The Assassin's Creed franchise has taken us to a lot of places – Jerusalem, Istanbul and much of Italy for some — but it's only in the fifth mainline entry and PS Vita spin-off Assassin's Creed III: Liberation that Ubisoft has ventured to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean and breached North American shores. Neatly timed to tie in with the US presidential elections, Assassin's Creed III continues the story of the on-going struggle between the Templars and Assassins set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, while in modern times Desmond Miles and the anaemic present-day Assassin Order try desperately to unlock the key to saving the world.
Appropriate to an entire new continent and the era, Assassin's Creed III attempts to overhaul that which came before. There's no place that this can be seen clearer than the setting: gone are the intricate stone edifices of Assassin's Creed II's Italy, instead replaced with squat red brick and wooden houses, forested areas filled with thick-trunked trees and rolling oceans. Assassin's Creed III holds the most varied range of environments of the franchise to date; the sprawling woodland, a natural paradise rich with life, is the obvious highlight and unlike anything else in the series.
The smaller scale is a refreshing change from the big city life, though it's not entirely for the better. Though they're invariably gorgeous and good in their own right, the new settings often don't lend themselves as well to the free running gameplay as the large urban areas of the last three games. The shorter buildings are not as satisfying to clamber upon; the sensation of vertigo is far less common. Trees do represent an exciting new twist – it's thrilling to skip through the air over long distances without hitting the floor, the short branches ensuring that another jump is only ever a second or so away – but the area isn't used to its full potential.
It's easy to recognise similar climbing paths on structures in each of the Assassin's Creed games after some time, but III's smaller buildings make them all the more obvious, and it'd take some effort to ignore the similarities when stomping away the bark of nature's wonders. There were plenty of opportunities to hide the same approaches with the bigger cities; there aren't many ways that you can mask a tree or a two-storey house. The problem is most obvious when it comes to the series' signature synchronisation viewpoints: huge trees are the targets in the wild, and every one we encountered was literally identical.
That's not to say it's bad, far from it – it's just that the series has already treated us to better before. The stretching towers of Ezio's sojourns through Europe represent higher points. On a technical level, the path-finding is the most sensitive it's ever been. It detects upcoming ledges and handholds faster than you can process at times, which occasionally gives off the impression that it's on auto-pilot. Sometimes it feels like control is being snatched away from you and can lead to annoying instances where you climb on things that you didn't want to. At its best, however, it's exhilarating as ever, small buildings or not, facilitating seemingly impossible chase sequences with ease.
The visceral combat is very responsive, heavily reliant on well-timed counterattacks, though it hasn't really evolved and enemies aren't always the brightest. If you're ever near water and fancy an easy ride, just drop down and hang above it; the likelihood is that your foes will run straight into the water and drown themselves. The flow of battle is also broken by the weapon selection method: hold down R2 and the action is paused while you choose your instruments of death from a menu. A quick, non-pausing weapon wheel overlay would have been preferable, as would the ability to assign favourite tools to the D-Pad.
With the new setting come several new murderous tricks, not least of which is the – actually rather disturbing – ability to fling rope darts at foes and hang them from trees. Assassin recruits return, giving you the chance to expand the Brotherhood; you can call them for back up in dire situations or send them off on solo missions in the background to improve their skills. There's a new ability to dodge through buildings to aid your escapes, though there aren't many opportunities to use it; we rarely touched it.
There are still plenty of mission types, from yawnsome courier tasks to more exciting contract kills, and the variety is greater than ever now with the introduction of some key new elements. There are optional tasks to complete for guilds too: you have to pickpocket a certain amount of money for a thief task, for example.
You can now take to the sea in command of your own ship. There are only a few essential boat missions in the main story, but there's a bounty of ship-enabled sidequests for budding captains. In these sections you take the helm, steering your vessel around while yelling out to your crew to adjust the sails depending on the situation: no sail when you want to stop still, half-sail for better manoeuvrability and full-sail when you're in hot pursuit of an enemy ship. Draw level with another boat and you can unload your cannons to take them out, though you have to pay attention to duck when they're responding in kind to avoid damage. Though it's not used too much in the central plotline, sailing feels pretty good and is a decent change of pace, completely different from the usual assassinations and chases.
Other distractions include board games and a hunting system. You can uncover clues in the woods to find out what animals are close by, track them and set up snare traps to catch them. Their pelts can then be traded for money used to upgrade your homestead, buy new equipment and so on. It feels somewhat inspired by Red Dead Redemption; even the camera angle and sound when skinning an animal is similar.
It's the biggest Assassin's Creed title thus far; the main storyline can be completed in 15 – 20 hours, but we've put in around 45 hours and our maps are still stuffed full with the icons of unfinished sidequests. The amount of content is bewildering, and it's easy to step off rails of the plot to do some side missions or explore only to emerge hours later. The map system doesn't do anything outstanding and actually gets untidy when there are loads of missions icons over it, but the ability to set custom waypoints and a constant indicator on screen showing you the way to anything you've marked meant we only ever got lost once or twice.
The extraordinary 20-minute length of the credits roll is indicative of the amount of effort – and money – that has gone into Assassin's Creed III. The quality of animation is fantastic and it looks great overall, though there are several rough edges. The frame rate can get choppy, sometimes lips don't move during speech and characters' eyes are terrifyingly glassy. Of particular note is the new weather system; wind, snow and rain swoop, drift and splash in, bringing with them arresting particle and lighting effects. During the ominous thunderstorms, animals huddle under trees for shelter.
The atmospheric soundtrack does a good job, content to let you take in the ambience of the world around you until the time comes to rouse you into action: during combat or chase sequences, for instance. A trot through the wilderness yields low growls and rustling leaves, while cities are brought to life by the muttering of their inhabitants. The voice acting, whether it's a main character courtesy of a cast that includes Nolan North and Noah Watts or just a random citizen, is generally superb; guards' agitated curses at your insolence regularly raise a smirk.
Assassin's Creed III's approach is more cinematic than previous games and, as with the hunting, there's a little touch of Red Dead Redemption in the storytelling. It goes to great lengths to portray an epic storyline set over several decades; periods of months lapse even within each memory sequence, for example. It's effective to some degree; there are some great moments, but unfortunately it doesn't come together quite as well as you'd hope. Some of the mid-sequence time skips are awkward, jumping entire seasons in a few seconds, the characters just aren't as interesting as those in Ezio's story arc, and there are some dreadful pacing issues. The start of the game is extremely slow; several locations and time periods are rattled through in rapid succession, meaning that you don't get to settle in properly until around the fifth sequence – six to eight hours in. The modern day sci-fi plot remains a real weak point of the series, too.
Assassin's Creed's unique multiplayer makes a comeback if you ever need a break from the gigantic single player campaign. Up to eight players are thrust into a civilian-populated map, and the aim is to both hunt down and avoid foes amongst the throngs. Rather than being an all-out death match, each player is assigned a single target at a time; it's then their job to sneak about to find and assassinate them, blending into the crowds and trying to act like CPU characters so that they don't alert their own pursuer of their presence. If you lose your target, get killed in the process or your would-be victim spots you and stuns you, you're given a new target and the game continues.
Audio cues are paramount in multiplayer: if you hear heartbeats you're close to your target, while whispers hint that your own murder could be only a few short steps away. Points are assigned based on how discreet you are and how long you survive; creep around carefully and you'll scoop up more than if you charge around the rooftops. You can also use disguises, smoke bombs and the like to hide – but use them at the wrong time and it has the opposite effect, exposing your location instantly.
It's a fun approach to multiplayer: tense with brief outbursts of adrenaline as you stalk somebody successfully or escape death by slipping off a roof at the last possible moment. You only really need a few players to have fun because of its nature, though it's best when games are full, increasing the chances of chaotic periods of chain assassinations. There's also co-operative multiplayer for up to four players to take out AI-controlled characters and battles to control territory.
There are several prominent flaws that drag it down, but when all's said and done Assassin's Creed III is still a quality entry in one of this console generation's stand-out franchises. At its best it's an absorbing adventure unique to the rest of the series, and with an obscene amount of content it represents some of the best value for money to be found in 2012. One of its biggest problems is that it doesn't reach the heights of Assassin's Creed II — but when you consider that the second game is one of the best action games in the last few years, that's nothing to be ashamed of. Though its approach doesn't always succeed, it's comforting to see Ubisoft experiment with the franchise so it doesn't become stale; Assassin's Creed III may not deliver on the revolution that was promised, but it keeps hope alive that we might see one in the not-so-distant future.