- beautifully realised colonial America
- smooth freerunning
- satisfyingly vicious combat
- improved hiding mechanic
- patchy control mapping
- unclear freerunning signposts
- awkward combat mapping
- boring protagonist
- contrived plot
- tutorial lasts 3-5 hours - way too long
Let's start with the great things about this game. If you want to stop reading after that, then you haven't got to wade through the numerous negatives to get here.
Improvements are pretty practical, and very welcome. The ability to crouch in long grass/bushes is long overdue, as is the ability to hover at the edge of a wall/surface for a kind of 3rd-person tactical view. Your assassin can also whistle whilst in hiding to distract guards away from key locations, and in general it all feels a bit more tactical than before.
Pre-Independence America is also absolutely gorgeous; wide sunlit roads in Boston, fields of grass glowing in the sunset, the vast, snow-filled frontier. This game looks amazing. Fling yourself from tree to tree (if you're like me, you're singing Monty Python's lumberjack song right now), branch to branch, cliff to cliff, in the most organic freerunning mechanic yet. It's also huge - a big sandbox playground to practice your parkour to your heart's content.
Combat is also satisfyingly visceral and punchy, though not without its flaws. We'll get to those later. In general, when it works, combat is a lot of fun and allows Connor to flow from one enemy to the next as a killing machine. Badassery, pure and simple. And a lot of fun.
The thing about the Assassin's Creed games though, is that each game's link to the Creed itself (essentially boils down to: stop the evil templars) gets more and more tenuous.
Altair was born and raised to be an assassin at a time when assassins worked openly (Crusade-era Jerusalem). His whole life is dedicated to the Creed and to fighting the Templar / Crusader threat. Having him as an assassin makes a lot of sense. He's also an unapologetic badass, which makes him awfully appealing as a protagonist.
Ezio....happens to be a very athletic young man who becomes an assassin almost by accident, following the deaths of some of his family members. It can still make sense though, given that the Ezio storyline in AC2, Brotherhood and Revelations focus on Ezio being surrounded by this fraternity of assassins who first guide him, and then allow themselves to be led by him as he matures to Master Assassin. He's also the right balance between charming and driven - again making him a pleasure to play.
Connor....makes no sense. He's withdrawn, his voice-actor doesn't seem to understand what "inflection" means, and whilst it's an absolute delight to hear the Iroquois languages (re: Native American) spoken with remarkable fluency, Connor is ultimately really, really boring. I understand that the devs wanted him to not take sides in the Revolution but instead look to his own interests, that's fine, but he has nothing interesting to say, no hook for the player.
And that is where AC3 really falls down. As you go through the AC series, the storyline also gets more and more ridiculous. I'm perfectly willing to buy into the idea of a parallel fight in the past (Desmond in the Animus) and the present (Assassin's Order trying to prevent global destruction caused by a Templar satellite launch) - hell, it's not the most ludicrous storyline out there and frankly I find it all part of the fun of playing the AC series.
But the real strength of AC comes from its ancestor storylines - Altair's story, Ezio's story, within the wider framework of Assassins vs Templars. AC3 doesn't have that balance because it doesn't have a protagonist that generates emotional investment. Connor is completely 2-dimensional, emotionally flat and generally uninspired. The conflict built into his nature feels forced - a contrivance necessary to carry the plot. And there is a LOT of plot.
That isn't always a bad thing, but in the presumed effort to make this game as accessible to new fans as to existing ones, the "hand-holding" phase is a good 3 to 4 hours long. Compared to AC2, where a half hour in you're climbing buildings and synchronising viewpoints, this feels overly long and again, a contrivance to set the amount of plot exposition necessary to justify Connor's role in all this, given that he's not sufficiently interesting on his own.
The game's mechanics and control mapping have also been completely overhauled. Generous reviews paint the new combat controls as similar to Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum / Arkham City. This just isn't true - but would be awesome if it was. The only similarity between the two is that both now use the ABXY buttons, but that's it. Batman's controls are far more streamlined and allow a much more consistent combat flow, moving seamlessly from one enemy to the next. AC3 is fiddly, awkward and takes a lot of getting used to. Not to overuse the adage "if it ain't broke....", but this supposed innovation feels like a step backwards from (in particular) AC:Brotherhood and Revelations, both of whom had excellent combat mapping and freerunning techniques. The game and the player also have to adapt to guns - and combat isn't all bad in AC3. The ability to use enemies as meat shields is hugely entertaining and a great device, but difficult to pull off consistently. When it is successful, there's no feeling like it - if only it wasn't so inconsistent.
Freerunning also sees a few modifications - it's now possible to simply run forwards and let the game almost "pick out" the best route - this holds up well in cities, but out on the frontier, trusting the game to pick the route is flawed and often results in falls, deaths and enormous frustrations. Trees are climbable - but not all trees and the game often doesn't make it clear which are and aren't. Same with the cliffs - areas that look completely climbable turn out not to be. It feels arbitrary. That said, the freerunning is generally intuitive and certainly a hell of a lot of fun when Connor gets into his flow, bounding from branch to branch with beautiful-looking animations. All in all though, comparing it even to AC2 (the least intuitive climbing system of the 3 Ezio games), AC3 doesn't hold a candle to previous titles.
The naval battles are also a lot of fun - certainly better than the dubious, immersion-breaking "den defense" from AC:Revelations.
But it's the messy, frustrating, slow development, patchy combat mechanics and a protagonist almost as boring as the modern-day Desmond Miles that let this title down badly. The only gripe I have with the graphics (and I had the same one with Revelations) is that none of the peripheral characters - Desmond, Rebecca and Shaun - look ANYTHING like their previous iterations. And we know it's possible - Mass Effect in particular is an excellent example of how you can have improved graphical output without sacrificing familiar faces.
All in all, the game tries to be stellar but ends up being a mish-mash of beautiful graphics let down by poor implementation. Pre-Declaration America is simply gorgeous - from the deer bounding through the woods as Connor leaps through the trees, to wide-paved cities and easily recognisable famous buildings and figures of Independence-Era America.
I still recommend the title, but given its AAA status, it's not worth the full price you'd pay on launch day.