Assassin's Creed 3 hands-on: hunting Redcoats and throwing tea at the British in Boston
The two British soldiers guarding the riverbank don't know it, but there's an assassin in the water plotting their demise. I'd spotted the pair from half a mile away, while perched in a tree atop a cliff. It took less than five minutes to vault through the canopies, avoid a pair of fighting stags and cross the river under cover of a swathe of low reeds. Now I'm right behind them, wondering how to make the kill.
I've been wandering the wild frontier areas of Assassin's Creed 3 for about fifteen minutes. I've already shot a Racoon, fled a bear, discovered a rustic British tavern and dodged a marching platoon of redcoats. The forest feels huge. There's room to observe prey from the tree tops and plan an attack. For the first time in an Assassin's Creed game, I actually feel like an assassin.
The two guards are standing on a small wooden platform a few metres into the river, which has given me room to swim behind them. I could retreat to a treetop and kill them with my bow easily enough. I could hide in a stack of leaves and whistle one over to take him out silently. Instead, I decide to improvise.
I clamber out of the water right behind the man on the right. I stand at his shoulder dripping water for a few moments. He doesn't react. Oh. They must be friendly.
I take another step forward to say hello. The guard turns and screams wordlessly. He raises his musket, backs away and falls into the water. I never see him again.
His friend is more competent. He takes a couple of steps back and brings his musket to bear. A yellow icon appears above his head. Ah, that'll be the "I'm about to shoot your ass" icon. I charge him with my tomahawk. At a distance of about five feet, he shoots me in the leg. At a distance of two feet I activate Assassin's Creed 3's new "running assassination" ability and Connor slams the Tomahawk into the guard's midriff. It's over.
That couldn't have gone much worse. I loot the guard's corpse, throw it into the river and hope that there are no Templars in the bushes witnessing the debacle. The gunshot doesn't seem to have damaged me much, so I'm free to continue up the long trail towards Boston. I need to talk to a man about some tea.
I want to linger. The forest feels like fresh territory for Assassin's Creed. The new engine does a fine job of realising the dense foliage and haphazard layouts of the colonial wilderness, and its various elements cleverly mimic familiar scenic staples of former Creed games. Large bushes act much like hay bails, providing a place to hide and a position from which to stealthily assassinate passing soldiers. Cracks snaking up cliff faces signify useful climbing points and, much like convenient staircase box stacks in towns, splintered, half toppled tree trunks offer a quick route to an elevated plane. In a city, that means rooftops, in the wilderness, it's an organic canopy of twisting branches.
Associate producer Julien Laferriere refers to these signifying marks as a "clue code" for the player. It was one of the two major design challenges facing Ubisoft when they committed to woodland environments. The other was animation. Connor glides through the treetops with a grace that's both superhuman and somehow entirely believable. A revamped animation system was needed to make Connor's tree-skulking look realistic.
"We redid the climbing system because of the forest, to support more organic surfaces, and that translated into the cities," Laferriere explains. "We have a much smaller climbing grid so we can have differently placed elements on the façade of buildings. We booted up Brotherhood last week and the climbing had changed so much we didn't realise."
The wilderness zones feel like a test bed for new technology and ideas that may foreshadow greater changes for the series on the far side of the next-gen console divide. I didn't encounter any quest markers during my time in the forest, but there was always something happening. I'd have to take a long way around a glade on account of a family of bears, or I'd find animal tracks for Connor to examine. "A rabbit ate flowers here"a pop-up message informed me after one such stop. Connor is a freakishly good tracker.
At one point a procession of redcoats marched past, guarding a wagon full of supplies. An objective marker popped up inviting me to kill the troops and loot the wagon. I parked my horse further down the road and ambushed them from a nearby leaf pile. The guards fell quickly, and I made away with some meat and a fine sabre dropped by the redcoat officer.
Boston, by contrast, felt much more familiar. You can visit elevated viewpoints to reveal local side quests and points of interest. Main objective markers hover above cutscene trigger, ready to propel Connor into the next stage of the story. If you run afoul of the authorities, you can reduce your notoriety by bribing town criers and tearing down wanted posters. This is the Assassin's Creed you know well.
Connor's long term target in Boston is a man making moves to sell the land upon which his people live. In the short term, there's plenty of unrest to deal with. It's 1773 and Boston's streets crackle with unresolved tension. Protesters are in the streets in force, loudly decrying the influence of the East India Company. Tax collectors tussle with disgruntled citizens and marching redcoats pass through Boston's wide open thoroughfares, menacing citizens who look as though they're about to launch into a full-scale riot.
In terms of scale, young Boston can't hope to stand up to the spectacle of Rome and Constantinople. Its landmarks can't match the coliseum for grandeur, but it feels spacious, rugged and busy. As Laferriere notes, "Boston itself at the time was a pretty big – it was bustling, there were famous landmarks that you can still find today like the Faneuil Hall and the churches."
Much of Brotherhood was about restoring Rome to its former glory, which was established long before Ezio's arrival. Assassin's Creed 3's story is set in the formative years of an emerging superpower. Ubisoft hope that the defining events surrounding the American revolution will infuse AC3's smaller townships with enough drama to make up for the lack of staggering monuments. "Instead of witnessing the glories of the past, as in Rome, you get to live the events as they happen."
It's fun to watch Assassin's Creed weave its paranoid assassin vs. Templar plot around historical figures and events. After half an hour in Boston I found myself running around a cargo ship, throwing boxes of tea into the dark port waters as British soldiers charged up the gangplanks. Traditional depictions of the Boston tea party neglect to show the hooded assassin diving off the ship's rigging with an axe. More's the pity. Connor's a spectacular fighter.
Altair fought like a snake, killing in a single deadly blow. Ezio was a dancer, outwitting opponents with shimmering swordplay. Connor is like a bear. A bear with an axe. He uses his weapons to bludgeon his way past enemy defences. Sometimes he'll use his off-hand knife to land distraction blows ahead of a fatal Tomahawk strike. Sometimes he'll use his Tomahawk to land distraction blows that let him get behind and break their neck. He's the series' most dangerous fighter yet.
You need a tougher hero in an era of gunpowder. Muskets are everywhere. In large fights, some opponents will back out of range and form a gun line several metres away. The camera pulls back moments before they fire, giving you a chance to activate a contextual "use meat shield" ability. This lets Connor grab a nearby enemy and spin him into a hostage grab a moment before the line fires, filling the hapless guard with shot. It takes a minute or so for redcoats to reload. More than enough time for Connor to dash past their bayonets and forcefully deny a second volley.
This is the most current Assassin's Creed yet, in terms of setting and engine tech. That big number "3" seems to demand some great step forward for the series, but this is no leap of faith. Part of me wants Assassin's Creed to go wild and embrace the experimental spirit of those forest areas, but it's a lengthy series with many expectant fans. "It's a matter of balancing what fans like and innovation. That's our take on it," says Laferriere. "The forest is purely new, purely fresh. How can we apply that strategy to the city as well by not completely changing everything?"
Assassin's Creed 3 is out on PC on November 20 in the US and November 23 in Europe.