written by Justin Prince (@prince_justin)
When Ezio and Altair’s story came full circle in the final installment of the Ezio Auditore trilogy (Assassin’s Creed: Revelations) it was already decided that the next time we waltz into the animus, Desmond would be stepping into the shoes of a new ancestor, enter Connor Kenway a young man born to an English father and a Mohawk tribeswoman. Having been raised amongst his mother’s people, this was immediately a very different character to the stoic Altair or the exuberant Ezio.
Without giving too much away, the game starts off very different than what I expected, and honestly this happily surprised me. You begin in control of Haytham Kenway, a British man bound for the new world, who seems to have all the toys and training of an assassin. This looked to be the building of the order in the new world. Initially I thought this would only last a sequence or two before I got to control Connor, I was a bit off in that assumption. The first 11 missions, spanning 3 sequences, encompassed the hours I spent with Haytham. Immediately I’m reminiscent of playing Kingdom Hearts II and Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. Both were games that took a surprise turn in the beginning.
This isn’t a bad thing, to be honest, I was surprised with how much time I was able to spend controlling Haytham and learning a bit more about the man who would father our protagonist. After the final mission, a jaw dropping revelation will send you spinning slightly, either you’ll be completely caught off guard or you’ll have seen it coming (honestly, I saw it coming).
Connor’s story was a bit more bittersweet; anyone who has taken an American History course in High School knows that this country was not just founded on the ideals of life and liberty, but also on the blood and exploitation of the native people. The story goes from being instrumental in the success of the Patriots to realizing that the only ones you can really rely on are those of your order. It’s depressing and that somber story is solidified by the naïveté of our hero. The game plays fast and loose with historic moments like the Boston Massacre and the Battle of Bunker Hill. While not entirely historically accurate, the liberties that the story tellers take with history doesn’t feel like an absolute disregard, more like a little bit of spice, well… except for the bit with the Boston Tea Party, if my recollection of U.S. History serves me right, there wasn’t a cloaked assassin killing British Loyalists as they tried to stop the protest.
On the Desmond side, I was a bit more “WTF” with most of the story elements. While the end was surprising and tied the trilogy together, Desmond’s story still feels like more of a throwaway when compared to Connor’s.
This game is gorgeous; graphically the character models stand out and look immensely better than the previous installments. The in engine cut scenes look gorgeous and really helps suspend the disbelief of this being a game. There are some hiccups; the draw distance seems to act finicky at times. Sometimes I can stand atop a viewpoint and see as far as the eye can take, in other scenes elements just pop in as I run toward it. Visually very jarring and while easy to dismiss, still is a bit of a disappointment.
Some elements of the engine is starting to show its age, jumping into a stack of hay continues to look ridiculous and is one of the most unrealistic elements of this series… well, that and the sheer notion that jumping from atop a bloody Cathedral will be cushioned by a stack of hay. While it could be easily patched, there is this strange graphical glitch where every body Connor picks up has its leg all hyper extended, sure the rag doll physics of this series has always been a bit bendy, but a continues glitch like this can get a bit repetitive.
This third foray into the Animus makes a few key changes to the gameplay. Of the biggest complaints about the series thus far is the combat. In previous games all you had to do was hit a button to attack and/or hold down one of the shoulder buttons and spam the attack button to counter. It’s a bit different this time around, now Connor requires some actual input from the player to initiate counter attacks, this can go from being a joy to very frustrating, you tap a button the right time to initiate a counter attack, this puts you in a slight slow motion mode where you follow up with a disarm or attack. Some foes you can attack outright, some foes you have to disarm before you can attack. It takes some trial and error, but eventually you’ll remember which ones you need to disarm before attacking.
Assassination maneuvers no longer halt your momentum; you can now stealthily follow a group of soldiers and perform hidden blade assassinations on each member from behind without immediately alerting the crowd. With guns playing a more prominent roll in this time, you are now prompted when an individual or squad is readying to fire on you, you can take a human shield to protect yourself from the shots and flow right back into the fight. Your arsenal is also updated with a few new items, a bow and arrow acts as a silent way to take down marks from a distance, a good alternative to the loud pistol, and rope darts add new ways to assassinate from above and I’ve come to find very useful in the thick of combat, think Scorpion from Mortal Kombat when you rope dart an enemy.
The parkour elements have been updated a bit as well, with this being the frontier of the new world, the cities are arguably much smaller than those of previous installments, gone are the sprawling cityscapes, replaced with one story homes and trees. Indoor elements of buildings act as a way to lose pursuers while dashing for a hiding spot. Moves like propelling yourself higher to grab a ledge have become automatic and items like the hook blade from Revelations is absent. Traversing the land was a bit disappointing. What I loved the most about the previous installments was the sprawling cities. 18th Century America doesn’t really have an abundance of large buildings. The frontier areas were quite lush and I did enjoy assassinating and hunting from the trees. Speaking of hunting, Connor no longer turns his blade just to the people of the time, but also the animals. You receive higher quality pelt from animals you hunt with the hidden blade as opposed to say a gunshot or your tomahawk.
One nice change is that Connor doesn’t accidentally kill civilians like Ezio or Altair did. Of course you shouldn’t murder the civvies, but you have to go into a “focus” mode to be able to target anyone beyond the hostiles. This “focus” mode also allows you to aim better and shoot targets that are in the distance.
In all this positive change, there are still some very broken gameplay elements, frustrating chase sequences are made even more frustrating when soldiers stand in your way and there is no way around them but barreling through them gets you knocked on your ass, also there isn’t an “automatic” leap of faith from viewpoints anymore, the weird haystacks are still there, but you need to pitch your view to see it and face the direction of the haystack to initiate… otherwise Connor just falls to his death, super shitty. While swordplay is greatly improved, it stills feels slightly repetitive, especially when facing down a legion of soldiers. I don’t know if it will get patched but there were some moments when for no apparent reason, and mind you I was incognito at the time, a band of Loyalists or Patriots would rush me and try to kill me, there was one time both groups were chasing me and ignoring fighting each other, moments like this I just either kill them all and regain my incognito status or just let them desynchronize me.
A gimmick sequence was also thrown into the game; apparently Connor can become somewhat of a pirate and go sailing while battling the British fleet. These sequences were quite refreshing and break up the monotony of the game, much better than the RTS like sequences from Revelations and not as throwaway as collecting Assassins was in Brotherhood. Speaking of Assassins, you can build your order in the New World, though the way to recruit an assassin is a bit more time consuming. The two major cities are Boston and New York, each city consists of three districts, within each district is a Liberation contact you can recruit to your cause, in all there are six assassins you can recruit. Unlike the previous games, these six are invincible and don’t die, so sending them on missions doesn’t have the same “life or death” consequence from the previous games. I do have some criticism here, to recruit assassins you need to complete all liberation missions in their district, there are six total missions in each district separated into two types, the first two of each type are clearly marked on the map, but the game forces you to “look around” for the final mission as you are traversing the towns. This was super frustrating on so many levels, while the towns aren’t as sprawling as Italy or Constantinople, it was still pretty tedious just looking for that final liberation mission. The payoff is greater, with each assassin contributing a different action from the classic “assassinate” to a pretty cool “escort” sequence that allows Connor to secretly infiltrate a locked down area by having the assassins dress up as Loyalist guards. Bigger payoff for recruits but tedious to get.
While not perfect, this was a fantastic game, gameplay was largely improved from previous installments and while the scaling back of the world was clearly evident, I didn’t notice it as much. The story was interesting and leaves so much more to expand upon (that is if they venture back into Connor’s shoes somehow). There were some seriously tedious moments and some missions I replayed over and over again because of super cheap enemy A.I. or broken controls, but overall… great game and fantastic experience. While not my favorite of the Assassin’s Creed series, this one definitely was a worthy game to play.