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Assassin's Creed 3 review: The birth of a nation, the end of a trilogy

America's angsty teenage years provide the backdrop for the biggest Assassin's Creed yet

Amazingly, this is the fourth Assassin's Creed game in four years. But while Brotherhood and Revelations felt like ambitious expansions, Assassin's Creed 3 is more of a sequel. The world is bigger and more complex, combat has been streamlined, climbing feels more natural and intuitive, and we're introduced to a new setting and hero for the first time since baby Ezio came screeching out of his mother's womb. But some things haven't changed. There are problems here that have plagued the series since the first game, and they stick out like a Redcoat in the snow.

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Further reading: Review Q&A | Assassin's Creed 3 guide | 360 vs PS3 video comparison | Assassin's Creed 3 review round-up | Assassin's Creed 3 Liberation impressions

Set in the 1700s, Assassin's Creed 3 gives you a glimpse of America before it was covered in strip malls and skyscrapers. The British are ruling the colonies with an iron fist, and the Patriots are fighting back. It's a time of bloody civil war as the rebels battle for their independence.

In the middle of it all are the Native Americans, including new hero Connor, who are being driven from their land and persecuted by the foreign invaders. It was a troubled, violent period of history, and Ubisoft Montreal treat it as such. Nothing is glorified, nor is it the pro-America propaganda piece the trailers suggested it might be. Connor regularly points out the hypocrisy of the colonists who fight for their freedom, yet still keep slaves.

That doesn't mean the writers haven't taken some artistic license, though. As in previous games, the century-spanning battle between the Assassins and the Templars is tied into real historical events. History has no record of a guy in a white hood helping to win the Battle of Bunker Hill, but the game sees Connor disabling artillery on nearby ships to help the soldiers on the front line, then charging head-first into the battle himself to execute a Templar general.

This cocktail of real history and the game's mythology works really well, and taking an active part in landmark moments in American history, and witnessing others, is a thrill. Connor all but blows the ink dry on the Declaration of Independence.

HEAT WAVE

Outside of the Animus, Desmond is back. The solar flare mentioned at the end of Assassin's Creed: Revelations is about to toast Earth and wipe out humanity, and he's living out Connor's past to find a magical MacGuffin that'll stop it.

You can eject from the Animus at any time and wander around talking to Danny Wallace and co., but the meat of the game takes place in Connor's memories. Desmond still has no discernable personality, and spends most of the game complaining. Connor, although likeable, is too serious.

He has positive traits - noble, moral, good-natured - but none of that makes him an interesting character. His biggest flaw is that he has a short temper, which actually ends up being quite irritating. We miss Ezio's sense of humour.

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The Frontier is a vast expanse of forests, mountains, and rivers set between the two main cities. It's the largest single environment in the series to date, and packed with detail. As you skip through the trees you'll see wildlife beneath you, from tiny rabbits to hulking great bears.

Sometimes you'll hear the pounding of military drums and a platoon of Redcoats will come marching by. As the Revolution heats up, musket battles between British and Patriot soldiers erupt around you. It feels alive. The story takes place across a number of years, and seasonal shifts completely transform the landscape. In the summer it's green, lush and hazy, and in winter everything is covered in layers of thick, powdery snow.

Boston and New York are just as detailed, but the colonial architecture doesn't offer as much variety or verticality as any of the cities from previous games. You spend most of your time hopping across slanted roofs, and there are no big, imposing structures like the towering Basilica di San Marco in Venice or the Colosseum in Rome. But that, to be fair, is a limitation of the setting and not the developers' imaginations.

To make up for the smaller buildings, there are more novel ways to navigate. You can jump across trees placed between houses, or climb through open windows to cross to the adjacent street. There isn't much distinction between the two cities, sadly. Both are very similar in look and feel, and only a handful of story missions take place in New York.

Climbing has been simplified, and you now only have to hold the right trigger to free-run. They call this 'safe' free-running because there's no risk of falling. This does its best to combat the problem of accidentally jumping to your doom or running face-first into a wall you can't climb and interrupting your flow. It also frees your right hand up to move the camera around, which is useful if you're using the trees to stalk an animal, or attempting one of the new running assassinations.

The tree climbing is superbly animated, and initially feels much more organic than the platforming we're used to in the series. But you soon begin to instinctively recognise the few tree shapes that are climbable, which shatters the illusion somewhat.

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Combat has been tweaked too, but it isn't wildly different from the other games. Now you can target an enemy by pointing the left stick at them, rather than having to squeeze the left trigger. When a red triangle flashes above their head you hold B/Circle to counter which slows down time for a few seconds, giving you a brief window to segue into another attack, kick their weapon away, or use a tool, like a pistol or poison dart.

Enemy behaviour has been modified so that you can't repeatedly use the same move over and over again. As a result, combat is tougher than in previous games. Not Dark Souls tough, but still challenging. The primitive 18th Century guns are so unwieldy and slow to reload they're never much of a threat, but sometimes you'll have to break away from a swordfight to interrupt another enemy who's about to fire their musket at you.

But now we have to talk about Assassin's Creed 3's biggest flaw: the missions. Don't worry, some of them are sensational. We mentioned the Battle of Bunker Hill earlier, and that whole section will blow your mind. It's a thundering symphony of scenery-shattering set-pieces and ends with a thousand-man battle you can scarcely believe is running on a current generation console.

The opening sequence is fantastic too, set aboard a ship as it crosses the Atlantic Ocean from Britain to America. The atmosphere and detail of the world around you is stunning, and we got so immersed at times we felt like we'd plugged into the Animus ourselves. There are moments here to rival the best in the series, and each mission offers something different - including parts where you command armies - but the issue we have is with the instant fails.

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