Since the Xbox 360/PS3 release of Assassin's Creed III a few weeks ago there's been sort of a backlash against Ubisoft's latest open world action adventure, and by now the conventional wisdom seems to be that AC3 is somewhat of a disappointment and possibly even the worst game in the series (if only by a little). I have always had a love-hate relationship with Assassin's Creed - more of the latter than the former, to be honest - and playing through AC3's campaign in the console version I definitely had many of the same issues with the game's restrictive, dull level design and superfluous side activities as a lot of other players have struggled with. However, there were also parts of the epic if uneven storyline as well as the detailed, sprawling game world which truly impressed me, and it would be a shame if those strengths were ultimately overshadowed by the comparatively lukewarm reaction (i.e. by the insane standards of much-anticipated AAA releases) to the game as a whole.
In particular, Haytham Kenway is one of the best-written and most memorable acted anti-heroes I've ever encountered in a video game, and Adrian Hough deserves a medal or something for the bone-chilling voice work which brings this fascinating character alive. For narrative purposes his motives and behavior becomes more distasteful and cartoonish as the story moves on, but at its best the writing portrays Kenway as a mysterious, complex and multifaceted personality with an uncompromising and provocative but still uncannily ethical (or at least principled) vision of man's place in the world. Throughout the Assassin's Creed series there's always been this annoying, unconvincing vagueness about the supposed central philosophical division between Templars and Assassins (for example, what do the terms "freedom" and "tyranny" being thrown around by the good guys really mean in this context?), and even if AC3 doesn't exactly resolve this issue it becomes a lot more manageable due to the clear ideological presence of Kenyway. At least to me, the snarky and scheming Brit resembles some spirited caricature of a Straussian neo-conservative more than he does a stereotypical Manichean video game bad guy...and that's definitely a step in the right direction (not to mention curiously seductive to people like me who occasionally exhibit small-c conservative and elitist tendencies). Indeed, even though there have been attempts to blur the moral lines between Templars and Assassins before it's only with the introduction of Kenway that I truly felt a desire to abandon the romantic idealist fools and join the Devil's party for the good of mankind.
What saddens me the most about the AC3 bashing is that so much vitriol has been directed at the game's deliberately paced prologue, which takes about five hours to complete before the player gets to control the grown-up main protagonist Connor and do all the hunting and assassination stuff being advertised in Ubisoft's pre-release trailer campaign. While the tutorial sections which constitute the actual gameplay parts of the introduction do grow tiresome over time, I think Ubisoft should be applauded for their painstaking efforts to set the scene for the upcoming Templar/Assassin struggle and make very significant narrative investments for the story's second and third acts. In a MTV-primed media world which have made attention deficit disorder freaks of us all, there's something refreshing and bold about a game developer which insists that, yes, you're going to have to invest some time and effort and get to know the world and its characters since doing so will make you invested and immersed in a way that's simply not possible with, say, a mere half hour of semi-interactive intros. Furthermore, the game's prologue is arguably more focused and compelling than the entire rest of the game, which - with the exception of a hilarious Kenway-oriented "buddy film" section about two thirds in seems too preoccupied with retconning the American revolutionary war by inserting Connor at every historically important moment to bother telling a compelling, coherent and seamlessly integrated story.
That being said, once AC3 opens up it does offer what's arguably the most enjoyable game world to explore since Skyrim (although I have a feeling the upcoming, warmly received Far Cry 3 might soon steal the show in that regard), and the bar has definitely been raised as far as depicting interesting non-urban areas to roam around in. Too bad, then, that the actual main missions are so rigidly constructed and infuriatingly unforgiving and the combat remains as dumbed-down as it is meticulously animated. On a purely analytical level I do agree with the majority opinion that Brotherhood is the best AC game thus far in terms of game mechanics and overall structure, but from a personal perspective I simply had more fun playing the original Assassin's Creed (which, despite its flaws, was at least fresh and innovative for its time) and the latest problematic yet staggeringly ambitious installment in the series.