A disappointing end to the story, and a game wracked by poor mechanics and bugs. Worst in the series, letdown to fans...
Welcome to my review of Assassin's Creed 3. As you should have already figured out, this is going to be quite a negative evaluation. I tend to want to give my opinion on games that are either undervalued or over-appreciated, I feel I need to give some 'counterweight' to all the praising comments it has been given from others. Having played and loved all the previous games from number 1 to Revelations and getting to 100% sync on all of them, I had very high hopes for this final game in the 'Desmond' saga. So it was quite a shock and a disappointment that it really did not live up to any of them.
As this is purely my own review and opinion, I don't presume to be completely objective all the time, and sometimes I'll probably rant a bit. But I try to be completely honest, if anything. Take my review for what it is, and if you feel differently: good for you. Please also note that I will probably be giving some spoilers to illustrate my points, so if you don't want that, stop reading about here. But if you want to get some insight into a completely different opinion of this game, read on.
*General: what is AC3 about?*
For those not familiar with the AC series, first a short introduction. Assassin's Creed 3 (from now just AC3), is the third 'main' game in the Assassin's Creed series. Technically it is the 5th console game, with AC2 being extended by AC – Brotherhood and AC – Revelations. You are Desmond Miles, member of the Assassins who have been fighting the Templar order for over a 1000 years. The Templars want to control mankind because they believe all chaos and war comes from human freedom: a stern guidance is needed to attain peace. The Assassins oppose this as they feel that true peace can only come from free will and choice. At the center of the war are strange and powerful artifacts called 'Pieces of Eden', which can control man and have been left from an earlier civilization (known only as 'The Ones who Came Before'). The Templars want to use them to further their ambitions, while the Assassins want to keep these from them.
As most of the Pieces are lost, you use the Animus to find them. This is a matrix-like machine which allows you to experience (through accessing genetic memory) the lives of your ancestors. AC1 and the 'AC2 trilogy' have seen Desmond explore the lives of master assassins Altair and Ezio, which has led him to find a Piece of Eden. However, with this also came the knowledge of a bigger threat: a massive solar flare is set to occur on 21-12-2012, which will end life as we know it. The first civilization sought to prevent this (as it has happened in the past) and has therefore guided both Altair, Ezio and Desmond across history to their final solution.
In AC3 you enter the memory of one last ancestor: Connor, an American-Indian who lived during the War of Indepence. His memories should lead Desmond and his friends to the final artifact that is needed to activate a defence/weapon/solution of some kind to prevent the disaster.
*What is good about AC3?*
The best thing in AC3 is the main character. Connor is quite a cool guy with a good backstory. Having seen his village burnt by the Templars he sets out for revenge. He is led to a man named Achilles, one last member of the American assassins who trains him and reveals the war of Assassins vs. Templars to him. Throughout his quest to get to all the Templars (among which is his own father), Connor then gets involved in the war and meets a number of important people from that time. But the way in which Connor acts really sets him apart: I feel he is the perfect mix between the (too?) stoic Altair and the dandy Ezio. He always remains focused on his quest, but not blindly: over time he grows critical of the Patriots who are not all good in their own ways, and is open to the arguments of the Templars. He even has some harsh words with his mentor, who let the American assassins fall and who (in Connor's view) may even be too blindly focused on just killing Templars.
All these interactions make Connor a strong personality, and you really like to play as him. It's not often you come across such a well-rounded main character in a game. Definitely a plus.
AC3 also sees you fight war on the sea, with your own ship. The mechanics of these naval battles are very thoroughly worked-out and are a real plus to the game. You have to watch the wind, the position of your boat on the (dynamic!) waves and take care to duck when enemy ships fire on you. Playing in these battles really made me feel like Jack Sparrow, and that while I hate being on boats in real life (just so you know). The only downside is that there are very few missions integrated in the main story: you have to seek them out as sidequests (I'll get to that point in the 'bad' section). Still: naval battles are a bonus, and probably the best in a game yet.
Finally, the soundtrack of AC3 is also really enjoyable and you can tell some good effort went into making it. During gameplay, the music changes dynamically as you go in-and-out of battles and as key things happen in the story. All of the music has an epic feel to it, especially in the real (Desmond) world, when you solve a new part of the puzzle to get the final ancient device. It really makes you feel big things are happening. Again: a plus.
*So why is AC3 so bad?*
The main reason for this is that there are just TOO many flaws, glitches, inconsistencies and above all annoyances in the game. To illustrate, I'll give a long list of those things that made me clench my teeth while playing. Then I'll pick out the most important ones and explain them.
1. The control scheme is horrible, especially in battle
2. Counter-kills don't always work
3. The HUD is so poorly designed, you miss key info on e.g. an enemy's or your own health.
4. In real-life missions, Desmond has no health bar and can only use his assassin blade in the last (!) mission.
5. Mission objectives are displayed only for 2 seconds. In combination with e.g. a talking NPC you often miss what you have to do.
6. The HUD does not clearly distinguish main objectives from optional objectives, or from objectives that belong to a side-quest you just happen to walk past.
7. Chase sequences are too hard: your target goes too fast, too many guards, and you can't easily grab or assassinate (see point 1)
8. There are no doctors, blacksmiths, or tailors to be found easily
9. You can't upgrade your armor
10. The map controls are terrible
11. Fast travel is vague: sometimes you can fast-travel to a place, sometimes not
12. The notoriety system is just too critical, you can hardly hide before ending up in a major war (made worse by point 1)
13. Criers and wanted-posters are no longer shown on your map, so you end up in battle before you can become anonymous again (see point 12)
14. Eaves-dropping is too darn hard: you have to stay within 3m of your target, but any closer and they spot you. This almost becomes impossible when your targets are moving around and you have to try too often to get it right.
15. There are hardly any shops, and not clearly shown on your map
16. Your equipment and supplies behave very strangely. At some point I ended suddenly having lost my Tomahawk from my inventory, without any hint that I had been disarmed or anything. Another time, I killed some guy with my rope-spear and suddenly had 3 of them in my inventory without looting him.
17. Free-running on roofs is hardly possible because houses are too far apart, and any other roof has a guard on them (made worse by point 12).
18. There is no in-game motivation to do any kind of side missions like trading or recruiting assassins. The mechanics of these are also explained so quickly you hardly understand them. Finally, you are able to do all missions without ever buying or upgrading a thing.
19. There also seems to be no reward to do high-profile sidequests in towns, so you end up not doing them (also because of points 1, 12 and 13)
20. The Animus database shows major plot spoilers in the character-info entries, even when you first meet someone. So you end up avoiding reading anything.
21. The story is told in a vague way; at times you don't understand who the bad guy is anymore or why (Patriots, Templars, your father, etc?).
22. The Templar bad guys are mostly one-dimensional and all (except two) have no clear place in Connor's revenge
23. There are too many characters encountered during the quests and many are introduced poorly: for someone without good knowledge of American history it is impossible to know which of these is a relevant character and which are just filler
24. In some missions Connor interacts with a person and from the cutscene he seems to know them; but you have never met that person before
25. Even though your father is the Grandmaster of the Templars, he is not shown to be the main villain. In fact, he doesn't even seem to be the one in charge!
26. There is no final battle with your arch enemy; just a very badly-designed chase sequence and lots of cutscenes. Quite a letdown.
27. The real-life Desmond missions take place all over the globe and they can just travel freely. Not very logical if you remember that the Templars are tracking and monitoring everything.
28. The character models of Desmond and his friends are really poor. The NPCs move very mechanically and when you talk to them the lip motion is just flapping. Moreover, Desmond's bag keeps clipping through his shirt.
29. It turns out the exclusive DLC Tomahawk of the Pontiac is no usable weapon at all but just hangs from my left side down, all while clipping through Connor's jacket.
30. The ending is just completely poor, with hardly any cutscene to show what happens. Before you know it, the credits roll and you are left with another cliffhanger. Not good considering this was the last game in Desmond's saga.
31. You sort-of re-enter the Animus AFTER the ending and after all needed information has been gathered from Connor. This was true for all AC games, BUT Considering what happens to Desmond, this is not logical at all in this case. You should just cut back to the main menu
32. The 'epilogue' 'missions' you have to do with Connor after the credits are just three nonsensical cutscenes. But to get to these you have to ride all over the land again.
33. When all is done, suddenly a voice starts talking to you through the Animus, saying you have to place 'pivots' in the world to sync the animus. But the whole reasons or mechanics of this strange thing are not even explained, leaving you baffled.
34. Major bugs and AI issues. Like deer trying to run through mountains, people standing on bar stools and assassin targets trapped inside carts
I could go on, but this should give you a good idea of what is wrong with AC3. Still I've explained my key gripes some more below
-Terrible controls and gameplay
The most annoying thing in the entire game is the fact that the control scheme has been completely changed. In all games before this one, you could use A,B,X and Y to use the different parts of your body, and the triggers to go between strong (high-profile) moves or weak (low-profile) actions. Suddenly and for no reason though, you now have to mainly use A and B to counter, mixed with X to attack. This new mechanic is completely unnecessary and is also poorly introduced, especially if you expect something familiar. Most annoyingly though, the counters don't always work: one moment you can counter and kill someone in 1 move, while the next you may suddenly throw him. This is made even worse by the fact that enemies are now (very realistically) attacking at once. But without a proper counter-system, you just end up being tossed back and forth without being able to hit anyone. I used to be able to kill 25 guards without getting hit, and now I end up being killed by 5?
The above is even more annoying given the overly-critical notoriety system. With just 1 level of notoriety, guards will already approach you, even if you are on the opposite side of the street. When too close, they soon attack, and while escaping you always end up running into 3 more patrols and 5 roof-snipers, so that you often find yourself fighting of 15 guards just for making 1 kill in a mission. In fact, don't even bother to try and make stealth kills, because the current system gets you spotted before you get in range of any target.
Then, the way you use ranged weapons is crummy. In the previous games you could just select your crossbow, gun or knives and just use them even without a target. But in AC3 you can not fire your gun or shoot your bow if you are out of range of an enemy, meaning you have to move ridiculously close before you can fire (I have a freaking bow, I should be able to shoot a guard from 100 yards, not 10). What makes it even worse is that now you seemingly have to use a reticle (during lock-on) to improve your shot. Not doing so will lead to the strange situation of being locked on a guard, but shooting his horse or a civilian that was standing just slightly next to him because the reticle was there. Very weird. Also, the reloading of your handgun is just too slow. It may be 1776 style realistic, but didn't Ezio have a 6-shot gun embedded in his Assassin glove? It should be only logical that Connor then has those too, right? What is worse though, is that the reloading is interrupted too easily and that you cannot clearly see if there is a bullet in your gun or not. For example, you can shoot an guard, reload and then chase after your main target, only to find that you had not been completely reloaded (because you din't let the animation play completely), thereby losing your shot and in some missions even your target.
Another point is the terrible HUD, mainly with 2 annoyances. First is the fact that health status is easily overlooked, as it is now glued to your radar box. Sure, it is not invisible but it is hard to spot; although during Desmond's missions you don't even get a HUD at all. Worse though is that enemy health status does not seem to be displayed at all, making it difficult to tax your opponents. Second is the display of mission objectives: these are just jumbled together in one place on screen, without making it always clear whether this is a mission objective, optional goal, or just a sidequest that you happened to just walk by. What is the worst though, is that mission objectives sometimes stay 'stuck' when your next mission starts. For example, your goal can be to 'Kill Lee'. Then you do the mission and chapter ends. But then when the new chapter starts, the same goal is still displayed from 1-3 seconds while the new level loads. This can be terribly confusing at times.
Finally, the map hardly contains any information. Before, you could easily spot missions, side missions, stores and notoriety symbols (posters, criers) and the distance to your target. As of AC3, these seem to be mostly gone. Although there are tons of 'shops' in the cities, mostly these are just scenery and can't be used even though the game explicitly mentions that there are different stores (and even markets) that carry different goods. Side missions are also no longer displayed, besides 'liberation' missions, which seem to have very little reward besides extra notoriety. And because the map no longer shows where you may find wanted-posters, it is nearly impossible to become incognito before running into guards again. Finally, the lack of clear distance indicators on your radar (they are displayed in the HUD, IF you select a marker) makes you run around without the best direction at times, or finding that your goal is somewhere in the frontier altogether, meaning you could have fast-travelled in the first place.
-Poor explanation of quest, craft and side-mission mechanics
Throughout the game, I have not seen any need to do any kind of side mission or to craft anything. The workings of e.g. your caravans are very quickly explained, but you have no need to use them at all. In fact, when I tried to play around with this by buying some supplies and sending a caravan to a town, I noticed I had no available caravans to send. But nowhere in the game is it explained how you may get caravans to use, leaving me to abandon it altogether
The same thing holds for side missions. For example, when walking through Boston you suddenly get a notification saying 'Beat up a leader to get information'. Such strange sidequests get no more explanation, leaving you to wonder: "who, what leader, why, what kind of information?" And given the fact that just touching 1 enemy will lead to the aforementioned wars with 20 guards, you end up not doing them at all.
-Impossible mission parameters
Since AC2, main missions have extra objectives which improve your 'sync' with the animus. Besides the fact that in AC3 this 'sync' is suddenly called 'progress', these extra objectives are often too hard. You sometimes have to find and kill a target in 2 minutes, while remaining unseen and by not using a hay cart to hide. Given (again) the bad notoriety system, this is often impossible to do. What is worse though, it is nowhere explained what this sync actually does. Sure, it will net you some Achievements, but as it appears that more 'points' are awarded post-mission, you get the feeling it is good for something. But this is not explained.
-No need or motivation to go beyond the main story missions
As already explained above, the game doesn't provide much pull to do anything besides the main story missions. Because the Assassin's saga is already getting so tense, you want to get to the end and don't bother with all kind of extra stuff. The fact that most of the sidequest or optional things are not explained in high detail you are not really inclined to go and explore them, even more so because you have no clear view of the rewards (except more notoriety). Finally, because you no longer have a central base or pigeon tills in the cities to manage everything, you would have to (fast) travel back and forth to your farm every time you want to do something. All of this is a shame, because it is definitely clear that much work has gone into developing the crafting system.
-Vague, badly-told story with a very poor conclusion to the saga
The story should be the centerpiece of the whole game, but as with most things in AC3, too many flaws are present to ever make it truly enjoyable. It is difficult to list things without giving too much away, but examples should suffice:
• Of the 12 hours you minimally need to finish the quest, you spend 4 (!) playing as Connor's dad. This is just way too long, especially because no major things happen there that could not be told in a shorter time. I was actually starting to wonder where Connor was.
• Most of the other Templar bad guys have no real substance at all, and it is not clear what their crimes are. In fact, this is even pointed out in the game (making the Templars seem less bad), but this interesting twist is not developed or explained at all.
• During the quest, it is unclear whom the Templars favor, the Patriots or the English. This too makes it very confusing to understand the story.
• Your dad is the Grandmaster of the Templars, but he doesn't seem to be in charge. The guy who is (your nemesis) is actually a guy who was only inducted into the Templars relatively late. Again, strange and not very logical
• At some point, a Templar-indoctrinated assassin (Cross) is 'introduced'. But although you'd say this is quite an event, there is hardly any cutscene or explanation to introduce him, making his presence kind of weak. But the weird thing is, is that it is possible to get more details on him in the Animus 'manual' where the cast and game system are explained. As such, I knew of this guy before I'd done a single story mission, which is kind of a spoiler.
• The ending is just a complete let-down. Let's just say it ends with one of the 'Ancients' doing something, after which suddenly the world is no longer in danger. Even though it was constantly repeated that the entire ancient race combined could not stop the solar catastrophe the first time it happened. And now suddenly, vaguely, one of them manages to end it. After this, there is no explanation (in fact, all of this is shown only briefly while the credits roll) and you are left with another kind of cliffhanger, which is just wrong as we were promised an ending to Desmond's story.
-Strange plot quirks and inconsistencies
• At some point, Connor meets his dad again after many years. But where first he wants to kill him, now he ends up joining forces with him for only a small reason and without much protest. A bit strange if your dad is your enemy.
• At some other point, suddenly dad is the bad guy again and you do end up fighting him. But this happens so quickly it feels very weird.
• In the real world, Desmond ends up doing missions against the Templars to further the story. But we all know they are tracking him specifically with all their efforts. Yet the gang has no problem travelling by plane all over the world, and no mention of this strange fact is even made or made plausible.
-Tons of quirks and glitches, sometimes mission-breaking
These have been already explained earlier. While these are not terrible, it is quite sad to see these have not been caught before the game was released. Given Ubisoft's track record, I do not expect many patches to remedy them.
-Graphics and character models poorer than previous games
This was also said before, and it is something I did not expect. The graphics of AC – Revelations were actually quite stunning, even on the console. So I had assumed that AC3 would continue where those left of. Instead, it seems as though the game was created completely separately from scratch, leading to overall underwhelming visuals. While the face animations are still great, the detail on armor and robes can not be compared to Revelations. The trees and nature, which were said to be the key points of this game, look exceptionally bad. Groups of leaves on large trees are no more than flat slabs of texture, and in the final cutscene you see Connor clipping through very low-quality grass. This is not to say the game looks bad or anyting, but it is weird to see a more recent game look less crisp than its predecessors, especially since it is the first to come on 2 discs.
I hope this overly long review makes my views on AC3 a bit clear. What started out as a promising and exciting new game for me quickly turned into a stream of larger/smaller gripes and frustrations, and in the end I was just glad to be done with it. As I said before, it is not just the issues in isolation, but the complete multitude of them that just makes you throw your hands in the air at times and wonder: 'why?'.
To me, it shows that poor design choices have been made across the board. Almost all things that were good and familiar in all earlier AC games seem to have been needlessly ripped out and started from scratch by people not knowing what they were doing or why, only determined to make it different and not offering any kind of improvements. The inconsistencies in the storytelling also made me feel that Ubisoft only created the story on the sidelines, thinking that gamers are more interested in just doing random missions than getting to a true and satisfactory end of the Desmond AC saga. The many bugs that plague the game then just top it all off.
Of course, you could say that I am being overly critical, and that I should just deal with and learn the new gameplay instead of whining about it. But given how much was changed and how poorly things have been developed, I can not accept that. A game should just work great from the start, and you should not be expected to re-learn everything, especially in the final game of a game series and especially as a 'veteran'. If Ubisoft would, for example, make these gameplay changes in Assassin's Creed 4, I would be able to live with them better, because that game will probably give a new start to the series. But I know for sure that I will only ever buy that game after reading a good number of reviews and knowing that there are no sever glitches or frustrating mechanics.
For those of you who have managed to read this far: thanks, and I hope you find my point of view interesting. AC3 has not diminished my love for the previous games in the series and I still intend to keep an eye out for where any new saga will take it.