Some missions are so torturously linear that even the slightest deviation from the prescribed path results in 'synchronization lost' and an excruciating loading break. There are simply too many rote stealth and chase missions that end abruptly if you make the slightest mistake. You feel like you're being punished for being creative too. Even if you work out a clever alternative way to complete an objective, you still fail because you haven't done it precisely as the developers intended.
Optional objectives do add some colour to missions, though. They give you a constraint like crossing an area without touching the ground, or using a certain gadget in a fight, which inspires you to play around with Connor's varied and entertaining toolkit.
If a guard spots you in a game, it should never be game over. We should be able to use our tools and skills to adapt to the situation. This is the kind of dynamic, emergent gameplay that defines games like Deus Ex and Dishonored, and it would suit an Assassin's Creed game perfectly.
So why are there so many damn scripted missions? In some chases, the NPC you're pursuing actually stops and waits for you - a hangover from previous games. This slipshod, rigid design is completely at odds with the freedom you're granted between missions.
You'll forgive its shortcomings for the first few hours, but by the end you'll be grinding your teeth to a fine grit. The tech, controls, and visuals have improved in most areas, but the missions are, not unlike Desmond, stuck in the past. That said, the AnvilNext engine isn't without its problems.
Even installed on Xbox 360 there's a lot of distracting pop-in. You see grass 'growing' in front of you as it draws in, doors and other scenery sometimes phase into existence from nowhere, and shadows are fuzzy and low-res, like they've been drawn with the spray paint tool in MS Paint. None of these bugs and blemishes break the game, but they're hard to ignore. Hopefully the PC version, which we were unable to test, will fix some of them.
Surprisingly, the naval battles are excellent. We assumed they'd be little more than an arcade mini-game, but there's some interesting strategy buried in there. They look like those great old naval paintings you find in museums come to life. Beautifully rendered waves rock and crash against your ship, and your crew runs around the deck in a flurry of activity. When you bombard an enemy ship, their hull shatters and their mast snaps. Your personal flagship, the Aquila, can be upgraded, and in some missions you can ram an enemy vessel and board them.
You move with the left stick and tap A/X to flip between half sail (slow, but manoeuvrable), full sail (fast, but hard to steer), and stop. Your main cannons are on the right trigger and the longer you hold it, the more balls or sail-shredding chain shots will be loaded. The swivel gun is on the left, which is more accurate, but can only take out smaller ships.
It's all about timing. Knowing the moment to go to full sail and escape an incoming volley of cannons from a fort perched on a hill, or hitting half sail to make a tight turn and get a line of fire on a British galleon that's trying to flank you - all while dodging jagged rocks, old wrecks, and rogue waves. Some naval missions are part of the story, but the majority are optional.
There's a mountain of side content too, although you don't get to experience much of it at first. The story moves at a leisurely pace, and we didn't even get our trademark hood and armour until seven hours in. Explaining why would spoil one of the game's biggest surprises, though.
It's an unexpected introduction to the game, and we didn't see it coming at all - quite a feat in this age of leaks and spoiler-filled trailers. If you charge through the story you can reach the ending in about 15-20 hours, but factor in all the optional missions and objectives, plus time spent exploring, and you're looking at around 50. It's certainly value for money, but the time-starved among you may find the sheer amount of content overwhelming.
HOME SWEET HOME
Both the Frontier and the cities are peppered with distractions and things to collect. New York is under martial law, and you can intervene whenever you see the Redcoats harassing citizens or executing rebels. You'll find almanac pages floating around in the wind that unlock new inventions, as well as traditional collectables including feathers (yes, they're back) and view points.
The hunting club gives you challenges like air-assassinating a bear or using bait and snares to catch a certain type of animal. Forts can be liberated by sneaking in, blowing up their gunpowder supply, then flying the Patriot flag. For each flag you fly, Redcoat patrols in the cities are replaced with Patriots, which gives you some feeling of having an impact on the world. It's a huge amount of stuff, but luckily there's a new logbook to keep track of it all.
The homestead is the equivalent of Monteriggioni in Assassin's Creed 2, but there's a bit more to it. At first it's little more than an old manor house in the middle of an empty stretch of countryside, but by completing special missions it transforms into a bustling village.
Around the game world you'll find settlers in trouble. Help them and they'll set up shop on your land and lend you their services, including hunters, lumberjacks, and farmers. As the community grows, new buildings pop up and more settlers start milling around. It's a peaceful spot where Connor removes his hood and you don't have to worry about Redcoat patrols.
Your settlers have different skills, and some will create resources that you can then sell by sending convoys around the map. This is all controlled through a menu, and you can unlock recipes to craft more exotic goods by combining materials.
Sometimes your convoy will be attacked in the Frontier and you'll have to protect them, otherwise you lose your shipment and the convoy itself. Stick with it and you'll have your very own trade network, giving you a steady income to spend on new weapons and materials. You'll also have to help the people on the homestead with problems, like stopping a burglary, catching poachers, or rescuing the farmer's wife from a bear attack.