Friday, November 30, 2012

Assassin's Creed III Review

It’s always the way, isn’t it? You wait for a game that teaches you how to hunt and assassinate people to be released then two come along at once! But while bald-headed Agent 47 of Hitman Absolution may know a thing or two about killing, he can’t free run, hunt bears or set sail for spectacular sea battles without so much as breaking a sweat, now can he?

After more than three years in development, Ubisoft’s much-anticipated conclusion to the Assassin’s Creed series is finally here… but was it worth the wait? Hell yeah. Killing people has never felt so satisfying.

Assassin’s Creed III had already smashed records prior to its release, taking the mantle of Ubisoft’s most pre-ordered game ever – with worldwide figures doubling those of the previous record holder Assassin’s Creed Revelations. It certainly had a lot to live up to – and it’s arguably the best game in the series.

As usual, you start as the “as-mundane-as-he-sounds” Desmond who, along with his scientist buddies, is once again caught up in a bit of memory-based time travel. He’s transported back to the days of the American Revolution to piece together his fragmented memories. The story’s a little convoluted but stick with it…

The opening scenes set the stall for what is one of the most compelling adventures of recent years. From the moment you switch from the shoes of series stalwart Desmond in the present day and become embroiled in a murder plot at the Theatre Royal in London’s Covent Garden circa 1754 you’re hooked. From that moment on, it’s a rip roaring journey across the US in the lead up to the American Revolution.

Thanks to the new Anvil Next game engine, the visuals are phenomenal – with highly detailed environments and plenty of variety.

Just sit back and gawp at the animations, weather effects and the huge number of characters onscreen at any time; it’s all very impressive. There are loads of different settings and locations, such as the rapidly developing homestead in the country, to the hustle and bustle of the city streets (you can even run through houses now to avoid enemies), it really is an achievement – and we mustn’t forget the nautical scenes, which are absolutely sublime. The way the waves ebb and flow, with the weather lashing down on the deck – all while you’re in the midst of some tactical game of cat and mouse with a rival’s vessel. It’s both exhilarating and awe-inspiring at the same time, and certainly among the highlights of the entire Assassin’s Creed series (and that’s saying something).

Sure, close up, some of the textures and detail are a little shaky but you’re unlikely to really notice or care while your leaping from a tree top on to your unsuspecting prey. You can almost sense that Ubisoft are itching to get their mitts on next gen hardware to push the boundaries even further. It’s a small point perhaps, but the facial detail really impressed me too; the realistic eyes and accurate lip synching really helping to draw you in and add some personality to the myriad characters.

Besides the actual gameplay, the cut scenes and voice acting are decent too. I normally abhor lengthy cut scenes but found myself listening intently as the plot unfolded. It’s a nice touch to have background music and effects in each of the cities too, and the fact that there is a diverse range of accents really adds some meat to the weird and wonderful people you meet. They’ve even recorded authentic native dialect and include subtitles through some of the chapters! It’s also hugely atmospheric when you overhear conversations as you wander about the streets, with different voices chatting away – it really is a living, breathing environment.

Even more than the previous games, you really do get a sense of space and scale this time round too. While the confined streets and crowd scenes of previous games are included, it’s the enormous playspace of the countryside that really makes this stand out from the crowd. There’s a real sense of freedom as you yearn to see what’s over the hill up ahead or what that building is in the distance. The fact you can hunt as you go, just makes the experience even more enjoyable.

And it’s never been so satisfying to leap from a tree, dagger drawn, to impale an unsuspecting rabbit below. Cute woodland creatures haven’t had it so bad since Dr Robotnik got his thrills by chasing down all of Sonic’s friends. This is certainly a game that draws on other titles and melts them down into one mouthwatering package. The hunting elements and wilderness evokes memories of Red Dead Redemption, the free running reminds me of Prototype, the hugely detailed world of Skyrim and the ruthless killing is reminiscent of the aforementioned Hitman series. Assassin’s Creed III, however, arguably does everything just a little bit better than its peers.

Initially, you are thrust back to the 18th century to play as Haytham Kenway – father to the game’s main protagonist, a young, half-English, half-Mohawk called Ratonhnhaké:ton – or Connor to his friends. It’s tricky to say much more without revealing the plot and spoiling the experience but suffice to say, you really do develop an emotional bond with Connor and quickly forget that Ezio et al are but a distant memory.

The first few sequences act as a lengthy tutorial, explaining the various controls, movements, weaponry and abilities of your character.

The fighting elements have been much improved and somehow, the multitude of button presses and combinations required to get Ezio and Altair about the place don’t seem remotely complicated this time round. The rejigged combat system, with all its counters and attacks, are lovingly animated and appear seamless in action. Perhaps it is all a little too easy to dispatch a group of bad guys this time round but who cares!

Importantly, the free running element – the crux of the gameplay – is flawless, especially as you now you also have the ability to scamper up trees and jump from branch to branch as well as buildings and spires. And yes, it’s still just as thrilling diving from a steeple into a hay cart as it was in the first game.

Besides your usual swords and hidden blades, there are plenty more weapons at your disposal too. Besides the bow, tomahawk and rope darts, Conner has plenty of other goodies in his inventory. Perhaps most important are the snares and bait that allow him to hunt in the woodland.

There’s just so much to distract you from the main missions that you’ll be glued to the screen for ages. There are also the obligatory collecting objectives and side missions to add some variety and longevity. What’s more, there’s the exciting multiplayer mode available too.

From London to New York, Lexington to Bunker Hill, whether wading through the thick snow or basking in the sunlight on a rooftop before partaking in a spot of parkour, Assassin’s Creed III has something for everyone. Who’d have thought the American Revolution would be a rip-roaring theme for a video game? Where else can you combine stealth with all out fighting, a powerful narrative, an amazing atmosphere – and meet the likes of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin??? Assassin’s Creed III is a triumph and definitely one of the highlights this year.

Reviewed on Xbox 360

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