Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood isn't Assassin's Creed III, and it'll arrive on store shelves only a year after Assassin's Creed II, but it's set to be one of the biggest games of 2010. Why? Because for the first time Assassin's fans will be able to stab up their friends as well as computer-controlled enemies.
This, associate producer Jean-Francois Boivin tells Eurogamer, is just one of the many reasons why Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is more than a mere spin-off. But that's not all the outspoken Ubisoft Montreal staffer has on his mind...
Click through to page two to read what Boivin has to say, or read on below for our impressions of the game's multiplayer. Hands-on report by Oli Welsh, interview by Wesley Yin-Poole.
Hide in plain sight. Get as close as you can to your target. Don't run when you can walk. Discretion is the better part of valour - and running away is the better part of discretion. Make no mistake, Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood's Wanted multiplayer mode - revealed at E3 - is not your everyday deathmatch.
The basic mechanics are the same - hunt rival players across a contained map - as is the kills-versus-deaths scoreline at the end. But the experience is completely different. Ubisoft's designers have focused exclusively on making you feel as much like an assassin as possible, and the result has a much slower pace - literally, since running makes you conspicuous - than your everyday fragfest. Through a number of clever design choices, it also has the potential to be one of the best realisations of stealth gameplay in a multiplayer scenario to date.
Before jumping in, you pick a stylish skin that will be unique to you - the masked Doctor, penitent Monk, saucy Courtesan and so on - and then a set of two special skills. Available on the left and right triggers, these form the tactical basis of your game, but can be swapped at each respawn. You then appear on the streets of Rome, the game assigns you one of the other players as a target - it might be that other players have the same target - and the hunt begins.
Crucially, the streets are thronged with ambling NPCs who all look like one of the player skins. Equally crucially - since it's almost impossible for a real person to behave like a computer - leave the pad untouched and your character will mill around automatically, exactly like one of the NPCs. A simple, brilliant evasive tactic.
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Under normal control you move at a slow walk, too, but you won't close in on your target like that. Hold down the right bumper for a "high profile" mode and you can run, climb and jump, following a radar that fills out as you get closer to your target. Get close enough and you're warned to stop running.
Don't, and the target will also get a warning and a radar tracker alerting them to your presence, and a high-speed foot chase, usually over rooftops, begins. If you elect to play it quiet, you can close in slowly on your target, using the left bumper to lock the camera on him or her, and executing your rival with one button push when you're breathing down their neck.
It's a simple, compelling and well-balanced mechanic and the three sets of special skills available for us to try all slotted neatly into it in interesting and different ways. One combines a speed boost while running with throwing knives for ranged kills, ideal for those high-profile chases. A more balanced set has a small pistol for medium-range assassinations and the ability to disguise yourself as one of the other skins for a short time.
A super-stealthy defensive set-up - my favourite - has a smoke bomb that immobilises anyone near you, and the ability to morph all nearby NPCs into your own appearance. Think someone's on your tail? Just sit on a bench, create copies of yourself, and leave the pad alone to get up and stroll away. Which is the real you?
Wanted is slow, it's tense, it's devious. By its very nature, death can come without warning, but the rich satisfaction in setting up your own furtive murders - and the change in pace when rooftop foot chases break out - balance that out well. It's heart-in-mouth fun that may have limited long-term appeal, but it shows the same kind of knack for novel, asymmetrical multiplayer that Ubisoft demonstrated with the legendary Spies-versus-Mercs mode of Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow back in 2004. We can't wait to see what other modes the developers have up their - scooped, knife-concealing - sleeves.
Eurogamer: Did you want to implement multiplayer from the very beginning?
Jean-Francois Boivin: For a few years now we've been dabbling with the idea. For us it was not a question of just slapping on multiplayer. It had to fit in the universe... We needed it to respect the pillars of our game: navigation, social stealth, fighting. So we went to the drawing board a couple of times...
It's refreshing. There's a huge dichotomy between ultra-hardcore multiplayer fans and hardcore fans of single-player. We're winking at that by, single-player would be the Assassins' story, but the multiplayer is the Templars' story. It's Abstergo's story. At the beginning of ACII, when you escape from Abstergo you have these animuses, and we're winking at what's to come.
Essentially, Abstergo is recruiting subjects and downloading or uploading genetic memories into their brain so the bleeding effect can take place. They can train in order to become Templars with assassin skills who fight fire with fire. That's the whole premise of it.
Eurogamer: Is Brotherhood's multiplayer primarily for the players who know what they're doing, then?
Jean-Francois Boivin: They'll definitely be rewarded if they know how to play Assassin's Creed and they play it in a finesse way. Being an assassin is about being a blade in a crowd. The original Hashshashin - that's what their job was, to assassinate people, to make political coups without anybody knowing what happened. All of a sudden somebody's dead, and you don't know who did it.
In the multiplayer you will be rewarded for stealth kills plus acrobatics, as opposed to just running around everywhere and trying to kill people. If you run around and you're right in somebody's face and there is a whole bunch of people there and you just stab him in the throat, you'll get a hundred points. If you, for example, decide to stay on a bench for three minutes and wait for your target to pass by and then kill him, then you'll get a stealth bonus.
So that one kill will give you more points than if you just ran around for three minutes trying to kill people. It rewards those who play with the environment, who play with the blade in the crowd concept.
Eurogamer: Numbers pop up on screen when you kill somebody. Did you look at Call of Duty when designing Brotherhood's multiplayer?
Jean-Francois Boivin: Well, first of all, Call of Duty did not invent that.
Eurogamer: But it popularised it.
Jean-Francois Boivin: Call of Duty popularised a lot of things, just by the fact that it's very, very popular. They're a great licence. I can't compare myself to Call of Duty. It's such a fantastic game, especially the multiplayer aspect. It would be dishonest for us to even try to do what they do.
We wanted to be ourselves and just stay ourselves. That's another thing - we went back to the drawing board a lot of times and said, "What actually works?" We did some playtests. If the resemblance is there, it's because people feel comfortable with the way that information is presented to them. If it has some resemblance, it's directly related to that more than, "Oh look at what these guys are doing, let's just copy these guys."
Eurogamer: Some are concerned that Brotherhood isn't as much of a game as Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed II because it has a subtitle. Can you understand why fans might have that reaction?
Jean-Francois Boivin: Very much so. Just the fact that it's the continuing story of Ezio, right? This is something that, through you guys, we need to communicate to the core fan base.
It's not a mission pack. It's not a 2.5. It's set in Rome, which is three times the size of Florence, which in of itself technologically is a challenge to do, just memory-wise. You have this enormous playground to play with. And you have these new features, these new elements that bring a new twist and a new angle to Ezio's story.
It's about Ezio teaching others how to become assassins. You do that by the actions you take. There are a lot of core features we worked on. We brought a lot of new, deep and vast features - the old Rome upgrade system, the economic system - the Brotherhood is a game in of itself.
Plus we're bringing everything people loved about Assassin's Creed II. We took each feature and said, "How can we make that feature better, or give it a bit of spice, a bit of Tabasco, or a bit of baby oil so it flows a bit better?" We will be extremely successful in convincing fans once they have the controller in their hands. Then the question is going to be, "How did they do it in a year?" That's going to be the question that's fun to answer later on.
Eurogamer: What about the concern that this game is coming out only a year after Assassin's Creed II was released?
Jean-Francois Boivin: There are a couple of reasons for it. First of all we have extremely stable tools. We've been building Anvil [the game engine] for six, seven years now. It's extremely stable. We have loads of tools that work super, super well.
Traditionally in a game development cycle we have conception, then we have pre-production to prove our concept. Once pre-production has been approved we go into production, and that's when we ramp up the number of resources.
As you've probably read everywhere, Assassin's Creed II had hundreds and hundreds of resources all over the world. At the peak of when you're about to ship is basically when you have the most people. Then you ramp down a bit. You don't need any more character modellers because you have all of them already. Things like that you need at the very beginning. You ramp down maybe 10 per cent of your staff.
But then when you start submitting you ramp down a lot. We didn't do that. We just stayed right up there and kept our production velocity, starting right away.
We already knew we wanted to do Rome. So the graphics team stayed the graphics team - bang, start building Rome really quickly. We know all our technical and design guidelines. How to build a city so Ezio can do some free-running? The AI guys - how you can improve on NPC AI? How can we improve on the horse? How can we improve on the fights? We started working on that right away.
Then the storyline. We already knew it was Ezio's story, and Patrice Désilets already knew what the story was. So it was quick for us to do a story blueprint. Maybe two weeks after the release of Assassin's Creed II we already had the story down, and we probably started writing a few pages of script. Casting was already underway.
The operative word here is velocity. And we still have people helping us. Our Singapore office is still working with us. The studio in Quebec City is helping us. It's a question of keeping going and making a full game in a year.
Eurogamer: Will it be a similar case when you finish Brotherhood?
Jean-Francois Boivin: I don't think so, man. Honestly, I think for the benefit of everybody - and business can come back and override everything I say because at the end of the day it's about selling games - personally I believe that this licence needs a breather. You can't plough a field every year. Once every three years - or once every something - you have to let it breathe. You have to let the minerals back in. I think it's the same thing with any licence, really.
We see a lot of the music games that are releasing year after year - the interest is a lot less than it used to be. The excitement is a lot less than it used to be. You want to keep people excited. You gotta make people miss it a bit. It's like, "Oh man! I'm so happy it's back!" But if you keep force-feeding it to people then people are like, "Yeah, enough of your Assassin's Creed."
I don't think there's going to be an Assassin's Creed in 2011. We're going to let it breathe a bit and focus on bringing something new and exciting for the next time around. This [Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood] is the end of Ezio's story. This is it.
Eurogamer: Where do you go next with Assassin's Creed?
Jean-Francois Boivin: I can't tell you that.
Eurogamer: Have you already thought about it?
Jean-Francois Boivin: We know exactly where we're going. It would lack vision and blunt intelligence to wing it episode after episode. We have to have some vision with the story. We very much do.
Eurogamer: So you know the location. Do you know the time frame?
Jean-Francois Boivin: We know all that stuff.
Eurogamer: Will the next game be Assassin's Creed III or the continuation of an established character's story?
Jean-Francois Boivin: I'll nibble on your hook. I can't directly answer your question. Of course you understand that. But what I can say is you have to remain true to what the licence is. It's the story of Desmond Miles, and it's the story of a machine called The Animus that reads genetic memories from your ancestors. It has to stay in there.
If it doesn't, then there's this whole justification that needs to happen. I go back to treating players with respect and doing it smart. It's important in a game filled with finesse on a storytelling side and a content side. If you don't do it then it becomes cheap. It becomes popcorn. It becomes Big Macs and cheeseburgers and bloody fries. It doesn't have any content to it. It doesn't have any meat to it.
Eurogamer: How long of a breather does Assassin's Creed need?
Jean-Francois Boivin: I really don't know. Bottom line, it's not for me to say. We have some business people that will eventually put a date and say, "This needs to come out." We have our creative people, who are also pushing on their end, saying, "We need this much time to do something new and refreshing, just scope-wise." So I don't know how much time we'll need.
Eurogamer: How much time do you feel is required?
Jean-Francois Boivin: If we skip a year, I think we're good. But yeah, I think we could do something true to the licence if we skip a year and release it in 2012 or 2013. We need to keep it fresh though; we need to keep it relatively close by, because we have to keep the interest there. I don't think we do a service to this licence if we pull a Duke Nukem on people, you know what I'm saying? It's hard to answer.
Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood is due out on the PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on 19th November.