Why Assassin’s Creed: Unity’s “stealth button” might be the best news of all

Friday, 27 June 2014 07:44 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Assassin’s Creed: Unity introduces a “stealth button” that players use to enter sneak mode and evade detection. Is this the straw that broke the stealth action camel’s back, or precisely the change the series needs?

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Assassin’s Creed: Unity isn’t just a bigger, prettier, annual release. It’s going to make some significant changes to the franchise’s formula to date.

After chatting with creative director Alex Amancio, Kotaku posted a neat list of features and gameplay changes coming to the series with Assassin’s Creed: Unity in addition to the widely-discussed co-op mode.

There are a bunch of things in there that sound great, and I really encourage you to go and look; Stephen Totilo’s take is that Unity will build on some of the best features of Revelations – Amancio’s previous Assassin’s Creed title – to build the kind of “chemistry set” of systemic crowd interactions which made that title so much fun to just play with.

That excites me too; the crowd has always been one of Assassin’s Creed’s key features and anything that foregrounds it and makes it more useful, reactive and possibly entertainingly unpredictable is going to produce a lot of good “and then I did this, and they did that” water cooler stories.

But what I find most interesting, and what initially set off clanging alarm bells for me, is a couple of changes to the stealth system. I’m quoting directly from Kotaku here:

  • The addition of a crouch button that activates Unity‘s series-first stealth mode. While in stealth mode, Arno will crouch and be harder to detect.
  • The change to the threat detection system which will emulate Far Cry 3 and put the awareness meter around Arno’s body instead of on each enemy. Players should have an improved understanding of who is spotting them and from which side. “We’re all about making stealth better,” Amancio said, “making it easier to read.”

The sound you hear is thousands of “hardcore stealth fans” going up in the air and coming down in a different place – myself among them.

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Let’s talk about stealth

Let’s stop talking about Assassin’s Creed for a second and just jam a bit on stealth in general. Stealth is a complicated business. There are whole websites dedicated to exploring what goes into engaging and rewarding stealth design. We’ve all played stealth games or sections that drew us in and blew our minds, and we’ve all played stealth games or sections that felt unnecessary, poorly implemented or just plain boring. It’s clearly not the easiest thing to pull off.

It’s really hard even to nail down what makes stealth fun – especially when that’s such a subjective assessment. For some players, punishing rules that force you to reload or start again if you mess up is the most satisfying, and others prefer the opportunity to hide in a cupboard for 45 seconds while the guards suffer sudden, all-encompassing amnesia. Some players like simple detection systems where there’s only one factor – shadow, say, or line of sight – and others like a more complicated approach, with a number of non-binary factors affecting detection.

Some players like knowing precisely how tools, techniques and AI will react every time, and others like the chaos inherent in a systemic sandbox. Some players like to spend the whole game undetected while others enjoy frequent bursts of action or firefights. Some people like RPG stats, including luck, to play a factor in how stealth plays out, and others prefer it to be purely skill-based.

There are many other aspects to consider; what I’m trying to say is nobody’s yet figured out the perfect stealth formula that ticks everyone’s boxes, works as intended, and makes for a fun addition to a video game. That’s why you get divisiveness over games like Dishonored, Thief and Metal Gear Solid; there’ll always be at least one person who just doesn’t enjoy the formula and wanted a different experience.

So however Assassin’s Creed wants to do stealth is fine – but by making major changes to how it works, Ubisoft risks alienating a significant proportion of its established fan base.

Next: maybe this is just what we need.

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