Three years of ruminating on what the Renaissance would look like if you ran it through a city simulator had Ubisoft perfecting its extended tour of old Italy; and now despite the Altair flashbacks and the ongoing Desmond saga, ask pretty much anyone to imagine the franchise and the sole image that will come into their head is three years of Ezio Auditore. Florence's finest son still has his imprint on the series (we'll see if time withers that mental connection), which makes Assassin's Creed 3 as much an exercise in re-branding as it is a sequel to a sequel.
It's worth pointing out Assassin's Creed 3 has been in development since 2009, almost immediately after Assassin's Creed 2 was released, and in the last three years they've managed to completely re-interpret what the essence of AC can be applied to when taken out of its centuries-old European comfort zone.
We're stateside now, at a time where the colonies are in flux, perhaps mirroring the game's own development changes. The game is split between early New York and Boston during the mid-to-late 1700s, and an area called The Frontier which acts as its cultural counterpoint - a woodland 1.5 times the size of AC2's Rome. This last one is devoid of manmade objects, and the usual free running is replaced literally by what I can only guess they're calling tree running in their development backrooms - this is what we all saw in the trailer that hit recently as our new hero scrambled up branches, not buildings. The Frontier's closest comparison harkens to the wilderness of Red Dead Redemption, something that the developers even acknowledge:
"[We thought] hunting and all that part of [AC3] was so cool because it hadn't been done and then Red Dead comes out and we're like "Oh, they're doing it". So this just meant we needed to innovate even more... it gave us more work."
A few of the features available now are comparable to some seen in the pool of games that have come out since they started developing AC3 and whether this was accidental or not it's proof if it were needed that extending your tendrils out to other genres only strengthens design in a game - it introduces animals for the first time, which paves the way for a Red Dead style hunting featurette. Over in the colonies pelts can be traded for items, which gives you the basis for how hunting factors in to the new AC world. Depending on how you kill the animal, their pelt will be worth more. A shotgun against an attacking grizzly ruins the pelt and will take in less than were you to stab it in the heart.
There's also a faint smell of Uncharted in there too. Your movements through the cities will now trigger events - wander past a woman selling apples and you'll see her stumble, drop them, then watch as a man bends over to pick one up and begin to run. These function as their own mini tasks that you can choose to take part in. Elsewhere we're shown Connor legging it through Boston, stepping on to a market stall, triggering one of the windows of a nearby building to open as a woman inside lets air into her apartment, giving him an alternate exit route where he can scamper inside to the screams of the room's owner.
It's a reminder that buildings now aren't simply facades. Where windows and doorways were initially decorative fare to get a grip on when you went up a wall, now they can open, leading you inward, showing that there is indeed an interior world in the city. Similarly, unlike earlier titles in the series the city isn't just a fixed platform. Past iterations were happy to praise the design of the living breathing city that had been created - with a cast of NPC extras in their hundreds who would breathe life into the game, but the city itself was a stagnant thing that would sit in the background as an immovable hill to climb. In 3 it moves - platforms like mobile carts will be dragged through the town, creating Leaps of Faith into moving haystacks or alternatively moving platforms to jump between during free-run segments.
AC3 uses this New World in the most literal sense available. After all the Desmond ciphers who have been climbing up walls and flinging themselves off of relatively similar looking buildings since 2007, AC3 is the first in the series to create a city that not only has its own sense of identity outside of the Continental stock, but proves that the differences in architecture changes the entire sense of the game. Like travelling between real world cities, Ubisoft's holiday to the States has its own sense of culture shock - proving that concepts like psychogeography are even relevant in digital towns. The game has a new take on annoying bards - in this case kids shilling newspapers, shady Dockers, and marketplace stall sellers are part of the makeup of the city.
Another aspect will be seasonal changes. The game brings on board snow, fog, rain, and ice as companions to the gameplay. Not only do they change up the setting - it will be possible to visit the same areas during different seasons - but they also affect the gameplay. Snow is quiet but slows Connor down, he'll struggle up hills and across thick knee-high mounds of snow. Injured enemies can be tracked by following their blood stains or footprints, and the same can be said for animals during your hunting escapades. Snow coverage opens up new options for getting around in general. Fallen trees will leave enough room underneath them to be slid under, a speedier variation to trekking through snow banks which offers new pacing to the game.
But the most significant difference is our new leading man whose personality, while still more or less under wraps, is noticeably unrecognisable after years of Ezio banter. Connor has the status of a half Native American/half English but AC3 focuses largely on the former part of those genes. He's a taciturn, tree-climbing kind of guy who dual wields anything from tomahawks, knives, bow and arrows, and (the relatively slow-to-shoot) flintlock pistols. You're reminded of those Native chromosomes when wandering through town, as we're shown guards asking him for the correct papers to enter certain areas before chasing him off.
The studio actually toned these aspects down. Where at one point they stuck on a plot point that had Connor scalping his enemies, they tell us during a presentation, it turns out his background as a Mohawk Indian - a non-scalping people - made the act historically inaccurate.
This is a new era for the series, represented in part by how the game interprets the violent birth of America in its early days. But specifically in how it re-thinks what is possible in the Assassin's Creed franchise.
Assassin's Creed 3 is due for release on October 31 on Xbox 360 and PS3. It will also be released on PC and Wii U.