Platforms: PC | PS3 | Xbox 360 | Wii U
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal
We've always rather put the turning point of the Battle of Chesapeake - one of the most decisive naval battles in the American War of Independence that saw the British General Cornwallis' supply routes cut off - down to the masterful seafaring tactics of the French military, who intervened with devastating precision and rather swung the momentum of the war firmly back towards the Americans. Of course, we know much better now. We know that, really, the determining factor was a half-English, half-Mohawk assassin with a jaunty hat and a hidden affinity for big boats with large guns.
Lead designer Steve Masters suggests that the continental shift over to the Revolutionary Americas allows for gameplay opportunities that have yet to be explored. Far from just tacking-on a chunk of differentiated gameplay, as seemed often the case in Revolutions, the naval combat is not only an integral part of the history - it's an integral part of of the game, too, allowing Ubisoft to weave Connor's journey in and out of the truly iconic moments from this period.
"We had dramatic urban vistas before, but we get to do that environmentally and shake the gameplay up with that too," Masters told us in Cologne. "So you have these amazing sights from on deck when you're sailing the ocean, engaged in the naval aspects of the game. When you get out into the frontier, it's a completely new environment, and provides the opportunity to do things that we've never done before in this series. To leverage the technology to account for rolling terrain, scalable cliff faces, and the tree-running, I think people are going to have a lot of fun revising their platforming rulebook. It's still intuitive, of course, but we've added in completely new elements to the series with this game, and it's the setting that's really allowed us to do that. The naval battles aren't just a tacked-on part of the game. They were hugely historically significant, and putting Connor on a ship, in the thick of that action, provided yet another opportunity to explore navigation and combat in a fresh and exciting way."
And so it is that Connor finds himself at the helm of the St. Esprit, surging through procedurally generated waves, scalable from calm and tranquil seas, to raging maelstroms. The dynamic weather can whip up a storm to batter one's ship, and although the controls are intuitive, you feel as though you're battling the waves and struggling against forces somewhat beyond your control. Holding her steady and seeing her true is about the extent of things, and thankfully it's not as fiddly as it might have been several centuries ago.
"These were ships of the line," Masters explained. "They'd spend hours readying themselves, lining up in groups of twenty, making hundreds of minute calculations to ensure the right elevations and angles to compensate for the conditions, and then they'd blow the hell out of one another." Understandably, the naval missions don't feature pedantic sail-setting, nor do they require the player to set up every single cannon to be just-so. "There's a balance to be struck between historical authenticity and what's actually fun to play," continued Masters. "We just didn't feel that spending hours adjusting the sails would be of any great benefit to the player. So we've taken the history on board, and I think we respect it well within the game, but equally we've gone for a more action-oriented, high-tempo approach."
Though I eventually get to grips with the game on Xbox 360 later on, the version Masters shows to us is played out on the Wii U. Here the navigation map is laid out on the tablet's screen, with the different types of shot instantly accessible at the touch of a button. Guiding the ship through the waters is simple in theory, though it does take some small skill to line up the perfect shot, but that just makes landing a direct hit, and watching your enemies sink into the deep blue, even more satisfying. Using grapeshot to whittle away at a ship's hull reveals a weak spot, denoted by a glowing white target. A flaming burst of heat shot causes havoc on the deck of the Redcoat vessel. Finally swapping to swivel shot, we line up our cannons and blast our enemies to kingdom come.
There are three main speeds from which to choose: the top speed sees you unfurl your sails fully, sacrificing maneuverability in the process. The lowest speed sees you essentially entering sitting duck territory, but allows for relatively speedy aiming and shot-making. The third velocity finds a nice balance between the two extremes. Of course, the current and the wind play a part too. You're not going to be sailing off anywhere in a hurry if you're running against the current, with the wind in your face.
Of course, Connor's intervention in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay has little to do with the warring factions per se, and everything to do with a Templar embedded in with the Redcoats. Having dealt with the majority his British aggressors, Connor scythes into the dense fog, chasing the Templar's ship. Running with the wind, it's not long before the pursuit is over. After a few more rounds of heat shot, the chain shot comes out, and the Templar's mainmast comes crashing down onto the deck. The storm that has cracked the sky in the last five minutes sends thunderous waves crashing against both ships, but an intercept course is set and the grappling hooks are brought out. Just as Connor and co. swing aboard, the demo ends.
The Anvil Next engine looks fantastic, the nautical action feels great, and the Templar chase feels as epic as it should. That UBisoft are looking to shake up the series is no bad thing, and the sailing segments are certainly somewhat less fiddly than the much-maligned tower-defence additions that Revelations made. It remains to be seen whether or not this can stand up as a well-integrated gameplay feature that warrants interest outside of the scripted story sequences. Masters is right when he suggests to me that this is an area that's really not been explored in recent years...but all that really makes me huger for is an enormous remake of Sid Meier's Pirates!
Using Anvil Next. Sigh.