Everything is True. Nothing is Permitted.

Assassin's Creed III Screenshot

HIGH Swimming around a pier, climbing a ship, and using a rope dart to hang a target from a yardarm.

LOW As I walk past two men on a bench, I get notified that I have my first pursuer. The whisper noise starts just as one of them gets up and stabs me for 700 points.

WTF Approaching a fort, I found I could no longer hide in shrubs even though I wasn't observed. When I reached the captain, I found only an indicator hanging in the air, without a body to stab beneath it.

At one time or another, each of us has thought to himself "I ought to be in charge." We have all had that moment where we think that we should be making all the decisions, running roughshod over democracy and all existing power structures.

I want you to think about that moment.

Did you feel good about mankind's capacity for decision right then? No. In that moment you were animated by contempt for your fellow man. It was cloaked, perhaps, in benevolent intentions, but deep down, at that moment, you thought your fellow humans were just too stupid to rule themselves.

The mythology of the Assassin's Creed series concerns two history-spanning conspiracies. The Assassins, from Altair through Ezio and new protagonist Connor, have sought to preserve humanity's freedom to choose its own path, and make its own mistakes. Assassin's Creed III emphasizes this characteristic of his order by setting the action during the American Revolution. The Templars, in contrast, have sought to control mankind. This doesn't really boil down to a conflict between good and evil; the Templars seek to manipulate society for the benefit of everyone. Yet the contempt is still obviously there, in the Templars, and in the developers of Assassin's Creed III.

Perhaps that sounds a bit extreme, yet that's how I felt in Charlestown when I dodged towards the right as I reached the main street and got forcibly redirected by the game's sparkling black wall of thou-shalt-not-pass. That's how I felt when I sneaked up to Johnson's house to assassinate him and then got teleported to the other side of it after a cut-scene. That's how I felt when I chased down a man clinging to a log in a river, jumped in to save him, then jumped in again in a cut-scene, blowing an optional objective in the process. That's how I felt when I carefully planned a rope-dart attack on a thug in Boston, only to have him teleport over to his horse just as I was about to strike.

The developers seemed to be telling me that I didn't know how to have my own fun or how to make my own story in their little play world. "Here," they said, shoving me back onto the main street, "isn't it more exciting to see this church getting blown up? Isn't there more tension in having to approach the same house twice? Isn't this dive into the river more exciting when we animate it for you? Won't chasing this man on horseback be more fun?"

Well, no.

Assassin's Creed III Screenshot

My desperate flight through the bombarded back alley of Charlestown was already exciting. My approach to Johnson's house was already tense. What sense would there have been in stopping on that bluff overlooking the river and waiting to trigger a cut-scene I didn't know was coming? And carefully planning and executing my strike against the thug? That was the fun for me. I can guide my own experience in an open world game that has mechanics as varied as ACIII, and the view that I can't says much about the developers' attitude towards their players—not that Ubisoft have evinced any interest in really refining those mechanics.

The climbing in ACIII remains inconsistent; sometimes Connor will clamber over eaves or around corners, and other times he won't, for no apparent reason. The free-running still feels loose and approximate, and every chase involved at least one instance of Connor jumping in a direction I did not expect, or getting stuck repeatedly trying to climb a wall with no handholds until I patiently stopped and slowly walked him around the obstacle. I could just as easily have leveled these complaints at the first Assassin's Creed—with all this time, and despite a new engine, the series' core mechanics have not improved at all.

The opportunity to skitter up architectural wonders like Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore has always served as a salve for the series's shortcomings, but ACIII's array of isolated, blocky buildings contains absolutely nothing remarkable to climb at all. Only the tall tree of the wilderness is at all interesting, and in apparent recognition of this, the exact same tree appears multiple times in the frontier. This, as well as certain templated steeple designs, demonstrates that no time or iterative effort has gone into relieving the dreary repetitiveness of scaling viewpoints, although ACIII does shake up the formula by ensuring that following through with this chore won't actually reveal all of its sublimely awful blue-on-black map.

Combat has been redesigned so as to remove the player as much as possible, since I apparently don't know how to have an exciting swordfight in a game, either. Even in the first Assassin's Creed it was actually possible to break an enemy's guard by carefully timing sword strikes. Not so here—the counter-move has become the only real option in combat. The player is meant to wait around until a giant red sign appears above an attacking enemy's head (because we're too stupid to read an enemy attack), then deflect so that Connor can enter a developer-determined string of animations that ends at roughly the same time as his opponent's life. The choreography goes on for a drearily long time as Connor stabs away with abandon… so long, in fact, that the adjacent soldiers tire of watching it and attack again before it ends, which was the way I usually got injured, thanks to an apparent lack of cancels.

Luckily, the extended dance of stabbing can sometimes be short-circuited. Although apparently quite resistant to knives, the British troops are powerless against their nemesis, the wooden plank. As such, getting bumped into a wall or rolled over a bench is invariably fatal to them. Perhaps this vulnerability to blunt-force trauma explains the series's worst guard aggro model, in which every guard in the city will decide to murder Connor if he so much as brushes against anyone, even when incognito. Indeed, sometimes the guards will instantly try to end Connor if they see him running all by himself on an empty street, so dire is the risk that he might fatally bump someone.

Assassin's Creed III Screenshot

Having created this grim railroad of an experience, the developers apparently didn't even have the respect for the player to ensure that it all worked. In New York, the notoriety system (a core mechanic) seemed to be completely broken, with posters and criers never appearing and print shops never going away. On sidequests, targets would sometimes disappear completely, or not be carrying goods I was supposed to loot from them. Also in New York, the liberation missions that pry city districts from Templar control were almost irreparably bugged, with targets disappearing, enemies failing to materialize, or in one case, the whole district's missions vanishing permanently so it couldn't be completed. A major patch released over Thanksgiving has supposedly repaired the worst bugs, although there's no word yet on whether the patch has removed the bug where the player can occasionally direct his own experience.

The single-player experience isn't all dreary and oppressive, though. The rope dart is a wonderful addition to the assassin arsenal, hiding in ground cover nicely expands the stealth options, and the ship-based combat is a solid, if ill-fitting, offering. When ACIII offers Connor a chance to behave humanly, as in the village sidequests and some New York missions, the game feels like it's brushing up against a more interesting and mature take on its own mythology. This is all the more true because Connor, unlike the series's other major protagonists, seems to be aware of the historical import of the events he's taking part in. These sidequests, however, merely feed into a busted and obstructive economic system and a perfunctory Assassin's brotherhood feature, rather than articulating a humane Assassin ideal in their own right.

In contrast to the single-player campaign, the multiplayer offering remains fundamentally sound. It doesn't, however, really make a case for a new iteration. The new Wolfpack mode seems to have come into existence purely to give the game an analogue to popular horde modes, although Manhunt essentially provided this feature already. The new maps are certainly new, and with the exception of the Animus Core, largely inoffensive, but not detectably better than the maps that came with Brotherhood.

Server stability has been a serious problem in my multiplayer matches, in some ways more so than it was in Brotherhood. In addition, the game seems to have developed a very bad habit of spawning players in view of their pursuers, not only on the cramped maps used for Deathmatch rounds, but also on the full-sized offerings used for Manhunt or Wanted. In both of these modes I have spawned practically on the blade of an opponent, and had targets materialize right in front of me. In this regard ACIII's multiplayer is demonstrably worse than the games it presumably replaces. Players interested in the multiplayer metagame will find progression and its rewards unbearably cluttered, apparently for no better reason than to support microtransactions for extracting a few extra bucks from the player base.

At least the petty indignities of the multiplayer are optional and situated around gameplay that's solid and unique, if frustratingly stagnant. In the single-player campaign, however, it's impossible to escape the ham-fisted manipulations of the Assassin's Creed III development team. Although Connor Kenway fights for freedom in a war that was presumably about liberty, Ubisoft makes the player a slave to their particular vision. I can see the irony in that, but I can't see the point, even if it's for my own good. Rating: 6.0 out of 10.


Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail purchase and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 20 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed once) and 15 hours of play in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, sexual themes, and strong language. As with any online game, other gamers can make the language matter worse, though in my experience most players don't have their mic on, and most of those that do don't talk very much during or after matches.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing: Sound can be helpful in the single-player portion of the game, but is rarely essential thanks to copious visual cues. The subtitles, however, occasionally get scrambled or display too quickly to be read. Multiplayer presents an entirely different problem. Heartbeats and whispers mark the proximity of targets and pursuers, respectively, and have no visual counterpart. As a result, hard-of-hearing players will be at a substantial disadvantage, especially when it comes to avoiding pursuers. Volume settings can be used to level the playing field against friends, but against the general public an inability to hear will cost you several high-point kills per round.

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson

Sparky Clarkson grew up in the hot lands of Alabama, where he was regularly mooned by a cast iron statue. He played his first games on a Texas Instruments 99/4A computer, although he was not an early adopter. He eventually left Alpiner behind, cultivating a love of games that grew along with the processing power of the home computer. Eventually, however, the PC upgrade cycle exhausted him, and by the time he received his doctorate from the University of North Carolina he had retreated almost entirely to console gaming.

Currently Sparky works as a scientist in Rhode Island, and works gaming in between experiments and literature reviews. As a writer, he hopes to develop a critical voice that contributes to a more sophisticated and interesting culture of discourse about games. He is still waiting for a console port of Betrayal at Krondor.
Sparky Clarkson

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11 Comments on "Assassin’s Creed III Review"

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Sparky Clarkson
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Sparky Clarkson
3 years 8 months ago
I wouldn’t put it quite like that, Anon. I think Alv has a point in that it can be fun to walk around in these versions of the past (he does not have a point about any bias here, as I am a huge fan of AC1, 2, and Brotherhood). But there is a material difference here, in that all of the preceding games in the series have allowed the player to stand in the presence of some of the world’s architectural wonders. Even when I didn’t like what was going on in the previous games in terms of their… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
3 years 8 months ago
@Alv I’m sorry to say it but just like in real life not everyone can become a doctor, not every gamer is good at knowing and having enough intelligence to know what goes into making a fun game for a wide range of people. The reason AC gets a lot of hate is because assasins creed is really just a poorly made prince of persia, go pick up Prince of persia Sands of time or Warrior within, the combat is infinitely better then all AC games combined. AC2 is the best AC but even an older Ubisoft game has a… Read more »
Lambonius
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Lambonius
3 years 8 months ago
Wow, Alv, it’s like you took the words right out of my mouth (only stated more eloquently.) I really don’t have anything I can add to your excellently stated posts, except perhaps to say that I think one’s appreciation of the AC series is directly related to one’s interest in the historical settings. Stripped of those settings, the gameplay would become quite stale, quite quickly–the Desmond missions in ACIII felt that way to me. But inside the Animus, in the memories of those ancestors, the settings thrill, even with a few wonky game mechanics or railroaded missions. Personally, I can… Read more »
Alv
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Alv
3 years 8 months ago
As an avid GameCritics reader / follower, the words ‘trees’ and ‘forest’ tend to pop into my consciousness every time I read an AC review on this site. As much as I respect the independence and maturity of reviews and debate on offer, I must admit to being repeatedly flummoxed by the relative negativity this site maintains towards the entire AC franchise. For me, these games are the apex of what advancements in the capabilities of this generation of consoles have given to world-immersion gaming. Yes the cut scenes are jarring, yes the climbing is sometimes (only sometimes) problematic, yes… Read more »
Spokker
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Spokker
3 years 8 months ago

You would have though that the game’s progressivism would have made up for the terrible gameplay but I suppose not!

Wiggly Squid
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Wiggly Squid
3 years 8 months ago
Lambonius, I have read a lot of reviews — most I agree with — and absolutely none of them thought the AC series needs to go back to being like the first game. The common thread among most reviews and players is that AC2 and ACB are the pinnacle of the series. AC1 has major flaws but AC2 significantly improved the mechanics. Nobody is criticizing AC3 for straying from AC1; people are criticizing AC3 for not being *even better* than AC2. I understand if you think that the thing that makes AC so special is its ability to immerse the… Read more »
Lambonius
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Lambonius
3 years 8 months ago
I keep seeing so many reviews saying (in so many words) “Assassin’s Creed III has almost entirely lost touch with the core component of the series,” and then criticizing it for not being more like the first (and arguably worst) game in the series. I find it rather baffling that so many critics and gamers seem to be missing the point of what makes Assassin’s Creed games special. It has nothing to do with being an “assassin simulator.” If you want that, go try Thief or Dishonored. The “core component” of the Assassin’s Creed series, at least from the second… Read more »
Wiggly Squid
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Wiggly Squid
3 years 8 months ago
[quote=Sparky Clarkson]In all honesty I haven’t ever cared for AC‘s futuristic frame story, and particularly not for Desmond. That’s not to say that the Animus frame doesn’t contribute anything – Shaun’s caustic codex entries are a real draw of the series. But overall that level of the story has always felt too sparse and too focused on a really unlikable character for me to get into it. ACIII doesn’t really do anything to change that. It had some opportunities — in particular, there was a chance to develop some interesting parallels between the Haytham – Connor and Desmond – Bill… Read more »
Anonymous
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Anonymous
3 years 8 months ago

I was done with the series after AC2. I got so frustrated that guards could be taken out easily, but whenever one of the main targets was involved there was no way to kill them without it deteriorating into a chase with alarms ringing. That just sucked all the satisfaction out of the experience for me, and it sounds like nothing’s changed here.

Sparky Clarkson
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Sparky Clarkson
3 years 8 months ago
In all honesty I haven’t ever cared for AC‘s futuristic frame story, and particularly not for Desmond. That’s not to say that the Animus frame doesn’t contribute anything – Shaun’s caustic codex entries are a real draw of the series. But overall that level of the story has always felt too sparse and too focused on a really unlikable character for me to get into it. ACIII doesn’t really do anything to change that. It had some opportunities — in particular, there was a chance to develop some interesting parallels between the Haytham – Connor and Desmond – Bill dynamics.… Read more »
Wiggly Squid
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Wiggly Squid
3 years 8 months ago
Hey Sparky, Interesting that you post this as I JUST completed the main single player campaign two nights ago. I agree with pretty much everything you say regarding the single player campaign. It’s clear Ubisoft is more interested in ramming the story / digital “experience” down the player’s throat than actually improving the mechanics that give the player freedom and actually make him feel like an assassin. For me it was frustrating that almost every stealth mission or fort infiltration degenerated into a battle royale where I am able to take out 50 rifleman by killing them one at a… Read more »
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