Since the very first Assassin’s Creed won over audiences with a curious premise and some promising mechanics (largely refined by Assassin’s Creed 2), Ubisoft has made the success of the series count. But with a shift to next-gen in Assassin’s Creed Unity, the stakes – and pressure – have never been higher. That fact isn’t lost on the team behind it, and after seeing it in action for ourselves, it seems every aspect of the game is expected to raise the bar for every competitor on the market.
It was clear from Unity‘s first cinematic trailer that the developers at Ubisoft Montreal were setting their sights high in terms of mechanics and online integration, but at a recent preview event for the game, those leading the charge explained that the expeectations placed on the game have been all but assumed for years. Four years, to be more specific, when a core team moved from Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood to deciding what a ‘next-gen’ Assassin’s Creed would have to accomplish.
At the time, the team wasn’t even aware of what ‘next-gen’ would actually mean in terms of hardware, nor were they aware that three other titles would ship while they were working on their own. So the team decided to do what seemed obvious: make a game that would repeat the task of the original. In the words of creative director Alex Amancio, “redefine the action/adventure genre” for a new generation.
If that sounds like a tall order, it should. But Amancio’s team went to work by going back to basics, identifying the key elements that first defined Assassin’s Creed and using them to once again set the series apart from the competition. On a broad scale, that meant creating a sprawling urban city teeming with life and activity, and delivering it with visuals that would compete with the best of the market.
That task meant rebuilding the team’s Anvil engine to support nothing but next-gen hardware, and recent trailers have shown that the number of characters and effects being rendered at once do, indeed, mark a new high watermark for the series.And while that technical feat was far from easy, Amancio claims the release date has never changed: seven years after the first game in the franchise.
Once the technical ambitions were deemed possible, the core pillars of gameplay that made the series’ mark were defined just as clearly: free-running, social stealth, and free-flowing, reactive combat.
The improvements to the game’s traversal have been the star of several gameplay videos, proving that one of the most nagging limitations of the series has been addressed. The gameplay mission demonstrated at the event showed that was still one of the most apparent improvements, with the ability to descend and ascend with obviously improved fluidity.
Unfortunately, the stealth aspects of the game have long been a justified criticism of a franchise bearing the name ‘assassin’ in its title. Even the best-designed missions would often fall to pieces once detected by an enemy guard, leading players with no other option but to embody the very opposite of what the game’s marketing and tone would imply.
Amancio spoke candidly about the issue, and while he didn’t say the demands on stealth had been reduced (which wouldn’t really address the problem anyway) he did explain that a new approach to stealth meant a new approach to mission design as a whole:
“Stealth has always been a challenge. The problem with stealth is that the fail state of stealth is detection, and usually detection means combat, so you end up finishing every mission in combat. So we really wanted to rethink that and give you a chance to regain control, to reset that stealth loop and go back into stealth and actually act like an Assassin.”
But to accomplish that mission design, the combat had to be made more challenging. No longer a simple button press, the combat requires players to time their parries, blocks, and dodges, as well as determine which is the best for a given situation. An onscreen silhouette of Arno’s last visible location (familiar to fans of the Splinter Cell series) gives players another tool to help them escape detection.
Amancio went on to admit that for all the changes in setting, story, and improvements and refinements here and there, the core mission structure and design has remained essentially the same. Since that wouldn’t do for the total reinvention that the team was after, they invented something they call ‘Adaptive Mission Mechanics’ or AMMS for short:
“That means any mission block can degrade or adapt into another mission block. So if you’re tailing somebody and that person spots you, it might turn into a chase. If you lose that NPC, it turns into a locate. If that NPC gets killed by the crowd, maybe you loot the body and find the directions of where he was going. But since the guy’s missing, now they’ve doubled up on guards. So there’s always a consequence.”
The gameplay shown followed that same approach, in addition to illustrating Unity‘s ‘black box design,’ giving players a target or goal, but allowing them to choose which way to achieve success. Explained to be the game’s first assassination mission, an onscreen prompt provided reference for how many paths to success there may be, and simply let the player try their luck. It’s a risky direction for players used to a directed experience, but Amancio explained that ‘linear’ won’t be used to describe much of Unity.
The team is still keeping quiet on the story of love and duty that will be told with hero Arno Dorian and rival Templar Elise, but Amancio did tease that the team took the step forward to tell “a more mature story” than they attempted before. But it’s the strategy for actual storytelling that is most intriguing – if it’s pulled off as well as is hoped.
The problem with open world games, Amancio explained, is that those who prioritize story will move from story beat to story beat. Since the open world demands the opposite motivation, players are forced to choose. For Unity then, the developers have aimed to make ‘character progression’ the heart of the story and open world.
Th philosophy can get cloudy quickly, but put simply: Assassin’s Creed Unity is about Arno’s rise to a Master Assassin, first and foremost. Everything players do in the world – singleplayer mission, co-op Brotherhood mission, or side quests – contributes to Arno’s progression.
In addition to that shift in narrative, Amancio explained that cinematics will be used sparingly in conveying story or relationships; cinematics will be centered on advancing the plot, but as much development will take place through gameplay as possible. In addition, the ‘white rooms’ (narrative-breaking scenes triggered by a character’s death) have been changed, with players now witnessing the victim’s life flashing before their eyes – along with any plot-pertinent information.
The game shown to us was one filled with changes; both small improvements and entirely shifts in philosophy and design. The good news is that each one seemed to be refining a desire or goal that existed previously in Assassin’s Creed. The only risk is that in setting their sights so very high, and letting their ambitions guide them, the fast-approaching release date may cause them to start asking some difficult questions.
Stay tuned for more news and interview from the event in the coming days, and feel free to ask us any question in the comments – we’ll do our best to answer them.
Assassin’s Creed Unity releases October 28, 2014 for PC, PS4, and Xbox One.
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