Assassin's Creed III screens and in-depth preview

Ubisoft has officially unveiled the details of Assassin’s Creed III and what promises to be one of the huge hits of 2012. Tommy Francois, director of IP Development at Ubisoft, took Pocket-lint and the assembled crowd of UK press through the details of the game from its very concept video all the way up to in-play demos of the action as it will be when launched at the end of October.

The first things to note is the setting for the adventure. Gone are the sandstone cities of the medieval Middle East and the domes of Renaissance Europe. This time, the action switches to the New World in the 18th century and the scene of the American Revolution. It’s your job to guide the half-English, half-Mojave Indian protagonist, Connor, around what’s now the north-eastern United States, with the early colonial versions of Boston and New York as the backdrop along with a 2km² area of mountain and forest known as the Frontier.

Indeed, it’s the Frontier where 30 per cent of the action will take place. Bigger than the playable Rome area in the previous Assassin’s Creed game by a factor of 1.5x, the Frontier will change according to the seasons with rain, fog and even thick winter snow-  that’s as good for tracking your bleeding quarry as it is hard to wade through when trying to escape. Instead, the best way of getting from A to B in order to murder C generally looks to be through the treetops, which was where the larger amount of the demonstration videos were set.

Powering this new and improved Assassins’s Creed experience is Ubisoft’s AnvilNext engine that lends the graphical power and gameplay nuance to turn the more linear paths of building-to-building traverse of the earlier games into a fully 3D, multipath environment where everything is climbable, rock or tree. Ground foliage provides new areas for stealth where Connor can auto-crouch and melt into the bracken as well as leap from for cover-to-target kills. And with this new type of physical environment comes a new type of NPC of a sort - animals.

Considered “our crowd in the forest” according to François, Connor can stalk and skin whatever kinds of creatures he finds with the quality of pelt directly affected by the cleanness of the kill: a careful slice of his knife is preferable to the crude blast of a musket.

In our preview session, we saw birds used for distraction, a grizzly bear attack and an NPC assassination target finished off by a pack of wolves after a mortal strike from our hero. Such is the protagonist’s upbringing that he has a huge amount of respect for nature and it’s something we’re told we’ll see throughout the game after he makes his kills, particularly when it comes to wildlife. What you won’t see any of though, is scalping. We saw early versions of the game with the act left in but not only was it considered just a touch too gruesome but it also turns out that not all Native American indians used to practise it, including the Mojave.

The Ubisoft team has managed to sneak in a mouthwatering combination of weapons to enjoy with an improved combat system that looks far too slick a display of strike and counterstrike to be actually possible when you’re running through it yourself.

Connor’s tools of the trade are dual pistols, a bow and arrow, a musket, his tomahawk and the assassin’s favourite, the hidden blade. Indeed, some of these can be used in combination with others in double-weilding. The one that’ll really get you going though is the rope dart - not a normal household North American weapon of the time but something that was used in China. Think Scorpion from Mortal Kombat and his “get over here” weapon and you know what it is.

It might sound irrelevant that the rope dart was actually in use at the time when the game is set - 1753-83, if you want to know - but avoiding anachronism is hugely important as far as Ubisoft is concerned.

“History is our playground,” said François as he explained the mood videos, based on months of research on the time period and location, used to get the team excited about what they’re going to be creating - a process that began more than two years ago.

“One of our secret goals is that we hope people check out the history on Wikipedia after playing the game as well as even visit the places in real life.”

“We do not want the game to go fantasy. We want it to stay true to its era.”

In fact, the information in the game's Animus is supposed to be so rich that you should enjoy it purely for a historical/factual read in the moments when you're needing a little break from the gameplay.

As always, Assassin's Creed will feature genuine historical figures which this time include George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Charles Lee and Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.

“Everyone has seen George Washington on a one dollar bill but we're hoping to humanise these people much more.”

The AnvilNext engine is set to bring these figures to life even further. The team has been able to double the number of cheekbones mapped for facial movements and for the first time combined live voice, face and motion capture to perfect each individual as they interact with Connor throughout the game. Ubisoft has even developed better cloth for more realistic looking garments to really finish each one off, from these big-name characters all the way down to the crowd NPCs.

We were shown a sequence for the game in which Connor finds himself at the Battle of Bunker Hill complete with 2,000 drawn soldiers and an interaction with Israel Putnam - a key figure of the event who delivered what some have argued was the original “don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes” pre-battle speech which you also get to witness in the ACIII gameplay. One of the intriguing things about setting the action so much closer to the modern day than ever before is that the Ubisoft team has had access to one of the most well-documented wars in history, allowing for such events as word-for-word recreations of speeches and battalion movements.

You get to run from cover spot to cover spot across the battlefield, as it was, between volleys of musket fire and blasts from the cannons. The only minor stretching of the truth is that reload times have been reduced slightly. A full minute allowed to run free and you could more or less clear the entire patch of ground between Connor and his target. Despite that, you still get the full feel of the the speed and lightness with which a lone assassin can operate compared to lumbering but powerful war methods used at this early Industrial Revolution time.

Of course, not all of the action takes place in the sticks. As Connor you, at least, get to visit the emerging city of Boston and a New York under siege, so we’re told. While the building density of each of location at the time was nothing compared to those used in the earlier games, what there are to help link rooftop to rooftop are, yes, more trees which were apparently in greater abundance in urban areas in those days.

François treated us to a sequence starting at the port in Boston in which Connor has to run from the authorities who are waiting to check his paperwork. As he blends in with the masses we’re told of a revamp of the game’s crowd AI which now includes children as well as small animals. There are even side missions that open up if you choose to follow certain NPCs - such as when one steals apple’s from another, as in the demo.

“We consider the cities as main characters with a personality,” described our host, and the design and feel is certainly impressive enough, but it’s perhaps the use of building interiors - as shown when Connor jumps through a window, runs through a house and out to the balcony over a street on the other side - that really adds a credibility and depth to these urban landscapes.

If it all sounds a little stretched from the previous games in the series, then rest assured that, despite the backdrop, this is still very much about the Assassins vs the Templars and the themes of liberty or death, power and oppression, control or freedom, along with the feeling of being a pioneer. Probably the only shift in mood is that of the central figure with Connor driven more by a sense of justice than revenge.

First impressions

The move to the Americas for the setting of Assassin’s Creed III is a big play for this franchise and the fact that much of it will take place in a rural environment an even bigger one. If Ubisoft hadn’t done something like this though, we might be saying that this was just another Assassin’s Creed game but with better graphics. What’s clear from the preview is that this is exactly what it’s not.

Out of the Holy Land and away from the Holy Roman Empire, the colonial setting with its pioneering spirit rather than another round of religious overtones looks to be just the breath of fresh air that’s needed. There have hardly been any of games at all set at this place and at that time and the excitement for the gamer in exploring this virgin territory is set to be justified by the way the brand new game engine is able to handle these frontier environments.

Whether it’s tracking through the snow, choosing your own path as you leap through the trees or running after the urban NPCs with a side-story of their own to follow, there’s going to be a lot of play with, and the enhanced look to it all, combined with the novel additions in the combat system, could well be more than enough to keep it gripping from the beginning to end. A new character, new engine, new weapons and New World - what else could you need to look forward to?

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