REVIEW: Games are very complex things that take a long time to make. That's hardly a clever observation - in fact, it's rather dull - but perhaps it's one we don't consider enough when we're thinking and talking about games in the months leading up to their release.
The period defined by the first rumour from an undisclosed source and a publisher referring to an unannounced "AAA" in a quarterly investment call, through all the trailers and previews, and ultimately up to the game's release: all of it is merely the tip of the developmental iceberg.
Pointing this out here is only relevant insofar as it's interesting to note that Assassin's Creed III was surely conceived in the tail end of the global financial crisis - at a time where, for publishers particularly, accountability often necessarily trumped creativity, and where even an assured blockbuster ought to make at least some concessions to ensure it was accessible to the widest possible audience.
Greater accessibility and appeal is evident throughout Assassin's Creed III. Setting the game against the backdrop of the American Revolution is a petition to the financially critical North American consumer base, and one made, arguably, at the expense of other historical settings that surely lend themselves more easily to the urban stealth gameplay that was the very nucleus of the series.
Was. Stealth remains a critical tenet in Assassin's Creed III, and throughout its sweeping campaign there are occasional sections where being detected will force a "desynchronization" - a checkpoint reload. But of the six assassinations that compose the primary narrative beats of Connor Kenway's story, only two can actually be attempted using stealth at all, and even in these two instances, a full-frontal assault is more expedient.
Nor is Revolutionary America especially qualified to fulfil the "urban" quota of the series' usual pitch. In the 18th century, the cities of Boston and New York are mere embryos of the dense metropolises they'll become in the future. As a result, seasoned players used to making largely linear progress across rooftops en route to their next target will often find themselves descending into the streets - bustling, colourful streets replete with domestic animals, children, vendors, and horse-drawn carts - lest they be channelled away from their objective.
Instead, Ubisoft has invested heavily in carefully realising the American frontier. Connor is an assassin of half Native American, half British extraction and as such is very much at home in the wilderness. It's a vast sandbox where much of the game's inconsequential - but immensely satisfying - content is to be found. Connor can hunt and trap animals, recruit enterprising frontierspeople to the area surrounding his homestead, topple Templar forts, attack British convoys, and challenge himself to gather hard-to-reach collectibles. Much of these activities come with economic reward, and the trade system boasts deep menus cataloguing the Assassin Order's finances. However, as Connor's weapons and armour needn't be upgraded at any point throughout the game, the impetus to participate in this part of the game is almost entirely absent.
The only truly significant financial outlet available to Connor is his ship, the Aquila. A much-touted feature pre-release, Connor is able to sail the eastern seaboard and the Caribbean in search of battle, plunder and fame. There's no doubt it's a visually spectacular addition: watching the Aquila crest mighty waves and crash perilously into troughs before groaning to port to unleash a broadside on an English frigate is an experience not to be found anywhere else in videogames, and it's a vastly superior distraction to the poorly conceived tower defence game included in Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Still, it suffers from a kind of purposelessness. There's no compelling reason to revisit the naval gameplay other than for the enjoyable distraction, and indeed the bog-standard ship Connor receives early in the game is perfectly sufficient to accomplish the few naval tasks included in the main narrative.
Connor's story hews extremely closely to the archetypal "hero cycle" outlined by Joseph Campbell. Pare back the aesthetic, and players will experience a myth structure they've encountered numerous times before. That's an observation, not a criticism: Ubisoft demonstrates enough scriptwriting expertise to warrant our emotional investment. Connor doesn't have the easy charm of Ezio Auditore, and players are unlikely to feel the same immediate rapport with this protagonist, but his story is a far more personal one, and because of that, it ultimately feels far more meaningful than any other the series has told to date.
The game also doesn't shy away from exploring some of the murkier waters of the American creation myth, and of the ideologies that various factions and characters within the series advocate. Righteousness is a matter of perspective, and Connor will come to be torn between identity and belief, between his principles, and what's practical. Although Assassin's Creed III only begins to scratch the surface of these difficult and sometimes convoluted debates, it's nonetheless agreeable to see them touched upon.
There are only two shortcomings here. The first is a propensity for the game to wrest control from the player. Far too many important moments, including two key assassinations, are shown in cinematics, or - to use even this term generously - quick-time events. In one way it's understandable: simply killing a target unawares is enormously anticlimactic in a narrative sense. Characters crossing swords and pouring their hearts out amid the smouldering ruins of a Revolutionary fort makes for a greater sense of spectacle and occasion. But it also makes unsatisfying gameplay. Like everyone else, Ubisoft is yet to discover the perfect alchemy between passive and active storytelling.
The second is the predictably melodramatic story of Desmond Miles, our conduit to various historical assassins courtesy of the sci-fi conceit of DNA memory. Assassin's Creed III marks the limp culmination of Desmond's story. His tenuous relationship with his father feels contrived, and a new adversary is introduced without adequate exposition. We're simply asked to buy into it. Desmond's sections are also performed without the benefit of the animus overlay, so finding objectives is a matter of trial and error, while combat becomes much more fraught. Stripping away the tools players have become accustomed to using is a frustration, and again, a flaw that could have been overcome with just a little imagination.
Assassin's Creed III is a game about options. It's important to make it clear that, aside from the superfluity of the economy and the predictably flaccid passages of gameplay hosted by Desmond, none of the points above should be construed as outright negatives, only differences.
Assassin's Creed III is different to the titles that have come before it. It's an open-world game with strong stealth inclinations, rather than a stealth game set in an open world, and for Ubisoft to manage this delicate evolution without entirely alienating an existing core of stealth gameplay enthusiasts is a remarkable feat.
Assassin's Creed III
For: Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U
RRP: $89 (PC), $99
Ups: Easily the most gripping story in the series to date. A more rounded lead character and a more richly realised supporting cast and world. Visually superior. Tighter controls. Better combat.
Downs: Desmond continues to disappoint. Economy and naval systems don't offer enough reward for investment. Stealth marginalised.