It’s a beautiful sunny day in the Assassin’s Creed ship combat demo. The sea is crystal clear as I step into Connor’s shoes and am instructed to walk to the ship’s wheel. Connor doesn’t seem to have his sea legs quite yet, as he plods quite slowly on the way to the wheel. Once he’s grabbed it, the point of view shifts and I’m controlling Connor’s ship directly.
I take a short spin around the cove to get used to the feel of sailing the ship. Ubisoft seems to have done a good job skirting the line between realism and playability here. The ship feels large and lumbering as a ship should, but it’s not too difficult to sail. A quick button press allows the sails to be raised halfway or all the way, but the ship doesn’t completely founder if the wind isn’t going the player’s way. After one incident in which I unfurled the sails too quickly and smashed against the side of a cliff, I got a better handle on steering and was able to move where I wanted to go without incident.
A green indicator on the screen points me in the direction of my target, another ship that looks similar to mine. It fires a few pot shots at me, but they land futilely in the water between us. I take up the chase, sailing out of the cove and into the open sea.
In accordance with the now-serious mood, the weather takes a sudden turn for the worse. The sky goes dark, lightning flashes, it starts to rain, and the sea becomes far choppier. It’s a quite fabulous demonstration of what Ubisoft’s new engine can do, but it’s about to make my task more difficult. Visibility and aiming are tougher now that the ship is bobbing up and down on the wake of the turbulent sea.
I’m able to get a few shots in at my target using the ship’s cannons, which shoot from the sides as one would expect. Before I can cripple it, though, two Man O’ Wars appear and start to attack me. I’m suddenly told that I shouldn’t damage my target ship any further, but that I need to take out the Man O’ Wars instead. Later I figure out that this is because I’m supposed to board my target rather than sinking it. For ease of identification, there’s a yellow indicator over my target and red indicators over the Man O’ Wars.
At this point, the contest of ships becomes a lot more even. The Man O’ Wars are much more aggressive than my target, pummeling my ship with their own cannons. The battle becomes a dance as I try to pull up to the side of the other ships, while they attempt to do the same with me. The game tells me I can brace against incoming damage with a button press, but doing so causes everything to go blurry in an apparent attempt to simulate the loss of visibility one might experience while cowering. I decide to go with the best offense and just keep shooting and dodging rather than attempting to brace myself.
It isn’t easy keeping track of three enemy ships in the middle of a storm, and the Man O’ Wars get a few clean shots in on me as we circle around each other. At one point, I find myself stuck between the two Man O’ Wars and nearly collide with my target ship, which unexpectedly pulls up in front of me. I manage to get out of the predicament with some quick steering work, giving my target ship no more than a friendly bump. I’m starting to get better at flanking the Man O’ Wars now, and before long, one of them sinks into the choppy ocean. It’s not long before the other one follows, and I manage to resist the urge to shout out, “I’ve sunk it!”
My ship is in a rather sorry shape after this pitched battle. There are splintered boards everywhere, and a number of conspicuous smoldering holes in the deck. She seems to still be seaworthy, though, and my target ship isn’t in much better shape. The game instructs me to switch from cannon fire to chain shot so I can take out my target ship’s sails. The chain shot flies realistically through the air, and after a few hits the enemy sails are in tatters. I then pull up beside it and am treated to a cut-scene of my motley crew yelling manly things as they board the disabled ship. Connor’s tomahawk descends toward an unknown person just before the Assassin’s Creed III logo splashes up onto my screen, ending the demo. Who was my target and why was I engaged in this naval skirmish? Ubisoft is playing the Assassin’s Creed III story close to the chest, so we won’t know until release.
I’m not usually a fan of naval combat in games. I tend to find it rather plodding, and with too much emphasis on details like wind direction that, while realistic, don’t necessarily create fun gameplay. I enjoyed what I was able to play of Assassin’s Creed III’s naval combat because it was fairly fast-paced and put its main emphasis on the action.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t plenty of juicy detail involved. I was impressed with the look, feel, and sounds of these Eighteenth Century ships. The physics involved in shooting cannons and chain shots were satisfying, and the way that Ubisoft designed the ships to be destructible without being too easily sunk was quite clever. I was able to get an idea of how damaged the enemy ships were by eyeballing them, and the visible damage my own ship took made me want to do a better job next time.
After the tremendous success of Assassin’s Creed II, the next two games in the series were criticized for being too similar; not adding enough of interest to the series beyond their multiplayer modes. The addition of naval combat to Assassin’s Creed III is one way that this game hopes to distinguish itself and spruce up the series formula. I’m happy to report that this new form of combat is not only fast-paced and fun, but adds to the historical experience of playing an assassin during the Revolutionary War.