'Assassin's Creed III' is a clear labour of love. The world that Ubisoft have created is as dense as it is expansive; as beautiful as it is alive. But it varies wildly between moments that are utterly inspired, and others which are the total opposite. Indeed, the game is a project of such ambition that at points it's obvious that Ubisoft bit off more than they could chew. And although AC3's failings tower above the successes of other games, those failings are conspicuous enough that this final instalment in Desmond's story marks a step backward even as Ubisoft take two steps forward.
The game has four main problems. First, the character of Connor - a half-English, half-Native hybrid out for revenge against the Templars who burned down his village - comes across as little else than a hot-blooded brat, spouting platitudes about `freedom' like a broken record. He has none of the likability or gravitas of AC2's Ezio Auditore, against whose legacy he pales. It was very difficult to invest emotionally in the character, and ultimately, his story, despite an enthralling backdrop and a strong set of villains. Connor's blandness is also a particular disappointment given the exceptional quality of the first three sequences of the game, during which the player steps into the boots of Connor's father, Haytham, whose moral complexity and quiet charisma made him a sumptuous aperitif preceding a half-baked main.
Second, although the world is vast, much of the gameplay (especially the side missions) just feels like filler. This has always been true of Assassin's Creed to some extent, but Ubisoft managed to mix it up a lot more in AC2, pulling it off with such verve that it was rarely a chore. AC3 marks a serious step back in this respect, with many of the side missions being simply recycled if not outright duplicated. It's so formulaic that there's next to no incentive to bother engaging with them. The biggest travesty of all, however, is the management of Connor's settlement. Unlike in AC2, its development hinges on completing banal tasks for the inhabitants. Direct management of the economy is possible but it's so unclear how to engage with it that it just comes across as needlessly complex filler.
Third, although stealth is still very much a factor, it has an erratic role in the gameplay and can be needlessly frustrating. For example, once Connor has been spotted, it's not possible to hide again until you escape your enemies, which is incredibly difficult to do. The notoriety system, in particular, is very unforgiving, a bizarre feature in a game which overall prioritises combat over stealth. It's also a shame because stealth and prowess only translates into the first two or three Templars Connor assassinates, sections which show off the very best of the game and are sadly dispensed with later on.
Finally, the game weirdly suffers from its commitment to realism and period detail. This isn't Ubisoft's fault per se; but the architecture of eighteenth century Boston and New York was very utilitarian. The urban environments may be atmospheric and faithfully recreated, but they are also bland and repetitive (again, duplication is an issue), making them a chore to traverse as they are expansive. However, despite the visual commitment to historical accuracy, Ubisoft end up pulling their punches in terms of substance. The British are staunchly the `bad guys' here, even if passing reference is made to corruption and hypocrisy among the Continentals, and their penchant for slavery. Given how exhilarating and intellectually stimulating the settings of the Holy Land, Renaissance Italy and Constantinople were, AC3 disappoints overall.
But where AC3 excels, it really excels. The gameplay itself has largely been perfected. The combat system has been revised and turns fighting into a brutal, fluid ballet. There's much more emphasis on being proactive in combat (previously a major problem in the series) and it's more challenging as a result. And it looks beautiful. Few things become more satisfying than effortlessly cutting down a column of redcoats in fresh fallen snow. Climbing and movement is perfectly executed, Connor lurching around with the agility and ferocity of a cougar. The diverse, open world of the frontier is a saving grace, especially given the constraints of the cities. And sometimes, the gameplay meshes perfectly with the story and setting, creating memorably cinematic moments: be it sprinting up Bunker Hill, avoiding British volleys; or clambering up a cliff face without being spotted to reach your target; or chasing your target through the chaos of a French-Indian ambush on a British column in the wilderness. Lorne Balfe's score is a great complement to these moments.
Indeed, AC3 is worth the purchase on account of its ambition and scale alone. Ubisoft have surpassed themselves in terms of the overall polish and slickness they have brought to AC3, qualities that previous instalments never quite possessed in the same way. However, while it's natural that in a game this size there are bound to be holes, in the case of AC3 the holes are large. Most of its boils down to the repetitive nature of the gameplay, making for a bloated experience even though the story itself feels rushed and half-baked by its end. Ubisoft have simultaneously inspired as much disappointment as they have awe.