Horses and Bayonets
Grading ACIII feels like grading that ridiculous vault McKayla Maroney pulled off in the Olympics; it’s damn near impossible to stick the landing when you aim so high in the first place. Unfortunately, ambition can only count for so much before you have to grade on technicality. In Maroney’s case, a slight step forward on the landing couldn’t come close to toppling her otherwise breathtaking execution. In Assassin’s Creed III’s case, the misstep is far more noticeable.
For those unfamiliar with Assassin’s Creed, the series follows protagonist Desmond Miles as the latest (and possibly last) able-bodied member of the Assassin Brotherhood. Desmond’s lineage grants him access to the memories of past assassins through the use of the Animus, an eldritch technology created by the first civilization. Through use of the Animus, Desmond trains skills that would normally take a lifetime in a mere few days. Think of the “I know Kung Fu” scene in The Matrix, and then turn it into a sixteen-hour gameplay experience.
What would an ancient order be without an appropriately aged conflict to motivate their actions? Fulfilling the role of the antagonist, the Abstergo Corporation acts as a front for the Knights Templar. The Templars seek to bolster their power and instill their concept of order through the use of “The Apple”, one of twenty-eight artifacts that the first civilization left behind. The Apple allows the owner to subvert the will of others, so you can probably imagine that it’s relevant to the Templar’s interests. Each Assassin has his or her own valid/honorable reasons for opposing the Templars (there’s a whole underlying fascism vs. freedom thing going on), but they can all be properly summarized with “because f*** you, that’s why”.
In III, Desmond’s trip into the Animus grants him access to the memories of Ratonhnhaké:ton/Connor, a member of the Kanien’keha:ka tribe and bastard child of Hatham Kenway, a British Assassin-turned-Templar who is using the American revolution as a tool to establish his own order on the fledgling colonies. Despite all of the advertisements showing Connor off, the first third of the game actually follows Kenway’s backstory. The game starts with the events that prompt Kenway’s voyage to America, culminating in Haytham getting his consensual Custer on with the woman that would eventually give birth to Connor.
All of it is supposed to lend toward the backstory that establishes Connor’s motivation in bringing down the Templars. A potent mix of revenge, social responsibility, and (mostly) naivete guide the young Native to cast his lot with the prominent figures of the American Revolution. Connor wants to believe in the idea and promise of a free country, coming to odds with that would try to jade him. Connor’s steadfastness makes you want to be on his side; to believe in a clear right and wrong. The very trait that fuels Connor’s development can lead to the character feeling one-note.
The colonies and the outlying wilderness provide an environmental dichotomy that lends itself well to the franchise. Most of the time, that is. Navigationally, Assassin’s Creed III’s free running mixes the already-established urban parkour with the freedom of traversing the frontier. Scaling buildings, jumping across rooftops, running through trees, climbing cliff faces, even swimming downstream gives the game an open-air ambience when left to your own devices. Connor can run through the trees to cover the distance between the tops of buildings just as easily as he might use awnings, construction equipment, or swinging posts…
…And all of it comes to a screeching halt when you have to make use of free running to complete any objective. I’m willing to admit the possibility that I’m just a noob, but from what I have gathered from other sources, I’m not alone when I say that the Connor’s sudden clumsiness when running after or away from enemies is so jarring that it takes me out of the experience completely. If there isn’t an explosive rigged to throw me off of my feet, running through a crowd during one of the game’s multiple (required) chase scenes while avoiding civilians, keeping within a certain distance, and avoiding redcoat firing squads incites a rage that my primary care provider would find concerning.
The aforementioned clumsiness unfortunately does not stop there. The game’s use of blending into crowds or using stealth at all is dodgy at best. Completely identical maneuvers are just as likely to bypass detection as they are to trigger it. Various missions that require use of stealth (either environmental or social) will fail almost arbitrarily, with no indication as to what you did wrong. If gaming is an act of detecting patterns and adjusting’s one choices or actions as they are best suited to deal with those patterns, there’s nothing more frustrating than knowing that I’m very likely to accomplish something (that I just failed) if I restart and do it the exact same way, hoping that the game gives me a pass this time around.
Once running gives way to battle, the fun shows up again. Connor’s has a more savage fighting style than Ezio, and it shows in the combat mechanics. Using enemies as human shields, disarming them and using their own weapon for assassinations is all backed with intensity in Connor’s movements that you almost never see in his personality.The addition of the tomahawk can feel redundant, as it can be used to assassinate enemies the same as his hidden blades. The hidden blades also gain the ability to be used as a regular weapon so these two items cause a sort of overlap that causes one to sort of blank out and just use whatever’s available. Sure the blades are quicker than the tomahawk, and the tomahawk causes more damage than the hidden blades, but both will get either job done passably.
You get tertiary and quaternary weapons in the form of swords, blunt weapons, guns, bows, poison and rope darts. Some of the items are of particular use when the game forces you to use them, but they feel otherwise unnecessary. Connor’s got a lot of weapons, but creativity comes at the frustrating cost of cycling through another pause menu.
The game offers much in the way of extracurricular activity. Sidequests, hunting, secondary errands, missions, boat battles, challenges, crafting and trading will give a player plenty of reason to go back for that 100%. When left to your own devices, the game is breathtaking in its execution. Unfortunately, the experience is more trying than entertaining when the pressure is on. If you’ve ever seen the Simpsons episode where Homer explains how his father made him quit gymnastics, that moment where Abe screams, causing his son to stumble and fall onto his face is exactly how ACIII feels at times.
Seeing as how the game has far more sandbox content than it does story, ACIII is wildly enjoyable more often than that. With the large amount and expansive variety of content, as well as multiplayer, you will find every bit of sixty dollars’ worth of content in the purchase.