As asinine as its faults may be, AC III is still a killer romp.
Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed series began its life with a flawed but promising progenitor; a game with ideas but not enough confidence to venture beyond the small group of repeating missions that led to each of the game's set-piece assassinations. Assassin's Creed II managed to do what all video game sequels aspire to; not only be bigger and better, but use what its developers had learned from the mistakes of their earlier project to perfect the formula. That the same formula has been used for every subsequent game speaks volumes.
However, after three iterations of using this same template on which to build the game's typical mix of tactical murdering and hokey sci-fi conspiracy thriller narration, it has become very creaky indeed. It doesn't help that the annualization of these games has left little time for the developers to correct the flies in the ointment; instead focusing on building new features on top of it and hoping the resulting rickety structure doesn't fall apart.
If I'm being overly critical about the otherwise satisfactory Assassin's Creed III, it's because - even more so than with the coolly-received Revelations - the format is starting to show its age. I can't help but think that the many interesting ideas this game has to offer are poorly served by its adherence to this old engine and its growing list of liabilities and limitations.
Assassin's Creed III follows, at first, well-to-do Englishman Haytham Kenway and subsequently his half-Native son Ratonhnhaké:ton, mercifully dubbed Connor by his Murtaugh-esque Assassin mentor. Though directed by different goals, the two come into contact with a precursor key the present-day Assassins badly need to prevent an encroaching solar apocalypse, the mystery behind the ultimate fate of said key necessitating another trip into the Animus for the beleaguered Desmond Miles. Both the plotting and characterization in this game are excellent; from its fidelity in depicting the period's well-established heavyweights such as Commander George Washington, Israel Putnam, Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and Lafayette to establishing the personalities of its largely fictionalized central characters. The Templars are more nuanced than they've ever been, wonderfully playing off Connor's idealistic naïvety during the series' customary philosophical discussions with dying targets. The Homestead, a settlement that Connor presides over much like the earlier sidequest-ridden home bases of previous games, has an assortment of salt-of-the-earth characters to whom the player grows accustomed as Connor helps them with their sundry settler struggles. Less well-handled is the game's insistence on including Connor in every major historical event of the war like a superimposed Forrest Gump, as he hovers around the background of the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party and many of the major conflicts. Then again, not allowing the player to take part in these events wouldn't have gone down well either, so I can respect how lead writer Corey May dealt with the dilemma it presented.
Many of the game's additions are solid, if a little superfluous. For instance, money is rarely an issue in this game, despite not having the regular windfalls Ezio obtained by investing in every store he came across. So many of the game's cash-raising systems - the hunting, the trade convoys, the Assassin contracts - could all be forgotten about without issue, and frequently were as I was playing. A plethora of side-activities are always appreciated, but I cannot help but feel that the development time each system necessitated might've been better spent elsewhere. This is excepting the one addition I truly did find impressive: The naval sequences. Connor's ship, the Aquila, has several important appearances in the plot but the game also creates an entirely optional chapter and a chain of additional missions based solely on the naval combat, which is in turn both strategically satisfying and cinematically thrilling. Not since Skies of Arcadia have I been so enamored with a game's occasional divergence into ship-to-ship strife.
But the major problem still remains; the AC2 system is still as buggy and dysfunctional as it has perhaps ever been, though whether this is due to the new additions compounding pre-existing faults or simply a tweaking that went awry due to a lack of finesse and/or development time I couldn't say for certain. The semi-automated free-running frequently misinterprets the user's commands (having the same button mapped to running and climbing is rather unconducive at times, it turns out), the AI's ability to detect Connor can range from sharply clairvoyant to utterly insensate apparently at random and the game's many, many interesting glitches can elicit reactions ranging from mild bemusement to frustrated restarts. But what really drives these issues home are the bonus requirements for each sequence of the game; the dreaded "full synchronization" requisites of AC Brotherhood making another unwelcome return. Intended to provide a challenge for those who wish it in lieu of any traditional difficulty setting, these requirements would be difficult even if the engine was working as intended. Instead, it shines a big ol' spotlight on the many cracks and fissures in the game's mechanics, as issue after issue will inevitably sabotage the nigh-perfect undertakings such requirements demand from the player. Attempting to beat the game with full synchronization is simply an exercise in frustration; it's recommended the player skip as many of these as they wish if they intend to derive any joy from this game. It's a shame, as advising people to skip major parts of the game is rarely complimentary to it as a whole.
If you're prepared to look past the game's issues, or are such a fan that they no longer phase you (as many have been present since AC2), then there's a fine game lying underneath. It's a major disappointment in many respects, but these don't extend to the core of what the Assassin's Creed experience is about: Cleverly devised cinematic set-pieces, well-written characters, rewarding timing-based combat and the increasingly ludicrous revelations presented by the overarching present-day narrative. It's not going to win any new proponents, unless they're major American Revolution buffs, but it should just about satisfy its pre-existing fanbase. It would seem like it's due time for the series to take a break and consider a much-needed overhaul, however.