Assassins Creed III preview – Over the river and through your skull

When our E3 demo of Assassin’s Creed III opens, we learn protagonist Connor – or Ratonhnhaké:ton if you’re feeling brave – is able to use his arsenal of sharp objects for more than just stabbing snobby Redcoats. Rather than re-shaping history during one of the American Revolution’s more memorable battles, the cloaked killer’s simply out for a hunt.

In a serene, snowy frontier setting, we find Connor stealthily stalking a deer. He effortlessly downs his prey with a well-placed arrow, but gutting his kill attracts the attention of nearby wolves. Baring fangs and an apparent appetite for human flesh, the four-legged foes close-in on Connor. In a blurring ballet of musket-fired bullets and slashing arm-blades, the snarling pack soon suffers the same fate as the poor buck.

Upon dropping the venison off at a nearby camp, the half-European, half-native American hero accepts a mission that’ll soon see him skinning more than wildlife. Tasked with infiltrating a British fort and eliminating a man named Silas, Connor mounts a steed and heads back into the forest. While his short ride offers another peek at the beautiful, snow-blanketed scenery, our sightseeing’s interrupted by a group of British guards. The patrolling Redcoats don’t immediately detect him, however, so Connor’s able to sneak in for a surprise attack. Using one of his signature weapons, the rope-dart, he harpoons a clueless mark before unceremoniously stringing him from a tree limb.

Seeing their brother turned into a piñata prompts the remaining soldiers to form a firing line and unload in Connor’s direction. Unfortunately for them, the lightning-quick killer’s already acquired a human shield. The struggling captor absorbs the barrage of bullets even as his panicked allies franticly attempt to reload. Unitizing a new-to-the-series two-handed combat system, Connor uses a tomahawk and blade to carve through the crowd in what looks like a choreographed cinematic; this is no scripted cutscene, though, but rather a stunning display of the title’s dynamic in-game combat. Perhaps noticing that the seamlessly evolving gameplay left our maws agape, Creative director Alex Hutchinson chimes in with this: “That all took place on uneven terrain, not flat ground.”

As our eyes struggle to keep up with the severed limbs, slit throats, and shattered craniums, Connor’s already off chasing the one soldier who had the good sense to flee. Spoiler alert: He doesn’t make it. Even as his final victim’s blood turns the snow a bright crimson, Connor continues up ahead on his quest. Taking a breather from the bloodletting, the agile assassin switches gears to show off his traversal skills. As he effortlessly treats the wilderness like his own personal jungle gym, Hutchinson provides commentary: “I believe we have the most robust character, in terms of third-person navigation, in the business. We’ve integrated sliding, cliff and tree navigation…all of it takes place not only in an open world, but across organic shapes. None of the surfaces are straight, all are unusual and Connor navigates them with relative ease.”

Having stealthily infiltrated the back of the fort – which Hutchinson ensures is just one of many possible strategies – Connor surveys his target from afar. Silas, confidently sipping tea in a tower, overlooks his large army. Clearly outnumbered, Connor sets his sites on a group of soldiers loading black-powder kegs into a wagon. He ignites the barrels with a single gunshot, barbequing all surrounding baddies and sending the rest running like hell. A panicked Silas leaves his safe spot, prompting Connor to give chase. Like the demo’s previous melees, the ensuing action moves at a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it pace. That said, we do catch Connor opening some Brit’ from belly to brains, even as he sprints through the camp; he also grabs a rifle from a weapons rack shortly before introducing it bayonet to his tea-sipping target.

With Silas – who just moments earlier might have been considering a crumpet to go with his beverage – now laying among the corpses of his men, our demo comes to a close. While we’re yet to actually get our hands on Assassin’s Creed III, its stunning visuals, cinematic action, organic gameplay, and inspired American Revolution setting manages to drop our jaws every time we see it in action. If we weren’t the wiser, we could be convinced Ubisoft was running their ACIII demos on next-gen hardware. It looks that’s good.

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