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Assassin's Creed III

Assassin's Creed III

For those seeking the bare facts of Ubisoft's new Assassin's Creed, here are some figures to mull over.

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1. Assassin's Creed III is set over a thirty year period - 1753 and 1783, charting Connor's life against the American Revolution.

2. There are two main cities: Boston and New York.

3. The two are divided - and connected - by a vast expanse of unexplored countryside known as the Frontier.

4. That expanse measures two kilometres by two kilometres square.

5. The Frontier is 1.5 times the size of Assassin's Creed Rome, and thirty percent of the game's missions will take place there.

6. Eighty percent of the characters in the game are based on historical figures from the period.

7. Eight different studios are aiding in the development of this, the company's biggest project yet - and the Assassin's longest development time.

Those figures formed just part of an hour-long presentation by the studio as is charted the life cycle of Assassin's Creed III, stretching from 2010 sketch and video concepts all the way through to gameplay clips captured last month.

Assassin's Creed III
Note the Assassin logo that shapes the tomahawk blade.

You can tell Ubisoft laboured over what it'd show at this first early reveal, but it was surprisingly more detailed than first look events usually are and gave us a better idea of what the studio is attempting to achieve here.

Notably we saw more of Connor's abilities, and were given a rough outline of his personality - justice, Connor's justice, is what drives the half-British, half-Native American to join the conflict. We see how the new assassin is more adept to scaling and running along forest canopies rather than buildings, yet is hampered by snow drifts. The characters he'll interact with, and their context within this span of history.

We got details and examples on the Animus 3.0 and how the team are making it more apparent you're in a simulator through new integration between menus and your prolonged flashbacks. It exampled his interaction with wildlife - "the new crowd life", and name-checked Red Dead Redemption as Rockstar's Western get a head start in hunting and skinning.

And finally, we witnessed three sections of the game in action that closely matched a pre-rendered video of concept, shown earlier on, which was the basis for the team's direction and work.

AN ASSASSIN AND HIS TOOLS

Assassin's Creed III
The tomahawk can be embedded into soldiers, who can be used as human shields against gunfire,

As you've seen from the first artwork and trailer, Connor adopts the same clothing as his predecessors, though with his own cultural variants.

We note during clips he's seen with multiple versions on his outfit: a blue-rimmed take signifying his allegiances (and giving rise to the theory he may be able to change said colours to blend in with the other side if needed), a heavy fur pelt around his shoulders suggesting skinning animals has multiple benefits, and a raggy set of trouser skins that show frontier, rather than cultured, spirit.

The Assassin's blade makes a return, though if weapon options cycled through mid-demo don't lie, it won't be the only returning one. That's joined by a tomahawk (the metal blade forged to show the Assassin logo), bow, musket, dual pistols and a rope dart.

The last originally designed and named more sinisterly as the chain blade, which may be a nod to the Prince of Persia: Sands of Time Trilogy, staff members of which are working this project, but deemed too fantastical. The change reflects a weapon with historical background in Chinese martial arts - though the studio still need to explain how it was imported across the waters.

It's looking likely to be Connor's main choice due to its versatility. The metal dart's attached to a five meter long rope; we only see one use, that to skewer a soldier while in a tree above, and use our branch and his weight as a makeshift pulley to glide to the ground.

Combat looks a lot more fluid: that move starts a battle with the soldier's comrades. One's used as a human shield from musket fire, and due to a slow reload time of exaggerated realism (historically a minute, but shrunk in game for reasons we'll see later) sees the fight go hand to hand. Connor takes out multiple foes at once that suggests someone's been studying at the same Rocksteady school as a certain Dark Knight, unloads dual pistols into another, and finally pulls off a finisher that sees him kick a musket under its reloader's chin and slam the firing mechanism. Pop goes the noggin.

AN ASSASSIN AND HIS PARKOUR

Assassin's Creed III
Branches are great for lining up takedowns. Note the rain - the studio said combat will be more difficult due to weather conditions.

Movement is more fluid too, a fact that factors into combat, as we see from the climax of the three-part demo, Connor charging through an enemy encampment killing multiple combatants with his blade without breaking his stride, ending in the iconic slow-mo strike as he leaps from cart onto horse and enemy commander, blade extended.

That fluidity is needed not just to evolve the character's abilities, but to match his new environment as parkour goes native. Later on we do see classic chase sequences through towns and across rooftops as Connor dodges Boston's version of customs, but it's running through the great outdoors that tantalises the most.

The studio half-jokingly acknowledge how it's idea of the frontier was superseded mid-development by the reveal of Rockstar's Red Dead Redemption. But it's precisely that comparison that makes us know this is where we're going to spend and enjoy most of our time. It's wholly different in atmosphere and design than previous games were countryside was a means to get from point A to B. Here, there's a lot more care and attention - teeming with wildlife to watch, avoid or kill, and a playground of new places to find and climbs to explore.

And our Assassin is adapted to it. Running through the varying terrain will see Connor's movements respond realistically. This roughshod interaction with the natural world makes the Assassin, and by extension, us, feel more integrated into the experience.

We could see the structured pathways of building climbs and ledge leaps like cold mathematical equations. Despite the snow drifts and the wind whipping the heat from Connor's body, the frontier's character is more warm, personable. Straight lines and linear paths replaced with crooked branches, sprawling canopy roads that curve, rise and fall by nature's design.

Assassin's Creed III
Not shown during the presentation but an obvious edition to countryside trekking is the kayak - and by association suggesting there'll be larger rivers impassable otherwise.

Snow plays a huge part in your movements, deeper pockets slowing you down considerably, mountainside drifts a struggle to climb, and even causing you to stumble. It's a danger when pursued, but friend when pursuing - letting you track footfalls or splashes of blood through the wilderness. It also humanises the character - Altair was too cool and calm, Ezio arrogantly assured. Connor, through his trips and correcting his balance repeatedly, feels more realistic.

The automated runs and leaps that felt like hand-holding before are all the more necessary here to get through the thick throng, and we're curious to see though how you'll plan or even engage a direction change mid-flow - by design routes aren't so clearly marked.

Small additions like fast hand-over-hand along overhanging branches, and the ability to choose to dodge under or over fallen trees and low rocks without pause gives a new vitality to the Assassin, moves that can be applied to urban environments as well.

AN ASSASSIN AND HIS WORLD

Assassin's Creed III
Boston in winter. The studio cycled through the city's look during different seasons. You'd imagine the transition will be dictated by story as we skip across the thirty years the game's set across.

Boston and New York. We see the bustling harbour town that is the former, both as exampling the game's weather system that reflects the changing seasons, and as the mid-section of the gameplay demo. The studio uses the scene to point out the new diversity of the NPCs, hinting at a greater degree of interaction with them - as exampled by a thief stealing apples, letting you choose whether the pursue or not, and how its lessons in creating wildlife carried over to towns, as we see dogs skitter between a sea of legs. We also see some new escape tricks.

Connor's pursuit in dodging customs sees him climb on top of stalls then plunge through an opening window, through a living room and out the other side. The moment seemed heavily pre-scripted - but it's good there's new additions to stop the now familiar urban parkour wearing into a rut.

His move set expansion continues with the closing act of the demo as he proceeds to Bunker Hill and a pre-battle meeting with William Prescott, one of many historical figures that Assassin's Creed will portray with creative accuracy.

As the previous titles, the game will wrap historical fact with historical fiction as it preposes the ongoing Templar/Assassin conflict merging with the causes of the particular time frame. Whether they directly influence the other, or simply mutual goals sync up is unknown: Connor's reasoning has been proposed as "justice", though for who is questionable.

Historical accuracy and detail is one of the reasons the studio swayed towards this particular era, as the records of this time were highly detailed, letting the team accurately track were each key figure was and when. The movements of the likes of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin creating a pre-made structure to the story's beats through replicating key points in the Revolution. Prescott and his "until you see the whites of their eyes" speech are rendered as accurately as the new Anvil Next engine will allow, and as creatively as the studio needs.

Assassin's Creed III
Connor's induction to the Assassins or even the wider conflict wasn't touched on - but perhaps this static image might give some clue as to how his allegiances were decided.

Prescott and Connor's conversation is the one time in the demo we have to glean our protagonist's relationship with these figures, and it seems at this point at least he's his own man, detailing a battlefield strategy that clearly puts him, or his belief in himself, as equals with the Colonel. A hired hand or a close advisor who's an adept at war? Questions, questions.

Either way, what follows is far more fascinating than sorties between swordsmen in prior games. The game engine can draw two thousand characters on screen at once, and it seems most of that number are on the screen, split equally between the two charging armies sweeping down into the valley floor. It's a staggering display due to the various units formations, all operating independently. We see Connor plunge into one squad and run on between cover points - a new cover system letting him peek from behind rocks, and waiting until the opposing side's fired before running over downed troops and behind the next jutting stone, and onwards into forest, through bushes and round to the enemy commander's position on the rise opposite.

It's an impressive set piece, but our thoughts still return to the money shot of the sweeping vista that opens the gameplay demo, and the brief attack by an enraged black bear that almost ends Connor's journey prematurely. The idea of an unknown wilderness, a frontier to live to extremes or die in. For once we'll be able to leave a millennia-spanning conflict and the newest complications of a remembered life behind and just enjoy testing our physical capabilities. To live in the moment, even if just for a while.

Assassin's Creed III
Multi-opponent combat looks to be a joy already - contextual button prompts have shifted from top right to bottom right of the screen, though likely the limb-mapped button config is still retained.

Due to a technical hitch, a Target Gameplay Footage video, a slick pre-rendered look created at the start of the project and used to guide the studio in what it's aiming for (a guide to what it wants to achieve that'll come the end of development be measured against what it's actually built) is delayed from the presentation's start until near its end. Due to that, there's only a short span between it, created 2010, and the in-game footage, captured February 2012.

We note a richer contrast of light and shadows, of extra movements that make Connor seem much more animated and in tune with his surroundings. The use of a chain blade rather than rope dart. But aside from that, it's a vision the studio already have come close to matching, six months before release.

For those of us that considered a fourth Assassin's Creed game in a row released come Christmas, what we see is enough to dispel franchise weariness, to dispel any thought of an easy cash in. It may not be ambitiously different from the franchise's D.N.A, but it could be the most effecting and immersive of all the five titles. And that's a leap of faith we're willing to make.

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