Assassin's Creed 3 Remastered - no tea party.
Earlier this year, we played the remaster of Assassin's Creed 2. It was an interesting experience, but one that we enjoyed enough to decide that playing the recent remaster of Assassin's Creed 3 would be a sensible idea. I mean, how badly can a game have aged?
Assassin's Creed 3 was, and still is, a really odd game in many ways. When you look back at it and consider its position in the Assassin's Creed series, it's easy to see why it's such a muddle of ideas and features when it occupies the position in the saga that is does. Up until this game, Assassin's Creed had been mainly about urban environments - vast cities with occasional flat (and largely empty) countryside between them, best traversed on horseback and as quickly as possible.
Assassin's Creed 3 was the first game in the series to look at those open expanses, and consider what purpose they could serve - both from a gameplay and a narrative standpoint. As a result, it was the first game to really try to exist within an open world. This world, for the first time, contained more than cities and largely flat countryside. Mountains, forests, and snow all featured heavily - so lots of changes needed to be made to the parkour system that lies at the heart of the game. The combat also represented a big change of functionality at the time, bringing in timed parries and more ranged weapons as well as the ability to hang an enemy using a rope dart - not to mention the use of human shields. Ship combat, which became such a staple of the later games, first appeared here as well.
Those new inclusions were all successful, up to a point - or at least they have turned out to be in the long run. Let's be clear, AC3 was the beginning of the template that would lead, via Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, to many of the systems that we still see in the more recent RPG games. Those seeds were sown in this one, all the way back in 2012 in a sweeping expansion of scope - a lot of the DNA of the current games began its evolution here. At the time though, following on from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed: Revelations, it felt like a step backwards in some ways. While those games had the polish and fine tuning of several iterations behind them, the third mainline installment was setting out to include features that had never been part of the game before - and it was in these features that the most noticeable mis-steps arose. Playing back through it now some 8 years after its original launch is an inconsistent experience - and ironically, the graphical overhaul of the remaster highlights the parts of the game that have aged the least well by making them stand out all the more for the worst reasons. While a lick of paint and polish can bring the game's visual appearance close to modern standards, some of the underlying systems remain immune to the visual remastering process.
Most of the game's biggest issues are related to movement. Where Ezio's movement became more and more refined through the course of the Ezio trilogy, Connor (the main protagonist in Assassin's Creed 3) occasionally handles with all the balance, grace, and precision of a 10-tonne truck. During the free-running moments, he will often grab and climb things you don't want him to, while resolutely refusing to carry out the same interactions with the ones you wish he would. During my time with the remaster, I saw him leap from trees rather than climbing up them. He leaped from a rooftop to his death instead of doing the leap-of-faith move into a hay bale that was mere inches from where his body landed. One knee-high garden wall in the back alleys of Revolutionary War era Boston proved to be insurmountable for a man who, only moments earlier, had scaled a church in a matter of moments. Moments like these are the worst elements of Assassin's Creed 3 - partly because they happen so often, but mainly because in the periods between them you often get a glimpse of what this game could have been. In these all too brief periods, the game flows like water - Connor leaps from tree to building and back again never missing a step before plummeting three stories into a double assassination. And then, a moment later, the game will demand a level of precision that feels impossibly cumbersome and fiddly - usually to do something as mundane as looting a corpse or opening a chest. Every time it builds up a head of steam and you, the player, start feeling that maybe this time it will all go as you expect... the game throws a spanner into the works.
If the moment-to-moment gameplay is flawed then, there's another area of the game that's arguably worse - and that's in the inclusion of open-world activities. A lot of the staples of the series - including the hunting and the crafting, really started to be introduced here. They also bled into Ubisoft's Far Cry series. For a while there, in the early 20-teens, the two franchises seemed to build off one another - each trying to go one step further than the other in filling their open worlds with what's now come to be considered as 'Ubisoft stuff'. If you played any of their games of this era, especially the ones built in their Anvil engine, they'll be familiar to you. Climbing towers to fill out map details, for instance. Liberating areas for fun and loot, maybe. Killing specific animals for crafting materials will likely crop up. Where later games managed to tie all of these activities together into a cohesive economy of weapon and outfit upgrades that impacted meaningfully on gameplay, here we very much have the alpha version of them all. They exist, and they work - but there's little reason to actually engage with any of them once you've finished with the early game missions that exist purely to force you to engage with them. Like so many other things in Assassin's Creed 3, there's an embryonic idea here - a concept not fully fleshed out that feels like it was shipped as part of a testing phase. I'd argue that ultimately it was the Far Cry series that ended up putting a lot of these mechanics to the best use of the two franchises, simply because the activities of stalking and hunting align better with the themes of those games - but playing back through this I was interested to see that they were here, as they were elements of the game I'd largely forgotten about.
Some of the other older (and probably better forgotten) AC mechanics are still here too. The eavesdrop missions are present, and made even more frustrating than they had been in the Ezio trilogy by the weird traversal hitches. Following NPC's who walk more slowly than you do was still a 'thing' in this game as well - both of which have mercifully disappeared from the most recent iterations of the game.
One thing you can't fault though is the setting of the game - the Revolutionary War that the American colonies had with Great Britain toward the end of the 18th century. As backdrops to a game go, it was an awesome choice - dripping with moments of heroism and ultimately ending in the birth of a nation. The historical circumstances offer up some interesting gameplay opportunities. Paul Revere's midnight ride is the basis for one mission, while another sees you running across the battlefield during the Battle of Bunker Hill, with artillery and musket fire raining down around you. Later on, you command squads of armed militia men firing on groups of redcoats as they attempt to cross the river at Lexington. You even (in a scene that pained me to participate in) get to dump tea off Griffin's Wharf during the Boston Tea Party. And yet, all three of these amazing mission design opportunities are ultimately scuppered by the same problems that drag the whole thing down - clunky design and unresponsive controls. Paul Revere tells you which direction to ride in, but interpreting those instructions compared to what you see on screen is almost impossible. Running across the battlefield at Bunker Hill will see you being hit by gunfire before shots are apparently fired. The Boston Tea Party mission was brought down by the difficulty you'll experience in picking up a crate of tea. Murdering a group of redcoats is simple, but positioning Connor to lift a crate is unforgivably frustrating.
Assassin's Creed 3, years on, will continue to be remembered as the biggest 'almost there' game of the series. The introduction of so many changes and updates in a single game was always risky, and AC3 suffered from most of them. Every opportunity thrown its way is ultimately squandered by core problems that no amount of remastering will ever overcome. I'd love to see it re-made though. Actually taken, story and all, and lifted into the current engine. Turn it into the RPG it always flirted with being, and damn. It'd be AMAZING. Who knows? Maybe one day Ubisoft will get around to it. Ultimately, it's a flawed but necessary entry in the series. It's the mis-step that the series needed to make in order to truly learn what mechanics belonged in the new open world concept that the developers sought to embrace, and which ones needed to be left behind. If you're enjoying Assassin's Creed Odyssey or Assassin's Creed Valhalla, it's worth remembering that this was the game that made a lot of the mistakes that allowed those games to become what they are. As a longstanding Assassin's Creed fan, I owe it a debt of gratitude. It'll never be my favourite, that's for sure - but the franchise wouldn't be what it is today without it.