Assassin's Creed III Hands-On Preview - How Sequels Should be Done
Written Monday, September 24, 2012 By Lee Bradley
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It’s just before midnight in an exclusive hotel bar in downtown Boston and two prominent members of the Assassin’s Creed III development team are laying flat on their backs, their right legs pointing towards the ceiling. They’re surrounded by a boisterous group of colleagues who cheer them on, drinks held aloft.
The team are in town to show an almost finalised build of Assassin’s Creed III to the world’s press and there’s a celebratory buzz in the air. After three years crafting one of gaming’s most ambitious sequels for one of the industry’s biggest franchises, the hard work is over. Now it’s time to unwind.
Following an excitable countdown the two developers lock legs and begin to push forward with all their strength. One forces his leg down so powerfully that his competitor flips backwards on the hotel’s marble floor. Cheers go up and a victor is announced. With big grins on their faces the two foes rise into the arms of the team and stagger back for more drinks.
The developers of Assassin’s Creed III love Indian Leg Wrestling. It’s their current obsession. On the occasions that the studios from Shanghai, Canada, France and Romania converge, they leg wrestle. It’s what they do. There’s even talk of leagues, brackets and - terrifyingly - Lycra costumes. The launch party will be quite a spectacle.
Such unity goes against the popular conception of a multi-studio behemoth like Assassin's Creed III. It’s videogame development on a vast scale, with a staff of well over 600 scattered across the globe delivering a fourth title in four years. Yet the latest instalment of the series isn’t just a production line sequel, churned out by anonymous drones like a cheap factory toy. It’s the result of a talented team of individuals working in unison to create the best sequel possible. And it looks like they’re having a great time doing it too
So while last year's Revelations trod water, failing to freshen the experience in any meaningful way, ACIII simultaneously streamlines, refines and builds, taking the experience in new directions yet distilling what made Altair and Ezio’s adventures so thrilling in the first place. Hugely ambitious, this is how triple-A sequels should be done.
To that end we have a new protagonist - the part-British, part-Mohawk, Connor. We have a new setting and a new time period too – the bloody, revolutionary birth of America. There's also a brand new engine, new naval warfare and homestead missions, new combat and traversal mechanics and the introduction of vast swathes of forested rural land, a first for the series.
Assassin’s Creed games were once dominated by European and Southern Asian cityscapes, but AC III features a sizeable chunk of gameplay in the wilderness. In this environment hulking bears flap at jumping salmon on rocky waterfalls, huge stags rut, and rabbits hop around the hills and woodland. Meanwhile, you’re nimbly skipping around the branches above, watching and waiting.
This time out the free-running traversal has been simplified, cut down to a single button input. With the right trigger engaged you’ll be able to shimmy up tree trunks, swing and freely dance from branch to branch. Coupled with Connor’s built-from-the-ground-up animation set, the result is wonderfully fluid and goes some way to selling our new protagonist as the ultimate in stealthy killers.
In Assassin’s Creed III you hunt. Of course you’ve always hunted but now you’re on the track of wildlife. And just like your Templar enemies your prey isn’t passive. Alert a bear to your presence and it will let forth a terrifying roar, the screen blurring and shaking disorientingly. In a genuinely scary flash, suddenly you’re the prey. Even a blast from your gun isn’t enough to down them with one hit. As with any assassination target you must tread carefully.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to kill the animals. In keeping with Connor’s heritage and his reverence to animal spirits, if you just randomly run amok in the forest, killing for no reason, you’ll lose synchronisation. Meanwhile, if you perform a slick, clean takedown you’ll be able to remove an undamaged pelt and sell it on for cash and items. In this way there’s a pleasing cohesiveness to the protagonist, the setting and the timeline. It just feels right.
Indeed, the new AnvilNext engine has been employed to great effect, used to layer on detail after detail to create a believable world with a real sense of place. Move from the wilderness to 1770’s Boston and you’ll encounter a young city alive with activity. Steps are swept, children play, in the docks workmen saw and hammer and graft. And all the while livestock and pets wander aimlessly.
Most impressively, however, you can feel the tension. This is a city that soon will erupt into bloody revolution and it’s palpable. Tax collectors bang at doors, men on street corners give impassioned speeches against the British, Red Coats stroll ominously. This is a very convincing representation of a boiling point in America’s history and you’re right there in the middle of it.
It’s in this environment that you’ll engage in the game’s diverse set of missions. While your ultimate aim to track down the man who is threatening to steal your people’s land, you must also liberate Boston from British rule, take to the high seas in search of naval glory, free slaves for relocation at your customisable homestead and defeat those dastardly tax men.
Much of this will be achieved, of course, via mastery of the game’s three-button combat system. You can now dual weld and an effort has been made to make fights far more strategic, with an emphasis put on tricky counters, double counters and multiple takedowns. During one battle I snatched the rifle and bayonet from a British soldier, stabbed him with it and blasted the soldier behind him in one flowing movement. It was one thrilling taste of a rejuvenated system.
Indeed, that’s the most heartening thing about Assassin’s Creed III. Despite spending countless late nights with previous iterations of the series, a couple of hours with Connor just wasn’t enough to get to grips with everything the game has to offer. It’s so overflowing with iterative improvements, brand new ideas and compelling environments that I didn’t even get the chance to hit the high seas for naval combat, as so beautifully described by Rich in our latest preview.
There’s more too. At the start of one of the gameplay sessions, Creative Director Alex Hutchinson bemoaned the way movie trailers revealed a film’s secrets, saying that he was determined not to spoil Assassin’s Creed III by sharing too much. You can expect plenty more surprises once the game arrives next month. We couldn’t be more excited.
So remember, if one of those secrets turns out to be Indian Leg Wrestling mini-games, you heard it here first.
Assassin's Creed III is out on October 30th in North America and October 31st in Europe.