Our first hands-on with Assassin's Creed III is a veritable Christmas morning of enjoyable surprises.
Our three hour slot whizzes by as we pinball from one optional mission to another, the pleasure of experiencing the new intensifying come the discovery of each task.
We're dropped into Sequence 6, some way through the game, and Connor's move set is expansive, his weapon selection generous. A brief presentation by his creators pre-play outlining little of the when, much more of the what and how: they don't expect us to make a huge amount of headway into the main mission on offer, and they'd be right.
Much of the enjoyment of today's demo comes from experiencing those extras that Ubisoft Montreal has wrapped up within the game's frame so spectacularly. We're ranging the countryside moments after starting off at the Homestead, lodgings, much that like Ezio's villa, will gradually be furnished with trophies of our successes.
Free-running through trees and along branches yanks a boyish grin on the face, and Connor's movements through these new roadways is fluid, and though there's no HUD markings to trace potential directions they're easy to navigate. Shoulder button only is needed for "safe" free-running, erasing any unwanted leaps - though those can still be decided by the player by pressing another button come edge or ledge.
We experience the teeth of the fully-implemented ecosystem as skulking through the undergrowth tracing hunters, we ourselves are attacked by a wolf pack. A quick decisive QTE kicks in, which when adjusted to allows a fluid takedown of the four-legged killers that Assassin's combat system mightn't have been able to pull off so smoothly. The Frontier around Connor's home is filled with the beasts. Longer sessions will decide whether such surprises are excitingly dynamic or annoyingly intrusive during missions - but for the moment glowing comparisons to Red Dead Redemption's hunting side-quests strike the mind.
We get two distinct flavours of combat. Stealth out on the range and multi-foe battles in the town of Boston some miles to the south. The climax of the first is cumbersome as we're still readjusting to the altered mechanics, but the lead-up is enjoyable as we stalk the hunters from above and make our first kill with the rope dart. Firing it at the selected target followed by a swift tug with the stick will yank them off their feet, while another combination using branch as hangman fulcrum will allow Connor to land gracefully on the turf below as the hunter is yanked vertical and strung up under the branch.
A hold of the right trigger will bring up the weapon and item interface, two halves of the same circle, left and right stick assigned to once apiece and used to cycle through to your preference. You can link any to the four directions on the D-Pad for quick access, and your item's mapped to one of the face buttons. We run through the list: pistol, bow, dart - both rope and poison varieties - trip mines, snares, bait, money drop and horse whistle (the last causing your steed to appear from off-camera). A heady list, and matched by the return of your fists, hidden blades and the new tomahawk to round out your arsenal.
We close off our session with multiple engagements on the streets of Boston. The military come in heavier numbers and fill every street corner. The suggestion is stealth kills are going to be all the harder. Or as we found out, any illegal activity. Get spotted and you'll be faced with would-be executioners nearing double figures in short order.
The combat system will take some getting used to, but holds a lot of promise. We're far away from the rudimentary and hollow combat from the first game when matched against superior numbers. This is pure joy.
Each weapon will have its own set of attacks, counters and kill strikes making for an already elaborate system on weapon number alone. Counters comes with a split-second slow-mo to evaluate the follow-up strike, and going for the killing blow on two normal targets (colour-coded triangles above enemy heads designating attacker types) simultaneously cues a quick and brutal dual takedown sequence. Muskets can be stolen and used against their owner.
It's the inclusion of the latter that really adds spice to the game, and a real sense of danger to your otherwise untouchable assassin. During fights military on the outskirts of the fray will line up to fire, giving you but a second to combo in a human shield to your combat flow to dodge the barrage. During escape sequences cannonballing into any of the long streets of Boston will inevitably run you smack into a firing squad taking aim at the other end of the road. Try a rope dart attack from a rooftop and you'll likely get a face full of lead and pursuers who're a lot more tenacious than before.
Dodging pedestrians and putting foot to roof tiles locks Assassin's Creed III back into the same formula as its predecessors, and after the thrill of the great outdoors it feels like we're back to what passes as regimented normality in this universe. But there's enough difference given historical accuracy and tweaks to entice waning interest - sprawling metropolis roof-top highways replaced with smaller towns and limited sloped roofs, means limited space up top and more time on the streets below, combing for back alleys and gardens to duck out of your pursuers' range. Leaping through windows and homes leads to cinematic sequences that feel wholly natural in context.
Despite drowning in pig swill and stray animal dung Boston feels more rich a city. Busy streets give way to poor quarters which bleed into shipping yards, which sit uncomfortably close to makeshift forts. Tax collectors bully shop owners, accents from the world over clash in markets, the destitute sit vacant-faced in the shadow of the milling rich. By forcing you down and amongst the rabble the studio's showing off the diversity of a rough settlement still in its growing pains.
That's reflected as well in the Animus database entries, a quick flick into when passing significant buildings showing less reverence to the past in the writing style. The tone's less stuffy, more irreverent. More real.
You can tackle the collectors, take part in courier missions, track down collectables. But the biggest attraction to Assassin's Creed III is when we're tackling content that's not been part of the franchise's DNA for the past four games. Three hours and one main mission is far too short a time to draw a verdict on the handling of both this game's main protagonist (the treatment of Connor's heritage and his role) and its themes (the total arc of the revolution and its representation, and same with slavery). For the moment we're just digging the new.
Such as the naval missions. Enticing to watch at this past E3 and Gamescom, getting out onto the open seas proves glorious in its execution. We've time for one mission, and as with everything else, given we've skipped to a few hours in lack of familiarity causes some issues at first.
There's an arcade feel here, but bolstered with enough interesting mechanics to make sure its not vacuous. Control of your galleon's dictated as much by the wind and waves as by you pulling left and right on the analog stick, pushing you to learn the relatively simple task and uses of the sails (full to catch the wind, half to slow and make sharper turns, full stop to pull in and avoid, say, incoming cannonballs hammering along your projected route), and the temperament of the ocean as you ride along wave crests or plunge into troughs.
There's a trio of objectives during our time at sea: protecting a frigate from raiders, dodging between coastal rocks and blasting incoming ships with Grape Shots or detonating nearby mines, chasing the last dregs through fog, then taking down a fort and its trio of towers on the coastline nearby.
That last proves a titanic battle, as the fort's cannons repeatedly hammer the ocean were our current route is expected to take us, forcing us to last second hauling in of the sails to skirt our bulk outside the kill zone - or pushing full sail to cut through the line of fire, absorbing damage painfully.
We on the other hand have to aim the ship's side - and its cannons - at the fort as we pass in front of it, holding off firing until our aim (represented by a faint grey line stretching from ship out into the distance) is just to the side of a tower because of having to factor in the crucial seconds between order given, cannons fired and distance travelled. It's tense and we're sweating come the mission's end.
As it stands, we know we've barely scraped the surface of what Assassin's Creed III has to offer. A quick tally on the mission screen shows eighteen different optional objective avenues to pursue during the course of our time in America - and at the moment it's everything that takes us away from the familiar that has us most excited and knowing where we're going to spend most of our time, that's assured.
The last question - and perhaps the most important - is has Ubisoft applied that same diversity and immersion to the central story and its missions? We really hope so - if the other half of the equation is as captivating as what we've played, we're in for one hell of a revolution.