What is it about the third and final act of a trilogy that unfailingly seems to disappoint? You’ve seen it countless times: The Dark Knight Rises, Matrix Revolutions, Spider Man 3, Return of the Jedi… (although, in the interest of full disclosure, the nostalgic chewy center of my heart will anachronistically rope-log-smash your big stupid head if you talk too much shit about Jedi).
Is it a result of the unfairly high expectations that the first two entries in the series have set up? Or perhaps it’s that all the best ideas have been used up by the time the third installment rolls around, and it’s less a matter of inspiration and more about getting it out the door and moving on?
My point being: Assassin’s Creed III snugly fits into the time-honored blueprint – the third (numbered) entry of the Assassin’s Creed franchise is indeed the one with the hairy chest.
AC III starts out promisingly enough. After the obligatory future-science-conspiracy plot introduction starring series protagonist Desmond Miles, you are whisked back in time to inhabit the life of another one of your ancestors, who at the onset of the story lives in 18th century London. You play through a super cool tutorial mission involving an assassination at the Theatre Royal during a performance of “The Beggar’s Opera,” and soon find yourself on a ship headed for The American Colonies. A few more tutorial-style tasks later, as your journey nears its end, you climb the ship mast, the music swells and the title card appears as The New World rolls up on the horizon. It’s pretty stirring, and it represents the best of what the Assassin’s Creed series has to offer: a sense of historical majesty that makes the games’ settings so unique.
However, another of the series’ trademarks is its open-ended nature — the ability to travel about a series of lovingly crafted historical settings as you wish, completing missions, getting into trouble or simply exploring the sights, and I was puzzled at how limited I felt during the game, post-introduction. You are given one straightforward mission after another, and while you can veer off the path a little bit, the game’s structure feels very linear at first. In fact, without giving too much away, it’s a solid 4-6 hours of gameplay before the story really kicks into gear and the world truly opens up. As a longtime player of the series, I knew this was coming, but I fear that a newcomer might be tempted to give up after such an extended prologue, not knowing that the true game was still hours away. It’s a bit of a puzzling barrier to entry from a design standpoint.
But once the world of Assassin’s Creed III does open up, it does so in a big way. In addition to the bustling colonial settlements of New York and Boston, you are also free to explore a huge Frontier area packed with animals to hunt, trees and cliffs to climb and secrets to uncover. It looks gorgeous, especially when the seasons change from summer to winter and back again, and the tree-running controls are smooth and intuitive, allowing you to cross long stretches of land hopping from branch to branch without touching the ground. There’s also a huge Homestead, AC III’s answer to AC II’s upgradeable Villa, which functions as a kind of home-base hub that features plenty to do on its own, including settlers to help out, a manor to decorate with trophies and a ship to upgrade.
Speaking of the ship, from your Homestead you can access an entire suite of sea-based side missions, in which you pilot a fully-equipped war vessel and take part in naval battles that require strategic maneuvering in order to get into good firing position while trying to avoid being outflanked yourself. These naval missions are a hell of a lot of fun and easily one of the highlights of AC III… I could play an entire “Assassins of the Carribbean” spin-off game based around this concept alone. (You’re welcome, Ubisoft).
Back on dry land, you of course find yourself involved in the American Revolution for the meat of the game, a setting that is both uniquely fascinating and surprisingly limiting, as you tend to Gump your way from one famous set-piece to the next without it making much narrative sense. One moment you’re sharing a horse with Paul Revere, the next you’re suddenly present in Philadelphia for the signing of the Declaration of Independence and then you’re holed up with General Washington at Valley Forge. While it’s true that any Revolutionary War story worth its tea needs to include these moments, I really thought that they could have been done better and linked together more coherently. I often felt more like a historical tourist as opposed to a force of nature shaping the course of history, like I did during the Italian Renaissance in the best moments of AC II.
Ultimately, the story as a whole lacks urgency. It’s hard to feel like you’re shaping the course of a Revolution when Samuel Adams tells you the only way to fight for freedom is to run out and collect 10 feathers or deliver 5 telegrams or some goddamned mundane thing. The third act to a trilogy should feel impossibly epic, like the culmination of every story element that came before it coming to a cathartic head, but instead AC III seems to rely more on your previous knowledge of this period of history to fill in the dramatic blanks, which I felt was a huge miss and the game’s biggest flaw.
The gameplay itself is fine enough. The running and climbing works as well as it always has, which can feel insanely smooth and fast, and yet you’ll sometimes catch a wall at the wrong angle which will stop you dead — sometimes literally if you’re being pursued by a gang of uppity Redcoats.
The combat still relies on the same block, counter, retaliate pattern from previous games, where you’ll be surrounded by a group of guys that will idiotically attack you one at a time. The combat animations have been spruced up, though, and after a little practice you’ll start chaining together some super cool combos. My favorite involves blasting a guy with his own musket and then using it as a melee weapon against his buddies. You can also do a sweet counter move where you block musket fire using some poor sucker as a human shield. The combat is visceral and crunchy and splattery and fun, although to be honest it feels a tad slower and off-step from its smoother cousin, that of the Arkham series.
Still, though, the best part about any Assassin’s Creed game is running around the open world, exploring and collecting and fighting, and there’s plenty of that to be done here. I continued to play AC III after I had finished the story to go after more side-missions and collectibles, and I tend to use that as a personal measure of the enjoyment I find in a game.
Perhaps the reason it’s so difficult to knock Assassin’s Creed III is that there’s nothing outright bad about it. Most of the individual aspects of the game are either good or good enough. I suppose that, ultimately, it just kind of ends up being worse than the sum of its parts. Which, when you’re trying to stick the landing of a potentially epic trilogy, can be disastrous.
Bottom line: If you’re already in the Assassin’s Creed fan club, then you’ll definitely find plenty of elements to like here – but will ultimately be let down. If you’re not already a fan, but are curious about the series, play ACII instead. It’ll make you one.