Reviewing the latest entry in an ongoing series is hard. One reason for this is that by the time you stick the number ‘3’ at the end of a game’s title, most people will have already decided whether they like the series or hate it, so you’re not really saying anything new to anyone. Either they’ll continue to like the series, or continue to hate it, and most of the time this opinion does not really change. Another reason for this is that usually the series itself doesn’t change all that much. Sure, there might be minor improvements or changes, but when people come to expect something from a series, well, the boat tends to not be rocked all that much. However, perhaps that means that reviewing the latest entry in a series is just as important. At least, I tend to think it is, because I really want to make sure that Johnny Job and Christina Career (remember them?) know what they’re getting into, whether they start a series from the beginning, or just sort of pop in right in the middle (I know there are people who do that. It bugs me to death). And that, friends, brings me to my initial impressions of Assassin’s Creed III.
So, this whole Assassin’s Creed business. What is it?: To boil it down into just one phrase: ‘revisionist historical fiction’. It is a story about conspiracy theories very reminiscent of ‘The Da Vinci Code’, revolving around a conflict between the Knights Templar (you’ve probably heard of them) and the Brotherhood of Assassins (you may not have actually heard of them, but they really existed, I swear). The Templars are attempting to propagate law and order throughout the world, and they do this using subterfuge and control. The Assassins, on the other hand, are on the side of ensuring each person has individual freedom, and they mostly do this by killing a whole bunch of dudes. This conflict has gone on since the Crusades, and is viewed through the experiences of a modern-day man who relives the memories of his ancestors using a device called the Animus.
Animus, huh? That sounds familiar.: You’ve played Xenogears, right?
Oh. OHHH.: Yep. Same sort of concept. Ish.
Wonderful. I’m intrigued. What does it play like?: Like Prince of Persia injected with a little God of War and a whole bunch of Metal Gear Solid. Which is to say, it relies mostly on acrobatics and parkour-inspired city navigating, in which you must remain hidden by blending into crowds and not causing scenes. And when you do get into combat, you rely a whole bunch on a bit of button mashing and timing your counterstrikes.
Okay, so this series has been going on for several games now, let’s say I haven’t played them. Could I just jump in with the third one and be fine?: Well, not really. Sure, they do a sort of “Last time, on Assassin’s Creed” recap at the very beginning, and the main character and time period are all new, but I really can’t recommend starting off with this one. There’s too much story that’s gone on before. This is one of those series that I would recommend starting at the beginning, with the first game, and after that, I would say that Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood are the /really/ necessary ones. Revelations, despite being called that, doesn’t really reveal all that much and mostly exists to provide closure for a few story arcs that don’t continue on into ACIII. It can be skipped and nothing is missed that a quick trip to Wikipedia won’t adequately fill you in on.
So now let’s say I /have/ played the previous games? Is this one just more of the same, like Brotherhood and Revelations were?: Yes and no. Mostly no. Brotherhood and Revelations used the same underlying engine as ACII, and so that means that they were completed with relatively little effort from the original design team. This means that in the past couple years, that team rebuilt the game engine from the ground up, and in doing so altered quite a few things that have been accepted as series staples. For instance, synchronizing viewpoints is not a necessity anymore. It still serves the same purpose of revealing the map, but you can do the same thing by just wandering the streets for a bit. The control system has been streamlined, which is good, but it’s also been simplified, which might not really be so good even though it’s not necessarily bad either.
If you were putting it on the spectrum of gameplay established by previous games, where would you put it?: Well, the first Assassin’s Creed gave you equipment upgrades as part of the plot, so you and your enemies would always be roughly equal in terms of what you could do. Assassin’s Creed II introduced money, inventory, and shops, so you could upgrade your weapons and armor to give yourself an edge in combat, as if there were some RPG thrown into the mix. Assassin’s Creed III sits firmly between those two. There are shops and money, and you can upgrade your weapons but not your health and armor. You are pretty much as strong as you’re ever going to be from the very beginning, and so are your enemies, so any upgrades are mostly stylistic choices. You can totally get away with going full retard on your enemies using the weapons you start out with, for the entire game.
So…a lot of the features from ACII/Brotherhood/Revelations are gone?: Yes, but in terms of the plot this makes sense. Ezio was a man of means, and his stories took place in cities, during a time period where one’s armament mattered. Connor’s story takes place in the American frontier, where guns have made any sort of armor mostly obsolete. In other words, Altair’s weapons were knowledge and information, Ezio’s weapons were his material resources and his vast array of tools, and Connor’s weapons are his agility and survivalism. They are all different people with different strengths and weaknesses, and this really shows in the gameplay systems.
Alright, let’s get down to it. What impressed you about the game?: So far, the plot. This one goes all out with its plot twists and conspiracy theories. Additionally, the respect with which the Native American cultures are treated has really impressed me as well. Video games (well, media in general) have not treated Native Americans well, reducing them to mostly offensive stereotypes. The ACIII team has done their best to avoid this, and brought in experts to assist them in making sure the culture was represented as accurately and tastefully as possible. And it shows. Connor, who himself is half Native American, is intelligent, competent, and kind, even when pushed to extreme actions by how his people are treated by the newcomers to the land. In terms of gameplay, there are quite a few new additions to the system that impressed me, such as the entire Frontier area, which can be used to hunt wildlife, something that very much reminded me of ‘MGS3: Snake Eater’. The naval battles are also very spectacular, and it’s my belief that with a whole lot of further refinement and development of the base system, something like this could go into a revival of ‘Sid Meier’s Pirates!’. Hear that? Someone needs to make that happen. Oh, and the multiplayer, which has also been expanded on since Revelations, is the best multiplayer I have ever seen. Seriously. The very best. I didn’t even know that Assassin’s Creed /needed/ multiplayer until they put it in, and now I can imagine the multiplayer being its own standalone game. It’s that good.
And what didn’t impress you?: I think they removed too much from the ACII system. I know the whole ‘city development’ aspect would make absolutely no sense in the context of Connor’s story, so I’m okay with that being left out, but I still think he should have been able to get ahold of new armor and protective gear to increase his health or at least grant him different ranges of abilities. The game is also buggy as hell, even after the day one patch, and there have been several times when the multiplayer servers have had to be shut down for maintenance in the less-than-a-week since release. Hopefully, they will improve the system by the time the next game releases (because I know there will be a next game, even though I am nowhere near finishing this one, because it’s a successful franchise and Ubisoft is milking it for all it’s worth). The combat isn’t as good as it was in ACII; in particular, the counter window is a bit too quick, and the ability to chain your kills has either been removed or made far harder than I’ve been able to pull off yet.
Anything else?: I have the Xbox 360 version, so my review is based on that. I will say that had I not already had the rest of the series on X360, I would have gotten the PS3 version, because it does have exclusive content. The PS3 also has free multiplayer, but if you already have an Xbox Live Gold account then there are probably /more/ people playing the X360 multiplayer, so there’s that. Also, I will reiterate that this game sits right between ACI and II, in terms of enjoyability for me. I liked ACII’s gameplay systems better. I liked Altair more, as a protagonist. At the same time, ACIII has a much better system than ACI, and I like Connor a hell of a lot better than I ever liked ACII’s Ezio. So it falls squarely in the middle, in every sense of the word, in different ways. Also, I killed a fucking bear with a tomahawk. That is definitely worth something, right there.
So would you recommend it?: Bear. Tomahawk. Enough said. But seriously, if you liked the other games in the series, this one will not specifically disappoint you. It easily has the best plot so far, even though the gameplay takes probably more steps backward than it takes forward. But if you’re playing an Assassin’s Creed game, the plot is the important part anyway, and the rest of the game is at /least/ good enough to support that.
[This review is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]