It’s Game of the Year Time again. From now we can expect a slew of Christmas releases that all vie to get into our wallets. Assassin’s Creed III should have no trouble in that area, as it has attracted the most preorders of any Ubisoft game in the company’s history. Fans have eagerly awaited a new instalment in the series, but are wary about the disappointment that some have felt in the last two games in the series, Brotherhood and Revelations.
The story of the franchise goes like this: A new IP is released in 2007 to a mixed reception. Assassin’s Creed combined somewhat familiar stealth mechanics with better combat than we had seen in the genre, with some stunning environments and free-running that we had not seen done well outside of Mirror’s Edge. But it really felt like a beta, with repetitive mission design and some clunky interface.
Assassin’s Creed II was everything we could have asked for: a quantum leap in mission design, combat, visual effects and environments: this was the game that properly established the franchise. Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood introduced a mindblowing multiplayer mode that was followed up in Revelations: The first time we had seen stealth mechanics so effectively developed in multiplayer gameplay. However, the rest of the game felt little different from ACII, and by the time we got to Revelations, fans were definitely feeling some ennui. Bomb crafting and lame tower defence: really?
Ubisoft is well aware of this sentiment, and developers are keen to emphasise that this is a completely new project with major developments. The development of ACIII has been separate from the previous two instalments: that is, after ACII, the team for ACIII was split off from the teams working on Brotherhood and Revelations, and they started working on completely new elements of gameplay, narrative and environment. So it is a game that has been in development for three years. This explains why much of the marketing story has been around how the game is different from its somewhat underwhelming predecessors (a bit like Injustice: Gods Among Us).
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To begin with, this is the first Assassin’s Creed game set in the new world: The location is North America during the War of Independence. This is a major shift; until now, AC games have always dealt with “other” histories in Europe and the Middle East, and have distanced themselves from explicit historiographic commentary (with strong “multicultural development team” disclaimers). Developers have even had to fend off criticisms of anti-British prejudice. Nonetheless we can finally look forward to some closure on the narrative surrounding Desmond Miles, as the continual evasions and misdirection since the shocking cliffhanger of ACII have had some players frustrated.
The main character, Connor, is part British, part Mohawk, and so his efforts on behalf of the Assassins have a particular post-colonial edge. We are also likely to see a more human, more flawed depiction of the Founding Fathers of the United States, as well as some tongue-in-cheek alternate history in DLC depicting Geroge Washington as the reigning monarch of the US. The environments suit this new setting, and include not only the colonial cities of Boston and New York, but also much more substantial non-urban environments (with associated opportunities for hunting and achievements).
Gameplay mechanics including stealth, assassinations, combat and traversal have all been overhauled. Climbing is much more smooth and non-linear; players can now chain assassinations up to five times and use any weapon for specialised assassinations; stealth uses a new line-of-sight mechanic and more nuanced hiding mechanics, and combat is even more fluid, dynamic, and visceral. A new system for traversal is particularly interesting: ACIII now includes “tree-running” (see what they did there?), which means that movement through the canopy of trees frees the player from the stultifying effects of North American snowdrifts. This gives possibilities for a new rope dart weapon that leaves victims dangling from trees (Batman anyone?). It will even be possible to duck through buildings to escape pursuers: This kind of short-cut, presumably borrowed from arcade racers, will add a new dynamism to escape situations.
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Perhaps the most surprising new element of the game, revealed at E3 this year, was the introduction of missions at sea, with full naval combat. EBX had this mission playable on the Wii U, and it was a welcome departure from traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay. Players can fully control the speed and direction of the ship and must also fire cannon that are swerving from the rocking motion of the ship. The sound design and animations of ship destruction have a Master and Commander grandeur, and at the end of the mission, boarding leads to the type of close combat that the series is well known for.
Assassin’s Creed III seems approachable enough for newcomers, but like many other major franchises (notably Mass Effect), the full impact of the game will only be felt by those who have played the first two. Ubisoft is bringing innovation in spades, and this feels like it will be a definite new entry in the series, rather than a recycling of now-familiar elements. Rather than a delaying tactic while we wait for something new, this promises to be it. We’ll find out on Wednesday.