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TVG climbs the walls of Jerusalem and finally gets its hands on Assassin's Creed...
Assassins Creed: it has stirred up quite a bit of anticipation since its original announcement halfway through 2006. The various trailers of Altair vaulting through the streets of the Holy Land, running across structural beams and perching like a crow on the peaks of religious monuments, has understandably caught the imagination of many a gamer in recent months. Now, as we draw ever closer to its November release date, the guys at Ubisoft Montreal have been playing their hand and we had a chance to go and scope out what the game has in store.
As it's set in the Holy Land in 1191 A.D. (during the epoch of the third Crusade), one of the things that has mystified gamers as more trailers and screens have come out, is the surprisingly futuristic looking HUD. We can tell you, having seen a good portion of gameplay, that the futuristic element of the game is not constrained to just the HUD. This strange sci-fi imagery pops-up all over the place, from the loading screens to whenever you highlight an enemy. There're all sorts of symbols that seem somewhat anachronistic, such as what look like double helixes, hydrocarbon models and scientific looking graphs. Of course, the Ubisoft guys wouldn't tell us why all these things were here. All we were told is that they're there for a reason, and that reason will become clear within the first minute of the game - dun, dun, dun... the plot thickens.
But, getting back onto the bulk of the game, it's set in the Holy Land and features three cities within the larger Kingdom. These cities are Jerusalem (of course), Damascus and Acre. Ubisoft Montreal has gone to painstaking lengths to make the cities look historically accurate and they seem to have done a grand job. The larger Kingdom (basically the forests, landscapes and settlements that surround the three cities) has been estimated at around 1.5 kilometres square, while each city (which require a loading screen before they're entered from the Kingdom) are about 800 metres squared. So there's plenty to be exploring, then.
Within this vast Kingdom is the hustle and bustle that you might expect from a Holy Land. Begger women who'll ask you for some dosh so that they can feed their kids (silly moochers), some general serfs dotted throughout the kingdom, as well as the occasional Templar Knight. All of these characters have been given a good dose of convincing AI with guards, for example, running for cover if you give their mates a good hiding.
Within this heaving religious land you play Altair, a character cast in shadow who seems to be an all-round tortured soul type of guy, which probably helps on your CV if you're an Assassin. He's been chucked out of the brotherhood of Assassins and the plot of the game follows him doing a number of assassination attempts to get himself back into the brotherhood. To do these assassinations you go to some wise looking bearded guy in a library who gives you a feather denoting the assassination you have to make. You then have six targets who can supply you information on your target. The tactics you will use to get this information from the initial targets varies from pick-pocketing to blackmail, and bartering to beating the info out of a target.
Once you've got the intelligence from these targets, you'll then have the location of the person you have to assassinate. How you go about assassinating them depends on the tactics you want to employ and what the assassination target is up to. They might be preaching to a crowd or having a sneaky meeting with their henchmen, and you might want to either go in stealthily before stabbing the target with a spike that you deploy from your sleeve, or go in hot-headed with a sword and take on the whole entourage.
There are nine targets for these assassinations and, with each successful kill, you regain a little more respect from the brotherhood. But respect is a flimsy currency and, thankfully, Ubisoft Montreal has also provided you with weapons upgrades as you progress through the nine targets. While you'll always have four basic weapons types throughout the game (a sword, throwing knives, bare fists and your assassin spike), these upgrade throughout the game. So, you'll get holsters on your back for more throwing knives and boots which allow you to automatically recover after being shoved by attackers, rather than topple over in a not too dignified heap.
The content isn't limited to these nine main assassination missions as there are over 100 side missions for you to take on throughout the Kingdom. These include finding high points on the maps, discovering flags, various investigations and our personal favourite; killing of those pesky Templar Knights (they think they're so great, what with their secret societies and Solomon's hidden treasure). Anyway, there's plenty to do and a big sandbox of a Holy Land to do it in, so no complaints there.
Speaking of the sandbox gameplay, one of the much touted ways in which Ubisoft Montreal has bought colour to the sandbox style of the game is with Altair's free running. The cities are very compact and dense, much as they would've been historically; so what better way to scale the dusty alleys and lofty buildings than a bit of free running? As Alex Drouin, the Animation Director on Assassin's Creed, told us that many of the people at Ubisoft Montreal that worked on the game also worked on the Prince of Persia series: "It's the same core team. We started up with maybe 10 people from the [Prince of Persia - The Sands of Time] core team."
Where you can really see the Prince of Persia influences is in the free running. When Altair dangles from a window ledge, leaps between buildings and runs up a wall, it simply reeks of the Prince. But, unlike with the Prince, Ubisoft Montreal has gone for a much more streamlined approach to the obstacle slaloming in Assassin's Creed. You simply hold down two buttons, point Altair in the right direction, and watch him automatically scale buildings and leap huge gaps. Drouin explains:
"You had a path that you had to go through [in the Prince of Persia games], the distances where you jump from one thing to another were pre-set. It looked good and everything, but it was more of a defined, square approach and we wanted to break that. So, the best way to do that is doing a sandbox where there's no path and you approach it the way you want. But with that you cannot have pre-set distances because it would be really hard to do and we didn't want to give that constraint to the level designers. So, we created a system that would detect distances and make a really wide range of moves possible and easy to use."
It certainly does do that. The controls feel about as intuitive as a game can get simply because Altair will always do what you want him to, and all you have to do is point him in the right direction. There is part of us that wanted a slightly more challenging control system for the aero/acrobatics, but this streamlined system certainly will please a lot of gamers.
As far as the combat is concerned, Ubisoft Montreal has once again opted for a straightforward approach. As mentioned before, you have a choice of four main weapons: A spike that deploys from your wrist sleeve (mostly for assassinations and stealthy kills), throwing knives (for stealthy kills from a distance), bare knuckle attacks (that don't attract the guards) and the weapon you'll be using for most of the general combat: your sword.
The combat mechanics with the sword consist of three commands: one button is for attacks and counters, another highlights a specific enemy, while a third button command puts you in a defensive stance. Your attacks vary depending on your movement and rhythmic taps of the desired button, while a well timed counter attack will lead to a variety of animated cut-scenes kills. Again, it's a simple combat mechanic and might disappoint hack 'n slash gamers who are obsessed with learning reams and reams of combo moves. But, for gamers who want an intuitive and easily accessible combat system, it definitely does the job.
Getting back to the sandbox gameplay, Assassin's Creed definitely fulfils the genre selling points of being able to approach a situation how you see fit. There are elements of stealth in the game but it's by no means a pure stealth title, as Drouin once again explains:
"It's the choice of the player. It's a stealth game; it's an action game; it's the game you want it to be. You've seen it - if you don't want to do it it's your choice. You're missing a big part of it, of course, because it's fun to come in a bit more sneaky."
And he continues:
"We didn't want to do a stealth game, at all. We wanted to have a stealthy approach, stealthy gameplay, but not a stealth game - that's not the whole point. The whole point is more to relive part of history, to be an assassin, and we wanted to have action - you run, you fight, you do different stuff. Not only stealth - it's one part of the game but definitely not the focus."
Nice stealthy touches to the game include a health bar that flashes yellow when you're being watched, red when you're being chased and remains white when nobody is onto you. You can also hide amongst the city's inhabitants, sitting down on a bench with your cloak shielding your face, or walk cautiously amongst a group of priests to pass by some suspicious guards. The variety of weapons on offer provide for a variety of stealth kill options and, as if that wasn't enough, you can even entertain yourself by pick-pocketing somebody if you need to get hold of some knives in a hurry.
But, as Alex Drouin points out, this is only a shade of what Assassin's Creed has to offer. Throw in a good dose of heavy combat whenever you rile up what tend to be pretty paranoid guards, add a handful of what can only be described as Parkour meets the Holy Land, finish with a dollop of riding your horse around the Kingdom to your hearts content and you're left what we experienced during a single day of hands on play at Ubisoft. Just imagine the variations in gameplay that we'll all be experiencing after a weeks solid play later this year.