For four games now, Ubisoft Montreal has been refining and tweaking the systems that power the Assassin's Creed series. Altair's inaugural adventure through the Crusades was a rough-edged gem, laying out an ancient struggle between a secret order of assassins and the Templars against the backdrop of a beautiful, sprawling sandbox set in the cradle of civilization.
The three games that followed introduced Ezio Auditore and an Italian Renaissance setting, bringing the assassins vs. Templars struggle into greater focus while shaving off the first game's rough edges with new and improved gameplay systems. Next comes Assassin's Creed 3, on October 30, 2012, with an all-new Revolutionary War setting that you'll explore as the Native American hero-assassin, Connor.
For many, the new setting isn't a surprise. No spoilers, but suffice to say that the more recent Assassin's Creed efforts have been sprinkled with vague hints about the coming change in venue. Creative director Alex Hutchinson confirmed that this was very much intentional in a recent interview at Assassin's Creed 3's first-look reveal.
"We started work on it in January 2010," Hutchinson told me. "At that point, we knew where it was going to be, so we were able to work things into both Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed: Revelations to make sure that people who were paying attention got little hints as to where it was going."
The new game covers a significant span of time in Connor's life, with roughly the same scope that was explored over Ezio's three games, from Assassin's Creed 2 to Revelations. Players will start out their adventure as a child version of half-English, half-Mohawk Native American. The young Connor will bear witness to a life-changing event: his settlement is attacked by white colonists and the village elders refuse to act. This is a formative moment that eventually leads him into the secret war with the Templars.
Hutchinson reveals that Connor's story spans roughly 30 years, unfolding before, during, and after the American Revolutionary War. "We want to get back that epic feeling of moving through time. It gives us lots of opportunities to move between summer and winter, but also to just have big events happen. To jump from Washington camping at Valley Forge to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. We can move through time quite quickly. It's an epic story."
An epic story with plenty of opportunities to insert the assassin into pivotal historical events. During the eyes-on demo, we see Connor speaking with Israel Putnam at the Battle of Bunker Hill while thousands of Redcoats formed into battle lines on a distant hill trade musket fire with Putnam's own forces.
Connor carefully works his way behind enemy lines at the fringes of the battle, pausing behind rocks and other natural points of cover as he times his dashes so as to not get caught in the exchanges of musket fire. He reaches the enemy commander's encampment, contextually ducking to conceal himself in tall grass on the outskirts of the camp. Then, in a sudden burst of motion, Connor springs forward. Moving at a full sprint, he takes out two Redcoats while on the move before launching himself at the horse-bound British officer.
Hutchinson also makes a point of mentioning Paul Revere's famed ride during the preview presentation. What many people don't realize is that there were 10 riders warning Americans of the British forces' arrival that night. Will Connor be one of those riders? That's not clear, but it's certainly a possibility.
While the story will still embrace the idea of putting the player in the shoes of the "historical tourist," as Hutchinson puts it, a lot of the fundamental rules we've all come to know over four games will be changed. A big part of this has to do with the setting; where previous AC games focused on cities, that simply won't work in the largely unsettled landscape of late 18th century America. Connor will be spending time in both New York and Boston, but roughly 30 percent of the game's story unfolds in the American Frontier.
"For us, we sort of treated [AC3] a lot like a new IP with the same pillars as previous Assassin's. So it's navigation, fighting, and social stealth are our core areas that we like exploring," Hutchinson said. "We didn't want to add anything that felt gimmicky, so the only way to make it really fresh was to take all of those elements and put them in a frontier."
"How does navigation work with trees and uneven surfaces? How does fighting work? How does social stealth work when there's no crowd? We built mechanics to support those fantasies."
These new mechanics start with all of the controls that you know being thrown away. No longer will your gamepad's cross-shaped face buttons serve as head, left/right hand, and feet actions. "We felt in the end that having a whole face button dedicated to taunt, basically, was not a good use of space," Hutchinson said, laughing.
"So we wanted this idea that you were fluid, that you weren't having to open your menu all the time to switch your weapons. For instance, you can map your tool to Y and your attack to X [on an Xbox 360 controller], so you can [use] hit-hit-fire-hit-hit as part of a combo. So we really want you to be using all of the face buttons."
The change also rids the series of what the dev team fondly refers to as the "Assassin's Claw," the right trigger/A button grip used in previous games to make Altair and Ezio do their free-running thing. As Hutchinson told me, "We wanted to get rid of it. So the new control scheme is RT for free run, which means you'll vault objects or go under things that are chest high. If you hold A [as well], you'll climb up them. So you have a lot more control over [how you move]."
Free-running takes on a new meaning once you move outside of the cities. Snow slows down Connor's ground movement speed during the winter months. Trees and cliff faces can be scaled. Animals can be tracked, hunted or trapped, and skinned. This sort of activity won't be a core part of the story, but it does feed into that historical tourist aspect that Hutchinson spoke of.
"George Washington will not ask you to skin a deer for him," he said with a chuckle. "We have this new mechanic called Clubs where, basically, we have rules in the world where people can interact with things, like a deer. If you shoot several deer, invisibly we'll keep a count and then the game will push someone to the player who will say, 'Yeah, you're a pretty good shot with that musket. Have you ever thought about joining the Hunting Club?'"
"You get an invitation to a location you couldn't access before. When you go in there, there are all these animals to hunt, we have a competition, this, that and the other. So in the history half of the fantasy, there's all kinds of new gameplay systems that we're building."
Tracking is a big part of hunting, and trapping and baiting as well. The act of picking up on the movements of animals in the world -- there are more than 30 species of land and air creatures -- fits in as part of the Assassin's Creed Eagle Vision mechanic. "You can switch it on and see animal tracks, you can see scratch marks on trees, you can see dung...that sort of stuff," Hutchinson revealed. "By analyzing those, you can get clues as to where they might be and slowly fill out your hunting map."
The manner in which you hunt makes a difference as well. Killing a bear with buckshot will render the skin of the beast unusable, since it'll be filled with holes. The tools you'll use to make your catch determine what you end up with, though it's not clear yet what use materials collected from hunted animals will have in the game.
The two cities you'll visit feel more like traditional Assassin's Creed, though with some immediately noticeable differences. Freshly built structures, made out of wood. Sloped roofs. Very wide streets. All of these features result in a different approach to city navigation.
There's more going on as well. During the city portion of the eyes-on demo, Connor slowly strolled along a Boston port street as a market bustled around him. At one point, a shady-looking fellow snatches an apple from a produce vendor and then runs off as the vendor gives chase. Dogs stroll by with their owners. Children -- they can't be killed, you sickos -- run around in small groups. It's admittedly a prepared demo reel, but there's no denying that the city of Boston feels much more alive than those seen in previous AC games.
The changed city layout will have a big impact on how Connor's escape sequences play out. It's much more difficult to dart around corners and slip into a hiding place when you're dealing with wide open thoroughfares. Interiors factor in much more now, and there will be more of those to explore. There's also a new Chase Breaker mechanic; in the demo it plays out as Connor leaps through an open second-story window, dashes through an occupied living space, and comes out on the other side, free of his pursuers.
"We have more interiors in the game overall," Hutchinson said. "Pubs are a big deal in this period, so we wanted to make sure we had some of those. The Chase Breakers though are almost like set pieces. They're events you can trigger, [like] the elevators in AC2. It's almost like a horizontal version of that. So once you kick into it, it's automatic." The Chase Breaker seen in the demo is purely contextual; had Connor not been a pursued man at that point, the window would not have opened.
There's one last big component to the Assassin's Creed formula: combat. The Ubi Montreal team is bringing it back to the drawing board. The button controls are changed, as described above. There's also a new camera system. A new two-handed combat focus. New animations. New tools. For example, there's a new rope dart that Connor can use to, say, impale an enemy on the ground from the tree branch he's standing in and then use the fallen foe's weight as a counter-balance to slide down to the ground.
Guns also factor in, much more so than they did in previous AC games. "When we started doing research, the average person could reload a musket in two minutes," Hutchinson said. "There's a reason [military units] stood in lines: muskets shot approximately forward. Even though there are lots of guns around, one on one they weren't that useful. So we wanted to make a mechanic where it's very dangerous to stay at range in front of a group of line infantry, but if you rush in they will switch to bayonets."
"You can have up to two pistols, but they're slow reloads, so they're more like one shot and then close the distance. So you might start out killing one particularly annoying enemy type with your pistol and then switch back to close combat weapons."
It's not clear how Connor will obtain the new tools he has at his disposal -- perhaps this is a component of hunting and collecting animal parts? -- but Hutchinson confirms that players won't be reporting to an inventor-type character, someone to fill the role previously held by the Ezio games' Leonardo da Vinci.
Some have speculated that Ben Franklin, who does appear in AC3, will be the new Leonardo. That's not the case though. "No. No! He was for about three months," Hutchinson said of the noted historical figure. "Early on in pre-production [he was a Leonardo-type character]. But he invents the lightning rod, an oven, and a few perverse musical instruments [in real life]. So it doesn't really work. Also, he's in France for most of the Revolution."
"One of the beauties of a really long development cycle is you can get yourself out of what in retrospect seem like really bad decisions. Our goal is to not make anything the same as it was before. Obviously the pillars are the same, but we don't want to have another dude saying, 'Hey, it's-a me!' and inventing things."
That's the extent of what Ubi Montreal is talking about right now. Hutchinson confirms that Desmond Miles' present-day story will continue -- the series has been building up to the in-game year 2012, and it's 2012 for us now too, he notes -- but exactly what direction it will take isn't clear. He does let one minor nugget slip: "There's more Desmond time than ever before."
Make of that what you will.
Multiplayer will also return, but Ubi is remaining similarly tight-lipped on that front as well. All of my questions about how it will change, if there might be a new co-op mode, and anything else are immediately rebuffed. The multiplayer content that you know will be evolved, but nothing more is being said on the subject until E3.
There obviously isn't any judgment to make regarding Assassin's Creed 3 at this point, but the demo that Ubi put together certainly looks solid. Hutchinson's talk of what's new, what's changed, and what's thrown out completely ought to come as welcome news to players who were getting tired of the Ezio line of games. Between Connor and his skills, the American Revolution, and the massive frontier that players will be exploring, it's easy to see how this is very much a new interpretation of the Assassin's Creed series.