Assassin's Creed 3 is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated releases of the year. After several Ezio-led iterations we finally get our hands on a new assassin - the Native American Connor - as well as a later period of history and vastly different environments to explore. We spend three hours getting lost in side-quests and making progress in the main story.
Our hands-on drops us halfway through the campaign - specifically, during 1773 - and introduces Davenport Homestead, a forested area nestled above the main Frontier region and north of one of the game's two main cities, Boston.
A decrepit mansion in the Homestead offers a safe respite from the main story missions and the dangers of the wilderness outside, but also offers a immediate jumping-off point for a number of diverse side-activities, which helps develop your land with more population and services throughout the game.
Finding trinkets and taking to the high seas
Stepping outside the Homestead we survey the immediate surroundings. From the front of the house is a sloping path that trails off into dense woodland, while the other side backs onto high, craggy cliffs that overlook a dockland and a lazy blue ocean.
Down at the docks there are two side-quests to be discovered. One is from a character named Peg Leg, a rather stereotypical pirate that tasks you with collecting trinkets dotted around the Homestead, a quest that gives you the perfect excuse to explore more of the daunting environment around you.
A trinket perched on a cliff close-by provides a particularly stunning view of the ocean, which was swiftly shattered by an encounter with a wolf that required a few button prompts to dispatch.
The other activity on this side of the map stems from a Harbourmaster. While naval missions will inevitably constitute some of the main story, you're free to spend some time tackling shorter, minutes-long missions for additional rewards.
As discussed in a previous preview, taking to the high seas is straightforward but plenty of fun. Controls are simple - there's just turning and two types of attack - but with powerful enemy ships and wind directions to take into account, it's deceptively tactical and packed full of visual flourishes such as splintering wood as cannon balls fly, and a team that scurries around as you steer and command attacks.
Giving a helping hand
Returning to the Homestead, another side-mission lies just beyond from the mansion, where we found an injured woman in a ditch. Carrying her home, she tells you that her unlikely career as a hunter was due to a lack of choice - it was either that or the brothels. Such small, seemingly incidental spots of dialogue serve to flesh out and help establish the American Civil War, and a country that was undergoing radical political and social change.
As it emerges that she was set upon by poachers, Connor decides to deliver some payback, allowing us to let loose with some of the array of combat options. Riding on horseback into the forest, we charged towards a stationary individual, jumping from the horse and stylishly plunging a knife into their neck, before crawling through the undergrowth and dispatching his friend with an arrow.
Completing the mission sees the huntress settle on your lands, providing a place to sell your furs and hides. Another side-quest was a similar set-up; a map pointer lured us up a cliff face - located beyond several homes populated with fishermen and gossiping wives - to suddenly discover a traveller being dangled over a cliff edge and crying for help.
Again, relieving the individual of his troubles reveals that he left Boston to avoid political strife, and providing him a place to settle on your land adds woodcrafting as an additional service to take advantage of.
Exploring the wilderness
Before we pursued the main story we wanted to mop up the remaining trinkets, allowing us to experience more of the wooded environment around us, a landscape that's being introduced to the series for the first time.
By and large, the natural environment was a joy to explore, with varied, rich topography that felt vast yet lovingly hand-crafted. Climbing up to a vantage point, it offered genuinely breathtaking vistas, with the tree line broken by far-off cliff tops and mysterious structures that will inevitably yield missions later down the line.
It wasn't the easiest environment to explore, however; travelling by horseback off the beaten path felt awkward as you stop dead at ledges or are caught on tree boundaries, while encountering a pack of wolves could easily lead to your demise.
Meanwhile, collecting a trinket situated high up on a plateau was a challenge, where we spent far too long attempting to climb up a path that we eventually realised couldn't be scaled, only to discover a very similar-looking cliff face on the other side that served us far better.
While these elements could be designed to be purposely uneasy - providing a sense of danger and exploring unknown territory - at times they leaned on the side of frustration instead.
Boston: A new breed of city for Assassin's Creed
A location more familiar, meanwhile, was Boston. Vast, elaborate cities have been the bread and butter of the series, and while it was easier to traverse than the wilderness, it takes on a noticeably different form to locations in previous games, with taller buildings, wider streets and different citizens to be aware of.
It means traversal becomes more careful and considered, especially since the streets below are teeming with soldier-packed checkpoints and beggar children that can cause unwanted attention.
Assassin's Creed 3's story continued here, which slides neatly into some of the period's most famous moments. As William Johnson steals the land of your native American people, you travel to the city to request the help of Samuel Adams, one of the Founding Fathers.
During a street-side chat with Adams, Connor intervenes with a nearby commotion as local tax collectors force their way into a Bostonian's home, opening up a string of side-objectives to other help in similar positions in the district.
Connor has a tea party
As you make your way from house to house, scuffles with the collectors prove that combat is still fluid, fast-paced and exciting, and when we accidentally stumble into a crowded checkpoint, we're also reminded it can be particularly dangerous too, especially when faced with charging horses and armed soldiers.
It's soon revealed that the templars are extorting poor Bostonians through higher taxes and smuggled tea. Subsequent missions see you provide a statement of support for the civilians by bombing dock supplies and intercepting smugglers as they roam through the streets.
Tensions continue to simmer over the course of several missions, with the famous Boston Tea Party acting as the climax. Boarding dockside ships, you contribute by dumping tea into the harbour waters and defending your fellow protestors from harm, which is where the series' contracts - which deploys fellow assassins to give you a helping hand - make a welcome comeback.
With the Boston Tea Party concluded and William Johnson seemingly abated, the campaign jumps six months into the future. With Connor back at the Homestead, the peace is shattered when a messenger tells him that Johnson once again is up to no good, and once again stakes his claim against your land.
By the end, we felt we barely scratched the surface of what was to be seen - Boston also had its own set of quests and sights to see, for one - but we can certainly say that fans of rich, diverse open-worlds will love what's in store here, while long-time followers will relish the opportunity to explore the plight of a different lead in a new exciting era.
Our time with Assassin's Creed 3 made hours feel like mere moments, and we imagine we'll say the same again when it launches in just a few weeks' time.
> Assassin's Creed 3 preview: Eight anticipated features from E3
Assassin's Creed 3 will be available on October 31 in North America and Europe for Xbox 360 and PS3. PC and Wii U versions will arrive in November.