I'm not enjoying Assassin's Creed 3. In fact, I think it's fair to say I loathe it. That's partly because after several hours of play, I'm only just beginning to experience the game Ubisoft has spent the past six months banging on about in the trailers. The monstrous prologue (which, in fairness, houses a cunning twist) is clearly the work of a team that's simultaneously too fond of its own universe and excessively anxious about teaching newcomers the basics. New and familiar tools are handed out to players grudgingly, and the use of those tools is broken up by fat, clumsy hunks of exposition.
I'd like to say the situation improves once you get to grips with new frontman Connor, level him up out of adolescence and finally don your Assassin's threads, but I'm finding it very, very hard to fall in love with the setting and subsystems. After the dense, well-seasoned sprawl of Rome, Constantinople and Florence, Colonial America's fledgling settlements can't help but seem dull, and the wilderness isn't much compensation. Forests just aren't as fun to navigate as even the most forgettable of city centres, where the regularity of the architecture makes climbable bits both more prevalent and less obvious. Routes through the canopy are telegraphed in a painfully, if you'll forgive the pun, wooden fashion: nobbly trunks lead to MGS3-style stick-on branches, which lead to carefully positioned fallen logs and so on. It doesn't feel natural. It doesn't feel real.
The one thing I am enjoying is the combat, which is kind of ironic, given that Assassin's Creed combat in general makes me gag. Ubisoft's issue with fighting has always been finding the balance between showmanship and structure, between empowering you to murder things in a slick, Assassiny way and making the process challenging and/or interesting. Different enemy types (corresponding to different kinds of attack) have been experimented with. New weapons and sub-weapons have been introduced. The counter has been tweaked and retweaked. Matters came to a head with Brotherhood's streak mechanic, which felt, in all honesty, like the developers washing their hands of the problem - nail the first kill, and you can casually slaughter all the enemies in reach with a few cursory taps.
The thorn in Ubisoft's side throughout, of course, has been Rocksteady Studios. A harsh but not unjust way of summarising Batman: Arkham City is "Assassin's Creed done right" - there's the same, playtime-guzzling plethora of gadgets and collectables, but they're fed through mechanisms that genuinely engage. The fisticuffs, in particular, put Assassin's Creed to shame. You're coaxed into exploring Batman's lethal capabilities via a near-perfect combination of punishment and reward - the more diverse your methods, the more XP you earn and the more health you replenish after the fight.
Assassin's Creed 3 mission director Philippe Bergeron hailed Arkham City as the "holy grail of fighting" last month, citing it as a direct influence on the new game. The eternally troublesome counter has benefited the most from this. After the example of Batman's stun-and-beatdown, it's now a two stage affair where you first block, then respond to an incoming attack. Different foes invite different blows - officers need to be disarmed with A button, elusive rogues respond best to an over-arm Tomahawk chop via X. When several enemies go on the offensive in succession, real concentration is required to string together the correct sequence of ripostes. It's exactly the blend of gristly spectacle and artfulness I've been dreaming of since Altair first stuck his scimitar through a Templar's epiglottis. In another nod to Batman, the game zooms to close-up as you land the final hit, lingering over motion capture that's impressive even by Ubisoft's standards.