Monday, November 12, 2012

Assassin's Creed III - New Blood

While I did start playing Assassin's Creed from the second game, I did do something last year where I played through every single game from the beginning to build up to Revelations. Personally, I felt that the first game was a somewhat rocky start, the second showed higher promise and the other two games in the Ezio trilogy showed signs of decay from having yearly releases. This year saw the release of the franchise's third major entry, Assassin's Creed III, only a couple of weeks ago to positive acclaim. Assassin's Creed has been building up to this game through the previous four, taking a total of five games to align its release with the end of this year. So now this review will try to answer the simple question of whether or not the payoff is totally worth it.

In the present day, Desmond Miles and Co. take the Apple of Eden into an underground Temple in New York constructed by the precursors. While there, they hope to use the Animus to peer into Desmond's memories and discover the location of a key that will help prevent a great disaster: a solar flare so powerful that the Earth will be destroyed on 12/21/2012. Since Desmond has learned all that he can from Altaïr ibn-La'Ahad and Ezio Auditore da Firenze, he takes to learning from following a different ancestor, a half English half Mohawk named Connor Kenway, real name Ratonhnhaké:ton (pronouned "Ra-doon-ha-gay-doon"), through the American Revolution. After his village is burned down as a child, Connor, as a teenager, learns of a destiny involving an unfamiliar symbol and heads to the home of Achilles Davenport for guidance. Though reluctant as first, Achilles agrees to help train Connor as an Assassin to combat the Templars. During his training, Connor gets involved in the events of the American Revolution and learns more about the events leading up to that faithful day in his village, as well as how much of it may involve his father, Haytham Kenway.

The story of Assassin's Creed III shows just how well the game can handle the story and tie up loose ends. There is a lot of narrative depth in both time frames, though mostly in the world of the Animus, which I found actually helped me remember smaller details about the setting better. Connor's journey is a tough one for him, but he finds the perseverance to find the Templar named Charles Lee and make him pay for the crime against his people (and is a total badass at the end when he finally offs him). It was also interesting to watch the American Revolution unfold from his point of view, partly since I have an ancestor (Major John Buttrick) who was involved in the battle of Lexington and Concord, and I trust that any creative liberties didn't get in the way of historical accuracy. I enjoyed Connor's thread and felt that his story was the overall strongest aspect of the game. While some may feel that the number of cutscenes can get in the way of this, I actually felt the opposite.

As for the present day, the story of Desmond Miles was concluded in a way that was surprisingly satisfying. I wasn't jumping for joy every time I got to control him, but he was definitely fleshed out better as a character. My least favorite bit about him was the missions he performed to gather the power sources for the precursor Temple, since the villains are defeated in a very anticlimactic fashion, but the rest of the time was certainly interesting. He has time to actually bond with his dad (voiced by John de Lancie), adding some weight to his backstory as seen in Assassin's Creed: Revelations. The information we also learn about the precursors while inserting the devices however is nothing short of fascinating, making the climax of the game more emotional and somehow transforming Desmond from a character we don't usually care about to one that we can actually feel emotion for in the final minutes. The ending, especially its twist, was pulled off rather well and can be seen as setting up a potential sequel.

The world of the Animus itself however is very impressively constructed. Between Boston, New York and the Frontier, this world is massive and simply fun to explore, though a little tiring at times. The two cities look similar to each other in some places, though I did find that enough differences existed to make them feel unique. The Frontier avoids this however by having plenty of environmental obstacles to navigate, mainly trees and steep cliffs. Everything is also beautifully rendered, with graphics that actually surpass those in the Ezio trilogy of games. The colors stand out a little more and the lighting combined with the dynamic weather help everything look visually appealing.

Of course navigating the world is important and can be accomplished in brand new ways. You could run and climb or go on horseback to get to your destination quicker, but now it is possible to climb up trees and navigate through them quickly from branch to branch simply by holding down one button while running. This method is very convenient for stealth as well, letting you strike from above with the element of surprise at your advantage. Other ways of climbing are carried over from previous games and also tweaked in just the right ways to help emphasize the focus on fluidity. Then there's the newly introduced Fast Travel mechanic, allowing Connor to go between certain locations at any given time, instead of just when you get to a station that allows it, provided you have discovered some of them first. Fast Travel comes in really handy, so it's a great idea to take advantage of it when you can and it really cuts down the time required to get to most missions.

In the heat of combat, it's always good to consider your options, and the latest installment has been tweaked in all the right ways to make that decision easier. Long gone are the days of struggling with your weapons to have any effect on your enemies, horrible block timing windows and relying solely on counterattacking. Okay, that last one is still there, but it's been reduced to an option rather than something to lean on. By that, I mean that combat is still based on countering the opponent, but you can now reliably attack an enemy, be they Redcoat or Patriot, in a much more fluid manner. Weapons can now be dual-wielded, a feature that's both useful and powerful. Because of this, I was able to rely on Connor's Tomahawk rather than a hidden blade during a struggle. It is also possible to use items such as rope darts, an immediate favorite, to bring some enemies down to where you could end their life with one blow.

Thanks to the advanced combat, it's also much easier to battle unarmed, since there are now enemy types with tactics to defeat them that are easy to remember, especially if you know that you can trip them up or use alternate weapons in combat. Performing kill streaks will also increase Connor's power gradually and create flashier kills, so eventually a tougher guy will die in one hit. Better block timing also helps make combat more of a breeze, since blocking enemy strikes is now more of a real possibility. Assassin's Creed III, with regard to timing and combat abilities, seems to have taken some cues from Batman: Arkham Asylum, but I think that by doing so it's much better off and has the best combat system of any Assassin's Creed game.

Also new to this game are Naval Battles, also known as combat between ships. When missions within the story required these I was able to get the hang of them and felt good with each victory, but it wasn't a feature I was ready to jump back into. It definitely increases the replay value however and is a good compression of actual naval fights, though it's rather interesting how ordering the crew to duck from cannon fire avoids any and all damage to even the ship.

As for the economy system of this installment, I couldn't really get into it. In the Ezio trilogy the economy was simple enough that I could get hooked on increasing the value of the property and earning more money extremely quickly and efficiently. In this game however, I felt that the economy system either wasn't explained well enough or it didn't do enough to grab my attention. The way they set it up is interesting and fits the time period, but I won't be trying to up the Davenport Homestead anytime soon.

I also have a couple other complaints, the first involving a rather annoying glitch. You see, there's a lock picking mechanic that involves turning tools with both sticks and mashing on one button to brute force the lock. While a little annoying from slight mistakes leading to everything coming undone in a second, it still worked pretty well. However, there were times where it was completely obvious that Connor's animations for this minigame were meant for a certain height, a very specific one at that. Sometimes the tools would be completely misaligned with their proper locations and be above the intended slot. I even had it where I just held the tools in the right spot, but then the lock would undo itself all the way without the chest opening, forcing me to redo the entire operation. I would question whether or not someone caught that in testing, but thanks to Tales from the Trenches, I know that someone must have, the developers just probably didn't have the time or didn't want to iron that bug out for release.

I also felt disappointed somewhat with the mission structure. There seem to be fewer missions this time around thanks to there only being 15 memory sequences, but at least five of these sequences are more like extended tutorials even though they advance the story. Aside from these, even though the game has a heightened sense of freedom, there are still some very strict constraints on what you can do, such as staying on one set path. Sometimes it seemed a little vague on whether or not the target could die during a chase, of which there are quite a few that are also poorly handled, but in one instance I tackled a target properly and the game still registered them as being dead! In some of them, there's even somewhat of a limit on your margin of error, which is to say none. If you get hit by one guy during a chase, you're pretty much screwed and might as well just start over, unless the environment is lucky enough to give you some way of anticipating them. In one specific instance near the end of the game, a particularly linear chase sequence with no way to get ahead of my target (Charles Lee), an explosion occurred and the game physics collided in a way that forced Connor to spin in the air and land in the water, ruining my chances of success. Then there's also the case of Samuel Adams telling you that he'll lead you through the underground, only for the game to really mean "You're leading him to your destination without a real guide. Good luck!"

Before I end my review however, I should go over a couple of bonuses I received. First off, I got the PS3 version of the game, granting me access to an extra hour of gameplay (actual time may vary, by the way). In these exclusive missions, you play through West Point missions that have Connor interacting with Benedict Arnold. This I felt was alright, since it retained the same level of mission structure as with the core game, but the story is definitely what you play them for, since it gives you an alternate insight into what went on with him at the time. However I will point out that one cutscene in particular felt more like an obvious machinima. The other bonus is from pre-ordering the game at GameStop, granting access to the "Lost Mayan Ruins" mission and the exclusive Sawtooth Sword weapon, belonging previously to Captain Kidd. This mission is pretty short, but I enjoyed it for taking advantage of Connor's skills in the core game, the weapon serving as an extremely useful and powerful reward. I felt this "GameStop Edition" was worth it.

So, is the payoff totally worth it? Yes and no. In terms of narrative, the game delivers on all fronts and is a very satisfying journey through the American Revolution with a great protagonist and a very fitting finale for Desmond Miles' journey as well. However, despite some very good tweaks, there is the occasional odd glitch and some poor mission design choices that can bog down the enjoyability for some, though the quality of the economy and the Naval Battles are more dependent on who's playing. It's a great trip for returning fans of the franchise, who have no doubt already bought this. If you still haven't played anything in the Assassin's Creed franchise, I would really recommend playing it from the beginning. The games aren't really that hard to get at this point and it seriously helps the narrative flow, especially considering the continuity lockout at the gorgeously animated opening cutscene. Otherwise, this is probably one of the best games of this year.

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