The Assassin's Creed franchise has excelled at a lot of things over the years, but vehicles have never really been part of that list. Whether riding in one of Leonardo da Vinci's war machines or fleeing through the Italian hillside in a horse-drawn carriage, these vehicular set pieces have rarely amounted to much more than an interesting distraction from the rooftop acrobatics that have long made up the core of the series. So will Assassin's Creed III's boats continue that trend? Well, if what we've seen and played of these naval battles at Gamescom 2012 is any indication, the answer appears to be a great big "no."
The sea is wide open
One of the biggest problems with the vehicular set pieces from earlier games is just how constricting they were. Those carriage races through the Italian hillside were cinematic, sure, but the limited maneuverability of driving along narrow mountain roadways often made for a harsh and awkward contrast with the series' otherwise open traversal.
That's one of the reasons the naval battles in ACIII seem so promising. When you pick up a controller and start playing, the first thing you realize is that you're the one navigating this vessel--not the game. In chasing down groups of enemy boats, we took wide sweeping turns through the water and never hit any invisible walls. In fact, with the ability to adjust the sails to change speed and choose from various types of cannons and artillery fire on the fly, it's initially kind of intimidating just how much control you have over your vessel.
There's no lacking for geographical variety
One thing this series has always done well is give you reasons to get excited about visiting new parts of the world. After all, Ezio and Altair were just as much adventurers and travelers as they were assassins and killers. Continuing that theme, it seems Connor's maritime adventures will take him to battles throughout distinctly different parts of the Americas.
We all saw the battle in the Caribbean that Ubisoft showed at E3, with its lush, tropical coastline and pristine waters. Contrasting with that is the Battle of Chesapeake Bay being shown here at Gamescom. This chapter of the game has a very different look and feel, taking place along the mid-Atlantic shores of the United States at sunset as the sea gradually becomes a hazy, smoky warzone of sunken and destroyed ships. Despite the fact that it's all on water, these two portions of the game feel remarkably different.
Your boat is yours to build
Another interesting bit about the naval sequences in ACIII is the relationship you forge with your vessel. Connor's battles will largely play out from the same boat, and over the course of his journey you'll be able to upgrade and customize your boat with items ranging from hull armor to various forms of cannon fire designed to immobilize a boat rather than destroy it. If this system actually has some depth to it, it could be really cool--especially if you get to customize the symbol on your sail. (We're thinking some hybrid of the Jolly Roger and Assassins logo.)
It's mostly optional
Finally, Ubisoft wants people to know that the naval battles are but a "small part" of the overall package in Assassin's Creed III and that, for the most part, these sequences are mostly optional. When we pressed lead designer Steve Masters for more information, he confirmed that you're more or less introduced to naval warfare in a story-critical mission, and from that point on it's basically up to you whether you want to continue with Connor's duties as a captain or return to a 100 percent land-locked existence. We're curious to see how much the story opens up if you choose to take part in these subsequent, optional missions at sea. Will it affect the game in a significant way? Or will it just be a fun excuse to go out and sink a bunch of boats? We suppose time will tell.