Assassin’s Creed 3 PS3 review – struggling to break the shackles of the old world

Assassin's Creed 3 screens

Since its debut in 2007, Assassin’s Creed has deservedly earned itself a reputation as one of the most accomplished series in modern gaming, delivering moments of exhilaration and grandeur year after year. In addition to providing a new setting (the American Revolution) and hero (Connor Kenway), this latest instalment was supposed to be the biggest step forward for the franchise – and the open world genre in general – since it began. Well… it’s not.

Assassin’s Creed 3 PS3 review

While in places welcome mechanical refinements to the now well-worn formula have been made, there’s no escaping the fact that Assassin’s Creed 3 is one of the most high-profile gaming disappointments in recent memory. It’s also undoubtedly the weakest entry since the original, with a regression in mission structure, embarrassing AI, and pacing that starts out badly and never manages to find its feet.

This is all particularly damning because this was supposed to be the instalment as revolutionary as its subject matter, built from scratch over a three-year development cycle. Fresh gameplay, overhauled combat, new animations – exactly the kind of leap forward that we’ve been denied since Assassin’s Creed 2, the undoubted high point to date.

Although those things are true in a basic and literal sense, the reality is that everything feels unrelentingly similar. While you can free-run through trees with a handful of new moves, navigation is still little more than holding R1 and pointing the analogue stick, your character moving forward like a mine cart on tracks. And yes, combat has been sped up – but it’s still men standing around you in a circle, just waiting for you to counter-kill them.

But it’s the mission structure and variety, or lack thereof, that most halts progress, with the ghost of the original – and its endless eavesdropping and tailing – coming back to haunt us. Even one of the ever-detestable eavesdropping missions would shatter the illusion that this is a huge leap forward, and the count here must reach double figures. Oh, but this time there’s a little wavy white line around the guys you have to listen in on, so that makes everything okay. The same applies to ‘tail X across the city’. Walking slowly 20 yards behind a man for five minutes, stopping every few seconds when he turns around, has never been fun – we’ve just learned to live with it. That something so rote and tedious would make an ugly reappearance as we enter this supposed brave New World never even crossed my mind, yet there it is front and centre.

Assassin's Creed 3 liberation screensAnd it’s this double-whammy that curses Assassin’s Creed 3 – it’s both a lesser game than Revelations (and AC2, for that matter), and it falls a long way short of the pre-release hype. This is not ‘next-gen now’; in some cases it fails to live up to even the most basic current-generation standards. Take the AI, for instance. In some cases it can break missions: if you get spotted sneaking in a restricted zone and a guard comes over to investigate, that can have a knock-on effect preventing the conversation on which you were supposed to be eavesdropping (sigh) from kicking in.

In other cases it’s just shamefully remedial: you pop out from behind a wall inside an enemy base, just yards away from a patrolling guard. He sees you, and you duck back into cover. Does he: a) Investigate the hooded man holding the tomahawk? b) Ring the alarm? c) Peer around the corner just to check? d) Do anything at all that you might expect an actual human being to do in that situation? I’m afraid it’s actually secret answer e) He kicks the credibility of his game square in the crotch by doing absolutely naff all and going back to his business.

It also badly underwhelms in the looks department, at least on PS3. Foliage textures are PS2-level in places – little more than flat, intersecting 2D blobs of green – and the pop-in is ceaseless. Shadows on faces in cut-scenes look like they’ve been added using the spray can in MS Paint, and shadows on objects draw in and out as you get closer or further away. It must also be said that while Ubisoft has picked an interesting time historically for the game, architecturally it’s as inspiring as a multi-storey car park. Both Boston and New York are bland, blocky and have a depressingly muted colour palette. It’s a world away from the sun-dappled, burnished beauty of Revelations’ Constantinople.

Assassin's Creed 3 ps3 screensAdditionally, for an Assassin’s Creed game, it’s not very… assassin-y. One thing that both Brotherhood and Revelations did brilliantly was to make the killing of the story’s key targets feel like events: you had to plan your approach, sneak unnoticed into heavily guarded areas during gatherings and then do the dirty with the minimum of fuss, escaping as mass confusion spread. Sadly here they’re both limited in terms of number and spectacle – only a couple are of the traditional ‘softly, softly, stabby necky’ type, and even those are more low-key than you would hope. It’s a surprising failure and a sad step backwards.

All of which is distressingly damning, and sadly there’s more to come. The game opens with a twist that we shan’t spoil here, and in terms of story setup and establishing cast members and motivation it works well. But it also takes one of the series’ ongoing flaws – ponderous extended tutorials – to a farcical extent. The game has 12 sequences in total, and only at number six do you truly feel able to explore the game as you’d like. Even then certain side-missions and activities are barely explained or introduced, meaning that you end up having to cram these into the period towards the game’s end – at which point it seems incongruous to do so as the narrative is reaching its conclusion.