This week sees the release of the latest in one of gaming's biggest franchises: Assassin's Creed.
In just a year Ubisoft Montreal has turned around Brotherhood – a game it insists is more than just Assassin's Creed 2.5. It adds multiplayer for the first time, and presents a game world bigger than any in the stab-em-up series.
On the eve of the its US launch (and only a couple of hours before Eurogamer's review goes live), we sit down with Assassin's Creed's design technical director Mathieu Gagnon to discuss the ups and down of Brotherhood's blisteringly fast development.
Eurogamer: How would you describe the experience you've had developing the game?
Mathieu Gagnon: Seeing as I've been on the Assassin's Creed franchise since Assassin's Creed 1, through different jobs – I was a tool tester on AC1 and a game designer on ACII - now being a technical director, it has definitely been a challenge.
The single-player aspect of the game was done in one year, basically. We finished off ACII, we went on vacation and started on Brotherhood. The multiplayer guys have been at it for a little bit longer, but pumping out a single-player game that's longer than the single-player game of ACII has been quite a challenge indeed in the one year we've had.
For me, it has been the experience of a lifetime. Hard work, long hours, but in the end, complete and total satisfaction with the final product.
Eurogamer: You're knackered?
Mathieu Gagnon: Oh yeah! We're going on vacation very soon.
Eurogamer: Time was a challenge, but was there any technical challenge you experienced?
Mathieu Gagnon: The Guild was a big challenge. The Thieves, Courtesans and Mercenaries on ACII were a first step, but we took it further with the use of the Assassins anywhere, anytime, during your missions. That was one of the biggest technical challenges – getting the Assassins to work properly inside the game.
The second was all the work we did on the horse. Getting the NPCs to ride correctly on the horses and getting the Assassin to fight correctly on the horse was a big challenge – all of this and making it seamless within the world.
The level design has implications with having the horse anywhere – it's the first time you can go inside the city with the horse. That came with its surprises along the way.
Eurogamer: Like what?
Mathieu Gagnon: The horse can jump, but you have to have a certain distance. You can't make that gap too long or else it doesn't look realistic. This added new constraints as far as building our world was concerned.
We had to go back and forth with the behaviour to make sure it properly worked with these constraints. It was an interesting challenge to add this new element to the game.
Eurogamer: Did you motion-capture the horse? How did you make it so realistic?
Mathieu Gagnon: We do have mo-cap sessions for characters. I'm not sure if we did it on animals, but we have very competent people. Regardless, when you mo-cap, you always have to go back and re-touch it by a human animator.
The guys did a fantastic job of doing so, because the result we have on screen is much better than in previous Assassin's games, and is a pleasure to watch.
Another thing our animators worked hard on was the fight system. Before, you were waiting for the enemies to attack you and taking that opportunity to counter attack. We switched that philosophy around for a strike first, strike fast approach.
Once you've killed your first enemy, that sets up a combo you can then chain all of the other enemies around you – provided you don't get hit or interrupted during this combo. It brings an interesting feel to the player. Also, it's visually exceptional because our animators changed a lot of the animations for the sword kills, dagger kills and the weapons we have in the game.
Eurogamer: What was the split between changes made based on fan feedback and those the team wanted to implement?
Mathieu Gagnon: The AC team in Montreal, we pride ourselves in listening to the feedback we get on every game we release and try to improve based on that.
AC1 got criticised for being repetitive. We came in with more gameplay and variety inside ACII – that was one of the main focuses we wanted to bring to it.
With Brotherhood we wanted to kick it up a notch because there were a lot of things left on the table during development of ACII. We always have our own ideas, but we do always listen to the feedback to make sure whatever gets criticised, we fix and make better.