After seeing the E3 reveal of Assassin's Creed III's cannontastic ship-based combat, our reaction was simple. It looked stunning. And it turns out, having now played four of the game's nautical missions, that our suspicions were correct. It is stunning.
Playing through a section set in 1773 and around halfway through the game, it's immediately apparent that manning a ship in Assassin's Creed III is a pleasingly involved experience. Navigating treacherous rocky outcrops is made easier through three selectable ship speeds: fulls-sail, half-sail and stopped. Of course, it depends which way the wind is blowing as to how these speeds translate into knots, and we were shouted at a few times by crew members for commiting the sin of sailing into the wind.
Control feels superb. With your character at the helm, moving the analogue stick sees him spinning the ship’s wheel around, the ship making smooth, enjoyable movement over the dynamic wave effects. The waves can change at any time according to what the developers want you to be experiencing, and while we didn’t encounter any especially violent storms, we did find ourselves riding some impressive swells.
Our first mission was to defend an NPC vessel named The Henderson, which was coming under fire from enemy ships. Most of these enemy craft are small, but they don’t half sting when they fire. Fortunately imminent threats are flagged up by a red cone emanating from them on the surface of the water, like an in-world radar.
Fighting back is pretty straightforward, but all about timing and positioning. You simply ready your side-cannons by holding R1, and then release to fire. It takes time to reload, but if you turn the camera to the opposite side of your craft, you can fire the other cannons in the mean-time.
There’s also a single, aimable gun which is brought up with L1, and whose crosshairs can roam around without changing course. There is the potential for friendly fire, mind, so you'll have to keep an eye out for any green icons over the action. Enemy ships have a red diamond – aim for them.
There are bonus criteria to be met if you’re feeling particularly skilful, such as avoiding damaging your ship on the environment, or keeping The Henderson above 50% damage. However, once a mission is completed, it can't be repeated, so it’s probably best to get it right first time or restart it if you’re a completist.
Another mission is called ‘Dread of Night’ and tasks us with chasing notorious privateer ship, the Saint James. The shadows cast by the rigging may be impressive in the day-time, but the glow from the large lamp in the centre of the main mast looks gorgeous at night. As the cannon fire and burning vessels light up the night, it all looks rather special.
Further missions, all set in the same time frame, saw us avoiding and safely detonating floating mines, which can be smartly used to take out enemy ships if they’re close enough to the explosion. Finally, a mission to protect Martha’s Vineyard from attackers sees us follow the enemy out past a lighthouse, only to discover an English fort.
The fort can’t be hit with the single, aimable cannon, so careful passes woth the main cannons must be executed, concentrating fire on each of the fort's three gun towers in turn. There are defensive barriers around the fort, which satisfyingly splinter into pieces as your cannonballs hit home until the fort is exposed.
It’s heavily armed itself, though, and you'll have to hold down Square in order to duck down and minimise casualties as return shots hit your vessel. After a failed attempt, we retried and changed our tactics, dropping sail momentarily to get our shot cleanly away before quickly scurrying off for another pass.
As the fort falls, lead character Connor mentions that the English have no reason to build a base in that location, and begins to suspect that the Templars may be involved. Should have known those guys would show up sooner or later.
Overall, the ship battles are definitely a stand-out experience in Assassin’s Creed III. It’s unclear whether the ocean will open up at all to allow for extra exploration, as it’s currently modestly navigable but ultimately enclosed. We do hope that will be the case though. Playing seabound warfare realised this well has made us long for a Sid Meier’s Pirates sequel built around this engine. Until that happens though, this looks like it will more than sate our desire for rum and the smell of cannon smoke…