There aren't many instances where you can invoke comedic anti-hero Alan Partridge while trying to describe the vibe of a game. Assassin's Creed III, however, is one of those.
There's a great bit during Alan's classic showdown with BBC villain Tony Hayers, in which the two discuss his mission statement, "evolution, not revolution", and, in a good way, the fifth instalment of Ubisoft's historical slasher series is a perfect example of that, despite its American Revolution era setting.
It's the boldest and broadest of the series, in both plot and setting, but doesn't lose sight of what has made the series great, sticking to the core formula of elegant free-running and brutal yet balletic combat while making enough changes to signal a significant step forward for the series.
Moving the game out of the constricting cities of previous games and into the great outdoors works brilliantly. The frontier is huge, beautiful to look at and great fun to run around. Even the two cities in the game, 1770's Boston and New York, are more open than the Constantinoples, Venices and Jerusalems of previous instalments, with their wide streets, short buildings and uneven rooftops.
Moving the setting to the frontier brings a new dynamic to exploring the game
Tweaks to the free-running control system have made it easier yet more satisfying to hop between the buildings and over obstacles, as well as skip through trees and leap off cliffs out in the wild.
Combat too has changed, with emphasis put on chaining hacks and slashes and attacking on the front foot - a change from the old system, where you could sit back and flawlessly counter-attack your way through swathes of baddies. It results in more 360º combat which looks far more scrappy and results in some kills that genuinely make you wince.
It's small systemic evolutions such as these that improve Assassin's Creed III on its predecessors. Ubisoft haven't torn up and started again or branded the game as a wholesale change from what we knew. Instead there are progressions that seem natural for a game that now seems to have firmly found its place. Evolution, not revolution.
However, there are problems with the AI. Companions stand listless and motionless unless you're three feet from them and are masochistic and unhelpful in combat, while collision detection can wobble during big fights or while on uneven terrain.
Connor's complex story isn't a black and white revolution story
The single-player campaign is deep and clever but takes a while to get going. Despite a batch of tropes and well-worn plotlines (I will avenge my burned-down village, reluctant mentor etc) the tone and themes are substantive. There are hints at the politics of slavery, racism and nationalism, and the game is in no way a black and white, 'Britain bad, America good' hagiography.
Having a mixed-race, half-British, half-Mohawk Indian protagonist introduces all sorts of dichotomies and questions about race and identity for our hero, Connor (or Ratohnhaké:ton, if you really want). Running into characters such as George Washington, Samuel Adams and Benjamin Franklin always brings a smile, while stumbling into events such as the 1770 Boston Massacre or the Boston Tea Party make the player really feel a part of something.
The problem with the story is that the old-timey bits are engrossing but it's still really difficult to care about the modern day plot. Desmond is a crippling bore and hard to root for - the impending end of the world sometimes doesn't seem like too bad a deal when playing as him. Connor's story also suffers slightly for being slightly long, especially in first two or three hours. At some point, most of the narrative will move into the modern day, and some work will need to be done to make the plot compelling.
In all, it's a stylistic triumph - the characters, surroundings and culture feel legit - with plenty to do and enjoy. Thinking back to Altair's Middle Eastern adventure in the first game, the series has evolved from a promising adventure to a premier brand in games.
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