The hype is warranted. From my time with Assassin's Creed, I would not be surprised if it is game of the year.
Screen Play spent a gripping day last week playing the game and chatting to effervescent Creative Director, Patrice Desilets, the self-proclaimed "best Assassin's Creed player in the entire universe right now" (and also the genius behind critical darling Prince of Persia Sands of Time).
Assassin's Creed, which will be released on November 15 on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 (and later on PC), has been four years in the making at Ubisoft's Montreal studio and promises to revolutionise the action adventure genre.
Similiar to our recent Mass Effect special, Screen Play will be sharing highlights from the game all this week.
Patrice says the team spent the two first years building a "brand new engine" for
Assassin's Creed and then the last two designing the game.
"The mandate we received back in January 2004 was to redefine the action adventure genre on the next-gen platforms," says Patrice.
"But you have to remember back in 2004 we didn't have any next-gen platform whatsoever, it was only numbers on a sheet of paper. So right from the start we had to come up with not only technology-driven ideas but also game design because we wanted to really come up with something brand new."
Patrice says there are two elements to Assassin's Creed - the formal missions and
"What I mean by that is you can do whatever you want with the game. Not only follow the story and do the missions, but just have fun with the character in the world in which he lives."
When Screen Play finally grabbed the joypad, I could instantly understand what Patrice was talking about. Whether leaping across rooftops, scaling the heights, swan diving from towers or just annoying innocents by barging into them, knocking over their market stalls and causing them to drop items like pots, Assassin's Creed is enormous fun to just tool around with.
Patrice begins a formal presentation with a William de Montferrat assassination mission.
"William de Montferrat was the regent of Acre, the crusader city," he begins. "We have three cities in our game - Damascus, Jerusalem and Acre. And we have a big kingdom in the middle of that.
"I've done all the investigation part of the mission, where you learn about your target. You can also do some pick-pocketing, you can interrogate some people, do some eavesdropping, and there are also missions where you have to help out other assassins in the city."
Soon Patrice hits a cinematic interlude, or what he calls a "memorable moment".
"In other games I could just put the pad down and wait for it to be over and then restart playing, but in Assassin's Creed you actually never lose control over the main character. From the moment you push start you have 25 hours of gameplay in front of you where you will never stop controlling the main character.
"This is something that was really important for me personally. It's a game, it's not a movie. You play the entire experience."
Patrice now says he needs some throwing knives to help carry out the mission.
"To do so I need to look out for some people in the crowd. See when there's a halo around a character? That tells me I can lock onto a character. By locking on, that opens up some new gameplay features, such as a pick-pocket.
The throwing knives are powerful, says Patrice: "One knife, one kill. But you only have five of them at the beginning, and to get some you must go back into the crowd, find a thug, lock on him and try to pick his pocket. If you lose a pick pocket the guy will try to fist fight you. So it's really costly, but it's pretty powerful."
At E3 2006, it was Assassin's Creed's flexible climbing system that immediately set it apart from games like the Tomb Raider series and even Prince of Persia.
"In Assassin's Creed you climb on the architecture elements," explains Patrice. "If there's something that sticks out of the wall for more than 10cm, that means it's an anchor point for the character. So you're not actively looking for a texture. If you look around, I can climb almost all the buildings."
Patrice then goes on to explain the game's HUD elements.
"In the top-left corner we have the health bar and my social status icon. Right now there's a yellow eye in it: that means that there's a guard watching or seeing me.
"That guard is not really informed of the presence of an assassin in town so he's not actively searching for me. If the eye turns red, that means he's an informed guard who's seeing me. And if I start running or jumping around, that will open up the open conflict loop where I have to hide to become anonymous again.
"Now the triangle is white which means I am totally anonymous and no-one can see me so I can do whatever I want."
Patrice calls the archers "the guardians of the rooftops".
"If they see me they will try to get me. You cannot be socially accepted by an archer on the rooftops, it's just impossible! What I'll do is select my hidden blade, my assassination weapon, with the D-pad. We've got the halo around the character so I can lock on with the left trigger, then I can go behind him and stealth assassinate him."
Assassin's Creed fully embraces the modern trend of free-roaming or "sandbox" play, and the joys of simply mucking around and frightening innocents or running from the long arm of the law are certainly reminiscent of the anarchic fun of the Grand Theft Auto games. The difference is that there is also terrific freedom when completing a mission, too.
"In Assassin's, there's no path whatsoever," says Patrice. "This is something you have to forget in Assassin's, it's really my playground. So I could go back down now into the crowd and start to fight with everyone, or use the crowd for a stealth approach or run straight to my target or go around on the ramparts."
When up high, Altair can use "eagle vision" to identify which types of characters are around him.
"If yellow, that's my target. The ones in red are soldiers that could attack me if they spot me. Blue characters are NPCs that will help me out. White characters are narrative-driven, will push the story forward."
Patrice then goes onto assassinate his target, triggering a very brief story interlude.
"We basically took the second where the assassin looks into the eyes of his target and they understand each other and we extended that moment for a minute."
But as soon as the interlude is complete, there is absolute chaos and Altair is suddenly surrounded by guards and facing a deadly swordfight.
"In Assassin's when you kill your target the gameplay is not over, I must now go back to the assassin's bureau to tell the leader that I've done the deed. But first I'll have to survive this fight.
"Fights are all about attacks and counters. I can go from one character to another. Defending on how I play the AI will adjust itself, going from being really aggressive to a defensive stance.
"When you counter the window of opportunity is really small. But I'm the best Assassin's Creed player in the entire universe right now..."
After some spectacular and brutally violent kills, Patrice decides to run rather than tackle the rest of the guards, pushing aside anyone in the crowd that gets in his way.
"Messing around with NPCs never gets old," says Patrice as he bowls over another hapless victim. "Really, it's really funny. Even after four years.
"But now the entire town knows that I killed someone important because the bell is ringing. All the guards now in the city are informed, that's why they have their weapons out, and they are ready to get me as soon as I do something special or weird."
Guards in the city are plentiful, but the developers do not cheat by respawning foes around you.
"You can kill a bunch of them and you'll have less people following you or chasing you. But there's a lot of guards in the way. We don't spawn new guards to get to you, you don't need it. There's a bunch of them."
Patrice then shows a couple of ways you can hide to get away from your pursuers, including walking with head bowed like a monk or sitting on a bench between two other people to blend in. There's also the option of scaling a building and diving into a haystack below.
There are many visual clues in the environment so you can play without the HUD if you wish.
"Each time you see birds that means there's a haystack at the bottom and you can jump," explains Patrice.
"Also on high points there's an eagle flying around so you can use your eagle vision to see different things such as a white NPC for a bit of narrative. This is how I actually play, without the HUD. All the clues are there.
"In fact, the game was designed without any HUD at the beginning. We then added the HUD so people can really get in and have fun."
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