Assassin’s Creed III Preview – Boston Tea Party
Alex Hutchinson, the creative director of Assassin’s Creed III, recently told CVG that Ubisoft’s game would be one of the last of the triple A “dinosaurs”.
Well, after having played the game for three hours, I can confirm that, if the newest Assassin’s Creed is a dinosaur, it is bloody big one. Imagine the Diplodocus from the main hall of the Natural History Museum. Now make it twice as big. No, three times, then cover it in sub-missions and mini-games and foliage and cities. Now you are imagining how big Assassin’s Creed III is going to be when it is released in October.
At an almost on theme evening at the Tower of London, a lucky few were given a chance to play as much of sequence six of the game as they could squeeze into those three hours. Positioned about half way through the game, sequence six sees Connor (the main character’s Anglicised name – I was too lazy to write down his native American name and too faintly racist to know how to spell it) fighting for the land of his people (the Iroquois – smashed that one). William Johnson, a secret Templar, is trying to buy the land for his group’s evil reasons, and Connor, with a little help from some famous faces, sets about trying to stop him.
The main story is kind of where I want to start this preview but, in honour of Assassin’s Creed III, I won’t. I want this preview to give you the true Assassin’s Creed experience. So, rather than start at the beginning, I’m going to get distracted and talk about something else instead.
AC3’s main base is the Homestead, equivalent to the manor from AC2, only now it is a large country estate with a home at the centre. Before you leave the Homestead the game begins to throw options at you. Lots of options. Starting as I was, half way through the game with a vast (VAST) swathe of the map and most of the gameplay systems unlocked, it was hard to know what to do. It was hard to know where to look first to be honest. I almost had to disregard everything that was in my inventory and littering my mini-map, otherwise this three hour preview would be entirely about my engagement with a GUI. Without the context of everything that lead up to it, it is impossible to judge the quality of the game, but what I experienced in sequence six was a sizeable sandbox experience. complete with side-missions, mini-games, micro-missions, opening vistas, collecting treasure, discovering secrets, scaling trees, leaping rock faces and hunting animals. If you are that way inclined, there are hours to be lost on America’s east coast before you even think about progressing the main story.
Oh, speaking of which, back to the story, shouldn’t forget that.
Connor’s first task is to go to Boston and meet with Sam Adams to discuss the Templar land-grab situation. Fast travel is enabled via Connor’s horse and cart, but this system gives the first sign that Assassin’s Creed has become so large and unwieldy that it is about to collapse under its own weight. Rather than fast travel straight from the Homestead to the edge of the city, with a single load screen between the two, I saw two load screens, one taking me to the Frontier, the next taking me on to Boston. There is no reason for this. Superficially this might seem like a small point, but it is one that is symptomatic of a game that is straining at the seams on current hardware. When Connor arrives in Boston, texture pop-in on buildings was pronounced as he made his way to the objective, a small pub where he meets Sam Adams and William Molineux.
There, the revolutionaries explain that William Johnson is using smuggled tea to fund his land-grab, cunningly avoiding paying the British government their dubious taxation without representation, whilst also stocking his coffers with dirty, tea-stained money. Connor is roped in to destroy some of Johnson’s tea stocks and set the Templar’s plan back.
Before we get to what happens next, I’d like to take you on a nice little voyage. On a gunship through Martha’s Vineyard.
Assassin’s Creed III’s naval missions are one of the series’ completely new features and they add further depth and variety to a game that even without them was almost bottomless. I only got to play one mission, protecting a merchant ship from marauding gunships, but even that was stuffed full of different things to do. The first section involved taking down gunships, easily done using swiftly aimed guns activated with L1. Subsequent sections involved chopping the sail down to half and picking my way through a minefield, it finished with the main sail billowing in the wind as I destroyed a small coastal encampment with barrages of cannon fire. This was only one mission, but with plenty more on offer, it certainly looks like it will be a welcome diversion.
Ah, diversion, that reminds me, I was detailing the main quest.
So the first real mission involves blowing up some tea stocks and assassinating messengers who are delivering tea on behalf on Johnson. AC3 illustrates how player driven it is here, with the player able to destroy the tea with Connor’s explosives or by using gunpowder barrels strewn around the port setting. Full synchronisation requires the player to complete the mission in a certain way (here using the gunpowder barrels and avoiding being spotted) but the player can attack the problem pretty much anyway they see fit. This small scale attack from Connor’s crew does little to slow William Johnson (and the Templars) however, so Connor and his historically famous crew resolve to up the stakes and empty a tea clipper of its cargo in Boston harbour.
The harbour … that reminds me. I’m sorry. I should have said that right after I completed the naval missions I walked ashore and found a fellow sailor who offered me a game of checkers. I lost. This was fully animated, multi-camera angled, checkers with AI good enough, at least, to beat a simple idiot like myself. It was the perfect example of the time, detail and money that Ubisoft have lavished over AC3. If you chopped this checkers mini-game, a mini-game that probably constitutes 0.000001% of the content in Assassin’s Creed III, and sold it to me as an iPad app for 69p I would buy it and not feel like I’d been ripped off. You could do the same with the naval battles and charge me £5. I wouldn’t blink. If Assassin’s Creed III is anything, and I think it might just be something, it is probably the best value game purchase you’ll ever make. It has more stuff in it than any other £40 game in the history of the game medium. Perfect, unless you don’t like to be distracted, in which case, maybe you won’t enjoy it so much.
Shit! Distracted … the story. The story. Right, where was I … that’s right; the Boston Tea Party.
Taking part in American history was pretty cool, but no more so than combat. Fighting off Regulars (the famous ‘redcoat’ soldiers that you might know from offensive Mel Gibson films) was tremendous. An attack-or-counter system, augmented by a selection of weapons, is hardly original, but here it is flawlessly executed. Animations blend together as defence falls into attack, giving fights, particularly those against larger groups, a flowing, tidal momentum. One moment the attacks are beating against you, the next, soldiers are bouncing off you onto the floor as a perfectly-timed parry is linked into vicious finishing move. The battles also have an ad-libbed, improvised quality that owes itself entirely to the wealth of animations and moves which Ubisoft have bestowed on Connor. At one end, against single enemies, he can implement simple choke holds, but against groups he can take down pairs of enemies with a single blow before leaping at the throat of another. Its is incredibly exciting, and attaches a layer of Hollywood thrill to the old world setting. As the last enemy falls and the last tea barrel is thrown into the water, a cutscene has Connor throw a stare across the harbour at Johnson and his Templar cronies sharper than any hidden blade. This is Assassin’s Creed but cool, eschewing the withdrawn and silent protagonists from early games for a muscular, physical hero who can dominate the scenes he is in.
Whilst I think of it, I’ll tell you what else was cool again; the free running. No longer limited to the outside of buildings, Connor can also sprint through open windows to cut time off his journey. The camera in these sections is mobile and dynamic, similar to Gears of War’s roadie run, again raising the cool stakes and giving the game an energy that its wide spaces and long journeys often deprive it. These expanses are what makes this game so hard to preview. Despite being stuffed to the very gills with content, it is perfectly possible to go for five or ten minutes without doing anything fun. Well, anything that the game designates as a mission. If it floats your boat, you can free run through the trees to your hearts content as you navigate the world map and search out the hidden camps and houses that litter the frontier.
A house on the frontier. Where my jaunt in sequence six comes to an end.
Connor is back at the Homestead, months (in AC3’s story time) after the successful tea party, when he finds out that it wasn’t enough to stop William Johnson from trying to steal his people’s land. As one of the final acts of the sequence Connor has to travel across the frontier, sneak up to Johnson’s house as he negotiates (aggressively, but not with lightsabers) with the native people, and assassinate the duplicitous Templar for not getting the message and leaving his people alone. It’s a traditional stealth mission, sneaking through undergrowth and tree tops, watching patrol patterns, all to get a clear shot at Johnson and put this whole thing to bed. It is a taut end to the sequence, leaving the player with a subtle cliff hanger for the next section.
Then it was all over. My three hours were up. Time to go.
What was I left with? Pretty much what you just read; a mish-mash, a glimpse into a game that is so vast as to be ridiculous. In many ways Assassin’s Creed III appears that it will be the pinnacle of the this era of gaming; it isn’t just one Triple A game, it is the size of two or three. It is so huge and so rammed with content that no one player could ever hope to see it all and rinse every last drop of pleasure from it. However, on the flip side, something that massive is unwieldy and hard to polish. The map jumping is excruciating, the free running in the trees often breaks down and the player is forced to endure a sudden stop as they line the jump up just right. Connor is a well presented main character, acting in accordance with his own motivations rather than simply being an errand boy, but this is often undermined by the structure of the game. The main character is told something is pressing, that things must be done and soon, only for the story to lose impetus as the player activates a mini-mission or gets distracted by floating collectibles and treasure hunting. To not be distracted would be to miss the point of the gameplay structure. To be distracted is to ignore the importance of the narrative. It is a conundrum the game has built for itself and the player can do nothing to escape it.
So that’s it, the Assassin’s Creed experience. Distracting, diverse, sprawling, confused. It seems that if Hutchinson is right, and AC3 is a dinosaur, then it’s Franken-saurus. Pieced together in bits by the mad scientists across Ubisoft’s stable.
We wait until the end of October to see whether it comes alive, or if all falls apart at the seams.