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Assassin’s Creed III: Ten Years Later

A Look Back in Time.



Assassin's Creed 3 - 10 Years Later

Retrospective: Assassin’s Creed III Ten Years Later

With the recent reveal of Assassin’s Creed Mirage and the promise that the series will return to its roots, there hasn’t been a better time to get stuck into Assassin’s Creed’s back catalog, whether it’s replaying an old favorite or getting lost in previously looked-over classic.

One of those looked-over classics might just be the misunderstood masterpiece that is Assassin’s Creed III. The game was initially released in October 2012 to mixed reception. Critics loved it, but many fans were not taken with this new direction. And that’s a shame, as it represented a fantastic leap forward in terms of storytelling and gameplay for the series.

Assassin's Creed III
Image: Ubisoft – Connor is no Ezio, and that’s a good thing.

History in the Making

Assassin’s Creed hit its stride with its second entry, Assassin’s Creed 2, with fans especially loving the fantastic new main character Ezio Auditore da Firenze. Ezio was rugged, roguish, charming, and a little flamboyant, a far cry from the original game’s stoic Altair. He was so well received, in fact, that he was granted two sequels to allow players to experience even more of his life and adventures (a feat that has never since been replicated, as none of the subsequent heroes has ever received a sequel).

As a result of spending almost four years growing to love this character, it was no surprise fans didn’t take too kindly to his replacement.

Connor, Assassin’s Creed III‘s main protagonist, had big shoes to fill and initial impressions weren’t great. Many believed Connor to be boring or whiny, a total opposite to poster boy Ezio’s grace and gravitas. Many also took umbrage with the game’s setting (that of colonial America) and advertising, saying it was too pro-America and lacked the historical balance the previous games were known for.

But were these early impressions and fears founded? In short, no. Ubisoft could have chosen the safe option and created a carbon copy of Ezio, they could have followed a gameplay and story formula that they knew would bear fruit, but they instead chose to shake things up and take risks.

Image: Ubisoft - Haytham Kenway, Connor's estranged father and surprise playable character.
Image: Ubisoft – Haytham Kenway, Connor’s estranged father and surprise playable character.

A Change in Perspective

The first risk is that the player doesn’t even start the game as Connor, the assassin on the front of the box. Instead, they are introduced to an entirely new character, the seemingly charismatic and gentlemanly Haytham Kenway. And it’s a risk that pays off, recontextualizing the millennia-long war between the Assassins and Templars.

Players control Haytham as he travels from England to pre-independence America, searching for an ancient temple constructed by Those Who Came Before. They grow to love him over the course of this surprisingly lengthy and always well-written prologue, aiding him in his quest to locate the temple and establish a new branch of the Order. It is only right at the very end of the prologue that they discover Haytham has been a Templar this entire time.

This is the first time players get to experience life on the other side of the conflict (an idea later revisited in Assassin’s Creed Rogue) and marks an important tonal shift in the storytelling. Before this point, the Templars were the bad guys, the almost cartoonishly evil puppet masters bent on controlling the world from the shadows. All of a sudden, they became very human. And, without context, their motives appeared to match the Assassin’s a little too closely for comfort.

This prologue and its revelation really highlight how similar the two orders are, save for one glaring difference: the Templars seek peace through control, whereas the Assassins seek it through free will. Otherwise, their goals appear to be aligned. These ideas are only cemented further when, playing as Connor, the player meets up with Haytham once more to work towards a common goal. The writing in this section (as with the rest of the game) is superb. Haytham is a bad man, yes, but he is charming and charismatic, and there is a lot of truth and sense to what he has to say, even if his methods are far from ideal.

There is a duality in Assassin’s Creed III that has not been explored in as much depth in the subsequent games. For the first (and last) time in the series, no one side is one hundred percent morally right, no one is faultless.

Image: Ubisoft - Brought up in nature, Connor can use the treetops to get the drop on enemies.
Image: Ubisoft – Brought up in nature, Connor can use the treetops to get the drop on enemies.


Far from the monotoned bore many initially decried him as the main protagonist Connor is an interesting and nuanced character in his own right. Here is a character who couldn’t be more different from the privileged and pampered Ezio. A character who never knew his father and who lost his mother in a terrifying attack on his village at a very young age. A character who can hide in the treetops and hunt with practiced efficiency like the Predator yet marvels at the bustle of busy cities like a boy in a toy shop.

Connor’s cold and stoic nature stems from a difficult childhood, fighting to survive in a world slowly being eaten away by invaders, but belies his optimism and sense of justice. As well as his naivety.

As Connor leaves his tribe and trains in the way of the Assassin under Achilles’ tutelage, he meets a host of historical figures, each one bent on shaping the New World to their own will. Some he sides with, others he opposes, but what Connor soon discovers is that no one is truly good. Everyone is out to better themselves, first and foremost. Some of the revolutionaries even own slaves. But Connor never lets this change him, and he never stops fighting for justice and freedom.

By showing it through the eyes of a Native American, Assassin’s Creed III shone a very different light on colonial America than pre-release trailers may have indicated. It showed a country and a people being uprooted and changed by war. It gave a more nuanced take on the major players on both sides of that war, making them fallible and human, and presented both sides of the argument. Yes, Connor ends up fighting alongside the Patriots and the founding fathers, but does he help or hinder the country by doing so?

Assassin's Creed III
Image: Ubisoft – Combat was revamped, for better and for worse.

Getting Your Hands Dirty

To go along with this new main character, Ubisoft devised entirely new animations and gameplay. Connor not only looked different from Ezio, but he also played differently.

Ezio was light on his feet, springing along rooftops and fighting with a flourish. He relied on speed whereas Connor relies on strength. Bespoke animations help to sell that this is indeed an entirely different person. Connor favoured strength, and so his movements represent that: combat is more visceral with heavy blows and violent swings of his signature tomahawk; while traversal feels more practized, with Connor expertly shifting his heftier weight to make free-running appear effortless.

Combat was changed, too. Gone are enemy health bars and the days of slowly whittling down a foe’s defenses as they all stood in a circle, tediously attacking one at a time. Now enemies can only be killed by finishing a combo or landing a killing blow after a counter or disarm. This new combo system can be quite fiddly and irritating at times, however, only killing an enemy at the very end of the combo and resetting if Connor gets hit or accidentally strikes another enemy. But the insta-kill counters, paired with more aggressive enemy AI, really improve the speed of combat encounters, making Connor feel like a ruthlessly efficient killing machine. The enemies do still tend to stand back in a circle outside of the action, but they attack with far greater frequency, occasionally even attacking two at a time, leading to some spectacularly choreographed double kills.

Similarly, Connor could now assassinate on the move and pick up fallen weapons and muskets without stopping, adding to that sense of weight and momentum.

Image: Ubisoft - Hunting and changing weather really made the open world feel alive.
Image: Ubisoft – Hunting and changing weather really made the open world feel alive.

A New Frontier

Having been brought up in the wild, Connor knows how to use nature to his advantage, and this is reflected in the interesting new gameplay additions Ubisoft brought to Assassin’s Creed III.

While previous games had open areas between major cities, they were largely empty, devoid of life and things to do. Assassin’s Creed III shook this up with the addition of the Frontier. Trees that were once simple obstacles suddenly became new routes of exploration. Connor, having grown up in these forests, can climb them and hop from treetop to treetop as easily as Ezio could scale rooftops. Up in the trees, Connor was hidden and safe, NPCs could not follow (not even Haytham could climb trees), allowing Connor to stealthily get the lay of the land and (literally) get the drop on his targets unseen.

Hunting was also a brilliant new addition to the series. While not essential for finishing the campaign, it made the world feel more lived-in and interactive. Connor could hunt with his bow or drop out from the trees with his hidden blade and sell the hides he gathered to buy weapons or use them to craft something new. This added a previously untapped element of role-playing and a fun distraction between missions, similar to the hunting in Red Dead Redemption 2.

The Frontier itself was never static; it changed as the story progressed. Scenes of battle scarred the land, bluecoats, and redcoats traded places as skirmishes were won or lost, and the weather changed its look completely. As the story progresses, the years pass, the seasons change, and when winter comes, it snows. Snow makes a massive difference to gameplay, slowing Connor and NPCs down to a crawl and making traversal via treetops almost essential. It’s an element that hasn’t been revisited since, but one that made a smaller map feel far more alive than the modern giants.

Image: Ubisoft - These proto-naval battles set the template for Black Flag.
Image: Ubisoft – These proto-naval battles set the template for Black Flag.

Hoist the Mainsails

Assassin’s Creed III was also the game that introduced navel battles – a gameplay mechanic that proved to be so much fun that the next two games would be based primarily around it. Of course, these proto-naval battles were not as polished as those in Black Flag, but they sowed the seeds beautifully.

Early on in the story, Connor is given command of the Aquila, a two-masted brig that handles surprisingly similarly to Black Flag’s Jackdaw and Rogue’s Morrigan. Everything that made those games great is there in Assassin’s Creed III, only in a much more primitive form: raising and lowering the sails to change speed and maneuverability, cannons and swivels to broadside your enemies, changing winds and currents to navigate. There are even scripted boarding events that clearly influenced Black Flag’s counterparts.

While these are predominantly optional, and the player cannot use the Aquila outside of missions, taking to the high seas is always a thrilling experience, and if it were not for the developers of Assassin’s Creed III taking another massive risk, we never would have seen the likes of Black Flag, or Ubisoft’s latest, soon-to-be-released pirate adventure Skull and Bones.

Assassin's Creed III
Image: Ubisoft – Desmond’s final outing finally lets players live out the modern assassin dream (to an extent).

Modern Assassin

Connor and Haytham aren’t the only playable characters in Assassin’s Creed III. This game also sees the end of Desmond’s story.

Assassin’s Creed III‘s release date of October 2012 was more than just a marketing choice to get it out before Christmas. December 2012 was also the year a certain Mayan calendar apparently predicted the world would end. A prediction that tied heavily into the game’s story. At the start of the game, Desmond and his Assassin allies are in a race against time to save the world from an apocalyptic solar flare, one that will end all life as we know it.

Obviously, that prediction never came to pass, but it was an exhilarating experience playing through the game at the time with that tiny little “What if?” lurking at the back of your mind. And it makes for a fun piece of world history playing through it again today.

Being Desmond’s final foray, Assassin’s Creed III is also the first (and only) time players get to experience what it would be like to play as a modern-day assassin. These set pieces aren’t long, but they are fascinating and are something sorely missing from the most recent games.

Controlling a fully-trained and battle-ready Desmond, players climb a skyscraper, sneak into a fully-packed stadium, and even infiltrate Abstergo’s headquarters in Italy. Each one provides an entertaining change of pace from Connor’s story, and even though they are very linear and filled with copy-paste NPCs, it is great fun to finally see Desmond put all that training to use.

Image: Ubisoft - Large battles and an epic scope set Assassin's Creed III apart.
Image: Ubisoft – Large battles and an epic scope set Assassin’s Creed 3 apart.

One For the Ages

There were and are still problems, of course. No game is perfect, least of all an Assassin’s Creed game.

Despite Ubisoft’s attempts to update the controls, it can be difficult to get Connor to go precisely where the player wants. He may not leap to his death as often as Ezio did, but he will repeatedly attempt to climb the same piece of unmountable scenery or fail to move at a crucial moment. Combat, while faster and more aggressive, can feel clunky, with animations clipping through each other and Connor getting caught in an unbreakable cycle of being knocked down or stabbed. The prologue can feel overlong and indulgent, taking too long to get to the action and open world players came for. And missions are very prescriptive, allowing for very little deviation or player experimentation. Similarly, the modern-day missions lack scope and scale and can feel a little bland compared to Connor’s vibrant world inside the Animus.

All of these problems revolve around gameplay and are things the later games improved on massively. Valhalla especially gives players far more control over Eivor than anything seen before, smoothing out animations and making sure they move exactly as the player commands. So, it can be a little jarring to go back to the old ways. However, once you get used to the antiquated design, there is a whole world waiting to be explored, one with a brilliantly written, morally grey story that is yet to be matched.

 So, while it had its naysayers, Assassin’s Creed III is still a great game that too many may have missed out on. A game that influenced so much of what was to come. If you haven’t played it, do yourself a favour and give it a go. You won’t be sorry that you did.

Max Longhurst is a keen gamer, avid writer and reader, and former teacher. He first got into gaming when, at the age of 8, his parents bought him a PS2 and Kingdom Hearts for Christmas, and he’s never looked back. Primarily a PlayStation fan, he loves games with a rich single-player experience and stories with unexpected twists and turns.