The story deals with what would happen if George Washington, having led the American Revolution, made himself monarch of this new democracy rather than retiring from his presidency, going mad with power under the influence of a Piece of Eden. Except – and this is the problem, really – it doesn’t really engage with that concept at all. Washington is quickly set up as a villain in early cutscenes, a mad tyrant bent on enslaving the Native American people, but aside from that we don’t get any more historical pontificating: there’s no speculation about how this would have affected the new America, no allusion to the wide-ranging effects of Washington’s coup. This feels like a wasted opportunity.
Instead, we only see how it affects Connor – except in this alternate timeline, he never becomes Connor. He’s still Ratonhnhaké:ton, his village was never destroyed, his mother was never killed, and he never became an assassin. This DLC relies much more heavily on Connor’s native American heritage, which was rather under-used in the main Assassin’s Creed 3 storyline. You adventure alongside his clansmen, and at least in this first episode you never come within reach of a city; it’s all set outdoors.
One of the confusing things about this setup is that Connor himself seems totally disorientated by it – he still has memories of what happened during Assassin’s Creed 3’s storyline, even though nobody around him knows what he’s talking about. It’s not clear what purpose this narrative decision is serving, and answers won’t come until the third episode of this DLC.
In an effort to defend his village from power-crazed Washington’s troops, Ratonhnhaké:ton and the other men of the tribe turn to ancestral tradition: drinking a tea made from the branches of a sacred tree, which allows them to commune with animal spirits. This is enormously stereotypical as a concept, but has interesting implications for how you play: communion with the spirits grants Ratonhnhaké:ton vaguely supernatural powers that significantly change the gameplay.
In this first episode, he meets the wolf, which gives him two powers: summoning a pack of invisible wolves to savage enemies, and turning invisible to sneak between patches of cover. (Invisibility isn’t one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about wolves, but suspend your disbelief for a moment.) This completely changes the stealth gameplay, especially – it’s much easier to sneak through The Tyranny of King Washington’s scenarios without being noticed instead of kicking off a massive brawl, and to run away from a fight.
Ratonhnhaké:ton’s newfound lupine powers aren’t limitless. Wolf Pack has a long recharge time (although weirdly, other enemies seem totally unbothered by the fact that their comrades have mysteriously fallen to invisible animals, and don’t think to come looking for where they might have come from). Wolf Cloak drains your health whilst it’s activated, meaning you have to dart between hiding places. They’re both fun to use, though – and as this episode lasts two hours at most, there isn’t time for them to get boring.
Narratively, this first episode of The Tyranny of King Washington can’t help but be unsatisfying – it’s only one-third of a story, after all. The wolf powers, though, go some way towards redeeming it. They’re a fun twist on the gameplay that’s given just enough space to breathe without becoming tired. This bodes well for the following two episodes of this DLC, which will feature two more animal-spirit communions and give Ratonhnhaké:ton several more powers, but the story’s refusal (so far) to really engage with the alternate-history angle beyond its current limited scope is less encouraging. There’s so much potential in this premise, and yet so far we’ve not seen much at all that Assassin’s Creed 3 didn’t show us already.
The Tyranny of King Washington is as yet unproven, then, but not without promise. There's clear effort on show here, with plenty of bespoke cutscene acting and a genuine attempt to freshen the gameplay. For the price, though - $9.99, £7.99, or 800 MSP – it’s light. The Season Pass (£23.99/$30/2400 MSP) includes the Battle Hardened multiplayer pack and the game’s three pre-order bonus missions in addition to all the Tyranny of King Washington episodes, which is better value, but still a lot to ask for maybe seven hours of new gameplay. On its own, this first episode isn't worth that money unless you've squeezed Assassin's Creed 3's single-player dry.
As the beginning of a story that may or may not be worth the investment in the end, it's difficult to recommend Episode 1 of The Tyranny of King Washington as a standalone proposition. With Episode 2 due out in March and Episode 3 in April, it's worth waiting two months to see how it pans out.