Out of all the publishers at this year's E3, Ubisoft housed some of the most impressive games at the entire show, so much so that we had to wait for a certain Steven Spielberg to finish admiring their wares before we could squeeze into a tiny all-white demo room that was showing off its next big hope, Assassin's Creed. Made by an all-star Montreal team comprised of members that contributed to various incarnations of Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six, the buzz surrounding the game is understandably high already.
Coming next year to PlayStation 3 (and almost certainly other platforms too, but Ubi's not ready to announce those as yet), this open-ended third person action adventure seems determined to shoehorn in all the best bits of Oblivion, Prince of Persia, Splinter Cell, Thief, Hitman and even GTA into one hugely impressive whole. Even after just 15 minutes in the company of the game, it's apparent that this isn't a title many of you will be able to ignore over the next 12 months or so.
The official word on the game so far (of which there isn't much, sorry) speaks of the game being set in 1191 under the rule of Richard Lionheart, at a time when "the Third Crusade was tearing the holy land apart". Rather like an ancient version of Third Echelon, the Assassins operate under conditions of extreme secrecy and plot to put an end to the hostilities by "suppressing both sides of the conflict". The Sam Fisher of this particular affair is Altair (an Arabic name meaning 'the flying eagle' - the significance of which we'll discuss later), a wrist-blade wielding cold-eyed killer who apparently has "the power to throw their immediate environment into chaos and shape events during this pivotal moment in history." He certainly has the ability to whip out concealed swords or fire off arrows and pull off deadly murders at a moment's notice, that's for sure.
A few of you might be muttering about you don't get on with medieval settings, but hold onto your impatient horses for a moment. One thing actually seeing the game suggested is that the game might not strictly be set in the ancient past. With some sort of futuristic (possibly time-travelling) element evident in the top left hand side of the HUD, there's much more to the game than perhaps Ubi is letting on.
For now, at least, the focus is very much on introducing some of the more basic elements of the game, such as showing us a bustling, richly detailed medieval city, some of the freedom available to you, the basic combat mechanics at your disposal and an insight into some of the crowd dynamics.
At the start of the demo we're show Altair riding into town on horseback, immediately drawing comparisons with Oblivion. Running in a far from optimised state, the game's still exceptionally beautiful to behold, with detailed rolling landscape giving way to intricate medieval architecture that gives a more seamless impression of a proper sandbox environment (as opposed to the walled cities favoured by Bethesda's opus).
Strolling into one of the three bustling cities in the game itself, Altair mixes unnoticed among a throng of impoverished looking fellow citizens that won't bother you unless you start doing things to draw attention to yourself.
Unlike Rockstar North's classics, or even the more recent Oblivion, the thing to note is how advanced and convincing the crowd spectacle actually is in comparison. Instead of each person looking like the usual variations on a theme, each NPC we could see was dressed differently, was facially unique and all moved around with a degree of diverse realism that has eluded videogames up to now. Better still was the way Altair moved past everyone, rather like you would if you were trying to snake your way through a crowded bar or train platform. Instead of just barging past people, he inconspicuously used his hands to hold people to one side to slink through without knocking into them. Key to your success is blending in, because even a deadly assassin might struggle an angry mob - especially, for example, heavily armed guards.
Rather like a more advanced set of GTA crowd dynamics, if you start shoving people around, or jumping around and acting strange and suspicious in any way you can expect people to respond in kind, changing facial expressions to reflect surprise. If you attack someone, for example, people won't just scatter and scream in dumb uniform panic, but do so in a coherent, believable manner at the sight of someone writhing in pain. Some might flee in panic, others might act the vigilante and make it tough for you to get away, some might just stop and stare. As expected, choice is just as important to Assassin's Creed as any next generation videogame, and if being aggressive is how you want to play it, then you will have the ability to be as brutal and surly as you want, shoving innocents out of the way and creating havoc wherever you travel. Sometimes it's fun just to see what could happen.
In common with Splinter Cell and Prince of Persia, the control flexibility of the lead character is fundamental to the gameplay, with the Ubisoft rep pointing out that Altair can grab hold of any surface that extends more than two inches. With so many games still designed around dated principles of what you can and cannot climb up, Assassin's Creed adopts a much looser approach. In motion it's an incredibly fluid system that works beautifully in tandem with the slick hand-drawn animation, and it'll be interesting to see whether giving players a much freer means of negotiating the environment makes for a more intuitive, more logical gaming experience. In some sense, when we see Altair climbing up buildings and hopping between rooftops, it immediately reminds us of some of the Two Thrones levels - something the designer admits was an influential factor - albeit with the kind of freedom you always craved.
Dinner dinner catman
In motion, the real revelation is how natural and athletic it all looks, with superb transitional animations making everything look possible. As Altair scales buildings, it's fluid and graceful, like a human with feline abilities. The fact that the movement system was inspired by the rooftop-hopping freerunning sport (the BBC employed some of these maniacs for its series of transition clips a few years back, you may recall) is evident. Think of it as a more natural evolution of Prince of Persia's movement set, hopping gracefully from beam to beam.
Gaining a high vantage point, a scripted element in the demo mission kicked in to show us how Altair's 'eagle eye' abilities work. With the target glowing below (rather like the Ready Brek kid) and the edge of the screen stylishly blurred for effect, Altair was able to easily work out where his victim lay. In one instance the Ubi rep demonstrated how we could mingle with a group of clergymen and swiftly use the wrist knife to kill our target, while in another we attempted it using our bow from a high vantage point. Again, the choice is there; one is more accurate and more reliable, while the other gives you a potentially quicker escape route over rooftops.
If you're on the ground, though, the panic that ensues is tricky to simply run away from. One thing not immediately apparent in the demo is the momentum system that Ubi is using for when Altair runs. As with real life, the faster you run the harder it becomes to maintain your footing. Trying to leg it at speed might seem the obvious solution, but be prepared to stumble if something gets in your path. In fact, this is exactly the scenario our demo man wanted to play out, as despite showing off some brutal counter attacks (stepping to one side, avoiding a blow and grabbing the assailant's head and violently smashing him to the floor one such example), the angry mob's sheer weight of numbers eventually got the better of Altair and knocked him out, with the screen distorting to fade. System offline you say? What's that all about? Curiouser and curiouser. Is Altair being controlled by someone in the future? Has he travelled back in time to change the course of history?
Whatever they're up to, Assassin's Creed is arguably Ubi's most exciting new title since it hit us with a Splinter Cell-Prince of Persia double whammy back in 2002. With incredibly graceful animation, open-ended and extremely beautiful environments, advanced AI and the promise of slick combat, there's every reason to suggest that this could be another enormous success for Ubisoft. As soon as we get our first hands-on, we'll be sure to report back with how this intriguing looking title is shaping up.
Assassin's Creed is due for release in 2007. A PlayStation 3 release has been confirmed, but speculation is rife that it will also come to the Xbox 360 as well.