Everything is True. Nothing is Permitted.
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?"
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.
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.
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.