Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Assassin's Creed III Review

With the development cost of your average big-budget AAA game running into some $100-odd million, it takes great courage to pump that kind of money into a new intellectual property (IP), as opposed to a popular franchise with a well-established fan base. Even when you do get new IPs, it's generally the same clich├ęd cover shooter fare; any modicum of innovation existing therein is sterilised after several passes through the focus group nonsense.

Fortunately, Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed wasn't like any other AAA title. It broke the mould when it launched in 2007. The game employed Thief's brand of stealth pivoting around parkour-based gameplay—all packaged in a compelling mix of history and science fiction. The rest is history, and it's little wonder why the franchise went on to become Ubisoft's most profitable property. Needless to say, Assassin's Creed III (AC3) sure has large shoes to fill. However, with obscenely large budgets and a large pool of development talent, it's a no brainer that the game is poised for greatness.

Someone's about to get a splitting headache

After visiting Jerusalem and Europe for the original and the sequel, the third installment brings the eternal clash between the Assassins and Templars to Colonial America. Think of this as a less cheesy version of Mel Gibson's The Patriot, albeit with a half-English, half-Native American protagonist with a decidedly unpronounceable name that's conveniently anglicised as Connor Kenway. Like all Assassin Creed games, the narrative pivots around real historical events. This time, it's an engaging ride spanning 30 years of Connor's life as he fends off invading British forces that are hell bent on assimilating his village. If you haven't clued in to it yet, all this involves the dastardly Templars who have a special interest in sacred grounds hidden within Connor's village.

Unlike the past games, the real life Assassin counterpart and main protagonist Desmond Miles gets a lot more screen time as the game segues between the Animus and present world. The 2012 apocalypse plot element introduced in the first game becomes the focus of Desmond's missions, which take on a stealthy role in a modern setting conducive to free running. The presentation, as expected, is rather slick, with excellent production values and impressive voice acting that does justice to various settler accents while also preserving the period feel. The entire single player campaign spans well over 30 hours and sees Connor transcend from a naive, angsty kid to a skilled assassin. Fortunately, AC3 consciously avoids the set piece porn evident in every AAA game these days. It instead opts for a subtle, nuanced narrative replete with great character development—all set against a rich, engaging plot based on a central theme of revenge.

Arboreal assassin

The large-team, big-budget pedigree of this game is evident in all the right places. This level of texture and mesh detail in a vast open world setting belies the hardware limitations of the console, and seems more at home in the PC version. Granted there is a bit of texture pop-in visible, but the overall texture size and model detail is unprecedented for a PS3 game. The game world is incredibly vast and spans the cities of Boston and New York and three smaller settlements, in addition to frontier landscape replete with forest, cliff, grassland and snowy areas. Each area comes with an intrusive loading screen, but the sheer magnificence of eye candy and attention to detail evident in each more than makes up for it.

The graphics engine is capable of excellent particle effects as well as volumetric fog and lighting. All this brings weather effects alive with consummate detail. Be it the sun-kissed splendour of the grassland, low-visibility during rains, or the tracks you leave behind in the snow—the redesigned Anvil engine creates a living, breathing microcosm that surprisingly runs just shy of 60 fps on the PS3. Water is rendered with a great degree of detail in the naval missions, while the storm and battle destruction effects are faithfully recreated. The character animations are fluid and loop seamlessly between complex combat moves and acrobatic parkour flourishes. This is easily one of the best looking PS3 games I have witnessed in the recent past.

The volumetric lighting looks downright gorgeous

AC3 doesn't deviate too far from the basic gameplay and control implementations, which isn't a bad thing since the original format worked pretty well to begin with. This parkour implementation is the same deliberately simplistic version that's designed to work in conjunction with primary stalking, killing and rooftop sneaking manoeuvres instead of serving as a standalone gameplay element. Familiar stealth elements, such as the leap of faith—a great way to escape from pursuing guards—return. The staple notoriety system of open world games is carried forward from the last game: you can bribe town criers, tear off posters and subvert printing presses to reduce your notoriety level.

The reworked Anvil engine is capable of recreating full-blown skirmishes

The combat system includes familiar close-quarters weapons such as swords and hidden blades, but this installment adds the Native American tomahawk, bow and arrow, as well as colonial era muskets, flintlocks and other black powder weapons. Arrows and guns are cumbersome to wield, but are more a nod to historical accuracy than a design defect. Your favourite weapons can quickly be assigned to and accessed through the D-pad, with the analogue index triggers opening a more comprehensive inventory selection screen.

AC3's combat style borrows heavily from the Batman Arkham series of games. Spamming the attack button will not work against enemies that parry and counter your moves. The idea is to use a variation of attacks, with carefully timed parries and counter moves of your own to use your opponents' own momentum against them. Like Batman, you can use the analogue stick to individually target foes within a group. Once you counter a blow from an enemy, you have the option to either disarm, throw, use an assigned tool, or deliver a fatal blow. However, unlike the Batman games, you cannot spam the counter and attack moves and expect success at all times. Try the same move often, and your opponents will find a way to pile the hurt on you.

Naval warfare is quite satisfying and looks gorgeous to boot

The newest addition to this iteration, naval warfare, is by far the coolest of the lot. Ubisoft has done a great job of making something as mundane as sailing into a genuinely enjoyable affair. Although the ship control scheme has decidedly arcade-friendly leanings, the developers have cherry picked advanced physics, wind and sail configurations to add a surprising amount of depth to the proceedings. Naval combat itself is simple, yet deeply satisfying thanks to a painstakingly crafted damage engine that's great to behold without being too punishing. This kind of an arcade approach makes even something as banal as sailing feel rewarding.

Even when you aren't killing British soldiers or engaging her majesty's vessels in naval warfare, there's a lot to do and you can set off on wild tangents in pursuit of the wide variety of avenues the game's expansive world presents. For starters, famous American historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and their ilk give you anything from side quests to hilarious banter on seducing older women. You can recruit members to your homestead, establish trade agreements with merchants, and go about buying, selling, and transporting goods and raw materials between settlements.

Props to those who can spot the Titanic reference in this screenshot

If the peace and quiet of frontier life isn't your thing, you can raid cities on Liberation missions and rid citizens of the imperialists' tyranny. You can even raise your own squad of assassins to kill off targets or create diversions for you. Heck, they even have their own map replete with a whole mission structure. Some of these side missions are reminiscent of those in Red Dead Redemption. Hunting animals for pelts, which is quite a comprehensive affair over here, is one such example. Each area has its own map with unlockable animals and several means to trap or kill the hunt. The playtime may stretch up to more than 30 hours, but that only holds true if you barely scratch the surface of these diversions.

On the flip side, there were a few minor bugs evident in the review code that I tested. Fortunately, the game is slated to hit the stores in a few hours with a launch-day patch fixing a total of 44 bugs. Assassin's Creed III then is a perfect example of a large studio flexing its big-budget muscle to deliver something that makes good use of this extravagance. Uniformly maintaining this degree of polish and competence across an experience as comprehensive as what's offered in this game requires not just tremendous resources, but an unwavering commitment to quality and vision.

Ubisoft has managed to improve upon the core gameplay elements of this successful franchise and bolster its foundation with several comprehensive additions that greatly enrich the overall experience. AC3 has great gameplay, an engaging storyline, and a massive seamless open world setting that easily makes it one of the best games to come out this year.

So many stealth kill opportunities, so little time

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