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Ubisoft's E3 Line-Up Examined. In London.

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RPS didn’t got to E3. So E3 came to RPS, with Ubisoft showing their E3 demos in London yesterday. South London being slightly easier to reach than Los Angeles, I went along to have a look at what they have to offer us in the coming twelve months. Well, quite a bit. While ManiaPlanet will await a future date to look properly at it, there were four key PC-relevant games on show: Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, Driver: San Francisco, Ruse and – though it hasn’t been announced for the PC, I’ll be surprised if it’s not – Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. What did I make of them? I tell you below, via the medium of telling.

Brotherhood is what was most immediately striking, and demanded the majority of my time – and the time was spent on one portion of the game. While the single-player basically is adding a little scale (the eponymous brotherhood) to the superior Assassin’s Creed sequel, the multiplayer is something quite unexpected and unprecedented. Well, unprecedented in a mainstream game, anyway.

Everyone plays an assassin in an urban area. You get given player target, who you’re lead towards with a scanner. You’re also warned if you’re made the target of another player. And your mission is to – er – off them. The main spanner in the works is that while each player character has their own look, they’re also shared by the computer controlled character. So you follow the tracker, trying to find the monk character – only to find out it leads to a whole bunch of monks, because the player in question has spotted them and decided to hang out. Once you’ve given the game away and botched an assassination, the stealth turns into chase, with you having to pursue your quarry wherever they go. Don’t get them in time – or lose them – and your contract is cancelled, and you have to wait for the next gig to earn points.

In other words, it showcase two of the better parts of Assassin’s Creed mechanics. On one side, we have the stealthy trying to keep cover. On the other, the Parkour runs across the rooftops. Throwing in character classes with their own abilities – like morphing into a different look, dropping smoke bombs or using throwing knives – and you’ve got a really unusual take on multiplayer. Clearly, it has its precedents in the indie scene – like The Ship and the forthcoming SpyParty – but to see a mainstream developer take similar idea and actually work into something that’s actually strikingly accessible is impressive. It’s certainly something I can see myself playing.

Which is something I can’t really say about Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Which – it’s worth stressing – is more my problem than its. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier spins off further in the future from Wafighter, positioning itself about 20 years in the future. Hence, even fancier tech. The one which is central is the actual active camoflage, which makes the Ghost Recon soldiers even Ghostier than ever. At least in what was demoed to me, the idea seems to be to give the game a kind of rhythm of tension and release. The camouflage seems to be perfect – but immediately turns off when you make an aggressive action. In other words, if there’s a firefight kicking off, you’re going to basically be visible all the time – but there’s going to be the extended periods where you’ll be trying to take people down. Also, lots of other fun techno-malarkies like Augmented Reality windows explaining who everyone is you’re shooting.

So yeah, for something that’s carrying Tom Clancy’s name, you raise eyebrows on the realism front. Stealth suits that turn off when you kill somebody is the sort of design flaw which gets picked up even in the worst lowest-bid-tendered supplied military organisation. While the developers explain that the aim isn’t to compete directly with something like Modern Warfare or Gears of War, some of the changes do bring it a little closer to something that’s increasingly divorced from Ghost Recon’s militaristic roots. For example, fire-fights are now deliberately at closer range – so increasing viscerality of the action. And – equally predictably – there’s a cover system. While such elements stand out in a limited demo, there is also a lot of what is best described as cinematic moments, something which the Devs talk about trying to increase. In other words, planned, precise military moments designed to play out beautifully. Taking down that guard at a certain point, timed to be particularly visually appealing.

I suspect this will be strong and at least polished, but it’s not exactly part of the medium which appeals to me at the moment.

Conversely, Driver: San Francisco does what I thought impossible and make me actually interested in it.

Driver’s story is… well, it was a bit of a mess. The first one built its name, basically by doing a GTA-in-3D thing before GTA did it, but with an undercover cop driver scenario. However, by Driver 3, things had turned, and it had become a game that was openly savaged by the press (Well, most of them) and mocked by gamers. This is basically a total reboot of the game, razing to the ground and then building from the concepts – with just enough nods to keep the fans happy. If it works, it’ll basically be the equivalent of the Star Trek films.

The core thing is that it’s a driving game. As in, you can’t get out of the car. It’s about driving, and fearlessly so. It chooses to concentrate.

It also chooses to go a little bit mental.

The majority of the game is played with your lead cop character in a coma. This gives him a limited ability to… well, jump between bodies and possess others. Press a button and you zoom out to high above the city. Select who you want to control and… biff! You’re in the seat. It’s basically the plot of Life on Mars meets the mechanic of Messiah (Or, for REALLY old people, Paradroid). It’s such a bizarre thing to throw into an open-world driving game, you have to sort of blink a lot then applaud for just trying it.

In the multi-player games, it mainly is used as an automated version of the catch-up feature in things like Micro-Machines. So we’re playing a “stay on the taillights of a car” game, racing after them. You crash. Instead of trying to catch up, you take to the skies, choose an appropriate car and get back in the game. The mechanic means that racing seems to lean more towards that frenetic, close-encounters manoeuvring. About driving rather than racing, if you see what I mean. In the single player – where they stress it will be limited – it’s something which can really alter how you complete a mission. The example they show is that rather than trying to ram a car off the road in a traditional fashion, you possess a truck in the oncoming lane, and drive it head-on into your quarry.

Which is mental. Can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Finally, Ruse, the game we’re most familiar with. It’s the first time I’ve seen it in the flesh and I’m actually quietly impressed by it. It’s very much in the tradition of EndWar – being the strategy game which is trying to actually try and make a RTS game that works both on the PC and the consoles.

And I’m actually quite impressed with how they’ve done it. It’s a game which recalls World In Conflict, except with a more traditional RTS economic model beneath it and more units – though not so many as to become totally unmanageable. It also picks up where Supreme Commander left off, in terms of making the game entirely playable from the far-zoomed out mode. Individual mobs of tanks smoothly become stacks of counters, with large militaristic arrows showing the orders of troops. In other words, it does everything to bring the actual strategic elements to the fore.

And by embracing a very slight abstraction allows the eponymous Ruse system to come to the fore. These are basically tricks you can play – either defensively or offensively. Five are available, one which re-charges every minute, allowing you to throw them all out quickly, or save them. Each one can be applied in one of the formal regions of the map, hiding everyone or making them frenzied fighters or making a fake offensive of wooden tanks or whatever.

I’m looking forward to this. In fact, it’s so unusual a take on the material only now when writing it up now do I realise that it’s actually that most cliched of PC games – the WW2 RTS. For a game to make me forget that simple fact says a lot. Fingers crossed and all that.

So – of the four major games, three I’m actually personally interested in and one which looks competent enough, but may not be for me. That’s not a bad showing. The actual problem, as always with Ubisoft, is the floating question of where they’re going to be heading next with their DRM. It’s been a wave of games since they introduced it, and I haven’t played any games with it. Clearly, it’s going to be an issue we’re going to be following closely.

Oh! Just Dance 2 is enormously good fun and/or stupid, but that’s kind of outside of our PC games boat-house, so I’ll shut up.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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