When we first saw the teaser trailer for Assassin’s Creed, two thoughts came immediately to mind: first, that this was just a Prince of Persia game in a Crusades-era skin, and second, that the trailer was one of the infamous “target” videos and showed nothing remotely close to gameplay footage.
Both assumptions were completely wrong.
Assassin’s Creed looks at first blush like a Prince of Persia knockoff, with its acrobatic combat and old-world setting, and in fact it seems to play similarly as well. The difference, though, is that Assassin’s Creed is based not on fantastic acrobatics but on the real-world trend of “free running,” which means there are no crazy backflips and no double jumps, only realistic movements that an incredibly fit person might actually perform.
The Crusade-era environments of Jerusalem, Damascus and Aker are equally realistic, as Ubisoft has designed them using period-appropriate architecture and clothing and has infused each bustling city with the types of people who might be seen during that era. And, since the free-form movement is based on specific details in the environment, each of those authentic rooftops, basements and alcoves in Assassin’s Creed is technically within reach, just as long as you can find the appropriate way to reach it.
It’s the crowds of people, though, not the architecture, that have the most impressive effect on gameplay, as their advanced AI has let Ubisoft introduce what it calls “social stealth.” Unlike the Splinter Cell games, where stealth was based on players’ ability to hide in the dark, stealth in Assassin’s Creed is more akin to super-spy attributes, where you not only dart from alcove to alcove but try to blend into the crowd surrounding you.
For example, our player jumped from the back of his horse onto a beam, then swung gymnast-style from the beam onto a low-lying roof. From there, he jumped onto small ledge, pulled himself up to the top of a taller building and gazed down at a marketplace far below. Needing to make a quick descent, he jumped from the roof down to the street, at which point people turned to gawk. In most videogames, jumping around aimlessly or hopping down from a rooftop would never warrant a second look from non-playable characters. But in Assassin’s Creed, the crowds realize that no normal person would jump from a rooftop, so if you want to keep your cover in this game, you’ll have to refrain from such activities when too many people are around.
Acting normal is important in Assassin’s Creed because, as the name would imply, you’re an assassin who has many hits to carry out. Doing a favor for a group of monks, for example, may inspire them to give you cover later in the mission, which could in turn give you a chance to get closer to your intended target. If you opt not to create such social stealth, though, there’s also an “assassin’s knowledge” that you can activate with a simple button press. Almost like a night vision setting or the feral senses in Far Cry, assassin’s knowledge blurs your vision and lights-up your intended target, helping you keep track of him or her in a crowded street.
It’s important to remember that the crowds in Assassin’s Creed have advanced AI, though, because once you do away with your intended target, those crowds will start to freak. After all, if it’s unusual to see a guy jumping down from a roof, it’s infinitely more strange to see one stab one of Richard the Lionheart’s guards. What this means is that not only will guards tail you after you kill one of their kin, but the crowd will run from you in fear and, if you’re especially nasty, point you out to the guards as you run past.
To help you not be quite as nasty with the crowd, the controls are pressure sensitive insofar as they let you push gently through the crowd, much like easing your way to the front of a line, or slam through everyone like a bull in a china shop, which will not only kill any semblance of “social stealth” but upset a whole mess of people in the process.
At the end of our E3 demo, Assassin’s Creed gave us the biggest clue that the game is far more than a Prince of Persia knockoff, and it did so in a puzzling fashion. Cornered by a dozen guards, our player fought valiantly but, as expected, gradually succumbed to the repeated hits by iron swords. As our energy drained the screen began to stutter, almost as if the TV were experiencing satellite interference. With each blow, the interference got worse and worse, to the point where it was like watching scrambled pay-per-view in the 1990s. Upon our player’s death, the screen went completely white and a woman appeared before us in a lab coat, reassuring us that everything would be all right.
Whether Assassin’s Creed involves time travel or players jacking into and out of a Matrix-like world, one thing is certain: it’s shaping up to be one of the most intriguing and truly next-gen games of the coming year. With gorgeous visuals (yes, these are actual in-game screens), acrobatic but real-world fighting and a potentially gripping story, there’s a reason this game is far more than Prince of Persia with a new skin. Ubisoft is remaining mum on the plot, but if it can carry the intrigue from our one-level taste while supporting the free-form controls, this is one game that will have PS3 owners begging for more.
— Jonas Allen