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When I think about Assassin's Creed 3, the word that springs to mind is "stuff". AC3 is jam-packed full of "stuff". Outside of the main story missions there are four distinct types of collectable and nine types of mission, as well as board games, bowls, fort infiltrations, three huge maps to uncover, unlockable quick travel points, animals to spot, wagon trains to defend, other wagon trains to raid, an assassin's guild to manage, and a broad and complicated crafting system hidden behind one of the most unfriendly menus I've ever seen.
But it's just "stuff"; a distraction. None of it is the actual game itself - the story of the assassin Connor and his complicated daddy issues. And unfortunately, none of that "stuff", no matter how much of it they ram into the game, can help disguise the fact that AC3 still has fundamental problems that have dogged the series since its inception.
With the first Assassin's Creed it was easy to overlook those problems. After all, it was one of the early games for a new generation of consoles, and it looked great. Moreover, there was an inherent level of enjoyment to be had just indulging in the free running system that saw you bounding effortlessly over rooftops, that offered unprecedented levels of scope and freedom of movement. So you could forgive the fact that the game's mission structure was awful, that the combat was lacklustre and stop-start, that the controls were so glitchy that you were as likely to plummet to your death as make the next ledge, and that the stealth systems and AI were so poor that any attempt to be a skilled assassin inevitably devolved into a massive bloodbath which would generally end with your character surrounded by thirty corpses.
AC2 sorted out the mission structure, and of course offered a new playable character in Ezio Auditore, who after Altair from the first game was a breath of fresh air in that he wasn't so utterly unlikeable that you actively wanted him to die. In fact, Ezio was so charismatic that it was again possible to overlook the fact that the game still had many of the same problems as the first. Brotherhood didn't solve those problems either, but it did at least introduce the concept of an assassin's guild with recruitable members, while Revelations had... well, it had a rubbish tower defence minigame, and was the first sign that the rot had started to set in.
AC3, then, is actually the fifth game in the series, and that's without counting the spin-offs for handheld consoles. It's unforgivable, then, that this game still hasn't fixed those problems. Despite claims of a streamlined control system, I still found myself crumpling to the cobbles next to the soft, inviting bale of hay that the context-sensitive controls promised me I'd land in. I feel like my highly trained killer should be able to run past a stack of crates without deciding that he should stop and rub himself against them. The combat is still a question of standing still in the middle of a circle of enemies, waiting for them to attack you one at a time so you can perform a counter. And the AI is even dodgier than before, at times able to spot you through solid walls but forgetting you in seconds even if you climbed into a bush right in front of them, while mission success still feels less like you're using your sublime assassination skills to overcome a clever enemy and more like you managed to muddle through despite the games unwieldy controls and broken systems.
Unfortunately for AC3, it doesn't have the swarthy Italian charm of Ezio to fall back on. Rather, your main character is Connor, a dour Native American for whom charisma is something that happens to other people and must be frowned upon, at length. He's the standard cliche'd Noble Savage, serious and idealistic. There's an early-game section where you control a different character that only serves to drive home the point: Conner is just plain boring.
When you're not playing Connor, of course, you're playing Desmond. The over-arching theme is that Desmond is in 2012, using technology left behind by a precursor race to access the lives of his ancestors in order to discover ancient secrets and hopefully avert an upcoming apocalypse. The Desmond sections have always split gamers into a group that enjoys them and a much larger group that just wants to get back to stabbing people in the face. I quite like them, and AC3 features probably the best Desmond levels yet, but they seem to be gaming Marmite.
So where have all the years of work that were apparently poured into this sequel gone, if not into fixing the series' long-standing problems? Probably into the game engine, which is quite lovely. Connor's action takes place in Colonial America; more specifically, in Boston, New York and the surrounding environs. And it's these Frontier sections that seem to have been the main focus. Connor isn't limited to free-running across rooftops; take him into the forest and he's just as happy leaping from branch to branch, scrambling up rocks and edging along cliff-faces. The Frontier is a gorgeous place, with a healthy roster of wild animals, a few small towns and lots and lots of unexplored woodland which offers up some genuinely startling scenes. The way that snow deforms as Connor runs through it is especially impressive, and the refinement of Conner's running makes movement feel simultaneously smoother and more powerful.
Also impressive are the new ship missions. Once Connor gets access to his own ship he can take to the high sea and and complete a series of missions based around sending enemy ships to the bottom of the briny blue. The action is not particularly complicated - it's all about circling your foes and shooting them while trying not to get shot yourself - but these sections are enjoyable enough and look fantastic. From the sparkling azure seas and golden beaches of the Caribbean to the terrifying rolling waters that greet you during thunderstorms, not to mention the glowing timbers of your ship as it's raked by cannon fire, these missions are a treat for the eyes.
It's a good looking game in general, even if the cities themselves are a little boring and lack the standout landmarks of the previous games. They've even minimised the awful texture pop-in that plagued the series previously. Unfortunately they've replaced it with a more glaring graphical error: crowd pop-in. In cities it's not uncommon to see individual pedestrians disappear into thin air as they approach you, while down the road whole groups of people appear out of nowhere and suddenly start going about their business. It's a little unnerving, to say the least.
In fact, AC3 is probably the buggiest entrant to the series yet. Most are harmless, but some are much more serious. During one particular set of missions the game failed to spawn in characters I needed to interact with, leaving me with a set of mission markers floating in the street and no way to complete the task. Sometimes you need to use exploding barrels to open up paths in tunnels running under the city, but doing so occasionally causes the game to crash entirely. Sometimes guards will attack you for absolutely no reason, despite you being incognito. NPCs spawn inside walls. During conversations characters will wait three or four seconds to reply to a line of dialogue. Once I was having a conversation with a character in a cutscene and watched the same character walk past herself in the background. Another character turned up on my homestead despite, according to the plot, being dead.
The mission design is some of the worst since the early days of the series. Here's an example: a mid-game mission sees you sent to New York with the sole purpose of killing a target. You track him down and he runs from you, so the game updates your mission objective: chase down the target. It also gives you an optional objective: don't shove or tackle anyone. So I chased the target, bumped into a passer-by and failed the optional objective. After a few restarts I finally caught up with my target and assassinated him. Mission Failed. If you kill the person who you've come to New York to kill, you fail the mission. The only way to complete the mission, during which your optional objective is not to shove or tackle anyone, is to catch up to your target and shove or tackle him. If I could insert a Picard face-palm gif here I would.
Another example: there are optional infiltration missions that task you with sneaking into a British fort and blowing up the gunpowder stores before assassinating the commander and claiming the fort for the revolutionary forces. I decided to sneak into the base and, having tracked and monitored the positions of the guards, I stealthily cleared one section of the fort before waiting to move on to the next - at which point I was spotted and attacked by a guard which the game had decided to respawn directly behind me. A stealth infiltration mission with respawning enemies is like a football game with brick walls across the goalmouths: you're not being punished because of a mistake or lack of skill on your part, you're being punished because of a boneheaded design decision.
The sheer weight of "stuff" can't help disguise the fact that your interaction with game feels thinner than ever. Hunting is enjoyable, at least for a while, but it only really serves a crafting system which is entirely optional, almost entirely pointless and horribly implemented with a menu system that is so frustrating that you'll swear it actually hates you. In fact, the vast majority of the game's content is optional. It would help if it were fun but huge swathes of the game, both optional and during story missions, is spent moving Conner between locations simply to trigger cutscenes. And that wouldn't matter if the core gameplay was enjoyable enough, but as I said earlier so much of the game is fundamentally broken that your mistakes never feel like your own and your successes feel like you've made them in spite of the game's systems rather than because of them.
The story isn't too bad, but, as I said, it centres around a central character who simply isn't that interesting. With the series long-standing bad guys, the Templars, coming down firmly on the side of the British crown, Connor obviously sides with the revolutionary forces. This could have led to some fairly jingoistic storytelling but in this respect the developers have shown their customary skill, creating a tale with wrong on all sides, and Connor's real enemy, Robert Lee, is the sort of guy you'll love to hate. But the relationship between Connor and his father, which forms a large part of the narrative, comes to a disappointing conclusion in a level which has obviously had major parts of its content cut, and the end cutscene is a let-down of apocalyptic proportions.
More problematic is the way that Connor has been inserted into history. It's all very Forrest Gump; it turns out that Connor was involved in every single major event of the revolution. The Boston Tea Party? That was Connor throwing the tea overboard. Major military victories were down to Connor's intervention. Paul Revere's legendary midnight ride? Turns out that not only was he just a passenger on the horse, he didn't even knock on people's doors. Nope, Connor did that for him. Turning history on his head is one thing, but the attempts to make Connor feel historically important stink of desperation.
What the series needs at this point is time off to get the basics right, but the announcement of Assassin's Creed 4 as yet another yearly title has put paid to that happening. With Desmond's story reaching its conclusion with this game, and with no sign that any better thought will be put into the series in the future, Assassin's Creed 3 marks the perfect point to jump off this bandwagon and find something more fun to play. There's still enjoyment to be had in simply free-running through the world, but without more care and attention this is a series about assassination that Ubisoft themselves might end up killing off.