Three years ago Ubisoft flew me over to their Sydney offices to have an early go on Assassin’s Creed II with the game’s creative director Patrice Désilets.
Last week I found myself, once again, hosted by Ubisoft Australia. This time it was at a fabulous location overlooking the Sydney Opera House for a hand-on session with Assassin’s Creed III in the company of the games associate producer, Julien Laferrière, and mission director, Philippe Bergeron.
The session was introduced by Edward Fong, the Managing Director of Ubisoft for Australia & New Zealand. Edward then handed the session over to Julian and Philippe who talked whilst playing a segment of the game showcasing the Frontier setting. Whilst they were part of a new team taking the series in a new direction, it was clear from the way they spoke about their game that they had a lot of reverence for the previous Assassin’s Creed games.
Assassin’s Creed III is the fifth title in the main Assassin’s Creed series (ignoring the portable games). The first game followed the adventures of Syrian assassin Altaïr Ibn-La'Ahad and was set in the Holy Land at the time of the crusades. The second game featured Italian nobleman, Ezio Auditore and shifted the story to Renaissance Italy.
The next two games continued with Ezio’s tale, charting his rise to the position of master assassin. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed Revelations rounded off the stories of Ezio and Altaïr’s lives, serving as a bookend to this part of the Assassin’s Creed narrative and opening up the way for a new protagonist, and new location and a new historic period for the next chapter.
For Assassin’s Creed III the story shifts to The New World, America, at the time of the revolutionary war with the British. Fans of the series may have already seen the hints for this new locale in a previous game. This time the Animus places the player in the memories of half-Mohawk, half-English Conner Kenway.
Choosing the American revolutionary war as a backdrop for AC3, is probably the safest commercial move that Ubisoft have made since the series’ inception. Their core American audience will witness the birth of their nation; whilst the game’s British players (me included), will get to see their countrymen butchered with uninhibited enthusiasm. I wonder, what with Ubisoft being a French company, if it isn’t something to do with what the British did to Napoleon. I don’t think that they’ve ever forgiven us for that.
Regardless of the Anglo-French relationship, at the time of the Revolutionary War, the British were getting a little too big for their boots and well past due bringing down a peg of two. Assassin’s Creed III features a cast that includes most of the characters responsible for removing that huge chunk of real estate from Mad King George the Third’s empire.
For the hands-on session, Sequence 6 of the game was unlocked for me to play. At this point in the story Conner’s base of operations is Davonport Manor on the edge of the Frontier, with Boston to the north and a tall ship moored at the bottom of the garden. It’s the perfect time in the game to get a taste of what Assassin’s Creed II has to offer.
The first thing I did was dive straight into one of the game’s much publicized naval battle missions. I was pretty interested in just how they fit into the whole Assassin’s Creed gameplay aesthetic. I’ve always considered the Assassin’s Creed mini-games to be a mixed bag and somewhat at odds with the main game.
As I mentioned, by Sequence 6, Conner has a tall ship parked at the bottom of his yard. Walking up to and speaking to the harbour master gains access to a map from which a naval mission can be selected. This map also allowed me to fast travel to Boston- more on that later.
The ship-to-ship combat reminded me of the sea battles in the likes of Empire Total War and Sid Meir’s Pirates. In the mission, Conner’s must escort a merchant ship, taking care of any British ships out the sink it. The third-person view showed Conner at the helm of his ship physically tugging on the wheel as I moved the thumbstick. The controls were easy to grasp, with the ships speed controlled by raising full sails, half-sails or stopping. Speed was also dependant on which direction the wind was blowing.
For my mission, Conner’s ship was equipped with a turret gun, which I could use to precisely target enemy ships, and a battery of cannons, which needed me to aligning the side of the ship up with the target. Whilst the ship-to-ship combat was satisfying, it did seem that realism and historical accuracy took a bit of a backseat; with Conner’s ship seemingly being able to turn on a penny and the British ships being prone to exploding a little too easily.
I’m pretty sure that His Majesty’s Royal Navy was a little more formidable than Assassin’s Creed III would have you believe. Despite all that I found the naval battles fun, more fun that the mini games in previous games. It did feel kind of basic, although I assume that with ship upgrades the naval battles get a bit more involving later on.
Next I took a trip out into The Frontier. Conner’s tree climbing and branch leaping is every bit as smooth as the videos show it to be. I had Conner leaping from tree to tree with no trouble. Whilst Philippe Bergeron said that the controls had changed, they didn’t feel different to me. I’m playing through Assassin’s Creed Revelations at the moment and I transitioned straight over without a problem.
The Frontier area was quite large with animals freely roaming about for you to shoot, wrestle and hunt. I can see this being the place to go when you need to chill out after a long rooftop chase. The more redneck players out there may find Conner’s animal slaughtering abilities quite distracting. The Frontier was vast and rather nice to roam about in. It reminded me very much of the wilderness area in Red Dead Redemption. I’m looking forward to ambushing Redcoats lost in the woods when the game comes out at the end of October.
From the Frontier, I moved on to Boston. In shifting the game to the west I found the the Colonial American town not nearly interesting a location as those in the previous Assassin’s Creed game. It felt a little too familiar when compared to medieval Jerusalem, Renaissance Rome or Constantinople; each offering a glimpse of faraway exotic lands. Boston still looks pretty amazing, with pigs and other animals roaming the street, it looks very much alive.
A word on the graphics: Assassin’s Creed III looks fantastic, as you would expect. I immediately noticed that the character models were even better than those in the last, and they were pretty good last time. But Boston didn’t really have the same impact on me as previous game location, and didn’t really get a chance to judge the sense of scale. Whilst it is perhaps unfair for me to judge from this small sample of the game, but the environments felt smaller this time.
As in previous games, Ubisoft have tied Assassin’s Creed 3 nicely into documented history. I’m pretty sure that Conner bumped into John Adams, the man that would go on to be the second president of the United States of America, during my hands-on. It’s brilliant to be able to step into history this way.
I mustn’t forget the combat. For the demo, Conner use a tomahawk with a dagger in his left hand as his main weopons. It was pretty efficient as weapon combo, and prove handy when I clusily got the pretty much the entire garrison of Redcoats after me, trying to fill Conner with lead. Create a stir like I did and it’s easy to find yourself within a ring of muskets, powerless to do anything until they reload. When I got the kill chain going, the odds were evened out with Conner’s combat moves proving to be fluid and very enjoyable.
As well as Assassin’s Creed III running on the PS3, Ubisoft were also showing off the PlayStation Vita version of the game, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation. For the first time players will get to control a female assassin.. The action is set in 18th Century New Orleans, with players controlling Aveline de Grandpré, and completely separate to Desmond’s adventures in the main Assassin’s Creed series.
The graphics are a miniaturised version of those you’d expect from the PS3 version. During the demo, which was the training level , I was sent to search for glyphs in the swamp. This required me to get to grips with Aveline’s climbing skills as she leaped from tree to tree in a very similar way to Conner in AC3. The Vita version took me through long range assassination using a blowpipe. From what I saw of it, Assassin's Creed III: Liberation looked and felt great; providing gamers with yet another reason to buy Sony’s little games console.
Whilst it is always difficult to come away from a short bit of hands-on time with a definitive opinion of what the final game will be like, there was nothing to me off either Assassin’s Creed III or Assassin's Creed III: Liberation; quite the opposite in fact. Both games ran nicely, offering fluid gameplay as well as some fantastic visuals. The Boston setting looked all too familiar, lacking the exotic feel of the previous games and the naval battles were a little underwhelming.
But, the core Assassin’s Creed gameplay is there and the story promises to be a cracker. I for one am really looking forward to getting my hands on the game when it comes out at the end of the month.