As you play Assassin’s Creed III: The Tyranny of King Washington - Episode 2, the second of three episodes in this reality-bending, timeline altering, canon narrative you begin to see what it’s really all about. There’s very little story this time out - this will surely come in the final episode in a flurry given all the questions still left to answer - but an awful lot of game. It’s really a greatest hits in terms of missions with each different from the last and encompassing all the different things you’ll have done in the main game, from eavesdropping to playing a board game, assassinating without arousing suspicion to fending off wolf attacks, along with a number of new things and the opportunity to use the skills you picked up in episode one and those you acquire here.
So what it’s really all about is very simple - it’s not a chance to see the creators spin a yarn unencumbered by historical realities, rather it’s their way of showing you what Assassin’s Creed can become. It can take the best of other games and meld them into the world within the Animus. They can set you in the real world and all that comes with it but freed of Desmond’s story and the Templar vs. Assassin rivalry you can just play. You can do things that shouldn’t be possible, like make yourself invisible with your previously learnt wolf cloak ability - or fly like an eagle here after your second Sky Journey. The shackles are off and Ubisoft wanted to practice and play and show you the new world now, in this extra content, to settle your mind and refresh what these games are all about before the wonderfully non-Assassin type Assassin Edward Kenway is your avatar for the fourth numbered game of this revered series.
It’s still a shame though that the story isn’t moved on much in this episode. Looking ahead to this episodic DLC the boon was the weird history that Connor was to find himself in. Why had the madness descended and George named himself King, with the Apple of Eden at hand? How could this be canon as Ubisoft had declared despite the events of the main game showing quite clearly that the reality of real world history was still a central tenet around which the Assassini games were created? None of this is really moved on by the close of this set of missions, two to three hours after you started, from where you were before you pressed start. We already knew King George and the Apple enabled control of his closest allies. We had been told freeing Franklin was the key. Whilst the details of what happens needn’t be shared here lest it spoil any surprise, nothing new in terms of Washington’s elevation to the throne, what his plans are, how you can stop him and how this all fits into the wider picture is shared at all. Fitting everything into the final episode will be a challenge and likely dull the impact of much of it as like a summer blockbuster with three-second scenes, handheld cameras and quick-fire editing you will be onto the next reveal before you can digest what’s gone before. A mastery of storytelling this is not but it does seem at least that this was the choice, it just isn’t as expected given what’s gone before.
This chapter follows on directly from the last, with Connor waking in prison after his capture by General Putnam at the denouement last time we met. In Boston this time the title follows the usual mission based structure with the opportunity to hunt for collectibles and complete objectives in the open world area between times. Here though you’re unlikely to spend much effort - at least not until the end - doing anything but the missions. They all flow together well and provide for a good set of activities, taking the best things you’ve done and sticking them all together for critical mass. It encourages you to just carry on as it’s exciting, entertaining and paired with your DLC-only wolf and eagle skills, really quite fresh.
We learnt from our first Sky Journey how to make ourselves invisible like a wolf at the expense of health as well as how to call a wolf pack to do your bidding in a way analogous to your Brotherhood from the main game. Early on in Boston you get to go on another Sky Journey to see if you meet a different animal and you get lucky, engaging with eagles rather than a ladybug or some such. Again two skills are learnt and whilst both are regularly fiddly at first to execute, and still so later on if less frequently, they’re both damned cool. Eagle assassination is fabulous when you pull it off. If a group of aggressors are headed towards you, or you’re sneaking up on a bunch across a large area, you can hold down triangle and once lock-on is achieved turn into an eagle, fly towards your target and then automatically change back and kill the one or two guards you’ve targeted. The fluidity when done well is great and if you can chain multiple moves together it delivers a wonderful feeling. This is rare though as the lock-on is fiddly in that sometimes it will do so before you press triangle, other times it will require you to press the button, lock-on and then release before pressing and holding for the actual attack. Once you’ve killed a guard in this manner your cover is blown and the frenzy means this difficulty is often encountered. You can think of the eagle assassination as a much cooler drop assassination, although one equally - if not more so - frustrating when struggling to pull it off through no fault of your own.
The second move you learn is how to fly like an eagle from point to point. Again you can chain these short flights together but here the execution is much less troubled. Looking around your surroundings, typically on an elevated level, you’ll see circular crosshairs and on pressing triangle you’ll fly as an eagle to that point. Just before you land, if you see another crosshair press triangle again and you’ll chain the two flights. This can be repeated ad nauseum and is a wonderful way to escape an area quickly. Not to mention incredibly satisfying to traverse large distances so quickly without having to sit through the parkour animations needed to climb and run and jump from rooftop to rooftop. It’s likely this move can be built into the real world for the fourth game by way of replacing the eagleness with some kind of grappling hook, similar perhaps to other open-world games of recent times with agile lead characters.
It seems the developers at Ubisoft having finished the story they started in 2007 are looking to truly reinvigorate and refresh the game which introduced many of this generation’s staples in terms of how it plays and what the game is, rather than just adding new things on top of the system already in place. They’ve looked around at the competition as well as their usual review of what has and hasn’t worked in each of the Assassin games. Here they are setting the scene for the future, refining the skill set of the central character and focusing on the streamlined core of the game, all whilst levelling things up with that which Batman for example has demonstrated as a strength. Whilst this episodic story as a whole has seen a midway slump, it’s exciting to see the change in the game surrounding it as we move to the next generation and beyond.