With all that we knew about Assassin’s Creed III before its release – that Connor was the main star – it at first seems odd to play as Kenway through the first four-or-so hours. But a fantastic swerve at that point almost makes up for the slow start. The payoff as to why we spent so much time with this seemingly incidental character also comes later.
The feature that doesn’t pay off at all here is the game’s absolute flurry of cutscenes, which have the adverse effect of pulling you out of the game world. The surfeit of these cinematics is a borderline tragedy, given how incredible the world is. There’s just way too many of them. Seriously, there’s one for everything. Investigating that animal poop while hunting? Cue the cutscene. Opening a door? Cue the cutscene. Having a conversation? That naturally cues what is often a long cutscene. The overall effect is damning – it often feels like you, the player, are just the vehicle that gets the game from one cinematic to the other. They pull you away from that amazing world far too frequently and for far too long.
That’s not to say Assassin’s Creed III isn’t fun at all. Indeed, it works best when it lets players rip. The franchise’s key pillar has always been the ability to free run, although this has been limited to rooftops and buildings in previous games. The latest instalment expands this to the natural world. It is exhilarating to see Connor run at top speeds through the treetops. If the player only exists in this game to kick off cutscenes, at least getting to them is fun.
The main campaign’s fights are a hoot. As a highly skilled assassin armed with a tomahawk and dagger, Connor proves to be an unstoppable force in combat. At first, the natural instinct when seeing a group of 20 red coats heading your way with bayonets might be to run. But with the smooth Batman Arkham style combat at play, where button timing kicks off Connor’s amazing counter-moves, you soon learn that Connor can take on virtually any number of enemies and prevail.
Assassin’s Creed III also introduces naval battles to the franchise. It seems strange and out of place at first, but the sequences are actually some of the most enjoyable parts of the game. The roiling seas, the frantic yelling of crewmen, the urgency of firing your cannons at enemy ships at precisely the right time – it’s amazingly well done.
Another to enjoy the pure action of the game is through online multiplayer. This excellent mode is pretty much the same as it was in the past few releases, and it subtly asks those same existential questions by requiring players to guess who among them is human and who is a computer AI. Rather than the fast-moving kill-fest found in most multiplayer games, this mode slows things down and inspires angst rather than adrenalin.
The new Wolf Pack mode, which has players co-operatively hunt down computer-controlled targets, is also a nice touch. Up to four players look for targets amid crowds, with the clock extending each time one is found and nailed. It’s even more cerebral fun.
Much of the rest of main campaign, however, isn’t quite so nail-biting. Connor can engage in numerous side missions, some of which upgrade the Davenport homestead, as well as search for collectibles, buy weapons and equipment, send apprentice assassins on their own unseen missions, go hunting and send trade convoys.
None of it has anything but a cosmetic effect on the main story, with the possible exception of building up money that can be spent on expensive upgrades to Connor’s ship. With more cannons or a better keel, the naval missions – only two of which are integral to the story – are easier to pull off. Otherwise, there isn’t much reason to engage in any of the optional stuff. I got through the game without buying a single weapon upgrade.