Four hours in colonial America: Assassin's Creed 3 hands-on

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I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that Assassin’s Creed 2 is one of my favorite games of this generation. There was a pure sense of exploration and discovery that I haven’t found in any game since, not even the semi-sequels Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood or Revelations. Since that experience, I’ve been looking for a game to revive that feeling, and, while things have changed in games since Assassin’s Creed 2 was originally released back in 2009, I found that feeling while exploring the frontier in Assassin’s Creed 3, and it feels good.

I was given free reign to run around in Connor’s land after Ubisoft flew me out for an event in Boston this past week. As I walked out into the forest on my way to Connor’s homestead, I realized just how far games have come in three years. I’m not talking about a deep philosophical change in games, but rather the simple stuff, like draw distance and the amount of objects that can be shown onscreen at once. That might seem somewhat trivial, but it becomes really important when you’re trying to sell the atmosphere of a dense and large area like the forest.

I ran toward a stump that was clearly signaling “hey, you can totally climb here” and started climbing into the upper branches of the forest. I initially thought traversing through a forest by leaping from tree to tree would be somewhat clunky and awkward, but it turns out that it works better than running through a normal city. You’re mostly following a preset path of branches that lead you through sections of the forest, but there’s the occasional off-shoot path that allows you to change course, though you shouldn’t expect total free-control over frontier climbing, as there aren’t low branches on every tree.

Movement through trees is really smooth too, almost to an alarming degree. Even when I encountered a tree base in my path, Connor quickly shuffled his way around to the other side without any input from me. It’s elegant (in a minimalistic sense) that he just does it without any slowdown or thought.

Once I finally got over how cool the forest running was, I decided to set out and do some missions. Before I could even look to find any, I ran across a woman crying in the forest. She had been shot by Red Coat poachers that were killing the wildlife in the area. I tracked them down and murdered them. There wasn’t any negotiation, but then again, we don’t negotiate with Red Coats.

I carried her back to the homestead for healing and set back out on my mission. She wasn’t the only one in dire need of help though, as I soon came across another man dangling from the side of a cliff by a rope around his leg. The Red Coats were robbing him and thought they’d have a little bit of fun first; needless to say, my Connor did not approve.

While there was plenty of missions left in the Frontier, I spent most my time exploring. Sure, there was stuff that could be done, but I could also just ride around on my horse killing Red Coats, and that’s exactly what I did. I discovered that when you’re roaming through the forest, it doesn’t take long before you run across a group of enemy soldiers. Luckily, groups of enemies pose a problem you can solve it a few different ways.

While I could have just run in swinging my tomahawk at the two Red Coats I snuck up on, I decided to climb a tree and get a better perspective. I equipped the rope dart and fired it into one of the enemies before leaping off the back of the branch, leaving him to hang. As soon as I hit the ground I switched to my pistol and fired one shot into the remaining soldier, then I jumped on one of their horses and rode off, completely unscathed.

This really demonstrates the different approaches that you can take to combat and just how differently things can play out based on the smallest changes. It leaves things open for the players to decide how they want to interact with things, and I feel like that might just be the best part of Assassin's Creed 3. It’s always been that way, but the fluidity of changing weapons and less of a reliance on countering in combat makes for better overall combat. That’s a change that I can get behind.

When I was finally done messing around on the frontier, I made my way to Boston. Now, this isn’t modern day Boston by any means; in fact, it’s barely a city. It’s a major shift from the sprawling cities that we’ve seen in previous Assassin’s Creed games, as you can reach the top of nearly any building and see all the way across the city in a few short climbs. That's not a slight against the game by an means, in fact, I’d say that it’s an improvement. It makes you much more aware of your surroundings while you play, because you can see anything at all times, and that makes it easier to plan out your course when running through the city.

It also seems like there’s more detail along the environments. There’s just more stuff to grab onto, I don’t think that I ever encountered a point where Connor didn’t have anywhere to go; he just kept moving at all times, and that kept the experience flowing at all times. These more dense and confined areas work out better in the end and make Assassin’s Creed 3 a more refined experience.

I had a chance to look at more extended naval battles that showed even more promise than the ones that I saw last month. Not only did these involve a larger amount of ships than I'd seen before, but they had deeper objectives, which is something that I was worried about previously. It’s good to see that naval combat in Assassin's Creed 3 isn't all about sinking as many ships as you can and calling it a day; there’s also escort missions and even land vs sea battles that add variety into the mix.

I still haven’t encountered any of the naval missions that allow you to board an enemy’s ship and use ground combat to take over the ship, but from the way that the combat performed on land, I have high hopes that it will be equally fun on the high seas.

I did encounter a very different type of mission at Fort Wolcott though, as I stealthily infiltrated the fortress (Connor is an assassin, after all) and destroyed it so that it could no longer be used by the English. This ended in an amazing sequence that had the fort falling apart, fire destroying and breaking beams and floors as I dashed toward the water.

There was a time limit on the Fort Wolcott mission, but it was fairly generous considering that I didn’t encounter much resistance along the way. As you might expect, it ended with Connor doing a swan dive off the edge of the cliff into the water below just as the building was exploding. It was both technically impressive and refreshing to see that Connor can do other things beyond his typical all-out assault missions.

Assassin’s Creed 3 is impressive on many fronts, but I found it to be the most fun just getting lost in the world around me. There was always something to do, nothing ever felt forced, and I could just wander around and come across missions when I felt like it. That’s something that recent Assassin’s Creed titles have been missing and something that I welcome back with open arms. With all I've played of Assassin’s Creed 3 so far, I still only feel as though I’m just barely scratching the surface. With only a little over a month left before its October 30th release, we can’t wait to get out hands on the full game and continue exploring the Frontier with Connor.

Check back for Assassin's Creed 3 multiplayer impressions later this week!

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