Last year’s instalment into the Assassin’s Creed saga disappointed many fans of the series, with over-familiarity and irksome new features among the charges levelled at AC: Revelations. This time around, with a new protagonist and the action transposed to a different historical era, are the blades razor-sharp once more, or has the assassin’s knife been blunted on the wheels of progress?
Set during the American Revolutionary War, most of the game sees you control tomahawk-wielding Connor Kenway (or Ratohnhaké:ton, to give him his Native American title), bringing a new set of assassination skills into play as he tracks those evil Templars through the frontier.
The period setting is superbly rendered and the revealing of American soil for the first time is a truly great moment. Indeed you can almost smell the sawdust and sea spray of the fledgling port town of Boston as you first start getting to grips with your brand new surroundings.
Given how often AC3 adverts are playing on the TV depicting Connor as both man and boy, it will come as scant surprise to discover the game begins out of synch with what you might expect (and in more ways than one but we’ll leave that spoiler free). Your tentative steps as Connor are taken when he’s a mere boy, but time lapses to focus on key moments as he matures and discovers his heritage.
Interesting memory sequences see you visit the elder of your tribe who has you assume the form of an eagle for the duration of your history lesson. So it is that the eagle feathers from previous games return in an early mission where you must gather supplies for your village, a mission which dovetails as a tutorial where new opportunities available to prospective assassins are explained.
Traversing trees is one such new manoeuvre and once you get the hang (and the climb, and the jump) of it, it begins to feel incredibly liberating. The odd moment of frustration – as Connor majestically leaps from the tree you’ve just spent minutes ascending just as you near the top – will still threaten the control pads of short-tempered gamers everywhere but on the whole climbing trees is handled organically.
More variety in the missions than previous instalments helps progress the series, but a number of features influenced by fellow American historical epic Red Dead Redemption do leave one with an initially worrying sense of déjà vu as you cut the hide from deer, foxes and hares, and keep a wary eye out for wolf and bear attacks.
The latter encounters are rendered as quick-time events, which slightly disappoints as I long to take one on with sword or shot, but such QTEs at least deliver a realistic fright, and accurately reflect the vulnerability of man when facing the wild.
An abundance of wide-open spaces are, perhaps appropriately for Assassin’s Creed, a double-edged sword – the sense of wonder engendered when scaling a cliff top high above the wilderness, or participating in full-scale military offences, is tempered by the amount of time you may spend slogging around mundanely through hunting territory on foot.
Fears about the increased need for horseback activity have come to fruition, and the mares still don’t control as neatly as their Red Dead counterparts. Early on in the game, the question remains as to whether or not it was a wise move to transpose the franchise yet further into the open air; while trotting through towns can be clunky too as hapless town folk wander aimlessly in front of your steed.
One of the main draws of the original games for me was the almost suffocating narrowness of the Florentine streets and Venetian waterways, which helped conjure the necessarily paranoid atmosphere of the series, with its hidden machinations operating in the background of history.
With Benjamin Franklin and George Washington both making early appearances – the former making an amusing diatribe about the benefits of taking an older lover – the humour and historical factions of Assassin’s Creed are thankfully still present and correct.
Thankfully, all the gameplay’s facets are as well, at least, that is, once you work past the false starts that see you acquiring new skills while all the time wondering when you will finally earn the right to don the eagle-hooded robes we all know and love.
Melee controls have been significantly improved, no longer allowing you to counter your way to victory. There’s no den defence either, mercifully, and upgrading the Homestead is much the same as Monteriggioni’s function in previous games.
Desmond finally comes to life as a character in some intriguing modern day sequences, and as the missions unfold, the sense of the game’s scale transforms from something perhaps over-awing in the first few hours of play, to a rich land full of opportunity, an America which wasn’t nicknamed the New World for nothing.
The way in which you revisit the same locations at different times of year is an excellent touch too, with a fort previously familiar perhaps later hidden under a blanket of snow, or crops reaching harvest time having sprouted tall enough to hide your movements.
Changes aren’t limited to the environment though – in early missions as Connor, you may trawl the streets of Boston ruminating about how unfair it is that the redcoats manage to beat you in nearly every fight, but then revisiting later in the game as a fully-grown, well-trained assassin, you can wreak some immensely satisfying carnage amongst their number.
Replay value is bolstered by a series of challenges within the missions themselves that are required to achieve full synchronisation, conditions which range from rescuing a man swept away by the river without getting wet yourself, through to keeping your notoriety level below a certain level while freeing slaves.
These extra tasks, combined with the massive areas available, the intriguing storyline, and the new and well-thought out naval warfare system leaves you with many hours of available gameplay before you even delve into the multiplayer, which is much improved from last time I tried it, in AC: Brotherhood (more on that in a follow-up article).
Ubisoft have done well to put the series back on track after a brief dip in quality, and in Connor have created a troubled character worthy of succeeding the iconic Ezio Auditore. The initial transition is perhaps a shock to the senses, but overall there’s a compelling narrative and a huge variety of quality gameplay.
Assassin’s Creed 3 survives its continental transplant with flying colours, and the red, white and blue ends up suiting the game as well as Renaissance Italy, or Jerusalem did in the past. Just don’t expect to feel quite as home on the range as you might have done in Red Dead Redemption.
By Sam Gill
Format: Xbox 360 (tested), PS3, PC