Monday, 9 April 2012

Assassin's Creed 3 - Preview

In the new film from the Dardenne brothers, the wonderful The Kid With A Bike, a local drug dealer uses the lure of playing the new Assassin's Creed game to tempt the film’s titular kid back to his flat, in a bid to recruit him for a robbery. We'll take any excuse to mention French arthouse cinema.

Anyway, it was of course the extraordinary success of 2009’s Assassin’s Creed 2 that put Ubisoft’s franchise onto the lofty path it currently treads. Two sequels followed in successive years, giving the historical open-world adventure a status shared only by a handful of other games – that of the inevitable, annually updated Christmas-friendly moneyspinners. With such an escalation in exposure came the inevitable ‘criticisms’ that also regularly follow the likes of Call Of Duty and FIFA: that they’re casual games for casual gamers, the annual sequels leaving little time for innovation, diluting what was once a unique experience via the laws of diminishing returns.

Ubisoft have been nothing if not alive to such perceptions. Assassin’s Creed 3 is the first full sequel in the series for three years. It uses a new engine, is set in a new era, and stars a new hero (Connor). Everything else though, give or take some iterations, is business as usual. We’ll start with the era first.

Set in the years 1753-1783, this stretch of American history takes in the decade predating the start of the American revolutionary era and ends with the war between Great Britain and the United States concluding. It’s an ambitious framework for the game, and great attention has been taken to ensure historical accuracy. We’re shown a mission that takes place with the battle of Bunker Hill as its backdrop. The visual scale of the conflict, with columns of soldiers marching and firing in unison, is a high point for the series, whilst the famous order given to troops – “don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes” – is heard as you walk among the troops, waiting for the mission proper to begin. The care for these little details – the verbatim speech, the slow pace of reloading – is in stark contrast to the traditional Assassin’s Creed gameplay, as Connor uses the armies’ confrontation to sneak around the field’s outskirts to kill a general on horseback.

The changes come thanks to the new engine, allowing Connor to climb trees and rockfaces with fluidity. In motion Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t anything we haven’t seen before, but crucially it does look like a big enough step beyond the Ezio trilogy to seem, at the very least, like a series suitably refreshed. Other changes brought on by the update in technology include dynamic weather cycles, more natural NPC behaviour and the ability, via new animations, to clamber manfully through thick snow. In fact it’s these snow-based sections, which take place in the Frontier – a barren landscape of mountain ranges and roaming wildlife – that thrill the most. Looking isolated and not unlike a certain Rockstar-developed western, the Frontier territory gives ample opportunities for Ubisoft to demonstrate how this new game will differ.

Although development started over two years ago, the influence of Red Dead Redemption is felt in these brooding, convincingly isolated passages, not to mention the slaying of a bear followed by the option to skin the slain creature. That said, the athletic, fantastical manner in which Connor traverses the environment is far removed from that of John Marston, and it’s the surrounding milieu of Assassin’s Creed 3 – the passing regiments, the scattered villages – which should help differentiate Ubisoft’s excursion into wilderness territory. Apparently 30% of the game’s missions take place here, a sizeable chunk and a figure that the team will have to work with carefully if they’re to avoid the trap of repetition that afflicted previous games.

Unfortunately – albeit unsurprisingly – the narrative will once again be formed around the idea of an Animus meaning that the game world is, to all intents, a fabrication in the mind of contemporary protagonist Desmond Miles. A witty comment on videogaming construction it may be, but the story in Assassin’s Creed 2 was one of that game’s biggest failings, the tedious mythologizing and confusing plotting proving a barrier to the immersion that the best open-worlds offer. That said, this time around the Animus is more closely integrated into the game, which should help alleviate the disjunction between worlds that existed before.

Here are some other bullet points:
- So far three locations have been confirmed: the aforementioned Frontier lands, Boston and - still under wraps - a New York under siege.
- The name of the new engine is Anvil Next.
- Cut-scene technology has been vastly improved.
- Lead character Connor stands, apparently, for justice, and is half-British/half-Mojave.

Assassin’s Creed 3 isn’t the only major release this year to use American history as a foundation. BioShock Infinite, which releases just a few weeks before AC3, also hinges on a depiction of America, except its use is more of an allegorical one centred around the turn of the 20th century, and America’s growing status as a world superpower. Although the approach is markedly different, there’s something more exciting about Ken Levine’s thoughtful, nuanced vision.

The numbers, features and quotes we hear at this preview are impressive on paper, but leave us feeling generally unmoved. History, as the series' IP and development director Tommy Francois says, may be the developer’s “playground”, and the themes of the American Revolution may mirror those of Assassin’s Creed (liberty or death, power or oppression, control or freedom) but there appears to be a tension between the lengths to which historical accuracy has attempted to be followed, and the sci-fi narrative overlaid on top. It’s a trap that Assassin’s Creed 2, for all it's strengths, also fell into. This third chapter doesn’t as yet appear to share the same sense of revolution as its setting; we’ll have to wait until October to see if that will be enough.

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