Assassin's Creed III's new hero, Connor, is a survivor. Previously, we've seen him hunting Redcoats in the snow-covered New England forest, and taking down Templars while a war wages between George Washington's revolutionaries and their British opponents.
Now, he's in Boston for Ubisoft's E3 demo, picking yet more fights and hunting yet more prey. And he seems just as comfortable murdering and free-running through bricks and mortar as he does through trees and snow.
The demo is typically Assassin's Creed. It begins with a sweeping vista of the city, before focusing in on the central character, Connor who immediately shows off one of the game's new features by diving into a moving cart, filled with hay.
Yes, now your free-running will include all kinds of fresh opportunities, like moving objects as well as the ability to pass through interiors (something we see later in the demo), and through the branches of trees, which grow inside and outside the game's two cities, Boston and New York. Following his first show-off, Connor then yanks a guard into the hay cart with him, as it rumbles by, and pulls off the world's first moving hay-pile assassination.
THE AMERICAN EVOLUTION
During the rest of the demo, Connor shows off the tweaks and changes to the core Assassin's Creed formula. Although senior producer Francois Pelland will later insist that AC3 is "to quote the marketing - a revolution" during our exclusive interview, what we see during the Boston playthrough is definitely 'evolution'. No bad thing. After the hay cart, Connor follows a woman down a side-alley after she begs him to free a prisoner from the town stocks.
Here we see our hero working in tandem with the AI population, who are much smarter and more purposeful in AC3. Connor hides down a dark, narrow street, pressing his back to the wall and showing off the game's new cover system. Meanwhile, the woman lures a guard towards him by hurling abuse. Sure enough, the Redcoat takes the bait and as soon as he passes by Connor's hiding place, he's taken down with a couple of brutal blows.
Anyone worried about the lack of stealth shown in the first few demos / trailers will be relieved to hear that we see plenty of the sneaky stuff in this Boston level. "It's true that it's a stealth game, because the core action is assassination," explains Pelland. "We want players to think - when they're working towards an assassination - that they need to be fairly stealthy".
Connor's next move is to climb into one of the trees growing inside the city, and use his rope-dart to hang another unsuspecting guard. For those concerned about there being too much killing in Assassin's Creed III - first of all, it's got the word 'assassin' in the title, so you know what to expect, but second of all you will be able to simply incapacitate rather than fully murder. No, we don't know why you'd want to either, but the option is there...
Next up, a bit of crowd interaction. During our presentation Ubisoft were keen to talk up how much work had been done making each person in the game feel - if not completely unique - as if they've got a purpose; a reason to be there. In previous games most have been drones, wandering the streets just waiting for a handsome young Italian chap to blend in with them.
In Boston everyone behaves differently, so blending is a little different. When he's wandering the streets Connor needs a denser patch of people to stay hidden, but the system works in a similar way to AC2 etc. Interestingly, instead of boring benches he can lean against market stalls and chat to the sellers. During our demo we see Connor lean against a fruit and veg stall, and make small talk with the owner as guards push past.Out in the open - so in the wilderness and in greener areas of cities - Connor will find 'stalking zones'. We see these used to great effect in our second demo, where our hero - in pursuit of some deer - drops out of a tree into a patch of shrubs. He crouches in the undergrowth, staying hidden, until he lines up a shot on the lead stag with his bow... but more on that later.
For now, it's all kicking off in Boston. Connor's in a fight he can't win after breaking cover and murdering a random Redcoat. The new combat system shows well inside the city: as well as flowing from one opponent to the next with a swinging Tomahawk, he also uses the new hidden blade (which is like a detachable switchblade) and interacts with the environment much more convincingly.
During one fight on board a huge galleon, moored in the Boston dock, Connor slams into an enemy sending him tumbling into the sea below. Another move that amuses us sees our hero swing at a burly looking enemy wearing a kilt, who promptly grabs his hand mid-swing and lands a beefy headbutt on Connor, staggering him. Stitch that.
Realising he's outnumbered, Connor makes a break for it to show off the new flee/pursuit system. He climbs a small building and runs along a washing line straight into... someone's bedroom, which he sprints through and hops out of the adjacent window while the woman inside screams in shock. It all looks so smooth.
While free-running and the counter-kill combat is something all Assassin's Creed fans will be accustomed to by now, we can't stress how natural and fluid it all looks, even when the screen is rammed full of other people and incidental details. Oh, and in case you're wondering, we saw the Boston demo running on a PS3 - not God's own PC.
With his pursuers shaken thanks to some fancy free-running, Connor - for reasons unknown - heads to the docks to commandeer a massive boat. Problem is, there are plenty of Redcoats guarding the area, and they're armed to the teeth. So he enlists a little help. Yes, the brotherhood is back, and this time they're smarter too.
Connor whistles for them and four immediately appear, dressed as Redcoats. They surround Connor, pretending to arrest him, then march his past the unsuspecting guards by the docks who even congratulate them on securing such a dangerous prisoner. Once inside, Connor slips onto the boat undetected. Brilliant.
The demo ends with our hero murdering everyone on the boat and climbing the rigging to get a good look at the city he just rampaged through. It's a beautiful sight. Boston has been recreated from old maps and documents, so it's a fairly accurate, 3:1 scale rendition of the C18 city.
During the course of the game we'll see both Boston and New York evolve over 30 years, and we'll see them during summer and winter. They'll be subject to dynamic weather too, bringing rain, fog, snow and sun to their ever-changing streets. This will be the most alive, most convincing Assassin's Creed yet.
THE DEER HUNTER
Our next demo takes place in the forest of New England, and Connor is hunting deer. They sprint through the snow, hopping delicately through the trees, but our hero is keeping pace by swinging through the branches above them with the same grace we witness in the Boston demo. They stop to graze, Connor drops into a stalking zone, whips out his bow, and takes down the stag. One-shot. Impressive.
As he approaches the beast to skin it, a pack of wolves show up, and Connor is forced to dispatch them using tomahawk and hidden blade. It's a neat moment, so we ask creative director Alex Hutchinson about during our interview. "The hunting system is definitely dynamic, and we're trying to get these magical moments and create them as systematically as possibly.
Wolves will turn up when you have a successful hunt; all the animals behave differently if you try to attack them. They appear systemically and there's enough variety in the gameplay to keep that interesting."
After offing the wolves, Connor skins the stag and takes the meat to a nearby town. There are plenty of settlements in the wilderness, which is 1.5 times the size of Rome in Assassin's Creed Brotherhood, and each one will have a handful of people waiting to give you side-quests.
Taking a leaf out of Skyrim's book, you can stack multiple missions in AC3, and finish them at your leisure. "We have very talented mission and game designers so we came up with some interesting ways to unlock content and present content and make it feel integrated to the story," explains Corey May, scriptwriter.
"I know that in the past we've sometimes made side missions feel like they're very much side missions. Off to the side, run off and have no impact on the larger narrative in the larger world. So we've been working for a while on ways to better integrate to make side path narrative and gameplay."
During this second demo Connor is hunting a Templar called Silas, who is commander of a nearby Redcoat fort, but he detours to supply venison to the butcher in one of these frontier towns.
A STICKY END
The rest of this demo plays out in a similar way to the events in Boston. Connor fights groups of Redcoats, using the rope-dart to hang one, grabbing another to serve as a human shield when the rest of the squad unleash a barrage of rifle fire in his direction, and finishing the rest with tomahawk, hidden blade and pistol.
After infiltrating the fort via the back entrance - a sheer, rocky cliff-face - he takes out a group of enemies carelessly clustered around a barrel of gunpowder. Confirmed: the world's oldest exploding barrels are in Assassin's Creed 3.
Finally, Connor chases down Silas and shows off running kills (he smashes a tomahawk into a Redcoat's stomach, without breaking his stride), disarming tricks (he steals the bayonet-tipped rifle off another attacked), and a whole new, savage air-assassination (he jumps off a scaffold and plunges his stolen bayonet straight through Silas as he sprints past below).
It looks incredible, and we can't help a sudden, sharp intake of breath as the bayonet cuts through the target's body. Ouch.
So that's everything you need to know about Assassin's Creed III's E3, single player showing. It's pretty much what we expected, but at the same time it impresses thanks to the polish and cute ideas that flow throughout. No, it isn't what we'd call a revolution, but when the series you're evolving is leaps and bounds ahead of the competition anyway... that's hardly a problem.