hough – Ubisoft Montreal vibrantly expressed their intentions immediately. This wasn’t going to be about some tea drinking slobs fighting the yanks in an open and sparse field of war, this is heavily political – and Ubisoft Montreal are careful to not pick sides. In fact, Assassin’s Creed III‘s story is so politically layered that it almost ticks all the boxes when it comes to an historical discourse. There are no truths, and there are no facts; interpretation is everything, and this is the key theme throughout Assassin’s Creed III.

Being an Englishman myself, I had worried that the gimmicky appearances of the founding fathers would serve as pomp and fluff for the key American demographics. There was a part of me woefully aware that it’d be all too easy to paint George Washington and his contemporaries as either some sort of crazed conspiratorial characters within one of the two orders, or as ethically sound mind and intent. Both of these things were completely possible, and I’ve been tantamount to touched by the care taken to accurately portray each of the historical figures in this title. Assassin’s Creed III is a game where no single choice is right, and every action is part of an ulterior motive. Without sounding too high-brow, Assassin’s Creed III is an accessible albeit intellectual feast, depending on the kind of gamer you are.

I suppose that what I’m trying to say – and I think this is important – is that Assassin’s Creed III isn’t about Eagles soaring over the new pastures of America, and it isn’t about the righteous defeat of Imperial Britain for the Americans, and for many of you that will be a relief.

Playing around 20-25% of the game as Haytham Kenway is a real treat, because Assassin’s Creed III isn’t about any one single character, and every tale and unique personality is tied together with a new and rich tale that expands both linearly and laterally as you explore a much more RPG oriented world. Of course, we meet the founding fathers and key figures of the revolution, but none of them are quite as eccentric or whimsical as the cameos in other games. In fact, this installment has a much more serious tone to it than any of the prior games. It really feels as though Ubisoft Montreal wanted not only to tell a story, but to explore a time in history with slightly less historical liberties than in other games. I don’t mean that there isn’t fiction here, so much as the tale is by no means a one sided story.

All of this brings us to Conner, the new protagonist of this adventure. Conner is misleadingly wooden. There’s no two ways about it. He lacks the charm and charisma of Ezio, and the allure and allusiveness of Altair, but he serves as the perfect vessel through which to explore the political climate of the time. His land and people are contested by both parties, the Brits and Washington alike, and by no means does Conner have friends in either party – this gives him a unique non-partisan condition that channels this story forward with a depth and scale not seen before in any Assassin’s Creed title. No longer are ‘hits’ merely political means to a foreseeable end, and no longer is the order pulling the punches. Conner has no enemies other than injustice, and for an Assassin this ethical arbitration is entirely new. Because of this, Conner’s plight takes many turns that seem dangerously similar to that of the Templar’s, and the divide between the two parties becomes increasingly murky and merely ideological.

Conner is very much a lone wolf, and although the rumors that he’s not the most charismatic protagonist are entirely true, it’s unfair to omit the fact that this story isn’t just about Conner; in fact, the story surrounds him and sometimes engulfs him. This is a creative leap that Ubisoft Montreal have made which amounts to a much less linear tale.

I have deliberately divulged very little about the story with view to promote the scale and depth, rather than the details. But how does it play?

More mechanics than a steam-punk working man’s club

I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of awesome. 

If there was a developer who spent 2 years making an arcade naval combat game, it wouldn’t have mechanics half as good as Assassins Creed III‘s tacked on albeit mandatory sailing moments. This installment isn’t a sailing game, I just couldn’t leave talking about this until later. Assassins Creed III is an incredibly extensive game, with a hell of a lot to do. Sailing plays a role in both trade and combat, allowing you to take to the open seas literally steering a ship yourself to defeat pirates or the English naval fleet around the Atlantic ocean. It looks incredible on PC, and it sounds and feels immersive enough that you can almost smell the salt air. Pounding canon balls into enemy vessels and ducking as they sweep over your head is enthralling, and for something that should have been an afterthought, this feature in and of itself merits a title of its own.

Of course, Assassin’s Creed III isn’t about sailing – but that brings me to my next point. This game comes startlingly close to being about whatever the hell you want it to be about. Gone are the days of chasing Armour sets, or keys, or assassination side missions, and in come the days of hunting, trade, keeping a home-stead, skinning, tending to locals and liberating new areas. Assassin’s Creed III never imposes itself on you as an RPG, but the scale of the map and exploreable areas, and the sheer amount of things to do, really opens up new ways of playing. This installment is truly a non-linear experience, and if you feel like it, you can live in the 1700′s just as you would Skyrim or other similar RPG’s.

The easiest way to explain the new RPG elements would be to consider it a vast expansion on already extant mechanics from the series. We’ve always been able to care for a homestead, and we’ve always been able to trade. But this time, players can set convoys which risk being destroyed, and sell or trade lumber or skins, with view to develop his homestead and secure an income. This is all subject to the expanse of the open world. Assassin’s Creed has always had a pseudo-open expanse outside of the cities, but this time “the Frontier” serves as a huge slice of open ground, full of its own houses, farms, barns, pubs, stores and, of course, wildlife. The Frontier is quite enormous, and a full day-night cycle (perhaps arbitrated by script, I’m not sure) with the four seasons – including heavy snow – sucks the player into the era with such authenticity and immersion that one could argue Assassins Creed III branches quite successfully into the RPG genre.

You can forget about the story and get lost in the Frontier

As PC gamers, we need a little sit-down about the ability to port foliage to the PC. I don’t think anyone really trusted Ubisoft Montreal to create a rich, colorful, vibrant and luscious open plain, with thick, full foliage. I was certainly nervous about it myself, having seen Assassin’s Creed II‘s Italian foliage. Have they managed a realistic and visually stunning forestry? Sort of. Whilst the Frontier is indeed expansive, rich, thick and full, the foliage itself is a little gritty and janky – nothing looks particularly real. Although the ground textures of mud and wet and sleet look quite stunning, and the ambient fog, or rain, or snow, or wind, or things floating around look quite stunning, the actual foliage itself doesn’t look fantastic, and on some machines it’s liable to bring your PC to a crawl. That said, Assassin’s Creed III isn’t a bad port – in fact, it’s a very good one. It is a stunning game, and characters eyes and facial articulation in particular are beautiful. Everything from weathered wood on the ships, to the detail on fabrics and decor are meticulously detailed for PC, and we’re looking clearly at assets created from the ground up for PC. PC gamers needn’t worry, this isn’t any mere port.

The cities, too, are breathtaking, and as with everything in this installment, Ubisoft Montreal have pushed the boat out further. More people, more detail, more audio, more textures, bigger spaces, more environmental interaction, more versatility, and more variation.  My first thoughts when Ubisoft announced the era were something like “oh great, a load of trees in fields and some crappy colonial homes,” boy was I wrong. Both Boston and New York are meticulously detailed European colonies, and each have their own sense of identity. Strangely, traversing both these areas seems a more grounded feat – and I mean that literally – because although as able as Ezio and as nimble as Altair, Conner seems a much more down to earth –  and I mean that literally, too – protagonist. You’ll find yourself walking the streets much more than usual, and I can’t quite put my finger on as to why.

Ezio spent a large proportion of Assassin’s Creed II merely developing climbing skills, and frolicking with other free-runners. There’s none of that here. Conner’s Native American background gave him the climbing skills he needs for efficient maneuverability on the roof-tops, but he seems more content with observing and patrolling the streets below. The game in no way forced my hand on this, it’s a very strange thing indeed. Of course, there’s plenty of space when it comes to going full Batman on the roofs of buildings and towers, and it will be necessary many times, but Conner’s more humble, noble disposition grounds him in a way that is of stark contrast to his ancestors.

This isn’t the only difference. Assassin’s Creed III has stripped a lot of the grandoise from both the Templar’s and Assassins. You’ll not find a huge consortium of either in this game, and Conner largely ‘goes it alone’. This is represented in his attire by a much more humble ensemble. His clothes are not armored, and they don’t develop as you go through the game. There’s no lengthy sequences through which to unlock new armors, and Conner decorates himself – culturally speaking – as he sees fit as his character develops. For many people this might be seen as a step backward, but you can still buy out-fit colours from traders. Other differences include the abolition of medicine, with Conner having much less health, but it recharging after battle. This means that medicine vials don’t exist, but that combat is slightly more tactical. It’s quite easy to die when faced with versatile enemies that throw you off, which brings me to combat.

It never gets old. Never.

Ubisoft announced that combat for Assassin’s Creed III had been “redesigned from the ground up.” This means that combat isn’t merely a matter of a few new counters, or a couple extra new weapons – ho no. Assassin’s Creed III features possibly the best melee combat mechanics of any game I’ve ever played (and I think Sleeping Dogs had that title previously, for mere satisfaction.) It doesn’t seem to matter if you’re facing 2, 12, or 20 men – being surrounded and attacking in all angles is perfectly articulated. Countering attacks even when attacking another target doesn’t prematurely cut your character animation, your character adapts and spins with full body articulation, moving as an actor would in a film. It doesn’t seem to matter how unrealistic the situation, the character articulation seems to fit like a sock. It’s perfect. In fact, the only time it ever looks bad is in the current day segments with Desmond where combat just doesn’t quite translate as well.

Unlike prior games, Conner doesn’t go to stores to simply upgrade his weapon as he progresses through the story. He will always
have a pistol (which you can replace) and a trusty Tomahawk on him, and also the hidden blades, but this time, although you can buy swords and axes and blunt weapons, Conner can pick up any enemy weapon and sheathe that for use in a later fight. This means there’s less leg-work to upgrade, which was a pointless mechanic anyway when most kills were one button counters.

Counters, too, have changed. Instead of countering a single target, you can now counter up to three which will trigger an event where Conner (or whoever you are playing) slashes up three targets consecutively in an awesome motion captured event that plays out like good Kung Fu cinema. Although combat is yet again centered around the ability to counter, there are enemies which cannot be merely countered, where the playable character must disarm or break through their defenses. A mix of these characters, with lighter, more easier ones makes for some interesting albeit fairly easy combat. Although combat is consistently “casual,” it’s consistently satisfying. There’s also the addition of everyone constantly trying to shoot you in the face. Avoiding this is a matter of grabbing a human shield, or running in front of enemies to break line of sight.

For those of you not into guns, you can use Conner’s bow (my personal choice) or even use the rifles as a very effective melee weapon. Other weapon types include blunt weapons, axes, daggers, swords and pistols.

If you were concerned about guns ruining the franchise, don’t worry. They haven’t. Slow to reload and relatively painless (which looks stupid in Desmond’s modern day segments) weapons are no match for a speedy and efficient Assassin, and if anything they compliment the melee combat of the Assassin. There’s nothing cooler than running towards a firing line and killing 5 men with one blow each. Fighting is incredible, and after 5 games I’m not bored.

More like wishywashington.

I’m confident you’ll enjoy this more humble take on the Assassin tale. There’s much less reference of the grandiose of the orient, and this story is both more serious and gritty. It is only let down by the relative ‘after-thoughts’ that amount to Desmond’s foray into the modern world. Don’t worry, Assassin’s Creed III doesn’t expand too much into modern city life, but there is a little expansion on Desmond’s part. His fighting sequences feel cheap and janky, and all of the assets outside of the 1700′s look poorly ported, as though no real money was spent on that aspect of the game. They’re sparse and short, and the sheer depth and scale of what is inside the Animus is more than enough to compensate, but you can definitely tell that Ubisoft Montreal weren’t too concerned with rendering and representing the modern day in this particular installment. The way the Astergo guards shoot is a direct copy of the animation from the 1700′s, which doesn’t translate well to new guns. A little lazy, it felt, but they weren’t central to the over-all game-play, anyway.

Conner isn’t part of this dispute, which makes him the perfect protagonist through which to explore it.

I freely admit that Assassins Creed III could be called ‘more of the same’, but whilst this is true, there are also more differences than in any other title. Gone are the gadget gimmicks of II and Brotherhood, and the acrobatic chases and ‘unlock’ sequences are also completely gone. Nothing repetitive is forced on you, and the only ‘filler’ that remains this time are the lengthy walk-and-talks with some of the key characters. This is an incredibly streamlined Assassin’s Creed game, but it is also much bigger and much more expansive. There’s more to see, and there’s more to do. There may be one less city or so than in prior titles, but with that comes an entire ocean and the Frontier which is in itself an entirely different game. Also, needless upgrades have disappeared, and we don’t spend half the game teaching Conner how to jump. Although we explore his childhood and training to some degree, Ubisoft know we’ve seen and done it all before. Because of this, Assassins Creed III hosts changes that allow for a more developed story, at least within the confines of the Animus, and the much more humble tale with increased depth in the characters on all fronts means that this game is unlike all the others.

Potentially, there are two different games here, for two different gamers. You’re free to explore as much or as little of the world as you please, and those who choose to live freely in the 1700′s have more than enough content to do so, as mentioned before. However, those of you who want to blitz through the story are no-longer held back by “you must collect all these items” in order to continue. Head to the story missions, enjoy the cinematic moments, it’s yours to play how you will. All of the changes have been positive in my opinion, and have helped to deliver a truly magnificent story with the seriousness and attention to detail that it deserved.

Ubisoft Montreal haven’t really sugar coated anyone, or any of the events, and they’ve my respect for doing this. Conner is concerned with both parties stealing land and their contempt for issues such as slavery and their inability to really bring about change, and because of this he is first a human and second an Assassin. This is the key difference I think that many might gloss over when looking at this title. Without giving too much away, Assassin’s Creed III is about people before anything else – and that’s a step in the right direction.

Is Assassin’s Creed III the best Assassins Creed game? Probably not, but it’s still an incredible story, wonderfully told. The 1700′s were merely a stage upon which Ubisoft Performed their magnum opus, through the eyes of blank slate with little personality, but a lot of heart.

Of course, the ending resides outside of 1775 – and that in itself is another matter. Once you have completed the game, why not read my discourse on the ending. Needless to say, it contains spoilers.