Prior to Gamescom 2012, Ubisoft hosted a preview event for their entire lineup, including Assassin’s Creed III—or more specifically, its newly announced naval combat engine. After going hands-on with the dynamic seafaring feature, I can comfortably say that the combination of tight controls and subtle tactics might make it the best ship-to-ship combat simulator that I’ve ever seen.
When I say “might,” that’s because I honestly can’t think of another game where you can realistically steer a ship through choppy, churning waves in a fully animated weather scale, taking potshots at opposing ships. It’s even hard to describe what it feels like, since the control scheme seems startlingly complex the first time you take the helm. If I had to pinpoint it, Assassin’s Creed III makes the ship feel like a giant… gun.
Actually, that’s the perfect way to describe “The Battle of Chesapeake Bay,” which sees main protagonist Connor Kenway commanding his own craft amid a hazy battleground in the mid-Atlantic shores of the United States. Right from the start, you’re ambushed by a British Ship, which also houses a Templar. Giving chase is a matter of wind control, as you can either go “full sail” or “half sail” to power through the waves.
Steering is another matter, as you have to keep in mind your ship’s mass, keeping it from brushing nearby rocks and land. As you turn your ship from side to side, you have to line up the deck with the enemy’s ship, aiming the cannons without a reticle, but by roughly gauging the angle and distance. Once you have your enemies out in open water, things get a little more hectic.
Taking down an enemy ship is a balance of racking up cannon shots while minimizing your own damage. You have access to several different kinds of ammunition, including the standard “Round Shot” and the fire-y “Heat Shot” that’s meant to set your enemy’s deck on fire. But most advantageous is the “Chain Shot”, which can end a fight by tearing down an entire mast. Once you do that, your foe’s dead in the water without his sails.
But in our particular demo, we had the unenviable task of battling two ships at once, forcing us to “brace” our ship in order to lessen damage. It’s a tricky task to be chasing your target while trying not to leave yourself open to counter shots, but most expert players will likely be able to manage by hiding behind rising waves to avoid taking fire.
Once your enemy is crippled enough, the game gets more traditional, letting your crew board their ship, kill the opposing seamen, and scramble back to your own ship as the other one sinks into the water. In our demo, Kenway sealed the deal by taking a well-aimed shot at the Templar ship’s gunpowder storage, engulfing the ship in a fireball. Overall, it’s an interesting and fantastically challenging feature, and now I’m hoping that over half of Assassin’s Creed III takes place on the water.