Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: Q1 2007
The Prettiest, Noblest Assassin
If you set aside all things Nintendo in their own special, line-hundreds-deep category, the non-Wii-related star of E3 2006 belonged to Ubisoft. The Assassin's Creed demo chamber barely contained the frenzy of last-minute glimpse-seekers during the waning hours of the show. As if the situation weren't dire enough already, Steven Spielberg and a small entourage arrived just in time to commandeer the room for 30 precious minutes while all of us who didn't direct "Munich" hassled the PR people for a good position in line once the room reopened.
Assassin's Creed is the next-gen project by the folks who brought us the current generation of Prince of Persiagames. Due for a 2007 release on the PS3, Assassin's Creed will deliver a true next-generation emotional experience and not just dreamy graphics, according to Creed writer Corey May, who also drove the demo. A not-unfamiliar promise, of course, but after the presentation, I'm willing – indeed, eager – to entertain the possibility that the game just might deliver.
Set at the end of 12th century during the Third Crusade, you assume the role of Altair, a member of an assassin's brotherhood for whom contract killing is a noble pursuit. Story details remain sparse, but it looks like Altair will be caught between Crusader and opposing interests while also manipulating both sides toward his own ends. The big surprise moment in the demo came when Altair died at the hands of some angry city guards. At the moment of death, there was no mere Game Over screen, but instead, the stark white interface of a mysterious machine called the Animus appeared. Our guide was mum on the significance of the Animus, hinting only that the game's time setting won't be limited to 1191. Combining Crusader intrigue with whatever futuristic business is going on with Animus sounds like an odd tonal mix, but even at this early stage, it made for an exciting cliffhanger to the brief demo, especially if you're heavy into story, even in the context of an action game.
The world of Assassin's Creed will include three cities, two outdoor kingdom environments and some fortresses, too. The demo began with Altair jumping on a horse and heading for the city of Acre shortly after a battle between Crusaders and the Saracens. Making his way through debris and into the city, Altair happened upon two Crusaders harassing a local woman, offering the first of what Ubisoft promises will be many ethical dilemmas facing you in the game: Help this NPC and risk angering the crusaders, potentially complicating your other tasks, or turn a blind eye and get on with the assassinating. Complications make for better demos, so our Ubisoft guide killed one Crusader (the other scurried over a wall to escape) and won the woman's favor. In Assassin's Creed, though, NPCs will exist in an RPG-like web of faction relationships, so your choices to lend a hand, or not, are going to have consequences.
NPCs filled the market square as Altair scoped out his target using his assassin's instinct to blur out non-targets and cause the soon-to-be-deceased to glow with the distinct aura of the doomed. You'll be able to switch between high-profile and low-profile modes as you wind through crowds and toward your marks, either gently tapping NPCs on the shoulder or shoving them out of your way – and getting an appropriate response from those who don't like to be pushed around. Townsfolk also will shriek and flee when you draw your sword or attack someone unprovoked.
When the hyper-aware, busybody NPCs make it too difficult to operate on the ground, any vertical surface with edges protruding more than two inches will let you climb to the rooftops and proceed above the crowds. Even in games like Prince of Persia that provide plenty of wall-running and pillar-climbing, sooner or later the illusion of complete acrobatic freedom dims a little. If Assassin's Creed makes good on the promise of this demo, that problem will disappear as obvious, strategically located poles and ropes are replaced by a more active, subtler world of usable surfaces and objects.
Wall-crawling alone isn't going to score your kills for you, though, so in one way or another, it looks like you're going to have to deal with NPCs to carry out your missions, even if it means slaughtering as many as it takes to escape the aftermath of a brazen, broad-daylight kill. If charging up and slicing throats with little forethought is too crude for your tastes, you'll have more sophisticated ways of going about your business. Remember the woman Altair saved from the ill-intentioned Crusaders? It seems she's tight with a group of monks who happened to be hanging around the square near the marked man. Having heard tell of the good deed, they sheltered Altair in the group, allowing him to approach his target without drawing the attention of his guards. From there, it was a simple matter of choosing a moment to strike. Ubisoft promised several other factions for you to alienate or get in good with like this, but wouldn't divulge details, saying only that they'll be appropriate to the time period.
If the final look of Assassin's Creed bears any resemblance to what we saw at E3, it has the potential to set the standard for PS3 graphics in much the same way Splinter Cell did for the Xbox. The minutely etched stone walls and smooth animations of Altair and the NPCs were every bit as thrilling to regard as Sam Fisher shooting out his first fluorescent light in the original Splinter Cell demo level. Ubisoft was quick to discount the Splinter Cell comparisons with regard to gameplay, however, pointing out that this game's not as much about visibility meters and stealth mechanics as it is about engaging with the world socially and emotionally as well as sneaking around in the finely wrought shadows.
Much remains to be revealed about Assassin's Creed. We saw a brief bit of combat featuring automatic block, parry and dodge moves as well as a confidence meter that takes the place of a traditional hit point system, but without being able to take hold of the controller, the visceral quality of the combat's difficult to gauge. Narrative scenes will be optional and will maintain a first-person view, but it's not clear how many of these there will be or how much of the story you'll miss if you choose to skip them. It's also difficult to say how many opportunities you'll have for environmental interaction beyond climbing, though the demo included an impressive moment in which Altair toppled a wooden structure to block pursuing guards.
Uncertainties notwithstanding – and we are many months from release, after all – Assassin's Creed was the most ambitious title I saw at E3. If the graphics, story and active engagement with the world live up to the excitement of its E3 debut, it has the potential to be a major box-mover for Sony's new console come 2007.
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