Some people have uncharitably referred to the opening three-to-four hours of Assassin’s Creed III as a glorified tutorial, but that observation is rather missing the point. You don’t actually learn much during this time – in terms of gameplay mechanics, anyway – but it’s a great signifier of Ubisoft Montreal’s none-more-bullish approach: story is king, and if you’ve merely signed up for some mindless action you’re going to be very poorly served indeed. Not to suggest that action isn’t at the utmost peak of the menu when the game finally opens up – it is – but this categorically isn’t a game to blast through at speed. There are prolonged sequences in which you’re clearly supposed to just bask in it; in the buzzing enormity of its world, in its Sunday matinee pacing and in its unusually belligerent approach to storytelling.
It’s completely unapologetic, and often bracing as a direct result. If you don’t crave the illusion of being lost in a virtual universe, you probably won’t appreciate being asked to traverse a few large, well-chosen areas on foot; moments that basically amount to environmental exposition, creating an ineffable sense of place and time. There are prolonged periods in which every line of dialogue is conveyed via subtitles; a surprisingly ballsy move in a mega-budget franchise sequel like this. It’s also entirely disinterested in flouting its own wares: this is one of the biggest and busiest sandboxes ever created, but you’ll only uncover the very best content if you actively go looking for it. Which is something that hardcore AC fans are all but certain to do.
There are a few mild presentational hiccups during the first half, but oddly enough these issues arise far less frequently as the game expands. This is an epic adventure in the truest sense of the word, and the game is at its very finest – even in terms of general presentation – during its grandest beats. Arguably the best new bits of business are the gripping naval combat missions, which task you with taking charge of an absolute behemoth of a war ship as you do battle with ferocious weather, other ships at sea or best of all, both of those adversaries at once. These sections are taut and challenging and also deeply empowering when you succeed, but as with everything else, most of them are tucked away on the sidelines. You want them? Go find them.
Hand-to-hand combat has been streamlined, though not detrimentally so. On-foot skirmishes may now resemble Arkham City’s Freeflow rumbles more than ever – counters are essential and there’s no lock-on – but some very cool new elements like context-sensitive executions and an ability to use nearby enemies as impromptu bullet shields, make it more than distinctive enough. Revelations’ tower defence mini-game and bomb crafting mechanic have both been given the boot, and Brotherhood’s guild system is now essentially an optional extra. Here you can take a relaxing break from the central action by focusing on building and maintaining your “Homestead”, developing a living area via a set of optional side-missions. These quests are predominantly straightforward but the overall process of upgrading the place (and maintaining its economy) is addictive, and makes for a very pleasant periodic change of pace. As ever, homesteading is entirely optional.
Multiplayer has been getting progressively more compelling ever since it was first introduced in AC: Brotherhood, and it really comes into its own here. The new “Wolfpack” co-op missions are perfectly engaging though also a tad lacking in suspense, but this is where the rest of the multiplayer comes in. Domination mode may be exactly what it sounds like, but your ability to attack is entirely dictated by what you’re doing; if you’re capturing a base you’re only able to stun, with defending players given the ability to execute. It’s a masterstroke of design that strong-arms you into utilising stealth, something which frequently gets tossed overboard during hilariously haphazard bouts of the standard Deathmatch mode. That said though, good old Manhunt is still the cream of this crop: the round-based 4v4 thriller that rewards savvy co-operative play at every turn.
The campaign may still be as hokey as ever – one of the first characters that you interact with is none other than Benjamin Franklin and you’re a prominent cog during the famed battle of Bunker Hill – but the writing is so much sharper than before, and much less eager to please. ACIII opens with you playing as one of the most flat-out interesting characters to have ever appeared in an Assassin’s Creed game, and it’s indicative of the whole experience that any initial disappointment that’s felt in leaving him behind, evaporates altogether when things really get going with Connor Kenway. What’s so refreshing about Assassin’s Creed III is that it constantly asks you to take a leap of faith; to assume that its narrative digressions do warrant your time and that there is more going on beneath its myriad surfaces. It’s already a deeply divisive videogame, and all the better for it.