One of the strangest sensations in Assassin’s Creed III has nothing to do with brutally shanking hapless redcoats, magic apples, or Animus technology. It’s that feeling of stepping into a huge, sprawling environment that feels more akin to Skyrim than it does to the urban cityscapes of old. Rushing waterfalls, dappled foliage, jutting cliffs and peaceful wildlife; the American frontier feels like a place begging to be explored – and not only at ground level. Point at a location and our hooded hero Connor can most probably get there, scaling trees and leaping from rocks across numerous hidden pathways in an environment that feels oh-so-very different from the marble ruins of Venice and Rome.
I mean, sure. Assassin’s Creed III is going to feature some pretty familiar stuff. You’ll be leaping from high places into convenient leaf piles, you’ll be running from rooftops to rooftops, you’ll be shanking dudes left right and centre. But for all that has come before it, ACIII feels both pleasantly familiar and markedly different than its predecessors.
Take a newly announced feature, the Homestead. Initially reminiscent of the Villa Auditore or of shoring up the fledgling Brotherhood in Rome, ACIII sees Connor taking time out of his busy killing schedule to, essentially, start up a small village out in the wilderness.
“If you compare it to walking around in Boston and New York, that’s a ‘stranger’ kind of feeling – you don’t know the people, you’re just blending in the crowd,” says Mission Director Phillipe Bergeron to us. “When you go to the homestead, you take your hood down, and these are people you know, that you’ve personally recruited – we wanted to make that a more tactile, personalised experience.”
As you recruit characters, new buildings and people begin to appear around your rickety old manor, unlocking services and sidequests. It’s a natural evolution of the formula of old – but it’s far from the only improvement in town.
Combat has also taken on some restructuring, taking a lesson from Arkham Asylum‘s school of hard knocks, but it doesn’t quite hit that free-flow style of the Caped Crusader. It still suffers from a lack of signposting, failing to tell you why sometimes Connor will stab eight guys in a row but just bounce harmlessly off the last one. Still, countering is relatively straightforward – hit the button when enemies give their tell and you’ll open up a further ‘counter window’, from which another button can be hit to disarm, throw or use a device on your hapless opponent. And it’s easy enough to control a crowd.
The slightly redesigned freerunning system – smartly, Connor will no longer leap unhesitatingly to his death while parkouring, unless you hit another button – also settles into the gameplay experience easily. Moments after picking up the controller for the first time, I was sending Connor clambering up rocks and swinging from tree to tree as if I’d been doing it all my life. Once you learn to see the wild’s hidden tree-roads, you’ll find movement fluid, responsive, and utterly natural.
More blatantly new content – naval battles, for instance – are interesting and oddly satisfying (especially the sound design, of all things), but it’ll take a more thorough exploration to determine how they fit into the larger scheme of thing. But the overwhelmingly large, beautiful environments, though? Divided into distinct loading zones as they are, they’re still outright massive, and navigating these lands will prove an integral part of the whole.
And it’s not as if they’re just huge empty spaces to walk through. Minor quests at camp-fires, game to hunt and skin for town-related tasks, travelling recruiting parties, trade convoys that tie into the game’s overall economy: all these things and more populate the American frontier. Even beyond of the fledgling colonies of Boston and New York, a few more ramshackle border towns inhabit the forests, their contents a mystery for the present moment.
That moment will be even longer for the PC-focused gamer, with ACIII joining a long line of Ubisoft games in releasing on the platform a while after its initial outing on the consoles – in this case, November 23rd. Asked about this delay, Phillipe was apologetic.
“Our core development platforms are always the consoles, and getting a game out on PC – I don’t want to say it’s an easy thing, but it’s not quite as complicated as a console build. They’ve got limited specs, Microsoft and Sony have an approval process: overall it’s a lot more strict,” he explains. “So we know that once we get approved to ship on consoles, it’s not as big a deal about shipping on PC.”
“I think there’s also a business decision here, though… we know there’s piracy on PC,” he elaborates further. “I don’t know why exactly those decisions occur, though – we don’t really have anything to do with that. We just make the best games possible.”
But Assassin’s Creed fans never really have that long to wait between the game’s annualised releases, which carry with them a certain risk of franchise oversaturation. “Burnout is a known issue, and something we’ve been working on since the beginning” Phillipe laughs. “Even development gets pretty tired doing these things. For ACIII, it’s something we solved by making things fresh – a new protagonist, and a new era.”
As for the argument that the new features introduced in the mid-season games – multiplayer and a larger open world in Brotherhood, for example – don’t impress as much in the newest numbered releases, because they’ve already been shown off before? “Iterative design means iterative improvement” says Phillipe. “I mean, take multiplayer – the fact that we had a chance to improve on it, with accumulated data and player comments – well, if you compare multiplayer in ACIII with the multiplayer product that was first introduced, well, it just doesn’t compare. So you lose that surprise factor, but you trade it in for a better quality game.”
And a better quality game it certainly looks and feels. I didn’t have enough time to go out and do everything I wanted in this vast new American frontier, but what I did see was hugely impressive. Forget further revelations and fighting revolutions, all that I want to do when ACIII releases is fix my eye on the highest mountain in the land and make my way, branch by branch, handhold by precarious handhold, to the very top of it. And then, hopefully, leap three hundred feet into a convenient pile of leaves.