Can the turbulent backdrop of the American Revolution match the passion of the Renaissance era? Stace Harman attends the Assassin’s Creed III unveiling in London to find out.
ASSASSIN’S CREED III
Assassin’s Creed III features new protagonist Connor Kenway, of English and Native American descent his birth name is Ratohnhaké:ton – pronounced Ra-doon-ha-gay-doon.
Stepping away from the civilised, sun-bathed Renaissance streets, the game’s biggest star is its rugged wilderness which features new gamplay elements and a whole ecosystem of wildlife.
Weather will also play its part, with fog, snow and rain affecting Connor’s options for both traversing the environment and choice of combat strategy.
Connor will find himself helping both the Colonies and Revolutionaries during his adventure. IP development director Tommy Francois describes Connor’s motivations, “We had Altair who was focused on duty, Ezio was about revenge and Connor is very much about justice.”
Assassin’s Creed III has been in development for two years by Ubisoft Montreal and a number of supporting internal teams.
It’s hard to fault Ubisoft for releasing three decent-sized, well-constructed games in the space of 24 months; especially as Ezio’s trilogy featured such a rich, multi-layered narrative with the optional depth of hidden puzzles, conspiracy theories and numerous side-stories.
In fact, it borders on being churlish to knock the publisher’s efforts; but such have been Ubisoft’s endeavours to launch yearly updates to the franchise since 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II, I find that I am one such churl; sat amongst those for whom familiarity with Ezio’s bloody tale of vengeance has ultimately bred contempt.
More than most then, I’m excited by Assassin’s Creed III’s promise of a new protagonist and storyline, set against the more naturally stunning vistas of the raw and brutal American Revolution. Sitting down with Ubisoft’s gregarious director of IP development, Tommy Francois, it’s apparent that he’s excited too.
“When you move from something that you’ve put so much into, such as Ezio, you’re scared you’ll miss him,” he begins.
“However, we’ve just taken Ezio through a trilogy of games and are ready for something different and it’s important to note that this game has been in development for well over two years.
“We have all the Assassin’s teams working on this game, right back to Prince of Persia Sands of Time and Assassin’s 1 and 2. The reason I mention that is to acknowledge that yes, it’s important to appeal to new fans, but it’s also important to show existing fans that we care about them. We have to show them love for every second they spend in the Assassin’s universe because they are only a click away from another universe.”
And so, the challenge for Ubisoft Montreal and the handful of worldwide teams that are working on the project is to create an experience that stays true to the spirit of the franchise, while at the same time pushing its boundaries.
The vast expanse of the wilderness and Connor’s traversal of it are perhaps the most obvious and visually arresting ways in Ubisoft is looking to evolve the series. The AnvilNext game engine offers the chance not only for a more natural interaction with the environment – that sees Connor hurdling over waist-high obstacles and vaulting from fallen logs and boulders – but also the opportunity to shoot and integrate full-performance capture of acrobatic motion, facial expression and vocal work as one coherent whole.
Wild at heart
Although both New York and Boston will feature, populated with NPCs that will interact more convincingly with Connor and with each other, it’s the rugged wilderness of the American frontier that captures the imagination and proves one of the game’s biggest draws. The harsh winter of the reveal-trailer will eventually give way to other, more forgiving seasons, bringing about a change in both weather conditions and the behaviour of Assassin’s Creed III new cast of characters: wildlife.
“At the time we created the target gameplay footage that featured hunting, it was brand new and there hadn’t been too many games with wildlife,” Francois remembers.
“Then a few months after we created footage, Red Dead Redemption launched and we had to endeavour instead to innovate in other areas. But we do still have a full hunting system.”
Only the simplest of details of the hunting system have been revealed and so we know that animals can be skinned for rewards, with a pelt acquired via a clean kill with a blade yielding greater recompense than that of an animal brought down by musket fire.
Picking off stray members of the animal kingdom may be considered child’s play, however, compared to facing off against a squad of soldiers with access to firearms. Fortunately, Ubisoft Montreal’s research and attention to detail means that only the initial shot of a musket need be avoided before closing the gap to engage in the assassin’s trademark close quarters combat; such was the reload time of 18th century muskets that it would take over a minute to be ready to fire the next shot, and evidently an assassin who is light on his feet can rupture a great number of jugulars in the space of a minute.
To wreak this bloody misery on his enemies, Connor, like his ancestors, is equipped with the iconic wrist-blade, as well as a host of weapons suited to his background and environment. A dagger and tomahawk constitute Connor’s close-range weapons, a brace of pistols offer a medium-range but noisy option and the bow and arrows slung across his back grant a long range and, crucially, silent method of taking down man and beast.
The white elephant in the animus
The presentation shown to the assembled members of the press focuses very much on the great wilderness of the frontier, the changing weather system and the improved animation and vocal performance of key characters. Little of city life is shown off, though it’ll clearly play an integral role in Connor’s tale but there’s one key and divisive individual who is entirely absent from the presentation; the one man that arguably makes all of this historical gallivanting possible.
“Having Desmond in the Animus allows us to give [Assassin’s Creed] an extremely edgy, breakthrough visual style,” insists Francois. “It allows us to have the visual glitches and embrace our culture completely.
“There are no plans to drop the modern part and the Animus or Desmond, quite the contrary: we will make Desmond more of a hero and we will make it more fun. We’re doing everything in our power to make sure that the execution of that part of the mythos is getting better and better.”
Desmond’s story has undoubtedly been the weakest thread of the Assassin’s Creed canon to date, and Ubisoft Montreal are going to have to go some way to convince players, both old and new alike, that his contribution is more than that of mere facilitator for Connor’s more dynamic, exciting and believable tale.
But stranger things have happened and if just one half-English, half-Native American man can have a significant impact on an entire war, perhaps the legion of story-tellers, animators, coders and artists at Ubisoft can convince us that Desmond’s tale is one worthy of our time. Perhaps.
Assassin’s Creed III is due for release on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on October 31 2012. Dates for the PC and Wii U versions are still to be announced.