PAX East 2012: Assassin’s Creed 3

On Sunday, amidst the swarming show floor of the third annual PAX East exhibition hall, I had the pleasure of sitting in on Ubisoft’s closed-door Assassin’s Creed III demonstration. Twice. For those who couldn’t make it to Boston this year (or who were too overwhelmed by the ever-intimidating line leading into the black box), here’s a walkthrough of the demo and some quick thoughts on what lies ahead for the popular franchise.

The Demo

After a brief introduction by creative director Alex Hutchinson (who provides the voiceover for the ten-minute demonstration), we are transported via animus to June 17, 1775. Location: Bunker Hill, Massachusetts.

A gorgeous New England landscape can be seen over the shoulders of a figure on horseback bearing the familiar trappings of the Assassin Order. As he dismounts and approaches the tattered array of blue-uniformed soldiers, we notice blue tails of fabric swaying beneath his white cloak. The assassin slides through the colonial ranks as a colonel — perhaps William Prescott — rallies his men into battle: “…and above all, do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”

Hutchinson takes a moment to familiarize new viewers with the game’s new ancestral hero Connor Kenway with a faster, smoother version of the video released several weeks ago, dispelling for good the rumors that Connor lacks a hidden blade before returning to the battle lines and showing, for the first time, the sheer scale of battle that Assassin’s Creed III plans on offering gamers this fall.

Across an open valley we see a steep hill virtually covered with red-coated troops lining up and unleashing cloud after cloud of white musket smoke. Deviating from the crowded streets of past games in the franchise, Ubisoft needed to up the ante for NPC populations. Whereas previously an Assassin’s Creed game featured a cap of a couple hundred onscreen characters, AC3 boasts a mind-blowing two thousand to 2500. It’s visually impressive and psychologically daunting, and as gameplay resumes one suddenly realizes that any one of those thousands of soldiers is armed with a potentially lethal musket that could be pointed in Connor’s direction.

The target — British Major John Pitcairn — is nestled safely atop the distant hill and beyond all those guns. Given the choice between the assault and stealth paths up the mountain (provided intuitively, not via intrusive UI) the demo opts for the latter, and after carefully timing his runs between, over, and under cover (new motion mechanics allow for seamless environment traversal) and dodging a few stray cannonballs (read: new reactionary animations are in full effect here), Connor is vaulting into the branches at the base of the hill.

Those concerned that the parkour elements of previous installments would transfer sloppily or seem forced in a natural environment can rest easy: a handful of new animations ensure that whether hopping or swinging from branch to branch or hugging a narrow trunk while easing around to the other side, tree traveling looks natural and convincing.

Eventually Connor happens upon a group of seven redcoats heading towards the front lines on a dirt trail. The demo opts for an ambush, and a slick new weapon-selection UI pops up from which the rope dart — a new and immediately likable weapon — is selected and subsequently hurled towards the unfortunate British point man.

What follows is a flurry of action that, if not for the manufactured pauses of the demonstration, unfolds with almost shocking speed and accuracy. Connor hooks his first target and uses him as a counterweight to swing down from the tree in which he’s hiding only to land right behind his victim’s not-quite-sure-what’s-happening companion. One throat-slash later and Connor is brandishing victim number two as a human shield to absorb the shots from the five remaining soldiers who have — like the well-trained infantry they are — lined up to take aim at the intruder.

Hutchinson comically points out the still-dangling feet of the first victim as Connor drops his meatshield and rushes the now-reloading group, using his tomahawk, hidden blade, and pistol — and the enemies’ own bayonets and muskets — to rapidly dispatch all five of them. The camera dynamically zooms to catch the action as it unfolds, backing out in time to aid Connor in countering each new and unfortunate attacker.

Then it’s back up into the trees — painstakingly designed to reflect the reality of New England woodland’s lack of uniformity — wherein the game exhibits a newfound and impressive degree of verticality. Seasoned tree-climbers will recognize the “okay, I got to this point, where now?” pause as getting to the nearby cliffside becomes a puzzle in itself.

The cliff is a welcome change from the contrived climbing limitations of most buildings in prior games. Hutchinson highlights the wide variety of fissures and jutting edges which players can choose from while scaling rock surfaces, and Connor occasionally has to use both hands to achieve proper thrust as he climbs towards the British encampment.

Cresting feels an achievement in itself, but rather than celebrate Connor must quickly seek cover as a nearby officer rides by. We are thus introduced to stealth areas — dark or heavily-foliaged areas in which Connor can move and wait undetected. Feeling both more natural and realistic than arbitrary hay bales and inexplicably-effective benches, hiding in the bushes affords an opportunity to assess the situation in the camp and plot a course for Pitcairn, who is idling on horseback beyond the tents and meandering soldiers.

We are given the last bit of info from Hutchinson as Connor waits for the guards to turn their backs: Assassin’s Creed III will feature a far more fluid assassination system, allowing for constant motion and banishing forever the awkward vulnerability incurred when assassinating part of a larger group.

The remainder of the demo is pure action. Connor breaks from the brush and beelines for two soldiers in the middle of the camp. The game slows just enough for the impact of Connor’s weapons to be felt, and he’s immediately back to full speed, rolling to his feet in time to vault off a rock and swing his tomahawk towards Pitcairn’s throat as the animus collapses out and the game’s logo tauntingly leaves us wondering what follows.

Looking Forward

Full disclosure requires pointing out that I am an unabashed fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Though each game has had its minor flaws, I consider the series as a whole the most consistent and enjoyable of this console generation. Though it continues to run the risk of sequel fatigue, I have personally yet to feel that Desmond and his ancestors have outstayed their welcome.

My immediate reaction to the PAX demonstration was one of awe. The game’s sheer scale — especially character generation specs — is daunting. AC3‘s HUD is reinvented from the ground up to put more focus on action and less on navigation, shining with polish and pleasing in its minimalism. Everything moves so much smoother and faster than anticipated, and seeing that the tree-climbing is not, in fact, contrived put to rest one of my greatest fears for the decision to take so much of the game beyond city limits.

Much about Assassin’s Creed III remains unknown, and it’s still impossible to tell whether other aspects of the game will live up to the thrill of this weekend’s guided demonstration. Some little details — mechanical enemy behavior, for example — will hopefully (and likely) be ironed out over the next six months, and the faithfulness of 18th century Boston and New York will, I’m sure, be up for much scrutiny as I daresay more of Ubisoft’s demographic have walked those cities than, say, Constantinople.

Nevertheless if the size of the preorder line outside of the demo booth (which at times rivaled the size of the line for the demo itself) is any indication, seeing how good this game already looks leaves little reason for doubting that Ubisoft has on its hands a major contender for 2012 Game of the Year.

Special thanks to Spectra for providing access to the media assets used in this article.