Assassin's Creed III may be set during a Revolution, but from the footage and screenshots we've witnessed over the past few weeks, its gameplay is set to be an evolution of the dynamic fight & flight formula we've come to love from Ubisoft's breakthrough series. Keen to know more about the first full sequel since Ezio's introduction three years ago, I sought out an extended guided tour, free from the hype and stressful crowds of the E3 show floor, in order to get to grips with the new features of this anticipated title. The demo took us deep into the heart of Boston, which was one of the most important cities in the revolutionary conflict. And the host of that infamous tea party... not to mention the tragic massacre.
The demo started in traditional Assassin's Creed style: a sweeping, cinematic tour of the city as its inhabitants set about their daily business. Swooping both high and low, the camera picked out citizens gossiping in the streets or tending their market stalls, populating the town in much greater numbers and with more realistic intent than in past games. Though Boston isn't anywhere near as topographically diverse as, say, Rome, this slight lack of verticality is more than made up for by the ability to quickly climb any surface and a greater number of interior spaces being fully modelled, such as bedrooms and lobbies. Finally, the camera settled on Connor as he regally squat atop one of the two-storey dwellings, beholding a dramatic scene playing out below.
A washerwoman desperately pleaded with a Cockney Redcoat guard for leniency for her husband, who was being held in the stocks down a filthy alleyway. Unmoved by her pleas, the colonial aggressor (sorry, fellow Brits, but there's going to be a lot of that kind of talk in Assassin's Creed III) shoved her away and stalked back to join his comrades, leaving the distraught wife below. Leaping across the rooftops with fluid grace - the 'puppeteering' system has been vastly upgraded to make jumping much more precise and natural than before - Connor leapt to the relative safety of a hay cart on the street below, loitering beneath the straw long enough to silently grab and murder a passing guard as he strolled by. These mobile landing pads should ensure that players can move between high elevations and street level on the fly, all while giving players the familiar thrill of jumping from stupid, insane heights.
Approaching the woman started a dynamic mission to help the populace, many of which will feature throughout Assassin's Creed III's narrative alongside critical story quests and full, Skyrim-style optional objectives (many of which will hinge around collection or hunting). Agreeing to help rescue her husband, Connor took cover against the wall of the alleyway while the citizen beckoned over the guard with a stream of vicious invective. Townsfolk will play a more important and aggressive role than in previous games, actively helping Connor in his attempts to liberate the populace. Once in range, Connor demonstrated the new 'Corner Assassination,' quickly reaching out, stabbing the unwary assailant and pulling the body out of sight. Stealth is set to play a much more important role in the sequel since Redcoats are armed with vicious Land Pattern Muskets, and sneaky shenanigans have been bolstered by a few new skills including an improved cover system. New 'stalking zones' such as bushes and shrubs make Connor duck down automatically, providing a greater degree of concealment and doubtlessly proving invaluable for hunting animals in the frontier.
At the end of the alley, a small garden was patrolled by a squad of Redcoat guards taunting the unfortunate prisoner as he stood helpless in the stocks. Rather than engage head-on, Connor shinned up a tree (all objects and surfaces are climbable, remember) and hooked an unwary guard with the new rope dart tool. Jumping down acted as a counterweight, propelling the struggling guard up into the branches and causing his fellows to rush over to help. Distraction set, it was easy to sneak around and free the grateful citizen without raising the alarm.
Getting away proved more difficult for the assassin, however, since the guards quickly returned and engaged Connor with their bayonets. After killing one Redcoat with a well-placed tomahawk blow and countering another with a well-timed hidden blade strike, he turned tail and shimmied up a wall, leaping through into a second story window, startling the female occupant and bolting out the other side. These interior environments allows for new ways to break the line of sight, and act as yet another weapon in an Assassin's arsenal of tricks. To counter this, however, enemies are much more intelligent (searching both thoroughly and realistically, using last known position and direction to systematically track down fleeing players), and they quickly boiled into the marketplace in greater numbers.
Hiding in plain sight has always been a key part of Assassin's Creed - indeed, it's actually part of the Creed itself - and this concept has been further expanded in Assassin's Creed 3. Connor can now blend into environments by joining citizens in conversation, casually leaning back against walls or stalls and chatting about the state of the country, the price of food and even useful gossip that could prove invaluable in future missions. Blending in and out of these conversations is breathtakingly fluid, and instantly turns Connor into a natural part of the scene who seems to truly belong there. It would actually be difficult to spot him in a screenshot; that's just how natural and intuitive the new system is. Ubisoft's Anvil Next engine is clearly capable of rendering huge numbers of fluidly-animated NPCs simultaneously without so much as a stutter on current generation hardware.
Free of his hounds, Connor was able to embark on his main mission: capturing a galleon in the heavily-defended docks. Noting a massive security presence at the gate, our Ubisoft demonstrator showed off one of the new Brotherhood assist options, summoning in a quartet of swarthy fellow Assassins disguised as Redcoat guards. Forming up around Connor in a protective circle and cladding Connor in irons, the group steered him through the checkpoint in the guise of a captured prisoner. Genuine guardsmen acted realistically, both welcoming the newcomers and praising them for securing such a dangerous target. Fools. Once out of sight, the group disbanded, leaving Connor free to satisfy his main objective.
Once again, the Galleon's gangplank was heavily defended, but the new bow and arrow weapon provides the perfect silent tool for nefarious infiltrations. Rather than executing the guards outright, Connor targeted a soldier on the docks, causing him to scream in pain and prompting the guards to rush to assist him and size up the situation. Dodging past them was a cinch, leaving only the soldiers on the boat itself to deal with.
Combat, like most of the mechanics, has been massively overhauled with a host of new skills, and boast a remapped control system making them much more intuitive to pull off. Without waiting to be engaged, Connor disarmed a Redcoat, grabbed his rifle, shoved the bayonet through his back and shot another guard through his body. Another guardsman was bull-rushed over the side of the galleon, while a kilt-wearing elite required a series of tomahawk parries and stabs before finally yielding to a furious onslaught of blows (though not before grabbing Connor by the shoulders and delivering a wince-inducing Glaswegian kiss). The counter system makes a welcome return, but with more offensive options on the table, combat will provide equal parts action and reaction.
Climbing the rigging triggered another panoramic cutscene as the demo faded to black, leaving us safe in the knowledge that Assassin's Creed III is going to deliver more of the same freeform action, but better, more fluid and infinitely more dynamic than its predecessors. Having witnessed the Redcoats' role as brutal aggressors, however, Ubisoft are going to have a hard time convincing us that the English aren't just a monolithic, one-dimensional evil occupation force. I hope that the storyline will be smart, thought-provoking and emotional enough to compliment the slick gameplay we enjoyed at E3.