Developers: Ubisoft Montreal
In my last preview for Assassin's Creed III, I ripped down the web of historical lies that told us the French turned the tide of battle against the Redcoats at Chesapeak, and learned that it was mainly down to an Assassin with a jaunty hat. Well, a couple off weeks ago, I realised that, as it turns out, our fashionable murderer was also the one who dumped all of that lovely tea in Boston's harbour too.
Assassin's Creed III marks a period of transformation for Ubisoft's lucrative series. Not only is this final chapter in Desmond's story paving the way for a completely new approach to the series beyond October 31st, but Ubisoft have suggested that this is a game built to usher in the next generation. The AnvilNext engine is reportedly squeezing every last drop of power from the current systems, and it shows.
It's a game that represents so much upheaval, experimentation, and the forging of new paths, that the American Revolution seems an utterly perfect fit. From the tranquil, verdant forestland of the Homestead and its surrounding lands, to the glades and river-carved valleys of the frontier, to the wildly different, hustle and bustle of an adolescent Boston and New York - not yet fully formed, brimming with character and energy, the streets lined with soldiers, the public mood a simmering cauldron of dissatisfaction. Assassin's Creed III is a game that manages to both feel vastly different to its predecessors, and yet also utterly familiar.
Set down in the Homestead area of the game and let loose on the world for three hours, we did what any erstwhile adventuring assassin would do in a strange new land: we completely ignored all of the quest markers and climbed a tree. New terrain brings with it new rules to learn, new environments to explore, and new topographical challenges to navigate. Stalking a band of poachers through the thick undergrowth, we opt to dash up into the branches, and then start stringing them up one by one using our rope darts. One of them makes a break for it, having witnessed our rather violent impression of Robin of Locksley, and we take to the treetops again,, scampering seamlessly across the canopy, before sailing back towards the ground, hidden blades aied straight for the back of our fleeing criminal's head.
The locals are incredibly thankful, as you'd expect, so much so that they don't even comment on the smattering of corpses attracting flies on the edge of the Homestead lands. "Homestead is our take on the American Dream," associate producer Julien Laferrière tells us. "It's about carving out your own personal space in the New World, and building your own little community." So it is, that Connor finds himself using the old house as something of a base of operations, but he is not alone. Helping out the folk who dwell in the lands around the Homestead will endure you to them. As you might expect in a rural community, you'll then be able to trade and barter items and hunting materials, and turn the pelts and minerals you've amassed into useful, equippable items and clothing.
Racing around these frontier lands threw up a number of subtle changes that Ubisoft Montreal have made to the core formula. The first is that Connor is no longer the daredevil idiot that his predecessors were. By this I mean that he won't blithely take a jump that he knows is going to seriously injure him. You can force a leap of death a the push of a button, but while using the forest as your adventure playground of murder, you'll no longer find your hooded assassin making really stupid jumps from high places.
Secondly, the pacing has been ratcheted up a little bit. As lead designer Steve Masters explained gleefully to us at Gamescom, Connor can now assassinate on the move - rolling over guards and silencing their cries of surprise with a flick of the tomahawk without halting his morning jog. Weapons generally feel a little weightier, and Connor swings the larger weapons with a bit more force than Ezio ever did. Though not a killer of enormous finesse, he's certainly highly efficient. It's also worth noting, that out in the Frontier, Connor becomes the hunted for a few select predators other than the Redcoats. Wildcats and jackals will occasionally attempt to interfere with your plans, simply because they see you as a well-dressed snack.
After winning the favour of a few locals, foraging for collectible treasures for a pirate named Peg-Leg, and wrecking a coastal fort on the seas at the behest of the Harbourmaster, we soon made our way south to Boston. An English prospector named William Johnson is forcing the sale of the Mohawk people's land, rendering them homeless, something that severely angers our half-Mohawk assassin, Connor. With the aid of a scheming fellow named Sam Adams, Connor sets about undermining the Redcoat stranglehold on Boston, culminating in a rather famous Tea Party, where he helps dump 100 crates of India's finest, to sever Johnson's import profits and render him incapable of buying the Mohawk land.
Boston presents a very different urban environment to the glamour of Renaissance Italy, and the tall spires of Acre and Constantinople. The streets are wider, the buildings shorter, and with greater spaces between them. Racing from one end of the city to other without touching the ground is almost impossible, and Connor is often forced to barrel his way through a window and out the other side to lose his pursuers should he fall foul of the law.
Speaking of which, the Redcoats themselves are a more tenacious and well-equipped enemy than we've ever seen before. Connor's attacks again reward rhythmic timing, but the counter has four follow-up attacks, including context-sensitive finisher that utilises the secondary weapon you have equipped, such as your pistol or lasso Your adversaries are relentless in pursuit, though, and in no time at all, we had fifteen on our tail. More interesting, though, are the different types of guards you'll encounter. Some will draw swords and attempt to match you in melee. Others will try to poke you from afar with their bayonets. Officers will arrive on horseback, and prove infuriatingly tricky to finish off. But it's the guns that make the biggest difference. You see, whilst all of that is happening, a group of three to seven soldiers will line up and present arms. At that point, it's imperative to either kill them immediately, or get out of the way, as if Connor is hit by a volley of musket rounds he'll lose nearly all of his health, if not cop it altogether. It's important to use everything that you have at your disposal to stop that from happening, to think careful before engaging in combat, and to always have an escape route.
Assassin's Creed III doesn't reboot the franchise at all; it was never supposed to. But it looks as though the evolutionary step which it takes is far greater than Ubisoft have done in the past couple of games, and perhaps paves the way for a larger upheaval come next-gen. Either way, we can't wait until it's out at the end of next month.