Every good assassin relies upon the element of surprise, and so it's only fitting Ubisoft has a cracker up its sleeve for Assassin's Creed III. I won't tell you what or where it is, as it's simply too good to spoil, but you'll know it when you see it. It's genuinely unexpected, and results in one of the most enjoyable stretches of play in this enormous game.
It has another, too, and this one I'm more comfortable telling you about: believe it or not, it's Desmond Miles. No, one of gaming's dullest heroes hasn't suddenly developed a personality. As he and his chums potter around an underground base trying to figure out how to stop the end of the world, you'll start by getting lost within an irritatingly designed hub searching for things you can't find.
Yet it's from these frustrations that a trio of globe-trotting quests to find three glowing MacGuffins show Desmond, and the game, at their best. His time in the Animus has turned him into both a parkour expert and a dab hand with bladed instruments, and while it's a little perturbing how happily he'll gut security guards who are just doing their job, these sequences - a vertiginous climb, a tense stadium-set stalk and chase, and finally a stab-heavy reunion - are properly exciting.
Sadly, its other surprises aren't quite so welcome. Following on from the charismatic and dynamic Ezio Auditore, the new half-British, half-Native American protagonist Connor "Ratonhnhaké:ton" Kenway unfortunately struggles to fit the big boots he's been left with. Sure, he's headstrong and more than heroic enough, but there's a touch of the Anakins in his surly demeanour that makes him hard to warm to, and he's hardly the sharpest tomahawk in the tepee.
At least Connor is surrounded by a solid cast: a cigar-smoking general, an ageing former assassin, and a wonderfully smarmy Brit in a pivotal role all resonate and add colour to this classic revenge tale set amid the American Revolutionary War. There's even a splendidly hissable antagonist. Yet their appearance is a double-edged sword, as all of them make the hero of the piece look even blander. Poor Connor even has a clichéd backstory; indeed, so hackneyed is it that at one stage I paused the game to guess what would likely happen next, and got every detail right.
What happens after is less predictable, although not always in a good way. For a game called Assassin's Creed, there's not a lot of actually being, well, an assassin. Throughout the series, Ubisoft has gradually been filling its sandbox worlds with an increasing variety of things to do, but here is a textbook example of feature creep: some will delight at the sheer range of activities. But a lot of it feels like filler, another feature to namecheck on the back of the box.
You can grudgingly admire the sheer range of sidelines, from returning ideas like assassination contracts and courier missions, to new elements like recruiting settlers to your homestead. This new spin on managing property will provide you with items that can be shipped off in a convoy to earn profit while you're busy elsewhere.
Or, if you fancy, you can clock off from your duties fighting an ancient organisation and spend your time hunting in the vast American frontier. Here you'll happen across a variety of creatures as you yomp through the grass - or snow, if it's winter - but you can also find clues in the environment that alert you to the precise location of the animal which left that trail. Your job then is to quietly stalk them and eventually skin them. Again, there's a laudable range of creatures to murder, from raccoons and rabbits to deer and elk, while bears, cougars and wolves occasionally show up and attack you, and you fight for your life by following button prompts to dodge and kill. Sadly these encounters with man's deadliest natural opponents, which should be among the game's most exciting moments, have been reduced to simple QTEs.
Elsewhere in the wilderness you can set snares for smaller animals, or scatter bait to draw them over to you as you crouch in the long grass, blade or axe at the ready. How you kill each animal matters: blasting them with musket fire is the easiest method but spoils the quality of the pelt, encouraging you to use the hidden blade where possible to get a perfect coat for maximum trade value. It's all good fun, but a great deal of patience is required and you may feel the rewards aren't quite worth the effort, beyond the satisfaction of an efficient stalk and kill. Animals scoot off at the first sign of trouble and detect you much sooner than their human counterparts, while items don't earn you much profit, especially when you can seek out treasure chests in the cities instead and trouser much more.
If the vast expanses of wilderness are where you'll spend most of your downtime, the narrative would rather guide you towards the game's two cities, and both Boston and New York are evocatively realised portraits of a country in turmoil. Again, the distractions are both plentiful and familiar: you'll need to liberate areas from redcoat control to unlock missions and stores; you can start impromptu riots on the street to create a diversion; you'll bribe printers or tear down posters to become incognito.
Though you'll still need to climb tall structures to synchronise with your surroundings, you're better off remaining grounded to avoid trouble. Rooftop soldiers spot you quickly and will often start to give chase before you've had the opportunity to climb down as per their shouted demands. I found the controls a little sticky at times, gluing Connors hands to surfaces when I was trying to drop out of harm's way. The problems are exacerbated by a further simplification of the climbing mechanic: now you're merely required to hold RT and push up on the analogue stick. Though it can make vertical escapes a little quicker, it can just as easily lead to errant leaps into trouble.
There are changes to combat, too. Enemies now attack en masse as opposed to one-by-one, and you'll need to keep your wits about you to avoid or parry incoming attacks. Meanwhile, the (perhaps authentically) long reload time for guns makes them next to useless beyond a single shot to start or finish a battle. At first you'll welcome the extra challenge, but it can feel a little fussy when you're facing large groups of enemies, not least because riflemen will step back from the fray and fire. You're given advance warning to dodge as the camera zooms out, but it can mean battles are overextended, not least because enemies take a hell of a beating before they finally drop. The level geometry often doesn't help, either: cramped streets or busy interiors can often leave you with an obstructed view, meaning at least one death-by-unseen-bayonet-stab too many.
Still, I'd rather settle for these bouts of frustration over the game's plentiful moments of tedium. After a strong, if linear, opening, the game soon settles into a rhythm: walk, cutscene, walk some more, cutscene. On one occasion Connor trudges along next to an old man with a walking stick, slowing the pace still further. On another, he walks very slowly in an underground tunnel, lighting lamps to increase the number of fast travel locations on the sprawling map. Later, a wounded Connor staggers at the pace of a man staggering incredibly slowly to the next waypoint.
Occasionally you'll get to trot very slowly instead, as you mount a horse to reach your destination - indeed, there's a comical scene when travelling between frontier settlements to awaken loyalist militia, as your companion bellows directions at the top of his lungs while you're trying to stay out of earshot of the redcoats. The point being that Assassin's Creed III has so many scenes of moving very slowly through picturesque locations that you begin to wonder if Peter Jackson was the game's director.
Of course, walking slowly is part and parcel of being an assassin. Trouble is, outside hunting and a handful of side-missions, stealth is far from Connor's strength. Some sequences give you the option to do things sneakily, but it's extremely difficult, and for the wrong reasons. Hawk-eyed guards, sight-line issues and control niggles that have you standing up at the wrong time or climbing when you meant to stand perfectly still all contribute to the increasing likelihood you'll be spotted.
But a lot of the time it's not even a choice. All the main assassinations in the game are precipitated by unavoidable combat or chases in the open. There's an optional fort infiltration that beats most story missions hands down, along with one short but sweet bit of speed-stealth at night involving non-lethal takedowns of misguided natives. It's not enough. Quite apart from that, a curious lack of polish at key moments sours the dramatic effect: a potentially thrilling escape from seemingly certain death is spoiled by choppy direction and a silly aftermath. Worse still, two moments of narrative significance are taken out of your control, one in particular robbing you of the satisfaction of something you've been longing to do for hours.
It's inconsistent, in other words, and that's highlighted by two missions that place you in the heat of the conflict. One is a breathless sprint through a Boston street pummelled by cannon fire, wood and masonry crumbling all around you, a real pulse-quickening highlight. Another battle, however, simply has you trotting between three groups of Patriots, pressing a button to order them to fire. What both have in common is that they're visually sumptuous. This is a quite beautiful game at times: attractive, detailed, and beautifully lit. The soundtrack is less noticeable, though the main theme, with driving rhythms and a strident melody that recurs in other tracks is an instant classic. But ultimately the quality of the mission design has taken a huge nosedive from the series peak of Assassin's Creed II.
It's at sea where this slumbering giant finally comes to life. There's a terrific sense of heft in simply controlling your galleon, a sense that you're really wrenching the wheel to bring the ship around. At first you'll simply need to navigate narrow waterways and steer around rocks, switching from half-sail to full to increase speed or vice versa for extra manoeuvrability. Combat, however, is something else: simple in theory, but requires a bit of thought to do well, not least when wind or allied ships prove more hindrance than help.
You'll have to decide between cannon fire to smash a rival ship to bits, or chain shot to break the masts when you want to keep its cargo intact. Do you get closer to target explosive barrels with short-range fire, or simply ram the smaller vessels? Avoiding damage is a matter of ducking out of the way as cannonballs fly past, a slightly silly conceit that nonetheless adds further excitement. It's an intoxicating blend of audiovisual noise and fury, weighty physics and satisfying control that coalesce in a way you don't find enough of elsewhere.
Talking of noise and fury, I think there may be plenty of that in reaction to the game's ending. It certainly has the courage of its crazy convictions, even after a tedious preamble to the climactic events. Tellingly, after a credit crawl lasting roughly 20 minutes, the revelation of epilogue missions caused me to roll my eyes rather than being pleasantly subscribed.
Assassin's Creed III's saving grace, then, is its multiplayer mode, and that's partly because it's the one area of the game where you consistently feel like an assassin. In my case it's a short-sighted and clumsy assassin who kills a lot of innocent people and could do with looking over his shoulder a little more often, but an assassin all the same. Played properly with smart opponents, it's a game of remarkable stillness next to the speed and ferocity of its online peers. Again, it's all about remaining inconspicuous , taking out rivals you're contracted to kill while making sure you don't get spotted doing the dirty deed, or even murdered on the way. As before, environments are varied and smartly designed, with plenty of useful hiding spots.
What's new over Revelations' bash at multiplayer is a team-based Domination mode where groups of assassins aim to gain control and then hold areas of the map. It's fun, but it's a variation on a theme, and unlikely to be a particularly popular choice. Not when you've got the co-op focused Wolf Pack to consider, at any rate. Here your cabal of assassins has a limited time to kill certain targets: off them all before the counter reaches zero and you're given extra time to locate and neutralise the next wave. It's a horde mode, essentially, and while in theory it's all about synchronising your squad for methodical, incognito kills, more often than not, the four of you will simply sprint from one contract to the next as the initial time limit is too strict to allow you to co-ordinate a plan.
There are also fresh abilities and perks to use. A money bomb distracts civilians, allowing you to hide within the scrambling mob or reveal abstemious opponents - unless, of course, they're smart enough to also run for the cash. Another skill makes you near-invisible to rivals, though the speed of your approach determines just how transparent you are. Equippable perks let you sprint through crowds without stumbling, while another changes a crowd member to your doppelgänger. It's perhaps a little gimmicky, and some purists will rail at the changes, but for my money, these additions merely make for a more varied and exciting twist on an already winning formula.
Above all, despite the changes, the multiplayer component doesn't lose sight of what made it special in the first place. The same can't really be said for Assassin's Creed III's ambitious but ultimately disappointing campaign. There's been much talk of the game being Ubisoft's largest production ever, and by the time those credits have finished you'll feel you've had reasonable proof. But as extraordinary as the scale and scope of this huge production can be at times, you're left with a bloated reminder that bigger isn't always better.
Version Tested: Xbox 360
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