It's good to kill the king.
It’s amazingly easy to get lost at E3, which is a little ironic since it’s one of the brightest places in the world. With giant signs and millions of powerful lights terrorizing the convention center, you’d think that finding your way would be as easy as looking up. And if you could walk
up, you might be right. But you can’t, you have to walk forward like everyone else, and that’s where losing your way comes into play; everyone in the world seems to be milling between you and your destination creating a shifting, sweating, mouth-breathing tide of dorkness.
It makes a lot of sense, then, that Ubisoft would pick this space, or lack thereof, to unveil Assassin’s Creed, a game of medieval contract killing where your character uses crowds like Sam Fisher uses shadows. It’s a brilliant new look at stealth gameplay, and the proof was all around us.
The only thing as stunning as the context outside the game was the one we found within. Assassin’s Creed takes place during the crusades in the Middle East as the armies of Richard the Lionheart and Saladin clash over possession of the holy lands. You play Altair, an assassin in an order determined to end the war by slaying its most important players. Amidst this clash of religious regimes, your orders follows a simple creed: “Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.” I told my last date that.
Of course, you aren’t quite that free; you do what your assassin boss tells you to, but that almost always involves killing people like a ninja rock star, and if you’re reading this that’s probably what you want anyway. From what we gathered, the gameplay generally follows a simple sequence in which you find your mark, kill, and get away. You do this by using stealth tactics and high flying acrobatics. In that regard, Assassin’s Creed feels like a blend of two of Ubisoft’s most successful franchises - Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia.
But where the Prince was blocked by shadows and Fisher by occasional clusters of terrorists, in Assassin’s Creed you have to deal with the myriad denizens of the game's towns. If you walk amongst them without drawing attention to yourself, they’ll ignore you, but if you get crazy and, say, kick a commoner, some will stand and stare, others will alert the authorities, and some might just decide to kick your butt for being a jerk.
We saw several examples of this dynamic crowd A.I. during the demo. At one point, Altair assassinated a mark and tried to flee through the crowd, but was immediately pushed back toward the pursuing soldiers by a man who witnessed the murder. In another case, the pedestrians on the street below looked up with shock on their faces as Altair leapt from ledge to ledge above them.
While the cityfolk might be inclined to thwart you at first, some can be persuaded to aid you in your slayings. This is where side quests come into play. Solving a problem for the monks in a given town might let you walk amongst them as they wander around city streets where, due to the similarities between your garb and theirs, you’ll blend right in. Whom you help and whom you ignore is up to you, but it seems pretty clear that accomplishing your goals will be impossible if an entire city is set against you.
Of course, if the love of the people dictated your success, you’d be a politician, not an assassin. Rest assured, you will have a nasty assortment of lethal tricks and techniques up your sleeves for dispatching those your order feels have lived too long. The coolest of these is a telescopic knife you use to kill your marks. You also have a nice, big sword, though you don’t stand around swatting at guards, instead relying on a system of counter attacks that guarantees quick kills and quicker getaways.
This is important, because while you may be preternaturally lethal, your ability to take a sword to the belly is decidedly common. In place of a hit point bar that gets lopped off instead of your limbs, Assassin’s Creed introduces “confidence.” If you’re in a one on one fight against a foe on a rooftop, you’ll be supremely confident and effortlessly parry your opponent’s blows while enjoying a nice, large window to counter with lethal moves of your own. If you’re on the street, surrounded by onlookers and a slew of guards, your confidence will be miniscule and the first guard to attack will likely end you. This makes your survival contextual, as it should be. So instead of fighting impossible odds, which really are impossible in this game, you can flee.
You do this by either trying to push your way through a crowd, which as we know from E3 is slow going, or you can climb like a cat in a dog park. Through some extremely sophisticated graphical level modeling, any surface which sticks out more than two inches is enough for your assassin’s fingers or toes to find purchase. As opposed to other video games where only certain textures are scalable (I’m looking at you, Lara), you’ll be able to climb anything that looks climbable in Assassin’s Creed. The levels are, in effect, giant, scalable playgrounds.
Underlying all this fancy fight and flight is a unique gameplay system that cleverly binds the X button to your feet, the Circle and Square buttons to your hands, and the Triangle button to your head. If a low wall is ahead of you, you can jump it with the X button or vault it with a hand button. We aren’t sure why you would choose one over the other, but we can’t wait to find out. One distinction made perfectly clear, though, is the difference between hands.
As anybody with a second-grade education knows, in the Middle East the right hand is the good hand, and the left hand is the one you don’t shake. So it is in Assassin’s Creed - one hand is non-lethal, the other is deadly. If you move past someone and use the friendly hand, you’ll simply shove them, if you use the lethal one you’ll stick a metal spike in their face.
Obviously, this will generate differing reactions from the crowd, which seems to be what the developers had in mind when they included the “Intensity” button. If you hold an R button down, everything you do will be gentle and stealthy, perfect for drawing as little attention to yourself as possible. If you don’t press it, you’ll move more violently and more quickly; presumably the better option when your cover has already been blown.
Whether you’re sneaking, dashing, fleeing or fighting, Assassin’s Creed looks gorgeous. Thanks to Ubisoft’s Scimitar engine, the game can show up to sixty beautifully rendered characters onscreen at once, plus a flawlessly rendered medieval environment. The most important of these, and the most impressive, is Altair himself. A cross between Shinobi and the Prince of Persia, Altair practically screams bad ass, even though we’ve never heard him say anything at all. The way he animates when he’s climbing, leaping, or brushing a victim’s eyes shut with his fingertips simply has to be seen to be believed.
Speaking of which, much has been made of the game's leaked twist. Is Altair really stomping about in the 12th century, or is he actually someone else with delusions of sneaky grandeur? Aside from some cheeky grins, the devs have been quiet on the matter.
According to Ubisoft, you’ll get a chance to figure it all out sometime in March of 2007. While we don’t know if you’ll be able to find enough change in your couch between now and then to buy a PS3, we do know that this game is a perfect reason to start looking.