Assassin's Creed 3 review
I am pursuing a man in a tricorner hat through the streets of colonial New York. In the top-left of the screen, Assassin’s Creed III instructs me to chase him. In smaller text just below it, there is a secondary objective: ‘do not shove or tackle anyone’. I turn sharply into an alleyway and barge past a woman, earning myself a red X on the mission log and losing my ‘full synchronisation’ bonus. I’m not sure why I want to be fully synchronised, but the completionist in me insists that I try again.
A few attempts later, I’ve figured out a system. Stop sprinting when the alleyways give out onto open streets, edge carefully around pedestrians, and continue. It’s ludicrous - why on Earth would I not shove someone, if the fate of a nation was at stake - but I’ve not incurred the red X, I’ve not lost my bonus. I chase the man and, as is tradition, wait for the cutscene where I catch him. It doesn’t come. We pass through the same fishmarket for the second time and I realise that we’ve done a lap of central New York. The game is waiting for me. Oh! I think. This is an assassination. I do those.
I can’t get close enough to use my hidden blades so I wait until we’re running down a clear alleyway, pull my flintlock, and fire. Desynchronised! Target was killed. Try again.
It takes another couple of tries before I figure out that the game wants me to catch him - tackle him, if you will. My objective is to give chase. My sub-objective is to not tackle anyone. The solution is to tackle someone. You may Google your own facepalm jpeg.
Assassin’s Creed III features the silliest and most self-defeating mission design in the the series’ history, and it’s a huge shame. When it isn’t directly hamstrung by constrained mission areas, flakey AI, and imprecise movement, it manages to steer you into the path of these flaws anyway with optional objectives that encourage you to game the system - and Assassin’s Creed III’s systems do not hold up well to gaming. When full sync bonuses were introduced in Brotherhood, they were designed to encourage creative use of the tools at your disposal. Here they more often tamp down your options, exposing the emptiness of the game underneath. You can ignore them, sure, but you can’t ignore the signal sent by that big red X.
There’s a lot more to an Assassin’s Creed game than its missions, but the fifth in the series drops the ball with such regularity that it resonates through the entire experience. A pervasive sense of frustration is the snare drum that accompanies Assassin’s Creed III on its march through the American revolution.
You undertake that march - for the most part - as Connor, a young assassin with a British father and a Native American mother. Connor’s quest to negotiate a future for his people against the backdrop of revolutionary war is well written and often well acted. The game’s treatment of issues of race, class, democracy and empire even manages to be insightful, and Ubisoft have no qualms about turning America’s founding mythology on its head. Characterisation is strong. Connor will get some flak simply for not being Ezio, but he comes into his own in the second half of the game. Assassin’s Creed III has a cracking villain, too, in a senior British Templar that the writers seem to like more than they do their ostensible lead.
The game suffers for a lack of female characters - the only real exception being Connor’s mother, who after a brief period of activity retreats from the stage to usher in the series’ next male protagonist. It’s a shame that the game does not do more, given how laudably it addresses themes of repression in other contexts.
There is also, of course, Desmond. Creed’s sci-fi metanarrative splutters to a stop, pulling together its various precursor races, ancient artifacts and cosmic threats for a conclusion with the dramatic impact of a wheezing cat finally sicking up all over the carpet. It’s not all bad: a handful of present-day missions let you see what Desmond’s time in the Animus has taught him, and Danny Wallace’s character has somehow metastasized from the human equivalent of Clippy from Microsoft Word into a likeable person with something to say about history.
There’s a lot going on, then, and a lot to do. The new Animus bombards you with side-missions, collectibles and challenges, often without heed to what you’re doing or whether the tone will be ruined by the sudden notification that you’re in the top 50% in the world for whistling. Its three main explorable areas - Boston, New York, and the compressed frontier that links them - are liberally sprinkled with men to stab, lists to fill out, and every other form of open-world busywork you can think of.