tiistai 13. marraskuuta 2012

REVIEW - Assassin's Creed III | Xbox 360 | 2012

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: October 2012
AVAILABLE ON: PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360
DEVELOPER(S): Ubisoft Montreal, Ubisoft Annecy, Ubisoft Singapore

We've reached the end of a long route. Straight after the release of the 2009 surprise megahit Assassin's Creed II, Ubisoft's Montreal, Annecy and Singapore branches each began work on a different part of what was to become Assassin's Creed III. However, these branches, as well as a few others, worked on two more appetizers in the between, to repeat and expand the successful Assassin's Creed II formula. While Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood was commonly regarded another great game to solidify a great legacy, Assassin's Creed: Revelations proved to be a severe disappointment for many. It had a stale, hopelessly strange story that lacked in spirit as well as true growth, and the steps taken forth in gameplay were always countered by a few steps back. In my view, the Assassin's Creed franchise took a huge fall with the release of Assassin's Creed: Revelations. Running on a whole new engine, Assassin's Creed III was brought to us to redeem the franchise - set on the U.S. East Coast during the American Revolutionary War, the game introduces us to Native American warrior Connor Kenway, a young man on a quest to avenge the wrongs committed against him and his family by ways of the Assassin's Creed. Sounds very familiar, but it's not. It's much like what we've seen of this franchise thus far, but then again, it's not. It's a new era of Assassin's Creed, and while not quite in league with what Assassin's Creed II was when it came out, it's a welcome sight to behold.

Assassin's Redemption

Noah Watts : Ratonhnhaké:ton, a.k.a. Connor Kenway
Nolan North : Desmond Miles
Neil Napier : Charles Lee
Robin Atkin Downes : George Washington
Roger Aaron Brown : Achilles Davenport
John de Lancie : William Miles
Danny Wallace : Shaun Hastings
Eliza Schneider : Rebecca Crane
Phil Proctor : Warren Vidic
Adrian Hough : Haytham Kenway

They look ready enough to bring this confusing
journey to a head.
Desmond Miles leads the Assassins right on the doorstep of the Grand Temple, but finds out via the Bleeding Effect, that to open the final door standing between them and the hope they believe to find within the confines of the temple, they need a special kind of key, hidden somewhere on the U.S. East Coast by one of Desmond's ancestors. Growing weary of the Assassins' demands of him but still determined to do the right thing, Desmond enters the Animus one more time to explore the memories of one Ratonhnhaké:ton, an 18th century Assassin of Native American origin and once holder of the aforementioned key. When Ratonhnhaké:ton is five years old, his village is attacked and burned down by British soldiers. Watching his mother die, the boy swears revenge, and leaves his village in his teens to join the Brotherhood, seeking for the core group responsible for the attack. During his hotheaded march for revenge, the boy now known as "Connor" inadvertently gets mixed up with the beginning of the Revolutionary War.

My expectations for this game were very mixed between the reaction I originally had with the first and fourth major games in the series, and the reaction I had with the second and third ones. The Assassin's Creed franchise has spawned great games - wonderful games, some of the best ever - but also disappointing, lacking games without true content, not to mention some really crappy portable iterations (or so I hear). Assassin's Creed hasn't been nearly as consistent as Metal Gear was from its original, classic MSX debut up to Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, or as Grand Theft Auto has been from Grand Theft Auto III to this day. Besides, the last couple of years have brought us some (very) good, but ultimately disappointing major installments in stellar franchises. Dragon Age II, Mass Effect 3, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, Dead Space 2, and most recently, Resident Evil 6. And, lest we forget, Assassin's Creed: Revelations, the last major game in this very series. It almost made me forget all about getting Assassin's Creed III before the game was even properly announced. The thing that made me return to the twisted political conspiracy of Assassin's Creed after the very disappointing debut, and paved the way for my fruitful relationship with the second game, was the incredible story they began telling in Assassin's Creed, and the fact it was to continue right where it left off in Assassin's Creed II. Well, that story is still going on, and supposed to come to its epic conclusion in Assassin's Creed III. There's a new, improved engine, and a new pseudo-protagonist, so I need not to worry about having to endure another Revelations or having to control an 80-year old Ezio Auditore. This is like a new beginning... and an end, at the same time, if this is really the end of Desmond Miles' journey. Of course I was ultimately led to expect an everlasting impression, the kind of which Assassin's Creed II left me with back in the day. That, I didn't get. But, I got a fabulous game which is a huge improvement over the previous installment - I'm quite happy with it. Not balls-off ecstatic, but happy.

It might sound like I have nothing but dirt to shove at Assassin's Creed: Revelations. That's not true, but I've got to say, that during the first four or five hours of Assassin's Creed III - which are widely considered the most boring in-game hours of this monster, mind you - I was beginning to think I was too SOFT on the game back in the day. Sure, in the long run the game's prologue turned out to last way too long, and a bit tedious, but it was STILL a better use for my time than any hour I spent with Revelations. The thing that made the prologue shine for me, at least on the first time around - is the fact that the fabulous story started five years ago is back on track, spot-on. It's filled with jaw-dropping twists and turns, the first major one of which comes in the end of the prologue, throwing you off the ball for as long as several minutes. It's just SICK, and offers up just the boost we fans needed to survive the slump. I'm not taking anything away from the intro of the game, showing off what they can accomplish with AnvilNext - which is surely a visual treat, but long-time followers and students of the Assassin's Creed story will have to wait for the tides to turn for those few hours - once again, it depends on how eager of an explorer you are. You can explore from the very beginning of the game, and the exploration data stays with you until the end despite the big turns in the story, and that's great. Exploration is very limited within missions, and there's no clear cut between them, but you'll get used to the game's rhythm in no time. You'll get used to a lot of things. In turn, you MUST get used to some less desirable things, unfortunately.

Look around, fool.
If there's one guy who defines Assassin's Creed, that's Ezio Auditore da Firenze, the way he was in Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood - no-one wants to remember what he became in Revelations, a monotonic, too serious and even somewhat ugly version of himself. He was an extremely loveable, well-written, multilayered character, one of the best in the history of video gaming. It's no wonder Ubisoft found it so hard to let this guy go that they made a short animated movie to kill him off, since they didn't do it in Revelations, unlike they did to Altaïr - he was just too awesome at his best. He's also way too awesome to replace - which lands a whole bulk of expectations on Ratonhnhaké:ton. Like we followed Ezio from the cradle to the grave, we follow this guy from his tragic childhood to his mid-20's, and Ubisoft clearly saught after a sweet spot by making him a Native American, a representative of a group not seen in many games of this commercial caliber (if any) and equipping him with an authentic talent for the Mohawk language, as well as a deadly tomahawk. Everything about Ratonhnhaké:ton ("Connor" from now on, OK?) looks cool on the outside. As a child, he's probably the first, last and only child character ever to strike a good nerve as far as my personal preference is concerned. As an adult, he has some extremely epic moments to share with us... but in the end, he's just as cold and monotonous as a realist can expect from a character of his ethnic background. He's way too serious, has about two different facial expressions, and he misses out on a huge deal of what are supposed to be overtly dramatic exchanges. There were a lot of predictable - and expected - moments, that had all the potential to be some of the most epic moments ever seen in Assassin's Creed, and they turned out some of the most disappointing ones ever seen in Assassin's Creed.

Aside from some choice main villains of the game - many of which are once again based on real people to keep the tradition going - my favourite character in the game would have to be Connor's mentor Achilles, whose only crime is to be developed so hastily. There's a lot to his backstory I would've liked to hear, and although I would like to tell you details as well as the reason why, I choose not to spoil anything. Anyway, Achilles serves (among other things) as the spearhead of the game's underlying theme of racism. Being an elderly African-American in 18th century America, teaching a Native American child the ways of the Assassins, makes Achilles a good ally for Connor in terms of storytelling.

My conclusion of how this year's Animus bedtime story was pulled off? Well, Ubisoft promised us a personal story, and Assassin's Creed III tells a personal story - but only from the beginning to a certain DNA Sequence, between 6 and 9 (there are 12 in all). In the end, Assassin's Creed III leaves the taste of being a semi-fictional history lesson of how the Revolutionary War began, and how it ended - and how there was some nameless, faceless native in the midst of the events, and how he triggered some of the most important ones with his actions. Connor becomes more and more of a side character on the go - the main character is the war itself.

Mmm. I smell rabbit stew.
Then, there's Desmond. Finally, they made good use of him. I'll not spill too much details, but you're going to be playing as Desmond for a good while. No walking around a single room, checking for hotspots. No mere climbing around a storage room or beating up folks with generic combos while invincible. No exploring a historical site in the confines of a set piece platformer. And finally - most importantly - no Desmond's Journey or any of the kind of fuckery to be endured. No, this time it's the real deal. You're going to need a whole variety of skills in a few levels that make up for about one or two hours of the game's total length. There are even a few "boss fights", in the style of the franchise. This has been a long time coming, and I sincerely enjoyed playing as Desmond at certain points of the game. How Desmond's story continues and finally concludes is fascinating, but of course, I'm a little disappointed, especially with the conclusion. Once again, I can't help but think how leaving Revelations unwritten would have affected the plot in a positive way. It's not the worst conclusion ever, and I was near to applaud some certain aspects of it. Will there be an Assassin's Creed IV judging by the ending? I'm pretty sure there will. Will I buy the game? I'm damn sure I will.

The Xbox 360 version of Assassin's Creed III sports two discs, and the graphics are so phenomenally great, that I kind of expected it. However, all of it fits one disc - the second disc is for the multiplayer game, which means I have no use for it since I will never become a permanent Gold member, and I'm not a big fan of online multiplayer in general. This was just a sidenote, as I only meant to comment on the graphics. Indeed, the game looks simply superb. There are some problems with the draw distances and the thick fog present in all environments regardless of the season was obviously added in to cover up mistakes, but the facial scans, character movement, close distance environments... all phenomenal. The line between the previous games and this one is quite clear, although they weren't ugly by any measure, not even Revelations - only the facial scans sucked. Desmond looks a lot more like his counterpart in the first three games than he did in Revelations. Skinnier, though, which kind of makes sense since we've never seen him eat or drink, or do much besides strolling around in the Animus. This is getting out of hand...

The music is equally phenomenal. Lorne Balfe, who worked as Hans Zimmer's assistant on the bombastic soundtrack of The Dark Knight Rises, and also assisted previous series composer Jesper Kyd with Assassin's Creed: Revelations, returns as the only composer for this mix of epic and awesome, not to mention fitting. The same can't be said for all of the voiceover work. Nolan North rises from his slump as last year's iteration of Desmond Miles back to the top of the heap and delivers a performance even stronger he delivered in Brotherhood - he's not quite on the Nathan Drake level here, which is understandable since he adlibs most of Nate, but close. Adrian Hough and Roger Aaron Brown, quite the unknowns in the world of voiceover work, make good of their parts as Haytham Kenway (Connor's dad) and Achilles Davenport, respectively. Then we have Connor himself - Noah Watts. I'm impressed by his talent for authentic Mohawk, he drives most of the common dialogue just fine, but like I said, he misses out on some obvious, important cues by being so cold and monotonic throughout the line. They didn't even give him a signature like Ezio's "requiescat in pace". The character is not quite what I expected, and his voice doesn't make things any better. Finally, random NPC dialogue strangely reverts back to the quality of the first Assassin's Creed game: generic, repetitive and poorly performed. I lost count on all the "everlasting gratitude" I got from recipients of my deliveries. There was a lot of it. I felt like the person with the most everlasting NPC gratitude in history.

Assassins of the Caribbean.
At this point, it might be relevant to talk about the game's localization and how it drags the experience down. Why in the hell did they localize this game for so many languages? Did they really think that having Finnish subtitles would make the plot any easier to understand? If they did, they were all wrong. It's the complete opposite, especially with all the ridiculous typos and awkward dialogue that shifts in and out of context. You can switch the subtitles to another language of your preference or turn them off completely, that works, but even if the subtitles are in a language of your preference, the tutorials and info boxes still follow the regional settings of your console. That makes the game all the more confusing, so I chose to endure the ridiculous Finnish subtitles... but I don't want to see them ever again. Get this through your skulls: a game with an age-rating this high does not need localization. If we were stupid enough not to understand the English subtitles, we would surely be stupid enough not to understand the whole damn plot.

Time and time again, Ubisoft have claimed that the resemblances between basic exploration in Red Dead Redemption and Assassin's Creed III are of pure coincidence, as Assassin's Creed III was already under development when Rockstar's Wild West masterpiece came out. I don't believe any of it, but whichever the way the truth is, it's fun to experience a mix of one of the greatest games ever made and Assassin's Creed. The most notable difference is the transition between "levels". Red Dead Redemption didn't have any, it had a totally open world, while Assassin's Creed III reverts to the very roots of the franchise, giving us the "Frontier" which serves as the hub kind of like "Kingdom" did in the first game. A lot more interesting, though. Although the Frontier lacks specific landmarks, it has plenty of things to do. You can hunt animals in a very RDR-ish way, and sell their skins and valuable body parts for a lot of money, in another RDR-ish way. You can also use them to craft special items when you get to a more personal hub, which is your Homestead. More about that later; the point is that this is what RDR lacked, and it's a welcome addition... for a part, at least. There are also a lot of challenges and side missions waiting to be discovered, just like in the cities. You're going to spend a lot of time in the two hubs of the game - probably even more than in the cities.

Throughout, Assassin's Creed III is vertically very different from any previous installment. Sure, there are viewpoints, but at first it seems to lack extremely crazy ones like the ceilings of the Sistine Chapel or the Pantheon. Things get pretty crazy on the climbing front, believe me - well over the top - but indeed, most of the viewpoints are churches of regular size or high trees. Climbing is not such an important deal anymore. Which is good, 'cause the controls have the tendency of taking multiple dumps right on your face. Controls have always been a bit of a problem in this franchise's case, and just that the game's been heavily simplified by terms of the AnvilNext engine, does not mean it's constantly co-operative. Connor might refuse to climb altogether, as well as refuse to sprint or jump on cue. Oh well, at least this game never shoved the everlasting wall kick problem in my face, nor did any combat controls ever really have any holes.

Dynamic combat in the vein of recent Batman
games might not be to everyone's liking, but it
DOES look good. Extremely good.
Combat and stealth tactics are two gameplay features that have gone under serious improvements. Basic combat works pretty much the same it has since Brotherhood, but it's even smoother once you get hang of the rhythm for effective combos (which you'll need, 'cause you might be fighting tens of enemies at the same time!). Guns have become common weapons over the centuries between the Renaissance trilogy and this game; not only will you have a gun holstered up for some long-range mayhem, you also have to dodge enemy bullets regularly, or grab the nearest guy for a human shield whenever you're in the crosshairs of a whole firing squad. You can also disarm a soldier armed with a musket and use it to either blow his head off or stab him in the gut - even two guys at the same time, if they're attacking from both sides, prompting you to do a double counter in the vein of Batman: Arkham City. (The coolest stunt you can do with the musket is stab a guy and shoot another guy through the first guy's gut. You'll even get an Achievement for it.) There's a whole variety of weapons at your disposal as it is; knives, tomahawks, swords, axes, clubs, you name it. Not to mention environments that could turn out hazardous if taken the right kind of advantage of. Or rope darts, which you can use to either strangle or stab an enemy on your ground level, or hang them from trees - dastardly!!! Be creative. You must, if you're going for 100% completion.

Stealth tactics rip a page off Snake Eater's playbook, and even the playbooks of earlier Metal Gear games; abilities which should have been introduced to the franchise long ago. Everything you were able to do before works. You can start riots to gain vigilante assistance, you can blend with groups, take a seat on a public bench, hang on the inside of a well, all that to hide from enemies, but you can also parkour through open windows and doors of houses to throw enemies off the search, crawl through bushes and grass, and whatnot. Once again, the game will inspire you to be creative. Especially since you simply won't survive without learning at least half of these stealth tactics. Although combat and many aspects of the game are as easy as ever, remaining incognito is much harder than ever. Which means that for many players who treat this as a casual game will get their asses handed to them by the optional objectives of more than half of the missions. This time, there are more than one per each. Sometimes, they're really vague, and at more times, the game even forgets to mention them, and at even more times, they're made near-impossible to complete due to technical issues. Just something you must get used to, one of the less desirable things.

What's great, but also a bit illogical since Connor himself is far from a mentor, the Brotherhood returns with the strength of six recruitable Assassins. The very personal and unique training side missions were probably the best part of Revelations, and one of the only things improved upon between Brotherhood and Revelations - here it is improved upon once more. There are three individuals in different parts of both cities of the game - Boston and New York - fighting for liberty (and justice for all). They're regular folk that need your assistance in unique problems related to whatnot, like a pox epidemic or soldiers harrassing poor citizens desperately trying to make ends meet. When you've done enough for them, success in one last mission which usually involves getting rid of threat X once and for all blesses you with an Assassin recruit. Each of the six Assassin recruits brings in a unique talent. They can start riots on your behalf, disguise themselves as enemy soldiers and take you "hostage" for a sick prank for the ages, manage ambushes, and do old-fashioned stuff like bodyguarding and plain old killing. As always, you can send them out to different cities along the East Coast to do missions of their own for experience, items and money. Shops aren't that relevant, you can often craft better items than what they've got for sale, and you'd be amazed how far you can go with weapons you can get early on. There's no more property to buy - which is a relief, 'cause shit got ridiculous in the previous game - and no more armour sets to collect. There are several alternative outfits for you to collect to the basement of your mansion, won by advancing in the storyline, managing all challenges for a specific guild, managing a certain amount of optional mission objectives, etc. Assassin's Creed III is a very rewarding game. You'll feel good for your hard work, and it's not just because of concrete Achievements or Trophies. This is something that's been missing from a few recent genre games.

This is my boomstick.
On to the Davenport homestead - one place you'll be spending a whole lot of time in, more and more as the game presses on. The homestead starts off as a derelict mansion on a hill, but grows to a whole community as you hire more folk from all around the game - working men, such as farmers, blacksmiths, innkeepers, even a priest to offer moral support. All of the characters you bump into and offer a home to, have their own special side missions that serve a purpose. By utilizing their different talents, and upgrading them by doing further missions for them, you can craft just about anything from furniture to toys to food to medicine to the things that directly matter to you: weapon and equipment upgrades. The rest of the stuff can and should be sold to merchants around the coast. The crafting system is very complex and confusing at first, even frustrating, but I'm sure a lot of people will get a lot of kicks out of it. A variety of well known minigames such as morris and draughts aside, there's one new, prominent gameplay feature that caught my attention from the beginning, and it can be accessed from the homestead. I'm really surprised to say this myself, but I REALLY dig the naval missions.

Whenever I hear the words "naval mission", I immediately think of some real-time strategy game on the waves. Or better yet, the naval battles in The Curse of Monkey Island, which were that game's only low point, but which turned out pretty popular and ended up influencing just about every naval gameplay feature in any following game. Yeah, well, there's something oddly familiar about these missions as well, but they're fun as heck, at least in the beginning before they seriously start to repeat themselves. (As for the rest of the game, it doesn't repeat itself at all, it's very well balanced.) You gain access to a ship named the Aquila early on in the game's storyline, and you can use it to take the battle to the Templars on the high seas in several missions that usually don't involve anything more delicate than sinking a lot of ships with cannon fire. Which is fun, at first at least. The missions become more challenging on the go when frigates and man-o-wars are thrown into the mix, but not too different. The same tactics work throughout, and the expensive upgrades to the Aquila aren't worth it - as long as you have the basics of naval warfare covered, you'll do just fine. Even if the naval missions get a little stale towards the end, only a few unlock at a time, at just the right pace, so you might not even notice their increasing staleness before finishing the game.

The greatest flaw of Assassin's Creed III? If this was the final version of the game, I'd have to say the glitches. Glitches galore, everywhere, from amusing graphical errors such as Connor jerking off on top of a viewpoint - double the amusement if the viewpoint animation gets stuck on a loop - to devastating bugs that might utterly destroy your mission progress, or your chances at nailing some optional objective, if you're going for those. Ubisoft invested a lot in this game, so I believe it's going to be patched until it's just right, so I won't go into the glitches any further. The greatest flaw of this game is that there are absolutely no puzzles at all. Subject 16 is dead, but that doesn't mean they couldn't have come up with some loophole or new plot twist to add some great, creepy puzzles which were some of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood's best moments. What makes things worse is that they kind of promised something of the like. Connor tracking urban legends as inspired by frontiermen isn't the same thing at all. However, Ubisoft also promised to deliver us levels inspired by Assassin's Tombs and similar levels featured in both Brotherhood and Revelations. That they did. What's involved and what the levels are like are things I choose not to spoil, but I guarantee fun times and perhaps a few blown minds. They're kind of short, though, and perhaps there are a little too few of them altogether.

Rowboats didn't actually make the final cut, but
this is a good promotional picture nonetheless.
All of this is just a fraction of all the things you can do in Assassin's Creed III. It's an immense game that requires approximately 55 hours of gameplay to be fully completed - I got 96% in 50 hours, more or less sharp. Just when you think you've done all there is, another side mission, challenge or objective pops up, and it's heavily recommended to check each city and spit of land between each DNA Sequence. There's always something new, and at a lot of occasions, it's something exciting and inspiring. The most exciting and inspiring thing about this game is the storyline, even though it lacks some expression - it's the one thing that always changes, and the most consistent and balanced feature in terms of gameplay. Since you can continue to dash through the side missions after you've completed the game, it's perfectly understandable if you want the best the game has to offer out of the way first, but that way, you might see the side missions in a very different, repetitive light. Find your own pace and order for things - even though the game seems to limit your opportunities at first, you'll get your shot at perfect freedom in no time. If you're going for Achievements, the game willingly hands well over a half of them over on the first playthrough, although they're not quite as easy to get as in Assassin's Creed II. Even though multiplayer is made such a big deal, there aren't that many multiplayer exclusives, which is a good thing.

Control issues, glitches and repetition in certain areas, as well as the lack of dramatic sense summon frustration to the mix, but never manage to ruin what is a great game and a huge improvement over the previous installment in the Assassin's Creed franchise. Assassin's Creed III is a very good game that only gets better towards the end, as you get used to its pace, certain quirks and figure out the secrets of advanced gameplay, obscured by the useless and dumb localization for the longest time in my case.

+ The game is a true treat to look and listen to
+ The story's back on track
+ Two cities, two hubs and the ocean make up for an immense, immersive world with tons of stuff to do; side missions, collectables, guild challenges, minigames, property upgrades, hunting, you name it
+ The homestead and all that comes with it
+ A good pace and balance
+ Simplified controls, with a minimal amount of sacrifices
+ Improved stealth tactics
+ Combat is ultra-violent, diverse and fun, complete with blood effects/stains à la Dragon Age
+ The naval battles are fun, albeit a bit repetitive
+ Fans will love Desmond's present-day adventures
+ The game just keeps getting better towards the end...

- ...Which also means it's quite a slow hook
- Connor is all right, but he's no Ezio; he, above all, misses out on a lot of emotional cues, making the basically awesome twists feel less awesome
- The menus are confusing
- Deliveries, liberations and several side missions on the frontier are fun, but they tend to repeat themselves; even the naval battles turn out guilty of repetition towards the end
- The localization makes no sense, not as an idea and not in practice
- The controls are still problematic at times
- Rocks on the frontier lack highlighted edges and gaps, you can't always be sure if you can climb 'em or not
- Finally, glitches are bound to be spotted everywhere - from amusing ones to ones that have the potential of ruining your mission

< 8.4 >

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