Assassin's Creed 3 review: Declination of independence

The pig herding segment in Assassin's Creed 3 is probably the best one this year. If you play these games for the thrills of pudgy livestock redirection, it's the number one reason to buy Assassin's Creed 3. For everyone else (is anyone even still reading?), the recommendation must be more reserved.

Animal control is an optional activity on your sprawling homestead, but an essential rite in grasping the confused composition of Assassin's Creed 3. As new protagonist Connor mutters to himself about the things he does for his people, it becomes a little too easy to relate to such a banal chore. The things I do for this game, you'll think – this bold, uneven, occasionally brilliant, often frustrating action game.%Gallery-166434% Still, it has the brazen novelty of being a historical action game hinged on the American Revolution, and populated by figures like George Washington, Charles Lee and Paul Revere. The Boston Tea Party is a relatively recent point of interest for the franchise, and that goes some way to explaining the more sophisticated techniques of new assassin Connor (or Ratonhnhaké:ton to his Native American pals). As with Ezio, there's a personal injustice that drives Connor to assassinate conspirators, bears, bunnies and tea. Especially tea, you leafy, aromatic bastard.

The extravagant story is to blame for some of the game's unsteadiness, despite being one of its highlights. Indeed, Assassin's Creed 3 is filled with well-acted scenes that entertain, bristle, and understand the comedic value of a nervous nod over a spoken line. The opening will be savaged for being slow, but it's an elegant introduction to the 18th century and a fine primer on Connor's eventual intersection with the Revolution. His personal drama is an intense treat, and a reliable antidote to the daftness of what happens in the present day.

Though slavish devotion to the story's integrity is admirable – to the point where Ubisoft Montreal will build an entire theater just to set the stage – it tends to commandeer your role as assassin in a time of upheaval. The current course of Assassin's Creed is in line with a chilling deterioration of agency, evident every time the game floods your view with a list of optional objectives, or throws an intrusive navigation marker on the screen. You can turn the latter off, but you'll also lose QTE prompts.

When it comes to the main missions, you tend to feel like a neutered killer with your path plotted for you, or a glorified stuntman who has to hit the marks in his big action sequence, lest he repeat it over and over. There's no sense of empowerment in connecting the trivially spaced dots, or walking from one cutscene to the next, or chasing a man in a circle until you take the correct path and tackle him. By the time you get to the assassination, it's been robbed of any planning or sense of accomplishment.

The primary objectives are all over the place in terms of quality, but they seem to succeed whenever the director pulls back and gives you some maneuvering room. A better example can be found in the Templar-controlled forts, which can be approached as ingeniously or as clumsily as you can manage. You might lay down traps, systematically eliminate guards from above or below, or simply barge in with a loaded pistol. This is when Assassin's Creed 3 shines and when its components bump together in exciting ways. Even a failed plan can devolve into something unexpected, be it a last stand on the edge of a chasm or a fist fight in a storm. Oh, yes, there are weather effects now.

Once you get over the oscillating mission design you can enjoy the classic strengths of Assassin's Creed, as augmented by the gorgeous AnvilNext engine. The sense of scale and nearly palpable life in Boston and New York has the capacity to stun. The cities feel authentic enough to deter fact-checking, and impart that sense of being there – even if you've never been and never will be. These streets are nearly worth the price of admission alone, and they come with the implied promise that you'll never have to do something as boring as driving a car up and down them all day.

Beyond the cities you'll find a massive playground of rivers, cliffs and trees in the Frontier, an ideal testing ground for Connor's feats of free-running. His impeccable movement, uninhibited by hills and fallen logs, is as captivating to watch as it is to command. That effortless flow carries over to the redesigned combat, which breaks out of the franchise's staccato loop and lets you dispatch enemies without losing momentum, counter several incoming blows at once, and inject any equipped tool into the fight. It's tempting to fall back into the old wait-and-counter routine, but the animations are so flamboyant it's always worth experimenting with different finishers.

The artificial intelligence governing the Redcoats is a poor match for you, still, and with time it requires a strange, distracting suspension of disbelief. You'll have to believe that guards tend to forget your permanence as soon as you walk behind a wall, and that they can barely see you behind a shred of pixelated shrubbery. The civilians wandering the city also seem to have little reaction to murder in broad daylight. There weren't any video games back then, so we know they can't be that desensitized.

It's possible they're being distracted by the glut of goodies to investigate, collect and press B on throughout Assassin's Creed 3 – Ubisoft still seems deathly afraid of irking the people who said there was nothing to do in the original game. So, there's a lot to do in Assassin's Creed 3 outside of stabbing, but not much of it is fun. In fact, one of the game's biggest problems is that so little of it feels essential.

That isn't to say you shouldn't meet the game halfway but, man, why did it bring so much stuff with it? Some of the activities fall under grinding (leveling up your fellow assassins) and others are strings of superficial interaction (press B on a highlighted area to track an animal). The side missions that tie into your murderous repertoire are best, while those that tie into the economy smell like progression-porn traps from a mile away. And once you've recruited artisans for your homestead, you can craft items from recipes and send them out via convoys that you can oh my goodness this is boring.

The one exception here is the naval combat, which could be broken out into its own downloadable game after some further refinement. It's not particularly cohesive with the traits of an assassin, but Ubisoft has made a genuinely exciting time of going to sea. The ships lurch across the beautiful ocean, barely in your control, and shatter into smithereens when cannonballs find your broadside. The camera-shaking presentation and elegant interface tie it all together, fit to present as an apology for that tower-defense minigame in Assassin's Creed: Revelations.

If excess is becoming an issue in Assassin's Creed, we might rely on the multiplayer mode for a purer, more innovative approach to social subterfuge. This year's revision improves the interface and accessibility, and adds Wolf Pack, a must-play co-op mode. Now, four of you stalk assigned non-player characters that grow increasingly more paranoid and alert. Each kill extends the time on the clock, but only coordinated assassinations will give you enough bonus points to push it far enough to make it to the end of the round. In other words, you're encouraged to form a tiny, aggressively anti-social flash mob.

I expect most will come for Connor's story in Assassin's Creed 3, and they'll find that it's well told but detrimental to player agency. It's sad to see the game lose sight of its assassin role-playing ideals in favor of bombast, bomb blasts and pig herding, so I hope this is but a momentary stumble while the franchise regains its balance. Trim the excess, remember the central thrust (hint: it's with a knife) and then you'll have a great game again. Assassin's Creed 3 is the kind of game that's just good enough to make you wish it was better.


This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Assassin's Creed 3, provided by Ubisoft.

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