The bustling cities of Revolution-era America may tempt some, but it’s the vast wilderness of the frontier where Connor is most at home. Get our latest hands on impressions and comment from Ubisoft's Steve Masters.
As the world, fiction and themes of the Assassin’s Creed canon grow larger and ever more complex it remains the minutiae of each title’s execution that continues draw the eye and capture the imagination. In Assassin’s Creed 3, this is most readily evidenced by life outside the city walls. Where in previous games, the spaces in between cities were wholly unremarkable, now that space is filled by the great wilderness of the frontier; teeming with activity, missions and a fully fledged ecosystem. It’s here that I spend the majority of time during a recent preview session, stalking prey both foreign and indigenous, man and mammal.
Out in the wilderness, the simple act of moving from one place to another is, for the most part, a joy. The parkour of Assassin’s Creed has never felt more natural than when set against the rugged backdrop of the frontier. Freed from the constraints of the city, with its rigid right-angles and extravagant edifices, the frontier offers a place to revel in the fluidity of Connor’s movement and breaks the franchise free of a template that had lost its sparkle. The journey to climbing trees was not a walk in the park, however.
“So, back before development started we said ‘Hey, we’re going to be free-running in trees’,” remembers lead game designer, Steve Masters, before adding with a smile. “That’s probably the most expensive sentence I’ve ever said. It’s literally years of work from loads of people.”
“[The new traversal system] is a product of two things: one is trying to push the fluidity as far as possible, but the other is that moving across to more organic terrain required that extra freedom. Previously the system was set up on a kind of a strict grid; in fact, once you understand it you can go back to previous games and see the metrics.
“Now it’s much more organic and so we can really scale the distance between handholds and still have it feel natural. The switch to climbing planes that we couldn’t guarantee would be flat as well as the introduction of trees that come in all shapes and sizes required a switch to this more organic system.”
"So, back before development started we said ‘Hey, we’re going to be free-running in trees. That’s probably the most expensive sentence I’ve ever said. It’s literally years of work from loads of people."
There are still the telltale signs to look out for, as not all trees or walls can be scaled from the bottom up, but that quickly becomes second nature. The traversal system has also been streamlined and now only requires the holding of the sprint button for Connor to vault, scramble and glide across obstacles. This is fine in theory, though it can sometimes lead to a misplaced fanciful move if you’re attempting to get somewhere in a hurry but not necessarily wishing to mount everything in sight.
A further niggle that prevents the system from being flawless is that Connor can sometimes be brought up short by smaller, man-made obstacles such as furniture. It can be jarring to have spent ten, glorious, empowering minutes negotiating trees, rivers and rocky outcrops only to have Connor flummoxed by a rocking chair upon reaching his wilderness homestead.
Home on the ranch
Connor’s homestead forms the base of his operations in the wilderness and acts as a hub for numerous quests. Initially a modest, quiet dwelling, the homestead is brought to life as you slowly explore the surrounding area and find a number of people in need of assistance. Coming to the aid of a young woman injured by poachers allows Connor to show his chivalrous side as he carries her back to the homestead (despite her primary injury being a gash on her arm) before setting off into the forest with barely a word to silently hunt the hunters. Stumbling upon a gaggle of thieves dangling a poor sap over a cliff instigates a brawl, as one by one the bandits fall to Connor’s arsenal, leaving him blood splattered but victorious.
These segments enable people to be recruited to the homestead, as Connor offers them shelter and they in turn offer their services as herbalists, wood workers, farmers and the like. Initially, they are able to provide raw resources to be shipped to different cities for a profit, with varying rates of taxes payable depending on the liberation missions you’ve undertaken in that region. But while a lumberjack might begin by supplying pine logs, a woodworker can take the logs and turn them into finished products to boost the earning potential.
“The cool thing about this new system is that the player is upgraded through it,” explains Masters. “So, it’s not just ‘build houses to make money to build more houses’, you can also directly benefit from the skill of the artisans. You’ll maybe have a couple of your artisans build a new cartridge pouch or a new tomahawk and later on they can also build new decorations for your house; it’s about tying all the parts of the game together.”
Of course, the frontier houses not only Connor and his paid entourage, but also a varied menagerie of wild animals. Staying out of sight of the wildlife will allow you to observe them exhibiting natural behaviour, be it bears fishing in the river, stags locking antlers or bobcats sunning themselves on rock faces. Then, if you tire of the David Attenborough routine, you can hunt, kill and skin them for sport and coin. In fact, if you perform these tasks often and well enough, you may be invited to join a hunting club, which gives you access to new tasks and missions.
Cities will play an important part of Assassin’s Creed 3’s narrative and I don’t doubt that many varied and exciting events will unfold within the walls of Boston and New York, but it’s the freedom and depth of the wilderness that offers the grandest change from what has gone before.
The frontier will see its own share of bloodshed, though, as Red Coats occasionally crash the tranquillity of the idyllic forest setting, reminding you that somewhere out there in the vast draw distance, there’s a revolution afoot.
It’s these Red Coats that inspire the final act of my play session and, as if to prove that time in the wild hasn’t rendered me soft, I stalk a patrol as they march through the wilderness on a dark and stormy night. Three of their number fall before they know what’s happening and the rest are slickly disposed of by way of hidden blade, tomahawk and rope dart. Lightening illuminates the carnage and outlines Connor against the black of the forest as the rain drips from his bloody form.
Then, feeling primal and crazy cool, I set off at a sprint to retrieve my horse from a nearby clearing and promptly throw myself prone into a pile of fern branches that act as the frontier’s hay bales; curse that streamlined parkour system.
Assassin's Creed 3 arrives on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on October 30 in the US and October 31 in Europe. It arrives on Wii U on November 18 in the US and November 30 in Europe. The PC version is expected in the US on November 20 and in Europe on November 23.