Assassin's Creed 3 Hands-on Preview - Walking in Connor's Shoes (finally)By Miguel Concepcion - Posted Sep 24, 2012
Between Assassin's Creed III's formal unveiling in March and all our coverage since, it feels like calculated torture that Ubisoft hasn't given us press or consumers actual hands-on time with the game's protagonist, Connor Kenway. Not counting prior sessions with the game's naval battles, it was only last week that the developer/publisher finally granted us hands-on time with Connor, the Frontier, and at least one of the urban areas, namely Boston. The fact that Ubisoft was able to tide us over with multiplayer sessions and ship battles speaks to how fully featured Assassin's Creed III is, yet it was a relief to finally explore and fight in 18th Century New England. There weren't any treacherous snowy areas to explore and our urban access was limited to Boston, but what we were given was more than enough to fill our three-hour hands-on session (plus those added minutes we snuck in outside of our scheduled session).
The previous assassins have always acted with a sense of purpose, but there's a new kind of edge to Connor. This preview build thrusted us into the sixth chapter of the game where it's implied that he just joined the Assassin Order. Serious concerns of a land takeover infuriates Connor, enough to lodge a blade on a column on the outside of his house. This is to indicate to others that war has commenced and this blade will not be removed until after the conflict has been resolved.
A quest for answers and assistance brings Connor to Boston where he meets Sam Adams. It's the Boston of 1773, which gives you an idea of the tumultuous atmosphere surrounding Connor and Sam in this city. Locals are being harassed by the British and some are being robbed outright. Like many previous Assassin's Creed missions, Connor doesn't lead upheavals so much as he helps instigate from the shadows. There are tea shipments that need to be sabotaged and key figures who need to be protected. Some Red Coats have to be disposed of in broad daylight and it's up to you to decide how much attention you want to draw so it's key to keep an eye on nearby patrols. We don't want to spoil the actual events, but if you know your American Revolution history, you can make an educated guess what Connor might take part in 1773 Boston.
The cover art and trailers did more than enough to convey the elevated sense of brutality with Connor's warfare talents, and you're never short of such bloody experiences when playing the game yourself. There's something poignant in taking a hatchet to a well dressed 1770's British soldier, and one story mission forces you to take on over a dozen such Red Coats. The combat takes the familiar Assassin's Creed gameplay of mixing assertive attacks with counters and moves that drop the enemies' defenses. There's a multitasking grace with Connor that we haven't seen in either Altair or Ezio, the kind where we see him immobilize one guard while having the presence of mind to defend against another soldier as well as preparing his next strike. The real-time camera cutaways when Connor deals the final blows are often merciless and fittingly dramatic.
It is also in this chapter that Connor is introduced to the rope dart, which I'm confident will be an essential weapon for the rest of the game. Its long range advantages and ease of use remind me of the near-exploitative convenience of the taser from Syphon Filter. No, it doesn't make Connor invincible, but it does give him a notable advantage at the beginning of a fight against half a dozen Red Coats; and you're all but ensured victory if you're just taking on one enemy on patrol. The initial stun of a rope dart attack lasts long enough for you to charge and close the gap between you and your target for a swift kill. The rope dart excels in its versatility, where different actions with the analog sticks can let you either reel in an enemy toward you or so simply hang the foe for a time saving kill.
While the Assassin's Creed III's combat feels like a natural new layer and evolution to the combat of the series, how Connor moves throughout the game (particularly the Frontier) is a practical simplification. Unlike past installments, the player doesn't have to press face buttons on the controller to jump while the assassin is platforming through trees and rooftops. As long as you're holding the right trigger as usual, the game will just assume you want to jump to the next tree branch, and the one after that, and so on. If you fear it dumbs down the experience, it doesn't. It's instead a much smoother experience than any Assassin's Creed game before it and Connor can still stop on a dime. It's a significant enough change that it might be hard to go back to previous installments (or could this gameplay mechanic be applied to the other titles via patch?). There's actually some face button functionality but it's optional this time, namely as a way to stylistically leap over fences and other waist/chest-high obstacles.
Whatever Connor achieved in the preceding five chapters, it was enough for him to establish a substantial base of operations, known as the Homestead. At least in the scope of this chapter, the Homestead feels like a safe zone, one that the player can cultivate with the locals and passers by. At one point Conner saves an industrious traveller and proposed that she open up shop in the Homestead. Connor does the same thing with skilled woodworker; and with each arrangement, a new building is constructed. With all this potential growth in the Homestead, I wonder if there might be a minor twist at the end of Assassin's Creed III, that the Homestead would evolve into some well known New England town.
The Homestead also features a small dock with Connor's ship, ready to set sail whenever the player is in the mood for a naval battle. While we've covered the naval gameplay in the past, we set sail once again to get some added practice. I would equate the feel of navigating the seas in Assassin's Creed to a space combat sim with a lot of water resistance. I used the same survival tactics that I used in such games as Starlancer and Starhawk, specifically in accelerating a lot when going straight and slowing down to make sharp turns. The naval UI has changed a bit since its E3 unveiling, with a much cleaner design in this latest build, though I could understand why some would prefer the traditional video game look of the earlier version.
In between the Homestead and Boston is the Frontier, where you'll encounter both wild animals and Red Coats. While it is a setting for numerous story and side missions, this area is also an obvious playground to hone one's skills and learn how to take advantage of the wilderness at your own time. I learned how you can use bait to lure a predator to an unsuspecting patrolman and I've savagely killed a hare with a musket. And as the earlier demos and trailers shown, you really are the predator as much as you are the prey. While being in the middle of chasing a startled deer, you just might hear the roar of a bear that's only meters behind you. Surviving a bear attack (or any attack from an animal larger than you) requires good quick time event reaction.
Some trailers have revealed that Assassin's Creed III will feature its share of rock climbing, yet I underestimated how vertical the game would be overall. This sixth chapter presents at least one story mission opportunity for a stealthy cliff based takedown. You won't be short of 50 to 80 foot drops in the Frontier; the challenge is in finding those key spots where you can make stylish dives. Any other attempts at jumping will be fatal and I admit that it was hard trying to find spots to make safe jumps. In Boston, the verticality of the predominantly two-story urban level design was more than enough to cater toward Connor's stealthy movements. The aforementioned right trigger platforming made it easy to jump through windows and second floor rooms with that seamless Jason Bourne flair.
One of the highlights in past previews has been variety of character animations as Connor traverses the Frontier, particularly his labored movements through snow. I noticed Connor also has to work a bit harder when running steep inclines and he also lifts his legs high when running through shallow creeks so as to minimize water resistance.
Looking back on the initial presentation of Assassin's Creed III, I recalled how Ubisoft overly emphasized all the new features that this sequel aims to deliver, which doesn't always guarantee a wholly positive reaction (eg. Dead Space 3's E3 presentation). For all the new features, controls, combat, story and setting, there was a welcome sense of familiarity once I took control of this latest addition to the Assassin Order. With Connor, there's a confidence-building sense that the player will have even more tools and skills to work with, which I suspect will be crucial as the war edges closer to 1776.
We’re all edging closer to Assassin Creed III’s release date, October 30, 2012, available initially for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and other platforms thereafter.