There are few teams in the realm of original IP driving development as passionate or ambitious as Patrice Desilets' Ubisoft Montreal-based Assassin's Creed dev team. Made up of largely the same creative minds who brought us the equally ambitious Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, Desilets' team know how to tell a story, create a compelling gameplay experience and drive players to enjoy both. It's not often gameplay and narrative are so perfectly married they become a separate entity, but in the case of Assassin's Creed this is exactly what Ubisoft have managed to do. Never has a game felt so immediately organic with every corner of the Assassin's Creed game-world seemingly bursting with both history and life; invitingly macrobiotic in its dynamic mix of verve, manner, architecture and tone. Ironically enough, however, is the concept not all is as it seems in Assassin's Creed, and while the surface stuff, the visual stimulation that evokes the welcome sense of realism
, looks and feels like the real thing, the game's interface, HUD and more offer a mystery that threatens the very aesthetic of what makes Assassin's Creed so immediately compelling.
If you've been following development of Assassin's Creed you'll know the game has a hidden secret. Indeed, when it was first shown at the 2006 E3, the booth Ubi created for the game was nothing but a white box; sterile and unfeeling in the face of all their other titles whose booths and display centres were painstakingly themed from their respective game. The more Ubisoft showed of the game, the more difficult it was to hide the idea there was something they [Ubisoft] weren't telling us. Each video they released showed Altair, the game's main character, glitching out like a Star Wars holographic image, or revealed portions of the screen displaying random numbers, patterns and codes. Obviously this sparked massive dialogue within the rumour-mongering videogame world and theories revolving around everything from simulated life, interactive futuristic videogames, time-travel and more began to surface. But the truth is we're not going to know. Despite what Ubisoft can't
hide, they've done a great job avoiding the topic, leaving it instead for us to discover once the game is released towards the end of November.
With release of the game so close though, Ubisoft Australia invited AusGamers to their Sydney HQ to sit with Patrice Desilets, creative developer of the game, and one of Ubisoft Montreal's true visionaries. Somehow, up until this point, I've avoided too much to do with Assassin's Creed - the gamer in me reigning supreme over my journalist self. This is a game I need
more than any other. My passion for the history surrounding the Knights Templar, the Crusades and the Holy Land keeping me at arms length of the title at all times lest its glorious secrets be revealed too early. But alas, I'm made - finally - to report on the game, but thankfully Ubisoft's need for secrecy parallels my own need for distance from the title. For this, I'm more than thankful to Patrice as he walks me through but one of the game's myriad of missions - an event inspired by a real-life character who died in the year 1191; William de Montferrat.
The events leading to this assassination are left for me - and you - to discover later on. What I'm showed, however, is just how
truly organic this game is. Richard the Lionheart is off to fight, leaving Montferrat to look over the city of Acre, but before he leaves Montferrat walks him to the castle gates where the two engage in a heated conversation. This also sparks what Desilets calls a "memorable moment
", which is essentially a cut scene, but this cut-scene is different in that you're actually able to direct what is going on. Certain prompts will allow you to hit a button and change camera angles, while Altair himself, is still able to be moved around the crowd gathered in front of the conversation. Here still, stealth is a necessity to gather information - it's imperative you remain nothing more than an onlooker to the numerous guards gathered about Richard and William and the way in which they react - in real-time - to your interest in the heated discussion continues to paint a glorious picture for the robustness of the world of Assassin's Creed. If indeed it turns out none of this is real (in the context of the game), Ubisoft have done an incredible job of faking the real-thing.
Altair always has his Hidden Blade on-hand, however, it isn't always the best weapon to use. Equally, his sword can create a level of commotion he doesn't want and also means you need to get up close and personal with your enemy. Thankfully, as was probably the case during the period, you can stealthily pursue thugs who, in their back nap-sack, harbour throwing knives. Carefully walking behind one of these characters the game will offer you an option to pick-pocket, which will give you five blades with which to quietly dispatch enemies from afar.
Once our "memorable moment
" is complete, William retreats to his castle and you're fully in control again. Desilets explains there are a number of ways in which we can breach the castle - countless stealth paths, or blade drawn, busting through the front door. Given the game encourages you to make the most of Altair's abilities, I'm happier to watch Desilets send Altair climbing the walls. From this approach it's easier for him to pick off the archers perched at guard towers along the massive wall. Still, despite being the creative director behind the game, an arrow catches my illustrious guide off guard and he jumps from his seat, indicating no matter how intimate you are with the game, or how many times you play through a specific mission, nothing is certain.
Completely thrown from his desired path Desilets is forced to fight, run and hide, though not necessarily in that order. He takes out a few guards with some throwing knives he pick-pocketed earlier (see box out for more), then runs in pure desperation across precarious paths made up only of scaffolding, suspended platforms from pulleys and cranes and whatever else presents itself before his escape route. The animations that accompany this desperate retreat are breathtaking, and the level of detail Ubisoft have gone to, to ensure everything Altair lands on, grabs hold of or touches is spot-on. At no point did I see unnecessary clipping or lackluster collision detection - every action is on the money which just adds to the life
Desilets and his team have injected into Assassin's Creed.
After botching the first run at his target, Desilets attempts it again - this time walking through the front door. Gently pushing people aside there is plenty of activity to keep yourself well and truly undercover, and under the shadow of every day life within Acre, Desilets quickly and stealthily kills a guard in broad daylight. Walking briskly away (but not so fast as to draw attention to himselef), the guard falls to the ground behind us and a crowd of people stop to look at the incident. This then attracts a group of guards who were blocking a particular passage, by the time they reach their fallen comrade you've walked down the previously blocked path and found a new way to move towards your target. Brilliant.
Without spoiling too much of what Ubisoft have dubbed the "flowerbox
" game-world (as opposed to the more common term, "sandbox
"), we find ourselves perched on a wall high above William de Montferrat. He is down below talking to two peasants - Desilets tells me this is not a scripted cut-scene, nor is he perched where he is for any other reason than that's where he wound up. Everything is dynamic. He could jump - right now - to his target and make his kill, but he pauses long enough for me to see Montferrat order the throats of the two peasants be slit. It's enough to more than warrant his death, and without a second thought Altair leaps to a piece of scaffolding erected right behind Montferrat and then jumps in for the kill. It's a devastating moment. The sound, the music and the dynamic AI reaction to what has happened (ie they're shocked and don't immediately respond) puts a definitive stamp on the action before we're whisked into a sort of limbo where Altair and Montferrat converse. Desilets explains these moments were put into the game as a sort of 'last words between killer and victim', not at all dissimilar to the scene in Saving Private Ryan where a German soldier slowly stabs one of the films' heroes - in that scene the two share an odd moment that Desilets says he wanted to try and capture in the videogame realm. I'd say he's done a pretty good job of it.
During the demo I decided I needed some answers about the game, all of which Patrice Desilets was more than happy to give up - unfortunately we didn't have a lot of time, but what we grilled him about certainly helped give the development process more shape.
We know you're a history buff, but did you actually get any historians in to look over what you have done with the game?
Yes, at the beginning and towards the end. We sent some scripts to them just to make sure we got some of the people and places right.
Was it difficult to make three cities, all based around the real-life thing and the time period, different? How have you managed to make each one feel unique?
Well, firstly we decided to give each city it's own colour. So, Acre is the blue
one, Damascus is orange
and Jerusalem is the green
one. Each city also has their own landmarks to make them all different, but if you're asking 'was it hard?
', well it was a lot of work, especially when working right down to creating every back alley that we did, and we worked hard to get many of the real-life landmarks in there, but it is a videogame and so we took some liberties.
Are the cities roughly the same size as the real thing?
Roughly, roughly. But not entirely, and as I said, we took some liberties as well.
How does the health system work? Do you eat or receive pick-ups?
It is automatic. When you're in a battle you regenerate one bar every 10 seconds if you're not hit, and outside of a battle it's one bar every five seconds.
Can you perceive a time this new engine might be used for other Ubisoft titles such as a new Prince of Persia or even maybe a Splinter Cell game?
I cannot answer that as I am only working on this game which has taken up all my time...
... if you look at the Jade engine which was originally created for Beyond Good and Evil; we ended up adapting that for a number of titles including Sands of Time and even King Kong, which was a first-person game. Even Naruto is using a really supped-up version of the Jade engine, so if you look at all that you can probably assume it will be used in some form down the road.
Will there be anything in the PS3 version that isn't in the 360 version because of disk size?
Nope, it's the same game. Everything will be the same in both versions.
Will we see a demo hit either Xbox Live Marketplace or the PlayStation Network?
No, we have demoed the game so much already and it's close to release, so there will be no demos.
What came first, the games concept or a desire to make this engine?
It was a concept first, but we realised we needed to make a new engine to accomplish our goals. So it was an idea we had at first and the more we developed it the more the technology began to take shape.
Patrice Desilets, thankyou so much for your time.
The gameplay system for Assassin's Creed is one based on fluidity and ease. Altair literally has three entire cities at his disposal, all connected by trails you can take with a horse. Each city has its own flair and flavour and the denizens about you make up as much of the city's aesthetic and depth as its landmarks and architecture. The key role - beyond assassin - you play, is one of laying low. The more attention you bring on yourself, the more likely it is you're going to get caught. Creating attention about yourself can happen in a number of different ways - running through a crowd of people can cause commotion, as can leaping from a rooftop into a large group (I saw this in action where, when Altair landed right in the middle of between 10 and 15 people, the crowd let out an awe-struck and shocked cry, immediately grabbing the attention of guards). It's true you have amazing scaling and acrobatic abilities, but where that stuff was a means to an end in Prince of Persia, here it's an attraction to each city's hapless citizens.
With this in mind (and as mentioned in the interview above), Ubisoft Montreal created a massive system of back alleys, and typical of the time, where construction and reconstruction were always happening, there are lots of climbing instruments available to you such as scaffolding, building materials, barrels, shipments and more. If it looks like it can be used to get around, most likely it can.
Controlling Altair requires thinking about the controller as something of an extension of his body. So, the face buttons can be viewed as the Y or Triangle buttons representing his head (Eagle Vision, which allows you to tag certain characters), X and Square and Circle and B are extensions of his left and right hands, respectively, while, obviously, A and X (PS3 X, that is) work as his feet. With this in mind, there are two 'stances' Altair can adopt, one is a "Socially Acceptable
" stance in that most of your actions won't cause alarm and are not at all aggressive, while "Reckless
" dictates what its name suggests, where you'll bump people and cause commotion based on how you're running or moving. These stances can be switched between with a simple tap of the right trigger or R2.
Jumping and most of your fighting is context sensitive in that holding down the A of X button while running in your Reckless
stance will make Altair leap from what ever ledge he's running toward. His leaps are based on the line you take, and so might be small if there's a safe ledge close by, or massive if you're attempting to clear a massive gap. Equally, when in sword-play, you can enter a defensive stance where Altair will block most blows, then if you see an opening, you can quickly counter an attack or take advantage of an unshielded area of your opponent. It's an unbelievably fluid way to play and further cements the organic
feel of the game I mentioned earlier.
According to Ubisoft, you can expect to play the game for around 25 hours following the main story, but obviously having three ancient cities (and all their denizens) to play with will most likely push that number out a little further. If you're like me, chances are you're going to climb absolutely everything you can and take as many crazy dives off high places as you can push yourself to. Ubi Australia are saying the game is releasing late November, and due only to logistics have no official
date, but it has just gone gold, so don't expect a massive delay at all, and as soon as they give us an actual date, you'll be the first to know. For now, make sure you have a look at the screenshots we've provided (of which a lot are new this week), and you can also click here
to see what files we have available for the game. Be sure to save your pennies for the Special Edition also, though don't expect Australia to get our hands on the Altair action figure the US will, which is a shame, but maybe, if there's a sequel, we'll get more love then.