Up until recently, I've been exposed to Assassin Creed III in small doses. I saw an early glimpse of what to expect at the reveal event, enjoyed the new multiplayer offerings, and had fun sailing the seas. Yet in all this time, I was never really able to go hands-on with the core single-player experience.
Well that finally changed last week as Ubisoft let us go in for a deep dive into Assassin's Creed III. I got to see first-hand all the substantial changes that make the new entry to the series easily the best and a strong contender for game of the year. A bold statement, made even more meaningful considering that I've never been able to get into any of the past Assassin's Creed games.
Assassin's Creed III (PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U)
I first started out at the Homestead, a brand new feature that is essentially Connor's homebase out in the Frontier area of Assassin's Creed III. While Connor finding and setting up shop here occurs during the story, everything else you do around it is optional.
The Homestead-specific missions involve Connor coming across a variety of characters in need of help that will eventually benefit the player long-term financially. The first Homestead mission sees Connor helping a woman wounded by poachers out in the wilderness. Connor tends to the woman, then proceeds to hunt down the poachers, killing four of them and scaring off a fifth so that he in turn spreads the word not to step into the territory again.
With the poachers dealt with, the woman offers up her hunting skills, sharing her surplus of kills, and setting up a home within Connor's Homestead. Your Homestead expands with each character you help and recruit, eventually turning the location from a pristine forest into a thriving town. Later on, I helped more people, seeing the town expand with someone skilled in woodworking, and a couple skilled in farming. You'll also receive additional optional missions you can take on from these characters.
Everything you can do in Homestead is seemingly infinite in a way, as bringing on these characters benefits you economically, allowing you to sell goods, craft items, and more over the course of your playtime. This is also connected to other elements of the game, such as the naval privateer missions. You select where to sell and send your goods, and doing some of the side ocean naval engagements will make your naval trade routes safer to use after you clear any potential threats. Liberating forts in the towns will also lower the taxes on your shipments.
It's a meta-game element that will probably seem boring for some, but to me was a nice diversion that extends the narrative in a somewhat meaningful way. And it's just one example of how much extra content the team at Ubisoft is putting into the game. There's plenty of hidden treasures to find, over two dozen types of wild animals to hunt (or fight), and more to do in the Frontier. You can even play checkers and pet dogs or cats! It was hilarious while in the middle of one battle where I stopped, pet a cat, and then went back into the fight. Because why not?
Once I got my fill of the Homestead content, I moved on to the core storyline. Things began with the chief of Connor's Ratonhnhaké:ton tribe coming to your house at the Homestead in need of your aid. A man named William Johnson is threatening to buy out the land your tribe is settled on, so Connor heads to Boston in search of Samuel Adams for assistance with the matter.
From here, you're given a set of missions to destroy a number of Williams businesses in order to disrupt his cashflow and prevent him from buying the land. After a handful of different missions, it all culminates with The Tea Party mission. Assassin's Creed III touches on historical events, but weaves them in such a way to involve Connor.
Historically, this event was a mission of secrecy, with the instigators disguised and using the cover of night to achieve their goals unnoticed. In Assassin's Creed III, there's a huge crowd cheering for Connor and the other Revolutionaries as they dump tea into the ocean, all while fighting several waves of attacking British soldiers.
The mission ends with William Johnson looking from a safe distance as Connor stares him down, taunting him as he throws one last tea crate into the sea. Connor then returns to his home, where he tells of his success to Achilles Davenport, Connor's mentor and former assassin. Achilles warns Connor that he should have killed William, and that letting him live would possibly come back to bite him.
The game fast forwards six months later, and sure enough the Ratonhnhaké:ton chief returns to Connor's home once again in a panic, declaring that William has acquired enough money to buy out the land. The final mission of this sequence sees Connor having to head to the village located in the Frontier section of the game.
All the missions will have sub-goals that the player can try to achieve to get a higher overall score. In this case, I was tasked with infiltrating the village while avoiding all the guards in the area. So instead of taking the direct route up a mountain, I proceeded to climb up the side of a cliff. Easier said than done, as not every part of a cliff is scalable. There's a lot of trial and error as you try to find a workable path, something that I enjoyed. Eventually I made it up, only to be immediately spotted by a guard. While I wouldn't be getting that extra score now, I could still proceed with the mission, eventually saving the other members of the tribe and killing William Johnson.
This entire sequence took roughly an hour to complete all in all, making up a small section from the core story that's longer than Assassin's Creed II's story. Then layer on the fact that there's naval side missions, the Homestead meta-game, hunting, multiplayer, and all the other little things you can do. It's a lot in one package to say the least.
The environment you'll be exploring is also huge. You have the cities of Boston and New York, all the ocean stuff with a full naval-combat simulator, and not to mention the untouched forest area of the Frontier, featuring massive horizontal and vertical landscapes representing that fantasy vision of America's history. "The Frontier is 1.5 times the size of Rome in Brotherhood," associate producer Julien Laferrière told me. "And that's just one map."
The environment is one example of why Ubisoft had to create the new and improved AnvilNext engine. They've also been able to overhaul the artificial intelligence of guards, can populate battlefields with up to 2,000 NPCs, create denser crowds in towns, and tweaked the controls and combat.
The biggest change with the controls is that you no longer have to hold the trigger and a face button while free running now. Instead, you just hold the trigger to free run and you don't have to worry about falling to your death, as the only way Connor will fall is if you actually manually do it with the jump button. Otherwise, Connor will automatically move between objects in free-running mode, with minimal input from the player required to vault, dive, swing, slide, and everything else in between to move between all sorts of different objects.
Combat controls have been changed for the better as well. You no longer have to lock-on to an enemy, instead automatically engaging in a fight when you initiate one and are easily able to jump from one attacker to another. Your various tools are associated with the Y button (on the Xbox 360 controller), X is the main attack, and B is used to counter enemies.
Connor will make use of his dual hidden blades, bare fists, and tomahawk for his main attacks. He can pick up rifles, giant axes, swords, and more to use too. Tools include a pistol, bow and arrow, rope dart, poison dart, trip mines, snares and bait for hunting, horse whistle, and the ability to throw some money as a distraction tool.
The counter system feels similar to something like Batman: Arkham City or Sleeping Dogs, as you'll see a notification when an enemy is about to strike. Counter in the right window of time, and the action slows down to give you enough time to choose between attacking them, disarming them, or just tossing them around. Countering will help open up tougher enemies that can block attacks too.
You can also incorporate your tools with your counters, my favorite being the one where you slap the trip mine onto someone's chest, then push them face first into the ground thus causing them to explode. There's no gore, but it is pretty brutal nonetheless. The rope dart is pretty great, as you can use it to pull enemies in closer to you, hang them, or even pull someone down off of a high point like a roof.
The combat in general will come across as more brutal than past games -- Connor carries a lot of weight with each and every blow. Plus the kills are a little more cinematic in the way the camera will move to highlight the best angle with each kill. What I especially loved was that kills felt very unique from the last each and every time. My mouth dropped multiple times from some of horrific ways Connor takes enemies out, from repeatedly driving the hidden blades into someone's face, to swinging the tomahawk right underneath someone's chin.
While combat is fun, there is a good learning curve to it. There's some depth to the system, and it took me a good couple of hours to finally get the hang of things. It was frustrating, but it's something I did appreciate as I don't want things to be too easy, either.
This is the biggest Assassin's Creed game yet -- somethings fans of the past can't miss -- and makes for a great jumping-in point for those who have yet to get into the series. The controls are far better, combat is vicious, the visuals will halt you in your tracks to appreciate the details, and the setting is something really cool to experience in an interactive way. You don't want to miss this one.
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12:30 AM on 03.22.2014