When I first saw Assassin's Creed at this E3, it was at the Microsoft press briefing. I wasn't too impressed with the code, but after heading over to the Ubisoft meeting room today at the Loews Hotel here in Santa Monica, I figured, "hell, might as well give this one another shot." As it turns out, I'm not disappointed that I did.
Run, run, run, but you cannot hide!
Many of the game's finer points only became evident after getting a thorough and lengthy presentation and, of course, after jumping into the fray myself a bit.
Assassin's Creed is not exactly a stealth action game. Yes, the main character is a killer for hire operating in this demo in the Jerusalem of old, but your modus operandi, as far as the killing goes, is not simply limited to remaining in shadows or out of sight of the guards till you reach the target. The thing is, the old city of Jerusalem is rather vast in terms of how much of it was rendered in the game. This allows for all sorts of approaches as you try to close in on your target. For example, in the demo, we were tasked with the assassination of a local slave dealer.
The demo kicks off with the assassin balancing himself skillfully on top of a roof of one of Jerusalem's buildings. As we dive down and into a haystack (same stuff we've seen at the MS press conference), a few obvious routes to the target become available. Now, the cool bit is that what I saw at the press briefing was different to how the designer who was showing off the game decided to get past the guards. Instead of going around them, he blended in with several monks, and while piously praying along with them slipped past the guards. OK, never mind that our "monk" was carrying an assassin knife on his back, but the design logic is still pretty sound.
As I said, the best thing that I got out of Assassin's Creed is that the action feels very free-flowing. Even during the game's scripted sequences you have full control over your character. Granted, the controls seemed rather difficult to master for me, as units flash as they come into focus in the game, and this is an important thing in terms of interaction with them and combat, but I did give this one a shot with a PS3 controller. And I hardly ever get to use one of those (yes, yes… spare me the preaching, all right).
Another thing that clearly stands out when it comes to AC is the quality of the animation, especially of the main character. This is not surprising mind you, given that the Ubisoft Montreal team, who are working on this game, are also the same people behind Prince of Persia: Sands of Time.
Going back to the demo, as we passed the guards and finally got to our target, a scripted sequence was triggered in which the slave driver attempted to explain to the assassin that he is not the enemy here. Upon disposing of the slaver's personal guards (in most efficient and ruthless ways), a cross-town chase ensued as our assassin was attempting to catch out with the fleeing slaver.
A couple of things that came into light here was the situational AI of the slaver, he would either sprint like a madman if the assassin was catching up, or slow down as we were further behind him. In addition, Jerusalem of the period was a bustling city, and in this game, the crowds play a huge role. You won't be simply going through them or *just* bumping into them. Nope, in Assassin's Creed bumping into people looks and feels very real and this will become an integral factor in the chase.
At the end, the assassin catches up with the slave merchant and slits his throat. A scripted cinematic kicks in - a very powerful-looking one, as we witness the discussion between the dead slaver in his out-of-body state of sorts and the assassin. This little sequence showed that Assassin's Creed has plenty of content for those of us looking beyond fancy acrobatics and savage finishing moves.
Another thing is that the game sort of works around the concept of lowering your wanted level once an assassination has been committed. And this works fine in the game, as the AI guards are pretty resourceful and alert and will make you work your ass off (jumping from rooftop to rooftop and doing all sorts of crazy acrobatics). As you reach the highest 'wanted level' you can hide someplace and reinitialize the threat level. This was clearly an important gameplay mechanic that worked rather well and certainly added to the tension of the game.
Presently, Assassin's Creed may seem rough around the edges in few technical segments, but that's not to say that the game doesn't have potential. Seems to me like that will mostly come down to whether Ubisoft Montreal will be able to make the gameplay diverse enough (we currently have two known cities in the game, Jerusalem and Acre, though more are planned) and make the story compelling enough.
From the short exchange between the assassin and his victim, it looks like AC may deliver on the story front. Coupled with the beautiful animation and the track record of the Sands of Time guys, this third-person action game from Ubi has a decent future ahead of it.