Long before “Assassin’s Creed 3” gets going – multiple hours before players even meet the part-Native American protagonist Connor – players have the opportunity to play a board game. Fanorama, as “Assassin’s Creed” informs players, is an ancient game native to Madagascar. In Ubisoft’s historical fiction series, it’s played on a ship sailing the Atlantic to the American colonies.
While Fanorama is a great example of what this game does best — pay attention to historical detail — it also highlights an aspect of the game that’s ultimately lacking. In the wide-screen “Assassin’s Creed 3″ world, this interactive board game is one of the few places players can strategize outside the confines of an otherwise convoluted, rigid plot.
Playing through “Assassin’s Creed 3″ is like flipping through the pages of a screenplay. Forget puzzles, there are directions. Mount the horse, the game tells you, that’s in front of you, or create a path, the game orders, by shooting the barrels to your left. Whether such mission-based hand-holding is a pro or a con will likely depend on one’s appreciation of the game’s reality-based universe.
To its credit, “Assassins Creed 3” does not skimp on details.
Set largely in the period during the American Revolution, “Assassins Creed 3” (Xbox 360, PS3, PC) is an action-adventure at its most expertly researched, and it is the all-too-rare title to prominently explore Native American culture. Colonial cities such as Boston are constructed via 18th century maps, and Ubisoft hired a Mohawk community consultant for language accuracy. It’s perhaps the only game released in 2012 that could be more fun to experience as a historical fact-checker than a player.
For instance, when players are tasked with eliminating a target, it’s during a performance of John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” complete with actual music and dialogue from the latter. But the opera isn’t identified by name. Instead, the early 1700s satire is simply performed in the background as players scale the balconies and backstage areas of the theater. Stop and enjoy the show if you like, or simply carry on with the assassination at hand.
Unlike prior iterations that were set during the Third Crusade and the Italian Renaissance, “Assassin’s Creed 3” is an exploration of the American frontier. While the setting is the game’s main strength, it ultimately underscores some of the title’s failings. Without the more ancient religious backdrop of the previous titles, “Assassin’s Creed” swaps some of its fantastical mystique for a look at the birth of America, and the drama of the latter simply can’t be topped.
Much of the first half of “Assassin’s Creed 3” is played from the point of view of Haytham Kenway, a British warrior of questionable allegiance who is the father of the game’s half-Mohawk, half-British hero, Connor. It should be noted that moving as Haytham or Connor is seamless, and “Assassin’s Creed 3” rewards the uncoordinated with fluid gameplay that makes it a cinch to scale Boston chapels and towering forests.
While one can wander colonial America, missions are largely of the Point-A-to-Point-B variety. There’s more map traversing than problem solving, and when one needs to find a key or fix a boat, the game points the way and everything is solved with the simple press of a button. One is free to roam, but unlike say, the recently-released stealth game “ Dishonored,” “Assassin’s Creed 3” sticks closely to the script.
Real-life people and historical events get roped into the “Assassin’s Creed” story line. Players meet Benjamin Franklin and are asked to hunt down the misplaced pages of his almanac, and revolutionary events such as the Boston Tea Party figure into the game. It’s most fun to play “Assassin’s Creed 3” with a laptop or tablet nearby in order to easily research the backgrounds of figures such as Sir William Johnson when they make a cameo.
History, however, ultimately trumps the fictional “Assassin’s Creed 3” world. By this point in the franchise the story line is well-established — and it’s a mess.
The game opens in 2012, and like most pop-art that references the impending Dec. 21, 2012, doomsday, “Assassin’s Creed 3” soon descends into layer upon layer of historical hokum. There’s an ongoing war between the Knights Templar and the Assassin Order, and to further confuse matters there’s feuding gods. Players, ultimately, are channeling the assassin ancestors of the present-day Desmond Miles.
But it’s less of a plot and more of an excuse to simply explore true-life people and events without the risk of being politically incorrect. The game even opens with the disclaimer that it was developed by a “multicultural team of various religious faiths and beliefs.” The young Connor watches colonial forces destroy his tribe, but there’s the end-of-the-world/Knights Templar business to explore rather than the more complicated aspects of American history.
Having only had the game since Friday afternoon and having not yet completed it (YouTube videos will spoil the ending, for those who want to skip ahead), I found the melding of the Revolutionary War with “National Treasure”-like plot to be distracting. The Ubisoft team has done an exceptional job reconstructing colonial America and this game makes it clear that there’s plenty of rich Native American gaming story lines yet to create.
As an added treat, each new setting in “Assassin’s Creed 3” even comes with its own historical footnotes, telling gamers about past wars, the Sons of Liberty, flattened hillsides and what became of forgotten landmarks. But contrasting with all the history was the sense that each mission started to feel like errand upon errand for a needlessly complex conspiracy theory – escort him, hunt this, find that — and the nagging reality that the facts are more fascinating, more messy than the game’s fantasy. In fact, the absurdity of the game’s plot would be less apparent if the game wasn’t so real in so many other aspects.
For those who have watched a “National Treasure” film and thought, ‘This would be more fun to play,’ “Assassin’s Creed 3” proves overwhelmingly so that it is. Yet around hour 15 of this 40-plus hour single-player campaign, I simply longed for another round of Fanorama. What a simple joy it was to play an actual historical game without the care of hitting the next high-concept plot point.
– Todd Martens
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