Assassin Creed likely needs no introduction: Since its introduction at last year's E3 event, the game has been turning heads with its mysterious assassin-in-medieval-Jerusalem setting and its eye-popping graphics. A year later, Ubisoft is finally giving the press the opportunity to go hands-on with the title, and we recently had the chance to sit down for nearly an hour with Elspeth Tory, the project manager for the game's animation, as she showed us the most recent build of the game and let us play it for ourselves.
For those of you who haven't been following the title, it's worth pointing out that Assassin's Creed is what Ubisoft Montreal has been working on since the last entry in their extremely well-received Prince of Persia series. It follows the adventures of Altair, an assassin who works in the Holy Land in the 12th century, working on behalf of the mysterious Hashshashin and tasked with killing targets inside a large city. During the demo, we picked up hints that he and the Hashshashin are working against a mysterious Brotherhood, but what they represent isn't entirely clear.
Our demo began with Altair standing on a wooden beam on the roof of a building, where Altair is supposed to make what's known as a "leap of faith," which allows him to dive into a bale of hay on the street below him and thus quickly and stealthily make his way down to street level. Unfortunately, we clumsily executed a regular jump, sending Altair onto the pavement itself. While painful, the falling damage wasn't enough to kill us, so we took off toward our target, a slave driver named Talal who had set up shop near our location.
Given the game's origins, it's unsurprising that Altair moves in a manner that is, at least on the surface, reminiscent of the Prince in the Prince of Persia games. Given the free-form nature of the city in which Altair works, however, the movement system here is both more fantastic and more realistic. It's more realistic in the sense that you're unable to jump incredible distances, an acrobatic limitation that's particularly noteworthy during combat; but since the city is built with a number of extremely climbable buildings and short jumps, you'll also find yourself scampering up walls and leaping from rooftop to rooftop. This "free running" style of movement is easily accomplished in most instances, as you're capable of simply holding down the right trigger button and pressing A on an Xbox 360 controller to activate it. While holding down these buttons, Altair automatically tries to use the most fluid movement available to him in the direction he's facing, whether it's climbing up to the roof of a building or jumping from beam to beam. The primary source of interaction while Altair is free running lies in choosing his direction, as your choice of path will determine the kind of route that he will take.
You're not limited to simply running and jumping around, of course; by default, Altair will simply walk slowly through the multitude of people on the street. Your goal as an assassin is to remain stealthy and and blend in with the crowd, and there is in fact an option to hold down a button for "blend" mode, wherein Altair will move very slowly, but will clasp his hands and bow his head in a pretty good imitation of a monk. That will let you meld with the crowds and avoid the attention of guards who might otherwise become suspicious of you. If you're too impatient to deal with that, though, you can also use gentle pushes to make your way more swiftly through a crowd, or simply punch people out of your path--but that will, of course, draw unwanted attention.
When you are spotted, or when you simply don't give a damn whether or not you have to fight off a guard, you can hold down the right trigger to activate your high alert mode, which allows you to move more quickly through crowds and also attack or tackle people who get in your way. All of these actions are mapped to your controller's face buttons, and they're context sensitive. All of your actions are visible in the upper-right corner of the screen, which should make it a bit easier to get the hang of the game when you're just starting out.
The ways in which the guards and other hostile enemies in the game will react to you is based on what is essentially a wanted meter, similar to what you’ve experienced in games like Metal Gear Solid or Grand Theft Auto. If you stick with the crowd and don’t draw attention to yourself, you’ll mostly be left alone. When you start acting oddly, such as by running through the streets and pushing people out of your way, enemies will begin taking more of an interest in you. If you actually start taking out your weapons and chopping people up, or if you attempt to run along the rooftops and are spotted by an elevated archer, every enemy in the area will typically come looking for you.
When this occurs, you have two very basic options: fight or flight. The fighting system allows you to use four weapons: the sword, the daggers, the hidden blade, and Altair’s fists. Each will have its own basic utility, such as how you can throw the daggers to hit enemies a short distance away, but when you’re in a fight against multiple foes, you’ll likely want to stick with the sword.
If you’re expecting the kind of acrobatic moves that you might have used in the Prince of Persia games, though, you’ll be surprised at the relatively realistic movements that Altair is capable of. He’s only human, after all, so he’s not capable of jumping straight over an opponent’s head or throwing them across the room; most of his attacks consist of basic swordplay or grappling maneuvers. A simple sword attack is the basis of his combat ability, although it’ll often be blocked by your foes. If you wait until an enemy attacks you and press a button at the correct time, you will be capable of blocking their attack and countering, which will usually earn you an immediate kill. You can also lock onto an enemy and grapple them, which will let you then push or pull them in any direction you like, based on your analog stick movement. This is helpful for pushing enemies off of tall buildings or into destructible parts of the environment, like scaffoldings, that will collapse onto them.
All of this comes together well at the end of the demo. If you saw the Microsoft press conference and saw the demo that was performed there, you’ll remember that Altair eventually tracks down and kills Talal, the slavedriver. What wasn’t shown during that demo is what happens after a successful assassination: the escape. After a particularly high-profile killing like that, Altair needs to wipe the body of his foe with a feather and return the bloodied trophy to the Hashshashin hideout that he’s based in. Unfortunately, the hideout will be closed to you until you can eliminate your wanted level.
Again, doing so can be done either by fighting all of the guards that come after you until none of them are close enough to spot you, or by outrunning them and attempting to find a hiding place. Running away from your pursuers is by no means easy, however, as they can follow you almost anywhere you go, and will even pursue you onto the rooftops if they see you climb up a building, thanks to the numerous ladders in the area. There are a number of hiding spots that you can use if you manage to get out of eyesight for a moment, such as covered bales of hay on the roofs of the buildings or even benches that are already populated by other civilians: simply plop yourself down and try to blend in, and the guards will likely pass you by.
What intrigues us the most about the demo is the remnants of the high-technology world that was only glimpsed behind closed doors at last year’s E3. If you recall our previous report, you’ll remember that there was a bizarre scene in which, after Altair’s untimely death, the screen flashed white and you found yourself waking up in a futuristic room, apparently emerging from some kind of virtual reality simulation. Hints of this high-tech background are apparent in the Jerusalem setting, as when you lock onto an enemy, they’ll flash with an aura that’s made up of digital glyphs. At various times during the demo, the entire screen will also flash with the same glyphs, indicating that you can flip to an alternate camera view during a cutscene. Additionally, after our successful assassination of Talal, we were treated to a cryptic exchange of dialogue, with a bloodied Talal lying in Altair's arms, both of them bathed in an overwhelming white light.
What this sequence might signify, and how the futuristic touches will tie into the final game, is something that Ubisoft is still understandably cagey about. Given that the game is coming out this November, though, we may just have to wait until then to find out more. Stay tuned to GameSpot for complete coverage if any more information comes down the pipe.