E3 2007: Hands-on Assassin’s Creed

E3 Disclaimer: AMN’s E3 previews are designed to inform you of what each game at E3 plays like, and what we think of what’s shown. These previews are not reviews, and we reserve final judgment of each game until it is finished and released. These previews offer an honest opinion of what a publisher chose to demo at E3. So, without further ado, read on.


What the Game’s About

Assassin’s Creed is the much anticipated action/adventure game from the key minds behind the critically acclaimed Price of Persia: The Sands of Time. The game combines the acrobatic platforming elements of that game with stealth mechanics and huge open cities to explore. Altair may not have any magical sands, but he’s still a fairly agile fellow, and players will be spending quite a bit of time running and jumping across rooftops since Altair is capable of climbing up the side of almost any building. Back on ground level, the cities are packed with civilians that dynamically react to the player and his or her actions, and players can interact with and manipulate these civilians to get out of sticky situations.

Missions are broken down into three phases – investigation, execution, and escape – and players are free to complete all of those phases by whatever means they choose. The mission we got our hands on behind closed doors was the same one we saw last year, but this time the mission was set up within a fully playable city environment rather than a limited vertical slice. After taking down our mark, we spent a good chunk of time just exploring and having fun with Altair.

What’s Hot

After the live demonstration of the game that at Microsoft’s press conference showcased a group of enemies waiting their turn to get killed by Altair, we were admittedly a little worried about the combat and enemy AI in the game. After actually playing through the mission and having some of the finer points explained however, we breathed a sigh of relief. First of all, Ubisoft altered the enemy AI of both the enemies and civilians for the press conference demo, to ensure everything went smoothly and on schedule. They couldn’t very well fail their own mission on stage just because the dynamic AI decided to throw something unexpected at them, no could they? Altair’s group of Assassin’s has built up something of a reputation, and lowly guards are understandably hesitant to leap into battle against the four-fingered killing machine without sizing him up a bit first. Higher ranking officers won’t be so hesitant, and they’ll inspire the plebes taking orders to attack more readily as well. If the player performs well in combat however, they’ll slowly break the spirit of their enemies until the remaining few decide to run for it. Play well enough and the commanders will run, immediately causing all their underlings to run away with them.

We tested the developer’s assertions and assassinated some innocent civilians to attract some guards, and attacked them as soon as they had amassed in numbers. The soldiers quickly surrounded Altair and began attacking from every direction, leaving us in a state of panic as we desperately tried to time our counter-attacks properly for instant kills. The combat system proved to be rather deep, eschewing the flashy acrobatic moves seen in the Prince of Persia games for more realistic fare. Players can switch between an offensive and defensive stance. The offensive stance didn’t feel particularly effective since enemies frequently blocked attacks, but Altair can also use his free hand to grab enemies and throw them around. The defensive stance is much more interesting. Once players initiate it, they can counter any attack by hitting the attack button at the right time, triggering an instant kill. The combat doesn’t flow very fluidly, but each of the attacks and counterattacks deliver a solid feeling of impact, and performing a killing blow is very satisfying.

The most impressive elements of the game are the size of the cities and the crowd interactions. Being able to scale any wall and jump across rooftops offers an overwhelming sense of freedom, and players will likely spend their first few hours with the game simple exploring the limits of Altair’s abilities. Interacting with citizens is also entertaining, but different actions will reap different consequences. Beggars can be thrown to the side, civilians blocking a path can be tackled out of the way, and members of a crowd can be softly pushed to the side to avoid arousing suspicion. Piss too many people off, and they’ll start alerting guards to Altair’s presence more quickly – keep them happy, and they’ll let you blend in without problem. Drop a guard off a tower and watch the townsfolk cause a commotion, distracting guards from their guard post. The possibilities are nearly endless, and since the AI is dynamic, almost every attempt at any mission will feel completely different than the last.

What’s Not

The control scheme is based on the concept of a marionette puppet, and while Ubisoft hopes that their setup will be adopted as the standard for the genre, we’re a little less enthusiastic about the idea. Each of the buttons controls a part of Altair’s body – the head, the armed hand, the unarmed hands, and the legs. The right trigger acts a modifier in order to use different actions with the same limbs, and many actions are context sensitive as well. The result is a control scheme that allows for a helluva lot of different actions using all of the 360’s buttons. A few minutes of playtime is all it takes to get comfortable enough with the controls to start leaping across the skyline and take on groups of soldiers, but it still never felt quite as natural as some of the control setups we’ve used in the past. Some of the controls feel completely unnecessary – three different run speeds is a little excessive, don’t you think? The targeting is also a little touchy – tapping the left trigger will target the highlighted civilian or enemy, but changing targets feels clumsy. The problems with the controls aren’t so bad that we can’t imagine being completely at ease with them after only a few hours of play, but we can’t imagine that this puppeteer scheme is the most efficient use of the controller.

Outlook

Assassin’s Creed was one of the stand-out titles at last year’s E3. When Ubisoft went dark and refused to talk about or show the game for months, we started to get a little worried. When we saw the game demonstrated at Microsoft’s conference we became very worried. After playing the game, we aren’t worried anymore; we’re excited. Assassin’s Creed will be a title to watch this holiday season, and could be a contender for action-adventure game of the year.