Game Picks: 'Assassin's Creed III'

CorrespondentDecember 27, 2012 

"Assassin’s Creed III."

The stealth adventure game occupies a particular spot on the video game spectrum. With its emphasis on tactical fighting over raw firepower, the stealth game isn’t as frenetic as the first-person shooter. But the real-time combat element also keeps the stealth game from devolving into turn-based tactical tedium.

Decoding that for the casual gamer: The stealth game is exciting, but not too exciting.

“Assassin’s Creed III” (PS3, X360, WiiU, PC; $59.99; rated M) is an excellent stealth game, easily the best of the franchise so far. But that’s only part of the story because “AC3” can also be enjoyed as a finely detailed historical adventure, an open-world role-playing game or a combat-heavy action title. It’s the most generous video game of the year.

The game picks up where the series’ last installation, “Assassin’s Creed: Revelations,” left off. You begin as modern-day protagonist Desmond Miles, descendent of a long line of Assassins dating back to the Middle Ages. The Assassins are a line of warriors who have been at war with the mysterious Templars for centuries. Thanks to a machine called the Animus, Desmond can relive the memories of his ancestors by tapping genetic material in his own DNA.

This premise allows for both modern and historical story lines to play out simultaneously – Desmond has previously battled the Templars during the Crusades and the Italian Renaissance. This time around, Desmond is transported back in time to the American Revolution in the person of his half-Mohawk ancestor Ratonhnhaké:ton – “Conner” to his friends.

“Assassin’s Creed III” was built from the ground up around a new game engine that maximizes graphics capabilities, and it looks amazing (I played on PlayStation 3). Among the visual delights on display: Frontier wilderness hunts in the woods of Virginia, rooftop chase sequences in historical New York, and dazzling naval battles from Boston to the Caribbean.

The revamped combat system splits the focus between careful stealth attacks and a simplified melee system that will be familiar to players of the “Batman: Arkham” games. The thrilling parkour system is back as well, allowing Connor/Desmond to climb and vault his way through forests or dense urban environments with scary velocity.

As with previous titles, weapons and tools are era-specific and (for the most part) historically accurate. Your hidden blades can be complemented with judicious use of muskets, pistols, tomahawks, bows and rope darts. That last one is more fantasy than history, but it’s so much fun to use that it seems churlish to quibble.

Combat is of course central to the AC3 experience, but there’s plenty or room to stretch. Out on the frontier, you can explore and hunt to your heart’s content, and even establish your own homestead or village. The game employs (optional) RPG elements like crafting and trading, plus endless side quests and character interactions.

The homestead missions feel like another full-sized RPG game dropped into the middle of the existing historical adventure. Both stories are themselves nested in a contemporary Assassins versus Templars conspiracy story, with the usual high stakes – saving humanity from cosmic cataclysm, etc.

If nothing else, “AC3” is a festival of storytelling. Onscreen cues regularly invite you to pause the action and read about actual historical contexts. You’ll run into some familiar faces, places and events: Sam Adams, Valley Forge, the Boston Massacre.

Aside from the surprisingly compelling historical milieu, “Assassin’s Creed III” is just plain impressive in terms of scope and ambition. It expands on the series’ existing strengths (combat, visuals, story), adds new dimensions (naval battles, homesteading), and threads it all through a rich and detailed open-world environment.

With such an agenda, it’s not really a surprise that the game has its share of technical issues. Bugs and glitches pop up with increasing frequency as the game progresses – objects and characters might disappear suddenly or pop up in duplicate. I haven’t run into anything too extreme myself, but online reports suggest each platform has its problem spots.

I think what I like best about Assassin’s Creed III is that, at its core, it still plays like a state-of-the-art stealth game. New options let you blend in with crowds, hide in tall grass and get the drop on enemies from treetop or rooftop. Ever since the days of D&D and tabletop gaming, I’ve preferred a combat style that values sneakiness over strength. This is the stuff that will keep me coming back for months.

Also New This Week: The downloadable platform-puzzler “Fluidity: Spin Cycle” (3DS) and sports game minis “Prize Driver” and “Field Goal Contest” (X360).

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