If any of the forthcoming Ubisoft games has the potential to generate hype anywhere near as readily as Halo 3, it is Assassin's Creed, the medieval action game from Jade Raymond, a producer with a wealth of experience, and her team at Ubisoft's Montreal studio.
The title's trailer, featuring plenty of in-game footage that competes with much of the pre-rendered clips seen in other games, is undoubtedly fantastic, but the media frenzy surrounding the game is a little questionable based on what has been shown so far.
After the initial E3 demo last year, occasionally updated trailers have been released or leaked, but on the whole Ubisoft has kept the game, and its details close to its chest. Finally Pro-G got access to a presentation by Raymond, who talked in depth about her game, and what we can look forward to in the mixture of stealth, acrobatics and drama it promises.
Set very precisely in the summer of 1191, the focus is on a character called Altair, who is a member of a genuine historically important band of assassin's who worked and lived during the epic and tumultuous time of the third crusade in the holy land.
Jade chose this violent and aggressive setting, she says, "because it is a really cool environment for an action game". She is right, as realised on a next generation console, the bustling medieval cities, where conflict was a part of daily life, are staggering. Rich in detail stretching right back to the towering backdrops, there have been few more impressive trailers for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 than Assassin's Creed.
'Parkour and free running were mentioned throughout the presentation, and the trailer certainly makes the Prince of Persia style acrobatics look thrilling.'
But what is important is how the game is applied to these cities. Parkour and free running were mentioned throughout the presentation, and the trailer certainly makes the Prince of Persia style acrobatics look thrilling. It is reported that every tiny ledge and detail big enough to house the tips of your fingers can be used to climb and flow over rooftops and balconies. From the footage seen, it is apparent that you will be able to flip and pivot through the air and leap great distances, but as with any elaborate game of high-speed manoeuvres, from Tony Hawk to the mediocre Free Running, you can only really tell how great it is by getting your hands on it. When a game is about flow, the flashiest trailer imaginable means nothing, so for now I'll reserve judgement on that front. Nevertheless, it must be said that the potential to scale huge buildings and disappear among the rooftops looks very exciting indeed.
Aside from the acrobatics, the core game structure is divided in three main stages, which make up the assassinations you must perform. First, once given the details of your job, you must investigate the particulars of your target's whereabouts. You can do this primarily through observation, but can also pick pockets, eavesdrop, and even beat information from hapless informants.
Once you have secured the location of your target, who could be alone outside, or in a heavily guarded fort, you must begin the second stage, making your approach, using your climbing skills, good old fashion brute force, and the new fad for 'social stealth'. For social stealth read 'blending in with crowds', which means you will find yourself not only hiding in busy areas, but carefully manipulating the public's reactions to you, just as you do in Ubisoft's Splinter Cell: Conviction.
These reactions are mostly dictated by your Wanted level, which ranges from 'unaware', through 'suspicious', to 'informed'. All affect how both the public and military will react to you, and at informed level, Wanted posters assure everyone will recognise your face. At suspicious level, however, the public will only be drawn to unusual behaviour. This means for example, that if you see a drunk in the crowd, who are purported to have a mixture of personalities, then you may want to steer clear, in case the inebriated civilian falls onto you and draws the crowd's attention. The same would be true if you climbed to an unusual and attention grabbing position above the city streets.
The third, and final stage is the most self-explanatory, which is escape. With these missions and effective wanted levels, it's easy to suspect sandbox, and Raymond is quick to admit that "it has a lot of the sandbox philosophy built in, so theses cities are huge and open, and there is no path through them, and there is no particular order". Raymond's own term is 'flowerbox' rather than sandbox, suggesting that although you can't change the main elements, there is plenty that can be sifted through and moved about as you please.
One phrase Raymond mentioned on occasions is a line taken from Marco Polo. Her oft repeated words "nothing is true, everything is permitted" were indeed cryptic, but refer to what Polo described as the assassin's creed. Apparently this line was as central to the game's design as it is to the gameplay, though it does little more than tempt hype and suggest we don't know what to anticipate. To be told we don't know what to look forward to about a game we barely know a thing about already is no real news, so I reserve cautious enthusiasm for this great looking game for now.
Other details on the game are sparse. Raymond talked in depth about the bird-like appearance and animation of the hero Altair, and his feathery shadow. His name means 'flyer' in Arabic and the clear emphasis on scaling heights, along with his job as a metaphorical bird of prey, suggest a definite leaning towards winged pursuits, but as there is no flying gameplay announced yet for the game, we can only guess. Perhaps it alludes to a plot element or unannounced gameplay mechanic, but for now we will have to wait to see if Assassin's Creed can live up to the hype Ubisoft has carefully generated.