LOS ANGELESââ¬"Assassin's Creed is being shown only behind closed doors at Ubisoft's booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo, but it's easily one of the most impressive games in the company's large lineup. In development for two years by the team responsible for the outstanding and influential Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Assassin's Creed is stylish, moody, visually stunning, and original. It offers a stunning level of freedom of movement, incredible lifelike animation, believable artificial intelligence, and a level of nuanced detail like we haven't seen before in any previous game.
A quick glance at Assassin's Creed quickly brings to mind a number of other recent outstanding games. It boasts very fluid animation and an incredibly maneuverable main character, much like in Prince of Persia. It's got a medieval setting and emergent, open-ended gameplay similar to Oblivion. It has huge, lifelike cityscapes not unlike the recent Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, albeit a thousand years in the past. And it's reminiscent of the Thief series, if only because of its inconspicuous, independent, and resourceful main character and the anti-medieval-establishment premise. Finally, the open-ended "sandbox" world of the game is easy to compare to Grand Theft Auto. However, this is clearly no cookie-cutter clone of a game. Its distinctive, beautifully crafted visual style and surprising twists give it an identity all its own.
"Nothing is true. Everything is permitted." That is the assassins' creed, suggesting that anything is possible given the proper frame of mind. This game seemingly takes place during the Third Crusade under Richard the Lionheart, sometime in the late 12th century. You play as a character named Altair--an assassin by trade, armed with a deadly wrist blade, an unconcealed sword at his side, and a quiver of crossbow bolts at his back. He's clearly a powerful fighter (and a trained horseback rider--he enters town by pressing forth on horseback). Faced with aggressive threats from all sides, Altair can slice them up in an instant, using flashy and devastating counterattacks to strike the enemies when they least expect it. However, even he can't necessarily withstand a city full of violent guards, not to mention mobs of civilians. So it pays for Altair to keep it cool.
To that end, he can find his mark by working his way through the crowds. It's difficult to explain why this appears so remarkable, but essentially, the way in which Altair moves through the crowds demonstrates two things about gaming: one, that very few games (before this one) have successfully presented what seems like a bustling city environment, filled with a sufficient number of different-looking people. And two, that very few games (before this one) have done a halfway-decent job of making the player's character interact realistically with other characters and objects. In Assassin's Creed, when Altair brushes up near other characters wandering the streets, he uses his hands to move the individuals out of his path nonchalantly, like you might do in real life while trying to wade through the masses at a concert, or maybe at a huge video game convention (the game's creative director cited the concert scenario specifically). But you don't need to keep it cool if you don't want to. Altair can draw attention to himself by shoving civilians out of his way forcefully, or by acting in any other aggressive or suspicious manner. Whether you want to blend into the background or act all macho, Assassin's Creed seems to let you.
Watching the populace's reactions to the main character was really special. Characters would visibly frown or raise their eyebrows as Altair jumped around like a madman in their vicinity. And when he took a swing at a random civilian, genuine panic ensued. The victim fell to the ground in pain as nearby villagers stood in shock or ran off screaming. Altair pressed the attack, and as the civilians seemed to realize the threat they were facing, some of them rallied, encircling Altair and making it difficult for him to escape. This is where the momentum-based movement comes into play. The quicker you move, the easier it is to lose footing. In practice, this all seemed quite believable.
Incidentally, the name Altair is Arabic for "the flying eagle," and indeed, the creative director of the game confirmed that the eagle was the inspiration for the character. You need to see Altair in motion to appreciate how cool he is. Remarkably, all of the animation was done by hand, which doesn't explain why it's able to look so real, but does explain why it's able to look so good. Altair has a move for every situation. It's hard to describe in specific detail why something as simple as how he touches a nearby stone wall can look so good, except to say that Altair simply looks much more real in motion than most any other video game character we've ever seen.
The three cities in Assassin's Creed will be Altair's playground. According to the designers, any surface that extends out more than two inches from a wall can be latched onto by Altair, who would make a champion rock climber. He can scale many surfaces and mantle up onto anything he can grab. Yet the city itself looks incredibly real. (We even got to see the whole thing from a high vantage point after climbing to a very tall building, though the frame rate dropped--but we're confident that visual blemishes like these will all be fixed.) The game gives a strangely liberating feeling--Altair is like a superhero but his abilities don't seem superhuman, for the most part. The creative director for the game noted that many of his moves were inspired by the sport of free-running, sort of like skateboarding without the skateboard. We saw this in action as Altair deftly skipped his way across rafters high up above a civilian populace obliviously wandering below.
Here Altair finally found his mark, revealed to him through his eagle vision, which highlights the would-be victim with a faint glow. By blending in with a group of clergymen (whom he had helped previously--don't expect to be aided without reciprocity), Altair was able to approach a haughty guardsman apparently in charge of executing civilians ostracized under King Richard's reign. In a flash, the guardsman is slain, sating Altair's wrist knife--and thus begins Altair's escape as an entire town erupts into bitter chaos.
The mob proves to be too much even for this capable killer. Altair fights bravely but is knocked from his feet as he attempts to flee (the faster you move, the more you stand to lose balance). Strangely, as he takes damage, the screen starts to distort. And when he finally dies, the screen fades out entirely, to reveal...a computer heads-up display. System offline. What...the...
The futuristic twist to Assassin's Creed is a mind-boggling highlight to an amazing first showing. Ubisoft promises that Assassin's Creed will be an open-ended action game that lets players act however they wish. This isn't a stealth game--if you want to fight your way to your victim, you can try. There will be subquests to undertake, alliances to forge, secrets to discover, and, hopefully, all the other aspects of a free-roaming world that we've come to enjoy. But it's truly just the level of detail on display in Assassin's Creed that has us so impressed, in addition to the art direction as a whole. We can't wait to see more of this game, but we'll patiently wait for it to come together so that it might live up to all of its potential. The game is slated to release next year. Stay tuned to GameSpot for more coverage in the intervening months.