Hands-on preview: Assassin's Creed 3
Visual treat ... a screenshot of Assassin's Creed 3.
A small patrol of red coat soldiers wade through the thigh-high snow that's falling on the tough soil of the American frontier. The year is 1770 and the American Revolution is in full swing - loyalists and patriots battle openly in the fields of the fledgling United States.
But here in the brutal wilds, away from the safe havens of Boston and New York, these soldiers face a very different threat. Struggling to pull their unwieldy uniforms and bayonets through the heavy snow, none of them notice the cloaked figure watching them from the nook of a tree high above. The only tell-tale sign they're being watched is the snow shifting as the stalker draws back on his bow. One of the soldiers goes down with an arrow in the back. Before the hapless soldiers even realise they're under attack another is lifted high into the air as the figure uses a rope dart to suspend the confused man in the tree.
One soldier advances on the cloaked attacker and the other clumsily loads his musket. As the musketeer levels his gun at the threat and fires, the aggressor darts behind the other poorly-positioned man. The ball of lead cuts through the red coat of the soldier in front and gives the assassin time to dash through the snow and bury a tomahawk in the last man's chest.
A screenshot of Assassin's Creed 3.
This is just one interaction in Assassin's Creed 3 that is over in the space of 10 seconds. In this latest sci-fi/historical epic you'll get to experience being an assassin with a level of detail and polish that has never been seen before in an Assassin's Creed game.
This is actually the fifth major Assassin's Creed title. Previously we've met Altair, an assassin during the crusades, and Ezio Auditore da Firenze, a nobleman from 1476 Italy. Each of these characters has been a memory hidden in the DNA of Desmond Miles, a modern day would-be assassin who is reliving the lives of his ancestors in a machine called the Animus in an attempt to find information that can stop the modern day order of the Templars. It's not as silly as it sounds. Desmond's story has been stretched out across the four previous games but finally we're being offered some finality. Assassin's Creed 3 puts you in the animal skin boots of Connor Kenway, a half-Native American and half-British assassin during the American Revolution. While it's satisfying enough to finally have a new protagonist to reinvigorate Assassin's Creed, the developers have promised Desmond's arc would have some sort of conclusion that has been hinted at throughout all the previous games.
The world that you're given to explore in AC3 is easily the largest and most detailed of any of the games up to now. Boston, New York and the wild frontier are all areas to explore, along with the eastern coast of America that can be explored by ship. Just the frontier is easily larger than the map of AC2, and instead of the bland landscape between cities that made up the previous games there's plenty of settlements, characters and activities to make it come alive.
A screenshot of Assassin's Creed 3.
The frontier is probably the most exciting part of AC3. Every area is affected by the seasons and, depending on when you visit, the landscape can be covered in snow (which affects the game-play by slowing your movement should you walk on the ground) or bake under the summer sun. The cities are also more detailed than was previously possible. Characters bustle around the cities with purpose and make the world feel far more alive.
AC3 is the debut of Ubisoft's new engine Anvil Next, which allows the developers to include up to 2000 non-player characters on screen at once. Before, the games could only manage several hundred and the difference is immediately obvious. During the campaign we will see the engine put to the test as Connor participates in massive battles, both on land and at sea, that utilise the full extent of what is possible. Seeing 2000 characters rush headlong into battle with dynamic weather affecting everything from movement to visibility is truly something to behold.
Giving players a new protagonist to play as is also a godsend. Ezio was a well written and interesting character but after three games following his exploits gamers were becoming tired of his ways. Because of Connor's Native American heritage and upbringing he's uniquely capable of traversing the environment and surviving in the dangerous frontier. It also lets him stand apart from the British v American conflict that could've easily become a point of contention for players if he was forced to take sides. As it is, Connor isn't helping either side but concentrating on the ongoing Templar v Assassin conflict.
While it's too early to say if Connor's character is realised well, he's certainly fun to play as. His signature tomahawk will easily become as iconic to the series as Ezio's hidden blade and his collection of assassin tools are nicely inspired by Native American history and the series' penchant for slightly futuristic weapons. The rope dart, an offensive weapon that allows Connor to skewer a soldier from a tree and use his own body weight to hoist his victim into the air, is endlessly fun to use.
Connor is also given a new ability, thanks to Anvil Next, that reinvigorates the whole environment traversal/free running that the series is known for. Now Connor can climb on irregular objects. While it might not sound like much, in practice it allows the player to climb trees, rock faces and any object that isn't perpendicular to the ground. Once players get their hands on this feature, it'll become clear that Assassin's Creed has been waiting for this feature for a long time.
The combat has also been given a much needed overhaul from past AC games. Before, enemies would surround you and wait for their turn to attack one by one. Now enemies will attack willy-nilly, making the whole experience feel more natural. Connor is also unique equipped to deal with these more zealous attackers. The whole combat system has been revamped to be more free-flowing and less static. Connor can attack enemies while running and move from one person to the next with practiced ease. Once the new attack/parry system has been mastered, players feel like a predator quickly dispatching guards, using others as human shields while soldiers fire their bayonets at you and murdering with the brutality of a master assassin.
If the huge and fast-paced land battles weren't enough, Connor can take to the seas at the helm of his own boat. A surprising addition for AC, naval battles are something to behold when they get going. Connor takes his position behind the wheel of the boat and you're given a commanding view of your vessel. Firing to either side is a simple action, with subtle visual cues not getting in the way of the impressively cinematic set-pieces. When you find yourself in the middle of a sea battle and under fire from enemy ships, with wood and lead flying through the air above your head and your crew rushing around the boat to act out your orders, it's easy to mistake the game for Pirates of the Caribbean or Master and Commander. Not to mention that at any time you can leave the helm, explore your ship and even board enemy vessels to take matters into your own hands, piloting your own ship almost feels like a game in itself. The Anvil Next engine really allows the designers to make the experience feel as visceral as possible. Your battle could easily take you into the middle of huge storm and, while dangerous, it's definitely worth doing as the engine handles it with surprising aplomb.
Having been in development since AC2 was released, it's good to see that Ubisoft are not content to keep flogging a dead Ezio. The sheer size of the map and the wealth of new features mean that AC3 is a large leap forward for the series. Though we don't know if the story will stand up to the lofty claims of the studio, the technology certainly does. This entry to the series looks to takes what isn't broke and improve it even before you address the wealth of new features.
Assassin's Creed 3 is released October 31 on consoles and November 30 on PC.