Assassin's Creed 3 preview
by Kat Bailey, shacknews.com, Aug 16, 2012 9:30AM PDT
If not for the French at the Battle of the Chesapeake, the Revolutionary War may have lasted much longer than it ultimately did. It may have even ended in failure. It was during this sea battle that the French managed to cut off General Cornwallis' supply route and ensured his ultimate surrender to the Americans.
In the lore established by Assassin's Creed 3, protagonist Connor is a key participant in this momentous battle. Wearing a fashionable tricorne hat, he lays waste to the British with concerted volleys of cannon fire from his vessel. At one point, he even boards one of the vessels to finish its hapless crew with the help of his bayonet and a shot from his pistol. The British, of course, don't stand a chance.
Connor's involvement is all part of the tapestry that Ubisoft is weaving for the 18th century, which serves as the setting for the latest in their assassins vs. Templar epic. That rich tapestry has traditionally been one of Assassin's Creed's greatest strengths. Sure, it's great fun to leap from rooftop to rooftop, stalking corrupt nobleman and waging war on the ruthless Templar, but Ubisoft has proven itself especially adept at capturing a sense of time and place that gives 235 year old events a certain immediacy. That the latest entry is set during the Revolutionary War--an era rarely visited by video games--only adds to its appeal.
What's interesting is to see how the series has evolved with the timelines. Knowing, for instance, that naval combat was an integral part of the Revolutionary War, Assassin's Creed 3's development team went out of its way to put Connor on a boat. But it's not just a matter of setting Connor loose on the seven seas (which, by the way, is limited to story missions and side quests). It's about ensuring that it makes sense within the context of the game.
Lead designer Steven Masters explains: "In Assassin's Creed, we have what we call our gameplay pillars--fighting, navigating, and stealth. We wanted the naval stuff to fit within those pillars, so it doesn't have that incoherency it could develop if you went off and did something completely crazy with it. It actually fits within the paradigm of the game."
He continues: "Also, if you go back into the history, you'll see that they were called 'ships of the line.' They would line them up 20 at a time and maneuver for hours just to get the right combination of tide and winds and the right elevation, then they would just batter the crap out of one another. That's not an experience we wanted to replicate; we don't want to spend an hour setting the sails, because that's how long it would take. We wanted something more high intensity and action-oriented, but still respected the history."
Playing around with the ships a bit, it's easy to see what he means. The controls are quite easy to pick up, but Connor's ship doesn't exactly handle like an X-wing. You quickly find yourself at the mercy of the wind and the waves, and it can be a trial to get the thing lined up for a shot. But when you do, and one of those hapless British vessels is blown sky high ... well ... it feels pretty good.
Even in those giddy moments though, it's easy to see why developers have largely steered clear of the American Revolution. There's a lot about the 18th Century that's big, slow, and unwieldy. Guns, for example, famously took forever and a day to reload in that era, perhaps explaining why Activision hasn't yet decided to make Call of Duty: Revolution ("Muskets were a pain in the ass," Masters notes). That the guns actually appear to be a solid part of the gameplay--they dictate both offense and defense, whether you're finishing off a foe at point-blank range or defending with a meat shield--is a credit to the designers.
Of course, there's more to 18th Century America than just the combat. Fast-forwarding to the Revolution has brought with it all sorts of challenges for the design team. Masters says that the team has had to rebuild all of their core systems from the ground up to accommodate: "Taking so many aspects of history and trying to realize them... take the harshness of winter in this era. You have people out in a completely undeveloped section of the work where an incredibly harsh winter is coming in. You have the involvement of the navies. And because history is our playground, we have to go in an treat that with a certain amount of respect. The more we dig into the history, the more we realize about people's lives, the war, and the way they were living."
In describing the work that the team has put into making Assassin's Creed III feel authentic, Masters throws out all sorts of impressive-sounding factoids. The maps of New York and Boston are based on real historical maps, he says, and have been recreated on a 1:3 scale. The wilderness areas are 40 percent larger than Rome, and include meticulously designed organic terrain (a point that Masters is particularly proud of--he brings it up whenever he gets a chance). The sailing sections include a dynamic weather simulation.
Looking at Assassin's Creed 3, one gets the impression that the developers have pretty much tapped out this generation. Masters doesn't disagree, but there's a part of him that also sees the limits as a challenge: "Limits are interesting. There are always new techniques to work around them. Personally, they force me to think in a creative way to overcome these limitations. So yes, we are pushing the hardware extremely hard. We are using all of our years of experience in making this hardware work really well in actually delivering things like the naval situation. I don't think I've seen another naval situation that delivers an experience to that fidelity."
Impressive as all of Assassin's Creed 3's new technology is though, it's really just a means to an end. Fancy lighting and organic textures alone aren't enough to recreate the look and feel of the 18th Century (though they certainly help). As history buffs themselves, the developers are out to capture all aspects of the American Revolution, from the weapons to the aforementioned harshness of winter in an under-developed territory.
It's an ambitious, borderline lunatic undertaking. But at this point, Assassin's Creed III has the credibility to push the boundaries of history as far as it possibly can; and it's for that reason, among others, that it has the look of one of the very best games of the year.