My last encounter with the Assassin’s Creed series wasn't a good one. After two disappointing hours of wandering around Italy, getting in fistfights, running errands, and climbing church steeples in Assassin’s Creed 2, I pulled the game out of my console and never looked back. I passed on the other entries in the series, despite impressive reviews. When a cooperative mode was announced for Assassin’s Creed 3 (AC3) I saw an opportunity to reintroduce myself to one of gaming’s biggest franchises.
AC3 is a tragically ambitious game. The once exciting assassinations mixed with a healthy dose of stealth and freerunning have taken a backseat to cut scenes, clunky quick time events, and oh-so-boring Homestead missions. It took me 25 hours to finish the single player campaign, and I can easily say this is the buggiest game I have ever completed. The pain doesn’t stop there. The act of moving itself has become a hindrance, as any chase mission can easily be failed if you so much as brush up against an object which Connor deems climbable. By the way, Connor thinks everything is climbable, and if he can climb it, he can find an inopportune moment to jump off of it.
I have hand-scrawled notes of botched missions, stunted cut scenes, disappearing enemies, and blocked objectives all over my desk. I told the boss I could write 2000 words on the bugs alone. He said that’s not a review. He’s right. It’s not. It’s a list for game testing. AC3’s credit scroll took twenty minutes of my time. Hundreds of people worked on this game, and it feels as if it’s been pulled in just as many directions.
The main story missions are made up of the flawed trial and error fail traps that plague the stealth genre. Enemy AI ranges from blind to eagle-eyed. Hunting missions are about as exciting as real hunting. They’re time consuming and there’s little payoff. The naval battles are pretty boss, but once you board an enemy ship the same clunky combat taints the experience. While there’s an entire set of optional naval missions, they make up very little of the core game. Thankfully, the overall checkpoint system is very forgiving, and you won’t lose too much progress when you fail an eavesdrop, become discovered, or allow an ally to die.
Sadly, the combat has been neutered. I took on armies of Redcoats as I approached fortifications head on. Unless specifically required in the mission objective, the use of stealth is completely unnecessary. Has the fighting for the series always been so dull? I would start an encounter by stabbing someone in the face. I’d wait for the reinforcements to attack, then counter or disarm when appropriate. Repeat. The basic combat mechanic is the same throughout the entire game, with variety coming through animations dependent upon whichever weapon I was using. It’s all just the same simple single button presses for blocking and counters. I will say I did enjoy ending skirmishes with a blast from my flintlock pistol. The gunshot had a certain satisfying finality to it.
As the story progresses cut scenes blunder into gameplay. I journeyed with Sam Adams, or some such Founding Father, (their appearances are usually brief and forgettable) to a printing press to bribe away my notoriety. I began a battle a moment before the cut scene started, was magically whisked away to the interior of the shop, paid to have my name cleared, ended the cut scene, and was thrust back into the same battle. This wasn’t a one time occurrence. This was the norm. Quite simply, the storytelling is poorly connected to the actual gameplay.
There is a huge amount of side missions and distractions. Since Connor’s abilities aren’t really affected by these actions, there’s not much of a reason to participate in them. If you want a scale model of your ship on your desk at Davenport manor you can spend thousands in colonial currency upgrading your actual ship in the harbor, but it’s entirely unnecessary. Other missions reward you with similar trophies, most of which I never took the time to discover, as they’re tucked away in random corners of your assassin’s lair.
I took the time to level up all of the artisans at my Homestead. I also recruited and trained all the members of my assassin’s guild. I don’t really know why. I’m sure the artisans can craft some exquisite weapons, and the special abilities my assassins granted me looked really cool when I used them. Once. Too bad the good old “counter button, kill button” combo works so well. I found the payoff for the side missions incredibly disappointing.
Where the game fails as, well, a game, it does succeed as a story. It’s heavy handed with a message of freedom, control, and power, but at least it’s entertaining. Connor is an intriguing character, and I would have preferred a longer campaign and less of an open world experience. The American Revolution is a fantastic backdrop, but it’s underused. Grand battles from the era makeup too small a portion of the gameplay, and as I stated earlier, the historical figures are rather dull.
The AC3 single player campaign is a game that sought to give players a plethora of stuff to do, while not doing anything particularly well. Fans of the series will still gobble it up. They already have. But gamers deserve better than this. It’s a bloated experience which will allow you to hunt bears, climb trees, rub shoulders with historical figures, sail across an ocean, train a guild of assassins, and usher in a new age, all while tapping two buttons to fight and holding one button to run. It’s a shame that none of it is very inspired, challenging, or fun.
Now here’s the kicker. Assassin’s Creed 3’s co-op mode is actually quite good. Four online players can team up to participate in Wolf Pack mode. You and your team will be tasked with eliminating targets in a set amount of time. I played several matches, both privately with friends and in open matches with random online players. You’re going to want to play with friends here, unless you like begging, threatening, and screaming at random people.
The gameplay mechanics that are such a hindrance in the single player game seem to be more streamlined in Wolf Pack. The contained arenas are cleaner, so that helps with movement. This mode focuses on stealth, free running, and assassinations. That’s it. It’s amazing how great the core game is when all the fluff is cut away. There are abilities you can unlock for your character, but only a few are any good for cooperative play. Most are focused on the versus matches.
In friendly matches we would silently stalk our prey. We would tail them through alleys or blend into the surrounding crowd. If time permitted we would scale a nearby building for a devastating air attack. On-screen indicators would signal when everyone was in position, but we found it more efficient to communicate with each other directly, vying for better position to earn maximum points for the kill. All the while the clock is counting down. Each kill is worth so many points. We needed to earn enough points to unlock the next set of targets and add more time to the counter. Communication, coordination, and cooperation are key. Eventually, skilled players will unlock a Sync-Kill sequence. When done correctly, the game initiates a mini cut scene as all four players kill their targets with beautiful precision.
I should also note that targets scale to the player count. You can play the mode solo and engage one target at a time, two players will face two targets, etc. In later sequences the game will throw multiple targets at you. This mode is pretty tough, solo. You’ll earn more points and XP with more friends.
Public matches are a different animal. The gameplay is something more akin to a prison gang shanking than a carefully planned out assassination. Almost every public match I’ve played in begins with one idiot running up to a group of targets, killing one of them, and scattering two or three to the wind, forcing his or her teammates to chase them down. This is easy to deal with in the early levels, but eventually targets start fighting back and using their own abilities. The time quickly winds down, and the match ends in frustration.
The Wolf Pack mode is a nice addition to the franchise. The overall multiplayer portion of the game is pretty sharp, allowing for players to customize and upgrade their characters. While the single player game feels overextended and sloppy, the multiplayer, both co-op and versus, is a pleasant, streamlined experience. It’s not without its faults, but this is where the real AC3 gameplay takes place.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.