I’ve been reviewing games for more than six years now. I’ve been playing them for nearly 25. My life revolves around ingesting and understanding games. I'll admit that I've never had a harder time settling on an opinion for a game than with Assassin’s Creed III.
This is a franchise I’ve obsessed over since its first entry. I’ve played each game to full mastery, and almost all of them have earned a special place in my memory. Perhaps the only title in the series I didn’t love was Revelations, a game that I felt was nothing more than a yearly cash-in for Ubisoft.
Assassin’s Creed III is problematic for me because, on one hand, I enjoyed it. On the other? It’s rather bad. More to the point, there’s not much that Assassin’s Creed III does definitely right. Missions are built around bad fundamentals of game design, there are a world of bugs that rip players out of the experience and the overall value of the project is lacking.
The setting itself is promising. Players are moved from the Mediterranean and into the new world of the American colonies before the Revolutionary War. As two characters in one tale, players will explore the ins and outs of this moment in American history; though, as Ubisoft pointed out in their marketing efforts, players will never truly align with one side of the war.
At the same time, Ubisoft tries to push the story of Desmond Miles, the contemporary counterpart for this tale, ever forward. As has been the case with the rest of the games in this series, Desmond’s bits are rather hit or miss. At times you’ll enjoy climbing the heights of the modern world while learning of the pre-humans, but at others it’ll feel like something that’s getting in the way of the fun you have in the past.
Covering the plot from start to finish means that you'll encounter a lot of stops and starts. The whole campaign suffers from a very disjointed feeling, especially at the onset. The first three hours of this experience can be summed up as minutes of walking and killing separated by minutes of cutscenes. It doesn't improve too much towards the end, either. The experience opens up, yes, and you'll have a lot of game in front of you should you choose to experience it; but, the main storyline is a sequence of simple and brief objectives separated by cutscenes. None of it ever feels exceptionally grand.
Like so much of this experience, the storyline in Assassin’s Creed III is rather so-so. It has its high points, though, as one particular twist in the early goings of the game had me physically gasp out loud. Other moments beat the narrative drum just fine, but they do so in between a plot riddled with jumping and leaps in coherence.
This game’s historical relevance is lost during moments of dialogue that are either cut off by other sound effects or drop entirely due to glitches. Oh, and the glitches. You know what? Let’s just dive straight into the glitches.
Should this game have shipped? No. This is me assuming that I know something about Ubisoft’s business plans. Mark it down: I don’t. I’m assuming that Ubisoft elected to pen Assassin’s Creed III for a holiday of 2012 release. They then cracked the metaphorical whip above the heads of their massive staff and made these folks crunch a game into existence.
The rush shows like a black eye. Assassin’s Creed III is one of the buggiest games I’ve played in a very long time. The audio drops out randomly, NPCs spawn half-way into the virtual earth (sometimes breaking mission objectives), you’ll randomly get stuck on stairways and steep hills, guns and ammunition tend to hover five feet off the ground, lips don’t move during cutscenes, objective markers never appear, a quest NPC will tell you to follow him and then stand perfectly still, horses randomly stop and start if they step near a downed twig…the list goes on. When the glitches and bugs don't break the game, they break the game's attempt at immersion. Immersion, in gaming, is critical.
The simple fact of the matter is that we, as a crowd of gamers and consumers, should hold AAA titles to an exceptionally high standard. As Ubisoft, and publishers like them, dump hundreds of millions of dollars into these games for development and marketing, one has to assume that they plan to release a product free of bugs. Yet, here we are, buying a game that is, in more ways than one, broken.
Once you get past those problems, you’ll have a whole suite of objectives and checklists in front of you for the taking. Whether it’s pushing through the campaign or stalking prey in the wilderness, there’s a lot to do in Assassin’s Creed III. When this franchise began several years ago, the major complaint fans and critics lobbied with Ubisoft stemmed out of a lack of in-game variety. With each generation of titles in the series, there’s been more and more to do as an Assassin. Assassin’s Creed III is absolutely brimming with stuff.
Though, none of that stuff has been perfected. Tree running is fun, but the “fluid” act is often marred when trees don’t have proper footholds. Hunting can be enjoyable, but tangling with foes like wolves and bears means entering a series of extremely simple quicktime events. Playing checkers is nice, but you’ll wrestle with a weird control scheme and exceptionally long game length. Trading goods is okay, but that means you’ll be forced to use the incredible awkward user-interface. Stealth elements and mission moments can be exceptional, but Connor's ability to contextually hide (something Ubisoft promised) can be inconsistent.
Image credit goes to Redditor dhanson94. They nailed it.
Liberation missions require you infiltrate a fort and destroy key elements. Though, getting in unnoticed is difficult when the game is so weird about stealth. The AI here is both, somehow, entirely stupid and all-knowing. They’ll notice you move slightly at a distance of 50 yards, but won’t be able to spot you if you duck down into a shrub below their feet. Hang from a ledge and they’ll see your fingertips, but if your head sticks out of a corner they won’t catch you at all.
The mini-games are probably what give Assassin’s Creed III away more than anything else. When optional objectives and side doings feel like they didn’t spend long enough in the oven, the whole game is weakened. There is a lot to do here, more than any other Assassin’s Creed has ever offered; but, what’s here isn’t executed very well.
At this point, you might think I’d be willing to throw a cliche in Assassin’s Creed III’s direction. Specifically, I’d be able to quickly describe Assassin’s Creed III as a jack of all trades, but master of none. Too bad there is something this game nails perfectly. The naval battles are incredible. The on-boat action, the ship-to-ship combat and the pacing of this moments is perhaps some of the best gaming I’ve enjoyed all year long. After they’re introduced, these naval battle’s become little more than another piece in the pile of mini-games; but, take time to explore them. If Ubisoft ever builds a full experience around the naval side of Assassin’s Creed III, I’ll be in line to buy it on day one.
Finally, a word or two about our main hero, Connor. Ezio and Altair are two brilliant pieces of gaming fiction. Ezio especially will stand the test of time as one of this medium's best heroes. Connor, however, is both flat and inconsisent. For a boy with such a troubled beginning, Connor is rarely passionate. Unless he's blessing the corpse of an animal or telling other characters not to be so ruthless. Then he's inconsistent. How Connor can tell someone that life is precious one moment and then run into a group of foot soldiers hell bent on slaughter another is beyond me. That, I suppose, is something forgiven by the fact that this is just a game.
Beneath the bugs, poor mechanic design and rather hit or miss story, there is an enjoyable experience to be had with Assassin’s Creed III. I recognize that a lot of readers and writers will scoff at my review and score as something that’s point-blank wrong in their books. I disagree, of course. There are a pile of problems to wade through here. This game is not perfect, nor is it one of the best released in 2012.
Assassin’s Creed III simply is a game. You’ll buy it, and you’ll likely have fun. But doing so will require a lot of patience and diligence.
We received a review copy for the Xbox 360 prior to the game’s release. We completed the campaign and barely dabbled in multiplayer before starting this review.
Joey Davidson is the Associate Editor of gaming at CraveOnline. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeyDavidson.