Assassin's Creed 3 PC Review
I hate to admit that as a fan of big, epic games, I've really been struggling with the Assassin's Creed series over the years. This franchise is so ambitious, so complex, so overwrought that the games often feel like they're barely being held together, that from a gameplay and narrative (and not technical) perspective, they could crumble under their own weight at any time. I feel nervous and uneasy playing these games, and the developers' move towards metaphysics and pseudo-scientific babble as an overarching plot have not really endeared me to the series, mostly because there already seems to be plenty going on without all that stuff. I know how silly that sounds; how could there be too much in a game for its own good? But I've been of the opinion for a few years now that Assassin's Creed would be better served with a dialed-back plot and tighter focus on missions and city exploration rather than so many viewpoints and narratives crossing back and forth.
Unfortunately, with Assassin's Creed 3, they just turned up everything I was hoping they wouldn't. Again, it's an amazing game with some wonderful moments in it, but to deliver these, the developers have had to remove choices and more carefully guide the player along a very linear track, especially in its first several hours. And considering that this game is ostensibly about the United States winning its freedom, Ubisoft Montreal's decision to take some of that early control away from the player is a little ironic.
You play as a few characters in Assassin's Creed 3, but most time spent will be in the Animus reliving the memories of Connor, a man of half British, half Mohawk native descent during the times leading up to (and during) the Revolutionary War. You'll see New York, Boston, wide stretches of New England frontier and more, and will get to explore the biggest world the franchise has seen yet - even if you'll be playing for several hours before you're ever given the choice to start roaming freely and choosing your own missions. In the meantime, a very prolonged origin story serves as the backdrop for tutorials related to hunting, sneaking, fighting, using trees or rooftops to move around unseen above enemy heads, and more. What's frustrating is that only some of the skills you learn really have a part in the vast majority of the game; we're talking about the future of a nation here, and the game wastes time showing me how to use bait to draw a deer close enough for me to stab it. It's well done and kind of interesting, but it feels so small when all I want to do is the big stuff that the advertising and promotion has been throwing in my face for the better part of a year.
Again, some will wonder why I'm complaining about having too much game, but the point here is that you'll be wondering for your whole first evening playing the game when the part about the formation of America and how the Templars and Assassins actually have their part in it, and for hours it's over here screwing around with talking ghosts, hunting, and Connor's father. If the game was structured more like Red Dead Redemption, where wild animal attacks is a real problem or like Ubisoft's own Far Cry 3 where skinning these creatures allows you to increase your ammo and item-carrying capacity, that'd be different. But once you get embroiled into the politics, Connor's upbringing as a Mohawk becomes largely irrelevant and his Assassin training is all you really need.
There's a revenge tale in here and plenty of plots that involve important moments during the Revolutionary War - the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere's Ride, the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the war itself - that Connor magically gets dumped into, but it's hard to figure out what Connor really wants besides some vague "freedom" that doesn't seem to really mean American independence from the British. He wants his own Mohawk people to be free, but if this is meant to be a tale of American patriotism, Connor seems largely ignorant of the fact that whether the flag overhead is the Stars and Stripes or the Union Jack, the white man will encroach on his people's land and way of life all the same. The developers don't really deal with this terribly well, and it's a shame considering how much effort they put into making the rest of the Mohawk tribal experience seem so authentic.
Even all that would be complex enough - Desmond in the real world, going into the Animus to decipher Connor's memories and figure out something about his world - but then the game just gets even bigger and wilder than that. Some of this has already been started in previous AC games, and it just becomes even more wildly ambitious here. It's too much, really.
Luckily, there are some very fun things you'll do in AC3 that, at least for a while, will make you forget about just how overbearing this game is (or how it takes itself way too seriously). Infiltrating the front lines of a standing British army and hopping from tree to tree above a general to drop down on him and strike, chasing a counterfeiter through the streets of Boston, climbing nearly everything in the damn world, exploring the quiet wilderness on your own, taking down British ships single-handedly (by either creeping on-board as an assassin or as captain of your own ship, firing the main guns and taking cover from their own cannon fire) - it's really fun stuff.
For those who feel they have to 100% a game, however, they might feel a little constricted by the "optional" objectives that they might think they need to truly complete the game (hint: you don't). Still, that intense red text the game uses to reprimand you for not playing the way the developers want you to might be too much for some, and it might start them on the path to frustration as they feel the need to do things just right before they move on. If you decide to pick up AC3, I suggest that you not consider these extra objectives a must, as they can really make playing this game more stressful than it needs to be - plus, you can go back through the Animus and replay these sections to 100% the game if you feel like it later. Sometimes, these optional objectives are thinly-veiled suggestions for a very slick or stealthy way to complete a mission, so they can work well sometimes as a guideline for how to play, but don't consider them must-haves. AC3 doesn't really hand out a lot of freedom, so I suggest you take it when you can get it.
As a PC port, Assassin's Creed 3 does a fine job with only a few issues. The interface has clearly been yanked over from the console versions without any concessions for things like keyboards and mice, and while you can get a kb/mouse config going fairly well, I preferred playing this one on a gamepad since there's very little mouse-based aiming to do, and the analog stick-based movement is very smooth here; the WASD-based keyboard movement is rough and unrefined in comparison, and that's just not good for a game that makes your success rely so much on your character's movements. On the technical front, the developers have included detail options for better shadows, antialiasing, texture quality, and level of detail (delivered through higher polygon counts further away from the camera and from tessellation in DX11 mode), but do bring a high-end PC if you want this game to look better than its Xbox 360-based cousin, as AC3 is pretty demanding, especially in dense city environments. Nvidia Surround mode worked great on my 660Ti card in 5760x1080 resolution with a few other detail settings dropped down a bit, and the interface was properly placed on the center monitor while the game adjusted for the ultra-wide field of view appropriately. Overall, the port is pretty solid, and while I still did see some strange AI and character pop-in during the game's many highly-populated city scenes, I saw those issues on the other versions of the game as well.
In many ways, Assassin's Creed 3 feels like a perfect snapshot of everything that's both right and wrong with AAA gaming. The story stays linear for far too long - the intro lasts as long as most Call of Duty campaigns in their entirety, actually - but it eventually does open up a meticulously-crafted, beautiful world. The game takes itself too seriously and plays fast and loose with a few things, but its focus on piecing together a fairly realistic picture of life in the 1700s makes it an interesting historical piece - or at least, it does until all the sci-fi and Templar/Assassin stuff starts poking itself into the plot. Still, as flawed and frustrating as this game can be, Ubisoft has brought us one of the most ambitious, entertaining, and expertly-built games of 2012. Assassin's Creed 3 is overbearing and sometimes just a little too much to handle, but after you play it, you'll see why it's worth all the trouble.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a digital download version on PC provided by the publisher. Multiplayer was not tested.