Assassin's Creed 3 Hands-on Preview -- It's an Assassin's Life for MeBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Aug 15, 2012
One of the bigger surprises of E3 2012 was Ubisoft’s reveal that Assassin’s Creed 3 would include a healthy dose of naval gameplay to break up the more traditional land-based environmental traversal and flashy killing that fans have come to expect from the series. For the big reveal, Ubisoft demoed a battle set in the Caribbean Sea in 1778, with AC3 hero Connor donning a sharp 18th century ship captain’s outfit and taking control a mighty battleship.
At the time, the demo wasn’t playable, but during a recent pre-Gamescom 2012 preview event, Ubisoft handed over the giant wooden wheel and gave us our first hands-on taste of one of AC3’s most ambitious (and surprisingly thrilling) new features.
As you can tell from the E3 demo, Ubisoft Montreal has approached the seafaring portions of AC3 with the same level of authenticity, detail, and scope as it has with every other aspect of the game (that we’ve seen so far). When the scene opens and that crystal clear water and rocky coastline come into view just before a ship cuts through the waves and the camera swings up on the deck, past various crew members going about their jobs and preparing the ship for battle before settling on the stoically posed Connor standing on the edge of the bow, you can’t help but feel instantly transported to the deck of that ship cruising through the Caribbean Sea. And the cannons haven’t even been loaded yet.
One of the big questions surrounding AC3’s naval sections has been how they are triggered in the game. Similar to the less than popular tower defense missions in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the player will be forced to participate in a few during the early part of the game, but eventually, they can be engaged in whenever they become available.
While Ubisoft is being mum on exactly how many naval missions there will be, they did say there will be a healthy number. Given that there is a leveling system incorporated into the ship combat, which I’m guessing bears some resemblance to the assassin’s guild management in the previous three games, chances are players won’t be wanting for chances to hit the high seas.
Getting on with the mission proper, Connor and his men spring to action after cannon fire rings out from a cove in the distance, causing a flock of birds to scramble into the air, giving away the trigger happy hidden ship’s position. With our target in sight, it was time to give chase and stretch our sea legs. Well, not immediately. I couldn’t help focusing on Connor’s actual legs first.
Seeing as this was our first hands-on look at the AC3 single-player, I couldn’t resist running around the ship’s deck, hopping from gunpowder barrels to banisters to rope ladders, all in the most obnoxious yet loving way possible. The confines of the deck were hardly the place to truly get a sense of Connor’s movements, but it felt good to be back in the ol’ assassin’s boots again, even it was for a few silky smooth/crew-bewildering moments.
I assumed control of the mighty ship and immediately got to work learning the ins and outs of the controls (Sadly, there’s no way to dual stab two ships passing next to you). The ship has three speeds, each one determined by the position of the ship’s sails. Full gets you to top speed but limits your maneuverability, half sacrifices speed for better handling, and full stop improves your aiming but makes you much more vulnerable to attacks since you’re at a dead stop.
Remembering my classical ship captain training, I quickly tapped X (on the PS3 controller) to raise the sails to full in an attempt to close the gap between us and the enemy ship. While you’re moving, the camera doesn’t have full 360-degrees of motion around the boat. You can only rotate it so far left or right, as you use the camera to line up your cannon shots on either side of your ship.
When you’re ready to open fire, like we were when we finally caught up to our targets--once we cleared the cove and made our way to open waters, three more ships appeared out of nowhere--you simple line up the white swathe that appears next to your ship when you hold down the trigger, indicating the direction of your shot, let go of the trigger, and watch as a volley of cannonballs sails towards their intended target.
And when the cannonballs do start flying, man is it a sight (and sound) to behold. At least four times during the demo I found myself instinctively ducking away from the TV to shield myself from incoming rounds and the splintering, smoldering wood they kicked into air upon impact. In game, you can actually hit a button to “brace for impact” and limit the damage taken during these barrages. Seems like the perfect way to integrate Kinect support, no?
As the ship battle continued, the weather started getting fierce. Thunder claps tore through the sky as rain whipped in all directions. The sea--which was built to a 1/12 scale--swelled, creating massive waves that pitched our ship in all directions, making it rather difficult to pull off accurate shots on the enemy ships. Because the waves are being dynamically generated, you have to time your cannon fire around them, which adds a healthy deal of strategy and intensity to the already heart-pounding combat.
Another strategic element you have to take into account is the game’s current system. Navigating with the current increases your ship’s speed and generally improves maneuverability while sailing against the current, naturally, has the opposite effect. I didn’t find this to be as helpful/troublesome as I was expecting, but in larger fights, I can imagine it giving you a much appreciated edge.
When it comes to ways to take the hurt to enemy ships, you’ll have a nice selection of ammo types, which includes standard balls, scatter shots, flame shots (which causes fires to erupt on enemy decks), and chain balls, which will come in quite handy in a few minutes. You can assign the various ammo types to the d-pad for quick cycling, or jump into the inventory screen to manage your armaments. In addition to the standard cannons, you also have a quick loading Swivel Shot that lets you fire individual shots at a faster rate and with more accuracy than the bigger cannons.
As far as strategies for bringing down enemy ships, unrelenting force is always a good thing, but if you focus your attacks, you can be much more effective. For instance, if you do enough damage to the front of the ship, you can expose a weak point that you can then hit with the Swivel Shot to deliver a devastating blow capable of destroying an enemy ship in a single shot. Damaging the sides of a ship reduces its accuracy, and damaging the rudder limits the ship’s control.
Back on the rain-soaked deck, we have managed to send three of the four ships to their watery graves. Seeing as we don’t want to destroy the remaining boat but rather incapacitate it and board it, we’re instructed to unleash a chain ball attack to bring down its main mast. We line up the shot and watch as the dumbbell-looking rounds propeller through the air, collide with the mast, and bring the ship to a stop.
All that’s left to do is sidle up to the crippled vessel and cue a boarding cinematic, which shows Connor and his crew tossing grapple hooks onto the enemy ship, swinging onto its decks, and unloading on the helpless soldiers therein. Sadly, the cinematic fades out to the AC3 logo just as Connor puts his signature hatchet to good use. And with that, our first naval battle comes to a fiery yet wet end.
If there is one thing Ubisoft wants players to know with regards to AC3’s sea-based gameplay it’s that nothing about it is unnecessarily tacked on and it serves as much of a function for the narrative as it does for the overall gameplay experience. The battle for America’s independence stretched well beyond its burgeoning cities and battle-torn shores. Whether this historical weight translates to players in the context of the overall game is a question that we’ll have to wait until October 30 to answer.