Assassin's Creed 3 review: bigger, not better

Bigger is not necessarily better, and Ubisoft proves that with Assassin's Creed 3. The hype machine has taught us that the latest entry in Ubisoft's franchise is bigger than any game before it: there are more things to do, more things to see, and more at stake--all powered by Anvil Next, the publisher's new next-gen graphics engine. It's an incredible spectacle, one certainly worth experiencing. However, by juggling so much, AC3 is less successful at being as polished, cohesive, and satisfying as AC2. focalbox The scope of Assassin's Creed 3 is still difficult to comprehend, even after seeing the credits roll. Whereas the first game in the franchise was criticized for not offering players enough variety, the same cannot be said of AC3. Not only does AC3 wrap up the modern-day tale of Desmond and the 2012 apocalypse, it details decades of the life of the game's two main characters across multiple continents. Playing through a fully-realized colonial Boston is impressive enough, and then the game adds New York, the wilderness, and the open sea--clearly Ubisoft is insane. Because of its girth, AC3 feels like four games in one: the prologue, Connor's rise as an Assassin, the War, and the present day could all be standalone experiences. However, with so many different mechanics introduced in this latest iteration, the first half of the game essentially acts as an ongoing tutorial, constantly introducing new techniques with each passing chapter. The long-toothed introduction will likely disappoint players expecting to jump into the Revolutionary War's Greatest Hits quickly--the game doesn't really open up until about 10 hours in. While some may find the game's slow start a bother, I actually feel like the game is far more successful in its first half. The spectacle is certainly far more impactful when beginning your journey. For example, stepping into the opera for the first time to see hundreds of individually moving NPCs is one of those few landmark moments in gaming where you know the envelope is being pushed. It's hard not to be amazed when you first go tree-running, appreciating how fluid Connor's movement can be through the treetops. And your first naval battle will likely leave your mouth agape--it's a thrilling moment that makes me wonder what voodoo Ubisoft has cast to get so much out of current-gen consoles. And that twist! The first big revelation in the game is so big it actually merits an Achievement: "How D'ya Like Them Apples." Unfortunately, the narrative is never able to reproduce such a thrilling moment afterwards. Perhaps it's a consequence of telling a tale that spans such a large period of time, but Connor's story is ultimately unsatisfying. The many relationships you develop through the campaign are never really fleshed out, as if key moments were left on the cutting room floor. For example, Kanen'to:kon is described as an "inseparable" friend by the game's own encyclopedia, but never do you see how their relationship strains and changes before you eventually confront him. Connor's relationship with Achilles, his mentor, is randomly heated at times, inexplicably so. Perhaps most frustratingly, Connor's relationship with Haytham Kenway is criminally underdeveloped, as it shows hints of an interesting moral gray.

The naval battles are impressive

While Connor's story may not be satisfying, Desmond's portion of the game is far more disappointing. Considering this game ends a tale five games in the making, you'd think more effort would be placed into making his missions more exciting. Instead, these are easily the worst missions in the game. You'd think that having to stop an apocalypse would require more daring feats--especially considering how god-like beings had to work a millennium to place the pawns in the right place. And yes, although game makes good on resolving Desmond's story, will you like the answers? (Also, if you haven't played Brotherhood or Revelations, do note that the story will not make any sense at all. If you're new to the AC franchise altogether, you'll fare even worse.) In spite of the narrative shortcomings, Assassin's Creed 3 is still worth playing. Because of how much variety it offers, there's bound to be something that tickles your fancy. I personally loved the naval combat. Not only does it look terrific, but it plays wonderfully. Simply cruising over the waves and navigating through rocky waters is thrilling--even more so when cannons are being fired at you. Hunting must also get special recognition: finding clues to track animals, setting snares and traps, and going for the perfect kill is incredibly satisfying. The "assassination" gameplay has also, for the most part, been largely improved. It's incredibly easy to replay missions now, and each mission has "constraints" that encourage you to play stylishly. For example, one constraint will have you never touching the ground, which forces you to think about how you'll approach each scenario. Encouraging replayability is always a good thing--even though many of the missions do seem to have only one "correct" approach. Assassin's Creed 3 could have been a tour de force; instead, it's simply a good game. With a massive campaign, and an even larger array of side missions, Assassin's Creed 3 may not be the greatest game, but it is unquestionably a great value, one that will keep you occupied and entertained for a long time.
This review was based on retail Xbox 360 code provided by the publisher. Assassin's Creed 3 is available today on Xbox 360 and PS3. The game will also be available on Wii U on November 18th and on PC on November 20th.