There has been much talk of late about the gameplay balance in the upcoming title, specifically regarding how much more Desmond action we will be enjoying this October. With that in mind, we were expecting Ubisoft to showcase some Desmond-specific gameplay sequences. What we got instead, though, was much more impressive.
The Assassin's Creed III presentation lasted a little over 15 minutes and took place within a mission called "Bunker Hill," circa 1775. The gameplay opened on the in-progress Bunker Hill battle, with the American and British forces facing off against each other on opposite sloping hills across a colorful and detailed valley. Although the number of soldiers in this skirmish wasn't anywhere close to the promised "2,500 on-screen characters" flaunted in the demo stats, there were most definitely enough participants on-field to make this feel like a genuine Revolutionary War battle.
Ubisoft are imbuing AC3's military units with behavioral AI that enables each soldier to line-up into square formations and firing lines, and employ the general military tactics of the time-period, when appropriate. Because of this, the battle scene that lay before us in the demo resembled an old painting of the Revolutionary War in a very authentic way.
Our new assassin, Connor, climbed down from his horse and slowly made his way through a small group of American soldiers as they received a rousing pep talk from their unit commander. As Connor gradually moved through the battlefield and down the hill, he avoided the rifle fire and cannon shot impacts by taking cover behind rocks. It didn't take long before he'd safely made his way through, and out of, the battlefield.
Then, Connor ran through the trees.
One of the concerns gamers have about Assassin's Creed III's new setting is that there simply weren't that many tall buildings and places to free-run during the American Revolution. One obvious way around this is to move free running from the towns and cities to the woodland. Apparently, the Assassin's Creed team has spent a considerable amount of time and effort replicating the natural growth patterns of trees, and re-working the traversal mechanics to enable free-running in this environment. The result is very impressive. Connor moves effortlessly through the forest by seamlessly switching between running along branches, jumping, "monkey-swinging,"and "trunk-rounding," in which he hugs the trunk of a tree and slides around it in one smooth motion to reach footholds on the other side.
The developers say they wanted to give players a more predatory experience when engaging the military this time around. In many ways it looks as though Ubisoft has taken a queue or two from Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Asylum, especially in one particular scene involving five soldiers and one of Connor's new weapons: the Rope Dart.
Connor sat perched on a tree limb that stretched over a dirt path some 20 feet below. Five soldiers appeared, one taking point and four in formation behind him. Connor threw out the Rope dart -- literally a dart on the end of a rope -- and buried it in the neck of the lead soldier. Connor then jumped backwards off the tree limb while holding the rope, which pulled the soldier into the air, suspending him from the tree. The crowd we saw the demo with screamed with delight, but Connor wasn't finished.
He wasted no time grabbing the next soldier and using him as human shield while the remaining three quickly formed a line and fired. Of course, all three shots hit the human shield, whom Connor let slide to the ground. The soldiers were then defenseless, since the rifles of the era required a lengthy reload period after each shot. Connor seized this opportunity by moving in close-quarters, and demonstrated some new two-handed tomahawk melee combat. It's hard to describe exactly what happened next, but it was spectacular, everyone died, and one guy lost his face. (If you're familiar, it was very reminiscent of the pistol-whipping gun-kata scene in the movie Equilibrium.)
We then followed Connor up a rock face, which gave Ubisoft an opportunity to show-off the game's new rock-climbing mechanics. These seem to work similarly to existing wall-traversal, but the natural rock formations the team has built for AC3 means that players now have to adopt a more strategic approach, aping the way a rock-climber would have to carefully plan footholds and handholds to avoid getting stuck or climbing themselves into a dead-end.
As Connor reached the top of the rock face, he appeared on the outskirts of a British encampment that was encircled in a new game feature: Stealth Zones. These small patches of ground will only be found in natural areas where stealth can occur naturally, such as tall grass. Although there weren't any obvious visual clues indicating what was and was not a stealth zone, we saw Connor crouch while moving slowly through one, which allowed him to get extremely close to the enemy without being detected.
For the demo's finale, the team demonstrated an improved mechanic that is sure to impress all fans of the franchise. One of the perceived failings of previous Assassin's Creed games is that the player's locomotion stops abruptly when performing an assassination move. Regardless of how Altair or Ezio approach a target, their assassinations end with them standing motionless, requiring the player to re-initiate the movement their assassination interrupted. Ubisoft have masterfully remedied this by blending animations and allowing players to perform assassinations while in-transit.
To demonstrate this, Connor burst out of the grass stealth zone and ran through a group of soldiers to get to the ultimate assassination target of the Bunker Hill mission. By running into a crowd and hitting the "assassinate" button while running, Connor will perform assassination moves while maintaining speed. One soldier was knifed in the throat and body-slammed as Connor barrel-rolled over him and dual-stabbed two soldiers on either side. Still moving, he fired his gun at point-blank to drop the last soldier in his way, sprinted up a rock and jumped at his final target, tomahawk already in mid-swing.
From the 15 minute vertical slice we saw, it is clear Ubisoft is still very much invested in the Assassin's Creed franchise and taking it in new directions, without compromising the quality or soul of the previous games. Fans of the series can rest easy knowing that a great followup is on the way, but there are so many new features here, not to mention and entirely fresh location and color pallet, that even gamers who found the previous Assassin's Creed games a turnoff could very well be intrigued enough to give this one a try.
Assassin's Creed III launches October 30, 2012, for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. A Wii U version is due at a later date.