In a harbor town in medieval times a knight paces back and forth across the gallows inciting the raucous crowd into a frenzy. An eagle soars over the chaos and we flash to a hooded figure standing alone in the belfry tower. He quickly assesses the situation and as a church bell rings he drops to the town square below. Pushing his way through the crowd the figure makes a straight path towards the gallows. The church bell rings again and the figure starts into a light run. The guards have now spotted the hooded man in white and prepare for the oncoming attack. In a dead sprint the hooded man throws a weapon into the first guard's chest, then dodges and handily dispatches the second on his ascent of the gallows's stairs. Leaping off the falling body of the second guard, a blade emerges from the cloaked man's left hand. As he drives this blade into the third guard's neck he slowly cradles his head and almost respectfully closes the dead man's eyes. Guards immediately storm the stage and the man in white flees on foot through an alley. Dodging people left and right, he nimbly ascends a wall and continues his escape from rooftop to rooftop. He leaps down and lands at the front door of the cathedral and as he slowly turns around, completely surrounded, the final church bell strikes. The cathedral doors open and as white robed monks leave the church, the assassin disappears in broad daylight.
After seeing the E3 trailer for Assassin's Creed (at Assassin's Creed) I couldn't help but wonder what the team at Ubisoft would be bringing to this next generation of gaming. Coming from the team that brought us the first two Prince of Persia games, many have come to expect nothing but gems out of Ubisoft, and this game looks like another classic. Producer of the project, Jade Raymond, said in an interview "I just loved the huge ambition of the game, and the fact that Ubisoft was letting people think about the concept for so long and then develop new technology. It's completely set apart from anything that's been on the market before. Hopefully gamers will appreciate it, but it's definitely going to be something totally different."
But who is this mysterious man hooded in white that can kill three guards and then disappear in broad daylight? The hero of Assassin's Creed is an apprentice assassin named Altaïr (pronounced Al-tie-ear) from the historic castle of Masyaf (Syria on today's map). The name literally translates from Arabic as ‘eagle' and this has been taken into every aspect of Altaïr's moves, looks, and attitudes. His graceful moves come from over 4,000 animations compared to the 800 used in the Prince of Persia games. The blade that emerges from Altaïr's hand is a ritualistic dagger that is given after having his ring finger severed as entry into the order.
The story of Altaïr takes place in the summer of 1191 after the recent conquest of Acre by the Christians and is a mix of historical facts and the imagination of the Ubisoft team. This era of the crusades places Altaïr in the middle of Richard the Lionheart's quest to reclaim the Holy Land from the Salladin and is no coincidence as this is where the word ‘assassin' originated. It comes from a group of Muslims warriors that became known for killing those with opposing political views and in this organization a certain code was followed – "Nothing is true, Everything is permitted". Creative director Patrice Desilets says of the motto, "As soon as I read that phrase, I thought, there's a game there. It's very close to Taoism or Buddahism – everything is an illusion, and you can do whatever you want. We approached it more like they were ninjas from the Middle East."
The story isn't the only original idea coming into Assassin's Creed. From the controls to the AI, this game is taking an innovative approach to many different fronts of gameplay. The most exciting of these is the control scheme which gives gamers more freedom and expands the options the player has. Most action games have a jump button, a weapon button, and the always popular ‘action' button, but not so in Assassins Creed. The controls have been described as being like a puppeteer, with Raymond stating, "What I really liked about this concept was that once you understand the concept of the controls, you know how to play the game. You don't ever have to look at what the button combos are. You can invent them as you go." The standard movement controls apply with the PS3's left analog handling movement and the right analog controlling the camera, but that's about where the similarities end. The X button will correspond to the feet, the circle button will control the arms without a weapon, square manages the arms with a weapon, and triangle will use your head. To bring this all together, a trigger button will act as a shift between the hard and light intensities. If you want to move someone out of your way, simply press the circle button. If you want to shove someone, press the shift trigger and the circle button. Running down an alley and approaching a low wall gives the player a number of choices. You could press the leg button and leap the wall or press the arm button and vault over it. The head button in Assassin's Creed sometimes gives the player a first person view of the scene, shows a different view of your target, or even translates the conversations of those around you. This innovative control scheme will undoubtedly give the player a completely different feeling of control letting them feel like they really are in the protagonist's shoes.
Assassin's Creed couldn't just use any fighting engine to go with such an original control scheme though. Assassins are highly trained and often find themselves outnumbered by following guards. In Assassin's Creed the fighting is highly dependant on watching your enemies and timing your attacks with precision. The implementation of an auto-block feature lets the player block an attack, but will be knocked awkwardly around due to the lumbering maneuver. The enemies will use a number of tactics to hamper your escapes. Some may fight head on, while some may snipe from a distance or leap from a building or alley in a flanking attempt. This is different from most enemy AI because enemies don't have the standard ‘combat trigger' that make them immediately fight to the death. If you kill the leader in a group of three, the others may flee the scene, beg for mercy, or run and try to get reinforcements. One thing is for sure though, the days of scripted combat AI are becoming a thing of the past.
The assassinations that Altaïr performs will involve three main steps and can range from ten minutes to an hour. First, Altaïr must find his target in one of the game's cities or wilderness environments. He must plan his attack accordingly by climbing to the rooftops or mixing in with the crowds to get close. The second step, and probably the most exciting, is the kill. The team at Ubisoft wanted an emphasis placed on this step to build an emotional attachment even though it only lasts a few seconds. Players will often see the pain and anguish on their victim's face, and will have to deal with the moral dilemma of killing for the greater good. The third part of this sequence is the escape which can involve fleeing across rooftops, fighting guards, or simple blending in with the crowd and disappearing.
Blending into the crowd also brings in another dynamic innovation that Assassin's Creed will offer. Desilets states, "The Scimitar game engine allowed us to have over 60 NPCs onscreen, each with individual AI and behaviors." Each NPC will have individual needs, each with a certain value. A NPC with a need for food will go to a local merchant, a NPC with a need for entertainment will go to the gallows for a splendid evening lynching or to a juggler and so on. All characters have tolerance levels to your actions also. If you run into someone at full speed you may start a fight or get into an argument while passersby will stop and point at your strange behavior. Climb onto a roof in the middle of a crowd and people will point and stare and you may even garner the attention of a guard who may or may not climb up after you. This all relates into an interwoven ‘wanted star' formula and the only way to decrease this is to hide, find your hideout, or a church.
The NPCs of Assassin's Creed aren't all out to get you though. Many groups may help you on your adventures depending on your history with them. If you give a beggar some money he may trip guards chasing after you, or if you have friends in the church, the monks may hide you amongst their robes instead of giving away your location. Many of these opportunities await and help turn the crowded city square into a wealth of light and shadow.
The city environments being developed have taken every square inch on city space into consideration. Any object that protrudes more than five inches has been made fully interactive and can be used by Altaïr. The level design team is transforming the city into an action based grid trying to do away with the ‘mouse in a maze' feeling. This is done by giving the player meaningful environment interaction every ten meters or so in every direction.
With all of these new ideas and improvements being brought into Assassin's Creed it certainly seems the team of over one hundred at Ubisoft has been very hard at work for over two years now. The ambitious veteran squad looks as if it is well on the way to succeeding in its goal of redefining what is possible in a game environment. Assassin's Creed is slated for a March 2007 release date on the PS3. Stay tuned to MyGamer for more previews as we get them.