There’s some muttering in the audience as Tommy Francois, IP development director at Ubisoft leads us through a sixty minute history of Assassin’s Creed III’s development. From concept work in 2010 to animation tests to proof of concept videos to details on the historical research, we’re being shown everything except the game itself. For a game this size and in this age of wham, bam, now preorder ma’am promotion, this sort of gently passionate round the houses development discussion is highly irregular. ‘Just show us the trailer lol,’ I am entirely prepared to bet at least one of the hundreds of journalists in this crowd has written in their notes.
Much as getting to see how the game evolved from its original concept – ‘social stealth’ set during the American War of Independence – and just how closely it’s stuck to it across nearly three years of development is personally fascinating, there is a part of me that does just want to be shown the trailer lol. Then I get it.
The reason we’re being shown this hour of rambly GDC-esque talk is because Assassin’s Creed is a franchise in high danger of being seen as predatory. After three games (and assorted DLC) starring vengeful Italian stallion Ezio, with last year’s Revelations being particularly guilty of rinse’n’repeat with a spot of hollow feature creep, a series that was once in sustained ascendancy looked to have turned to cynical, crank ‘em out annual releases.
Assassin’s Creed III, Francois and assembled Ubibods would like us to understand, has not been rushed out in a year to meet a Christmas release date. It is long in the making, it is Ubisoft’s biggest development project to date, and it will in theory be a huge step forwards for Assassin’s, not another one to the side. While the results of this will remain unproven until we’ve played it, I appreciate the intention and am prepared to not look upon this as simply Assassin’s II in a different setting.
Let’s talk about that setting. I mean, ‘sit there and listen to me bang on about the setting.’ Sorry. It’s set in America during 1753 to 1783, which means the revolution in which the settlers threw off their colonial masters in Britain is the backbone of the events. In an early concept video Tommy Francois shows us, the narrator solemnly intones “I will tell you of another revolution. The one that mattered.”
Which is an easy way to make a whole lot of people very angry, but never mind. Yes, the war between the Assassins and the Templars carried across to 18th century America, but today we don’t see much of that and mercifully the demo is entirely free of Desmond and the increasingly nonsensical sci-fi/fantasy metanarrative that enshrouds a series apparently too afraid to simply be historical-set games. We’re told repeatedly that the AC3 team prides themselves on authenticity, which rather clashes with the series’ ongoing babble about ancestor races, psychic virtual reality machines, the garden of Eden and enough mystic prophecies to fuel seven more series of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Are they saying this because the historical game is the one they want to make, or because they're aware the watching journo-crowd doesn't think much of Desmond?
Never mind, the meat of the game is half Mojave, half British Assassin Connor adventuring, surviving and slaying across Boston, New York and a vast ‘frontier’ area that’s apparently 1.5 times the size of Rome in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. While I do like a good city, it’s the latter that most makes my ears prick up. The idea for the forested frontier is that wildlife essentially takes the place of the population in the urban areas, so there’ll be threats, innocents and sources of resource. The team wants players to have “magical moments with animals” we’re told as Connor violently guts a live deer on-screen. Righto.
The tall shadow of Red Dead Redemption (which was released after the AC3 team had started development) is ruefully acknowledged, but the hunting and skinning system seems to be far more evolved. While the purpose of the skinning (simply to sell, or can it be used to build and upgrade gear?) isn’t revealed, there’s always a choice between being a careful, methodical hunter who stalks, gets up close and kills with a knife and one who noisily takes his prey out at a distance with pistols. The latter means a low-quality, damaged hide, while the former a clean kill and a more valuable skin. As a long-time vegetarian, I very much look forward to hiding in a treetop then launching myself onto a bear’s back, knives-first.
Trees are the rooftops of the frontier, with Connor able to haul himself about the skyline thanks to convenient Y-shaped trunk-splits and doing the Tarzan thing from sturdy branches. Rocky outcrops provide climbing and diving opportunities too. “How can we make navigating a forest fun?” was a question that hung heavy during development, so the plan is that anywhere you go in its 2 kilometre square area will have some scope for play. “We can’t have an area that’s boring, so we need to care for every square foot of it.”
The frontier is a grand sight, vast and sweeping and apparently pretty much anything you can see, you can visit. Roughly 30 percent of the game’s missions will be set in this forested wilderness, but you can spend far more time than is required hang around and giving animals a hard time if you like.
Then there’s the snow. A new, seasonal weather system isn’t just for pretties, but affects Connor’s navigation. If the forest is coated in deep snow, his elegant tripping across the landscape is replaced by Ministry of Silly Walks giant strides through the drifts. Progress is slow, and so too is pursuit and escape. Of course, you could go over or around it, but it does mean you move near-silently – a good way to get the drop on a redcoat or a bear. As far as I know, there will sadly be no bears wearing red coats, however. A new bleeding system means snow also comes into its own for tracking injured targets – if you’ve managed to wing a fleeing foe, just follow the poetic mainstay that is blood on snow. Deep snow can also be used as a place to hide or land safely in, ala Asscreed’s physics-defying haybales.
Weather plays its part in Boston and New York too. Fog and rain complicate combat, with muskets being entirely unusable during a downpour, while a glimpse of a Boston dock in mist and then Summer presents a dramatically different landscape.
And so to the cities. New York isn’t on show yet, but Boston is clearly a changed prospect from the Renaissance cities we’ve become so over-familiar with across the Ezio trilogy. A red brick aesthetic, far busier crowds and much wider streets, with the latter especially presenting a design challenge for a game that’s so much about bounding from roof to roof. The solution proves to be stuff like street markets and trees running down the roads, which is apparently historically accurate as well as easing Connor’s navigation.
He’s also now able to clamber into building interiors for the first time, with the demo showing a scripted moment where a civilian opens her window shutters just as our man approaches, so he plunges inside and back out the opposite window to continue his journey impeded. There’s not much information just yet on how many buildings he can enter and whether there’s anything to do in them other than use them as thoroughfare, but it definitely seems to open the city out more, increase the sense it’s a working place rather than a convenient playground.
Other new features, which I’m just going to present in a list or this feature will never end:
- A simple cover system, which also enables you to make cover-kills a la Batman
- ‘Moving leaps of faith’, so you can now take death-defying leaps into, say, a hay bale on the back of a wagon that’s travelling along a road.
- Foliage, such as waist-high shrubs can be used for stealth
- You’ll run into on-the-spot micro quests, such as choosing whether or not to pursue someone who’s stolen apples from a street vendor.
- Being set as this is during a war, you’re going to find yourself in the middle of major conflicts. The new engine can apparently handle up to 2000 on-screen NPCs, as we see in one Americans vs Brits skirmish on Bunker Hill. Most are at a distance and clones, but it’s nonetheless a dramatic spectacle. Cannons and muskets and formations oh my.
- While Connor carries dual pistols in addition to his hidden blade, his bow and an impressively brutal Tomahawk, his enemies more commonly carry muskets. These rifles in reality took over a minute to reload, which has been truncated in the name of entertainment, but even so they take a while – affording our man an opportunity to get in close and cause melee damage or, in the case of the big battles, advance towards the front lines.
- Connor can take hostages to use as cover.
- Bears can apparently be killed with one good stab to the heart. Much easier to take out than Skyrim bears, then.
- NPC civilians will move in closer to Connor than before, which apparently helps make the player feel more like life is really going on in the cities.
- Rock-climbing! And it looks a bit like a less restrictive Uncharted.
- Connor has a rope-dart, which he can use as a sort of violent zip-line to slam into his injured targets at speed. At one point, this was going to be a ‘chain blade’ until the devs decided that was too sci-fi. The rope-dart was a genuine Chinese item of the time.
- 80% of speaking characters in the game are real historical ones. Mentioned are Washington, Franklin, Lafayette and Charles Lee.
- You won’t be able to scalp anyone. This was planned initially (and we see it in one of the test videos), but then the devs discovered that the Mojave tribe didn’t do the whole bloody hair collection thing.
- There’s a been a sharp increase in facial detail and animation during the in-engine cutscenes. Muscles around the eyes and mouth were increased exponentially, as apparently these are key areas to make someone appear lifelike. Truth be told, it did look very good, though very much still in the uncanny valley. The version running appeared to be the PC build, given the anti-aliasing and shadowing. If that’s how it looks on our screens come release, our staring organs are definitely in for a treat.
- AC3 introduces version 3 of VR machine/in-game UI the Animus, and this time around it more integrated with the environment. Interface elements are 3D, with a big emphasis on glowing cybernetic effects, such as the go-to marker being a luminous globe or the out-of-bounds wall (sad that it’s returning at all, to be honest) making the territory beyond it appear like fractured glass instead of just putting up a glaring red forcefield.
- AC3 has had the longest AssCreed dev cycle since the first game, and twice the production capacity of the Ezio trilogy. Eight studios across the world are helping lead devs Ubisoft Montreal finish a content-complete alpha six months before release, with the remaining time spent on polish and bug-squishing.
- Altair was about duty, Ezio was about revenge and Connor is motivated by justice. To that end, apparently his decisions won’t be as simple as always siding with the revolutionaries over their imperial oppressors. He’ll find himself doing things and helping people he personally doesn’t like, but feels they are the just choice nonetheless.
- The music in the initial, scene-setting live action video they showed us is what I can only describe as ‘Dubstep Enya.’
Assassin's Creed III's PC release date has yet to be confirmed.