Assassin’s Creed 3 PS3 preview: a New World for a new beginning

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It was the trees that worried me most. I couldn’t see how the trees would work. Assassin’s Creed’s signature free running has so far relied on the regularity and clarity of buildings to ensure you can skip from roof to ledge without ever breaking the flow. Now Assassin’s Creed 3 has moved into the American frontier in the 18th century, with a large chunk of gameplay taking place in the forest.

How was Assassin’s Creed going to work? How could Ubisoft create a world of believable branches and limbs to match the city environment fluidity I was familiar with? I kept thinking of Metal Gear Solid 3’s clunky climbable trees with their obvious strip of ladder-like vines and plank-like perch. Video games don’t do ‘organic’ well. I could take the American Revolution, the guns and the tomahawk but I was buying none of it until I saw the wood and the trees.

Seeing it all action, though, and it all becomes clear. It’s hard to explain how it works. It just does. New hero Connor scrambles up tree trunks, swings from branches and hops through the canopy like Predator without the angry crab face. There’s a clear path through the network of boughs and, if anything, it looks better – the animation is superb with Conner skipping and swinging effortlessly from branch to branch.

True, you can see a conformity and organisation that looks a little too convenient but it’s believable. Watching it in action gives that same sense of wonder that came from seeing Altair scramble up his first windowsill.

Tommy Francoise, Assassin’s Creed 3′s IP director, who took to the stage to present the new instalment’s début says, “We didn’t only revamp it, we rebuilt every single animation.” The gameplay in the new frontier setting shows a range of new movements: Connor leaping over fallen trees, sliding under low branches and wallowing through deep snow. There’s an impressive range and fluidity to everything. Later in some of the city areas (New York and Boston feature) Connor vaults over market stalls, running across moving carts and even tears through buildings, bursting in windows and bolting past the terrified occupants of the room.

Most importantly this isn’t another expansion pack upgrade to what Francoise refers to as “the Assassin’s Creed II trilogy”. According to lead script writer, Matt Turner, it’s a proper sequel. “The core team from AC2 moved to AC3. As we moved forward and other projects finished we got the top guys from other projects on to ours as they were freed up, ours was the big instalment” he says, which sounds a bit like Brotherhood and Revelations were b-teams’ shelf fillers biding time time until 3 arrived.

The new setting and character have been covered already: Connor is a half English Native American who’s initially drawn into the US civil war to protect his people and then later becomes an assassin. The story spans 35 years and while the team are keeping the nature of the full arc secret Francoise says, “It’s to do with justice. His village was burned down when he was a child. It actually starts with Conner making sure the Native American Indians, have their place in this new society that’s being created by the American Revolution and then he gets entangled into the setting for Assassin’s Creed 3.”

It’s hard not to make comparisons with Red Dead Redemption even though this was actually in development before Rockstar’s efforts. The frontier comprises of around 30% of the game’s action and is 1.5 times of Rome in Brotherhood. There’s a full ecosystem of animals that Connor can kill and skin. I see both a beer and a deer meet an end at Connor’s hands. Some effort is made to to differentiate between a ’clean’ kill (knife) and ’dirty’ kill (musket) although the exact reason isn’t made clear. Presumably clean kills net higher value hides but the exact reason’s kept vague and there seem to be an implication that there could be more to it.

The environments are interactive with weather like rain and snow having an impact on the gameplay. Snow for example, can slow Connor down, forcing him to wade through it slowly if he can’t get over or around it. It also lets him track blood trails and footprints. Rain on the other hand stops guns working. Connor can also use bushes as cover, automatically crouching to say hidden.

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