Close combat is also different, feeling faster and more fluid, but with more emphasis on countering enemy blows and striking rapidly while you have your foe off balance. To stop this becoming monotonous, some of the tougher redcoats and their Templar allies are resistant to the standard counter combos, forcing you to use defence breaking moves or simply work a little harder to put them down. It’s an effective system with its own rhythm and timing, but one that still forces you to be aware of the overall situation, making sure Connor doesn’t get overwhelmed from all directions, or shot to bits by muskets from a distance. And while the combat is hard, it never feels unfair. If you can’t take the odds, then it’s up to you to reduce them – and if fair means don’t work then try foul.
The team at Ubisoft Montreal has done a great job here, taking the core Assassin’s Creed gameplay and giving it a new spin without wrecking what worked so well in the Ezio games. Movement in both the cities and the wilderness still feels fluid and natural, and there’s a joy just in clambering up a building or reaching a mountain vantage point – or even just getting from A to B.
The new stuff also works well. Connor can use traps to hunt for smaller prey or stealth, tomahawk or bow and arrow to hunt for bigger animals, and – PETA beware – skins gathered can be sold, linking the activity in with the wider game economy. A persistent homestead now acts as a base, where people helped or rescued in the game’s homestead missions will live, contributing resources to be traded or used in a neat evolution of the town-building aspects of the Ezio trilogy. Meanwhile, naval missions offer a complete departure for the series. Both movement and combat are deliberately simplified, with a choice of no sail, half sail and full sail speeds, the wheel on the left analogue stick and cannons and more accurate deck-guns mapped to the left and right triggers. However, it’s still very satisfying, and sending an enemy crew to Davy Jones’ locker won’t get dull too soon.
Most of all, this is a spectacular and often beautiful game. While we can’t vouch for their historical accuracy, the locations are as rich and detailed as ever, and the character animation is consistently lifelike. Weather effects, like storm, rain and snow, are brilliantly handled, and if some of the vegetation looks flat or some faces look artificial when seen in close-up, it never does much to spoil the impression. AC3 isn’t quite a generational leap on from AC: Revelations, but it does look noticeably better.
With all that said, though, AC3 still isn’t quite the best Assassin’s Creed. It’s big, it’s clever and it packs in enough new features and ideas to embarrass most other threequels, but it’s still a notch or two away from the sky-high benchmark set by Assassin’s Creed 2 and Brotherhood. Partly, it’s the pacing that’s at fault. AC3 takes an awfully long time before it really gets going, with early sections dominated by disguised tutorials and exposition, and a slightly tentative approach that means the game only catches fire around six to eight hours in. Replaying the initial section on Wii U, we were struck by how dull and cut-scene heavy much of the early game is. You can see Ubisoft pushing for the feel of a grand generation-spanning saga, but the result is a long stretch of gameplay that actively put many players off.