You can assassinate a bear in Assassin's Creed III. You can run around the battle of Bunker Hill, flanking the British to surprise them in their camp.
You can go to the frontier and relax in a tree.
You can help found a nation.
You will be able to do so many excellent things in October 2012's Assassin's Creed III. I learned that several weeks ago, when a few of the top people working on what is supposed to be the biggest Assassin's Creed game ever traveled to New York to show off what they've been making, mostly in secret, for the past 2 1/2 years.
Their demo was one of the most impressive debut showings I've seen for a big-budget video game in many years. You may have heard about Assassin's Creed III already. You may have caught the leaks and the Game Informer cover story. There is much, much more to share:
- Assassin's Creed III tells the epic story of Connor Ratohnhaké:ton, a member of the Mohawk tribe who volunteers to join the Assassins guild. "He's a guy who joins the Assassins as an outsider," the game's creative director Alex Hutchinson, says. He was born a member of the Mohawk Nation. Why he has joined the assassins is key to the story.
- The story should feel as grand as Assassin's Creed II's sweeping multi-decade tale of Ezio Auditore. "The problem with Ezio's story — or the challenge of it — was that after that big, juicy story in ACII, the possibility space shrinks down," Hutchinson said, referring to the smaller tales of the 2010 and 2011's Assassin's Creed Brotherhood and Assassin's Creed Revelations, respectively. "He's already older. These major events in his life have taken place. You run out of room. The cool thing about a new hero is that we get to do this all over again. Who is he? Why is he here? All of his background. He's born as a member of the Mohawk nation, but why does he join the Assassins? What's his motivating force? What kind of guy is this? Who does he know? All these things are new for us. The story of how he joins the Assassins, why he has to leave his tribe, how he gets involved in the American Revolution are the meat and potatoes of this story."
- Some of the key beats of Connor's story: see your village destroyed, confront the unwillingness of your tribe to act, pushed to join the assassins, fight for freedom, create a country.
- The actor playing Connor is of Native American heritage. He is half-Blackfoot.
- Subtitles in certain places. Scenes involving Mohawk characters speaking to each other are being recorded in the native language.
- Connor is an ancestor of Desmond Miles, the modern-day true protagonist of the AC series. The creators of the game won't yet say how the men are related.
- "Desmond is going to be a bigger part of this game than ever before," says Hutchinson, but otherwise we're getting no details any time soon about what's going on in AC III's progression of the portion of the game presumably set in the year 2012 on the precipice — if the previous games' narratives are to be believed — of an apparently apocalyptic event.
- The game's main section, featuring Connor, takes place from around 1753-1783. "You are not winning the Revolution," creative director Alex Hutchinson says. "The Revolution is in the game's background." Some of the game's themes: liberty or death, power and slavery, control vs. freedom. Its player fantasies: be a nation's pioneer, help found a country, inspire the world to fight for freedom.
- The game's major cities are New York and Boston. "They are going to be big, big playable environments," Hutchinson said. The cities won't resemble modern New York and Boston, save for a landmark here or there. "Unlike European cities, which are sort of made of stone and have stuck it out over time, America has a habit of burning everything down and rebuilding it. Even though it's familiar, it's not."
- The cities won't feel like the cities of prior AC games. "Instead of stone structures, we have wood structures. Instead of flat roofs, we have sloped roofs, instead of tight, winding, narrow streets, we have big avenues. All these things change the feeling of the game."
- The "big new setting" for AC III is the frontier, a region that is 1 1/2 times the size of Assassin's Creed Brotherhood's massive and geographically diverse Rome. Some 30% of the game's missions will occur there as will a great deal of player-driven exploration. Missions may involve the Battles of Lexington and Concord and George Washington's camp at Valley Forge. Players will find animals and outposts on the frontier. If Connor is just a face in the crowd in the game's cities, out in the frontier, he'll be a man against nature in the wilderness.
- Animals are a big part of AC III, though they won't appear as easily as they did in Red Dead Redemption, the Rockstar Games open-world frontier epic that the AC III team deeply admires. "We want to make it more of a time investment and strategic investment to find animals," Hutchinson said, distinguishing the two games' approach to wildlife. "We also don't just want people shooting them. .. If you go out and shoot a bear with buckshot, it's not a good rug. .. You should be assassinating animals. You should be hunting them, trapping them or killing them carefully. And then you get different results, which leads to different systems. We didn't want a character who laid waste to animals 'I laid waste to 180 bears,100 deer,' and all that sort of stuff."
- Animals are a big deal, but not a big a deal as trees. Climbing trees is is the game's big new gameplay element, and the developers can't stop talking about it or showing it in nearly every trailer or piece of gameplay footage they can cue up. They show Conor climbing trees, swinging around their trunks, skipping from tree branch to tree branch with the agility of a squirrel and, in what appears to be a new signature pose, standing in the V created by the spit of two trunks or branches, arms stretched to the sides, with a look of comfort you'd normally see from a man leaning against a wall. They want you to feel that Connor is "able to relax in branches."
- Trees are the new buildings. "Our goal with the assassin was to make him as capable in the wilderness as Ezio and Altair were in cities, to do this for a forest," Hutchinson said. "For us, trees are 3D navigable space. You'll be able to go up trees, along that branch level, moving around. Some of the early fantasies we were talking about — it's fun to reference movies to get the team to paint a picture in their mind-if you think of the Predator, the original movie, not being [Arnold Schwarzenegger's soldier character] but being the Predator and the Redcoats being Arnie and [his] guys. This unseen force picking them off one-by-one from the trees? This is what we wanted. We want you to be a terrifying force of nature in that spot."
- There is weather. Fog will set in, compelling players to use a revamped version of the series' Eagle Vision. It will rain, though Connor won't slip and slide. And there will be snow. A lot of it.
- Winter will matter. Every region of the game will have a winter and summer version. The winter versions, covered in snow, will evoke the treachery of 18th century cold, where fighting men died more from the elements than from each other. Connor won't have to be a survivalist in the winter. He will still seem capable, but heavy snow will slow everyone. "We wanted to get away from winter [and snow] being a texture swap on the ground, like a white rock, basically." Hutchinson said. "We wanted to get away from the notion that it didn't matter, that it had no gameplay that it was just kind of pretty and only happened at the top of tall mountains."
- Snow slows you down, and it slows the enemies. "Snow pushes you to trees," Hutchinson said. "Other characters will struggle in it, which allows you to hunt them."
- There is some sort of system involving ice, possibly involving hiding below it to ambush troops, but the developers aren't getting specific about it yet.
- "The toy" is important. And a mystery. "We've done a lot of work on side missions, what we call 'the toy' — like, other things to do," Hutchinson said. "I'm not allowed to talk about it." Yet.
- Connor won't drive vehicles in the game. But wagons will be a common sight. One carrying hay made for a mobile hiding spot in a recent AC III gameplay demo. Picture diving from a high perch into a mound of hay, as you would in older games in the series, but then having that hay hauled off. Make your own Trojan Horse, as it were.
- By the time it is released, ACIII will have been in development for 2 1/2 years, according to Ubisoft, the longest development cycle for an AC game since the series' original instalment.
- The new game is supposed to be the franchise's largest. Says Hutchinson: "We are making the biggest AC game yet, in terms of physical size and gameplay time and in terms of new mechanics and things to do."
- The creators say the game has "twice the production capacity of the Ezio trilogy," whatever that exactly means. It probably means that they've put a horde of people on this game.
- The series' controls will be revamped and some change in locomotion will now allow Connor to scramble above or below things as he flees from pursuers or gives chase.
- The developers talk of doubling the number of bones in characters' faces and switching to higher-res versions of characters on the fly during close-in conversation scenes. They're proud to say they're doing simultaneous voice-capture, motion-capture and facial-animation-capture.
- One of the things the developers hope you'll notice — because it's really hard to do — is Connor's ability to walk and fight on uneven terrain. "The goal was to make this completely organic, to get away from video game ideas of everything being flat surfaces and careful, boxy shapes," Hutchinson said. "There is a reason why a lot of games do fights on flat surfaces. It's because it's horrendous to try and do it on uneven terrain. We think it's going to be a big deal for players when they finally see it." The developers are afraid, however, that standing, running or even tussling with someone on a slope is such an ordinary thing in real life that players won't even realise the special breakthrough the team is making by enabling it in their game.
- You shouldn't see that many familiar moves from Connor. "Our goal is to have no animations that were part of the previous games except the ones that we feel are iconic," Hutchinson said, nothing that the iconic swan dive will remain.
- Multiplayer will return. "There will be an evolution of that in the experience," says producer Francois Pelland, who guesses they'll elaborate at this year's E3 in June.
- There is an amazing trailer for AC III that you may never see. You can see pieces of it in the debut commercial for the game. But the full thing, made 1 1/2 years ago, probably looks too good for the developers at Ubisoft to ever show you since no modern engine can make things look quite that good. The footage showed an early version of Connor walking through a Patriots camp in the forest, past boys pretending to be George Washington and then leaping to the trees to ambush redcoats. The pre-rendered video wasn't running in a game engine, but it faked it, displaying a topographical mini-map. Forget if you could see this... it would be amazing if you could play it, but there's no way that today's consoles could make a game that looks that good. Still, the fact that this video was made as long ago as Ubisoft says it was, proves that ACIII was deep in development while other recent Assassin's Creed games we also being made.
- The old "target gameplay video" showed Connor scalp a British Redcoat, but scalping was removed from the game. "It felt too brutal," Hutchinson said.
- The developers already have more than 10 minutes of slick, seemingly complete ready-for-E3 gameplay demo footage that features Connor in the forest, on a wharf in Boston and at the Battle of Bunker Hill.
- The highlights of the forest section are... an encounter with a black bear, which ends better for Connor than for the bear. "We also didn't want you to be able to fistfight bears, obviously " Hutchinson laughs. "There's two ways to kill animals. Obviously, pistols at a distance. Or you can assassinate. The combat system for animals is the same as characters. If someone attacks you, you can counter. If you wanted to, he could have countered the bear, pushed him away and run off. Or he could have killed him as he did."
- ...and the discovery, from the treetops, of a column of Redcoats. These enemies signify a change in the fight of this game compared to its predecessors. Our assassin is no longer just fighting guards. He's fighting enemies. They march. They use tactics. They're often include a drummer who directs the troops and who is an ideal target for breaking up the units.
- The highlight of the Boston section is what is called a chase-breaker. Connor has barged past some Redcoat guards, who give chase. What would be a standard run through an Assassin's Creed city's street changes radically when a woman in a second-story window opens some shutters to breath in the fresh air. Connor, clambering over a stall in the middle of the road, turns 90 degrees to his right and runs through the open window, shocking the woman. He zips through the interior of her house and out the window on other side, losing his predecessors in one of the coolest moments an Assassin's Creed development team has ever shown to the press.
- The highlight of the Bunker Hill sequence is its overall scale. Thousands of Imperial and Colonial forces battle on screen, while Cannon flanks the musket fire and cannon shot to sneak into the enemy camp and perform one of the series' new running assassinations on a Redcoat target.
- The demos appear to run on the PlayStation 3, continuing the AC series tradition of treating that hardware as something other than an afterthought.
- The crowd in the Boston section is impressively lively. The news crier shouts, men work, a lady falls and drops fruit and a thief runs by to steal it. A dog barks. "We had two major goals with the crowd," Hutchinson said. "The first one is that no one should be repeating anything… everyone should have purpose in the scene, and everyone should be unique. ... But, also, they should be aware of each other and of you. So no more people passing without any notion that other people are near them. We wanted to tackle this really difficult problem. I see it as kind of a behaviour uncanny valley, because we all know what people do when someone stands too close to you. There's all this subtlety in human behaviour. But even if you have someone dropping things, we want other characters around to be triggered by [artificial intelligence] to potentially steal them, to interact with them, all the sort of stuff to make the world much more emergent, much more believable and much more solid."
- Connor will often enter into the middle of scenes. The developers are trying to "eliminate the notion of mission-givers being guys with exclamation marks over their head, these people just waiting for you," according to Hutchinson. "Lots of time in the game, scenes are in progress when you arrive."
- Guns suck in late 18th century. "Even though enemies have guns, luckily they're inaccurate," Hutchinson says. "The goal as a player is to close the distance, get in close and stay in close combat."
- Connor is a master of dual-wielding. He fights with two hands, mixing tomahawk and knife, hidden blade and knife or other combos.
- He can use enemies as human shields, chain kills as in AC: Brotherhood and counter-kill two enemies at once, as in Revelations.
- Connor has a rope dart that he can use to hang people from trees with. It's more of a lure than a projectile weapon. An earlier, more aggressive version was more of tethered knife that was thrown from a standing position and then reeled in. "It felt too fantasy, " Hutchinson said. "It started to feel like Scorpion in Mortal Kombat."
- The game's got dogs. They're there in the cities for ambience and, in some missions, you can give a dog something to smell and then have it track down the scent for you.
- The game's got children, a series first. Unlike other civilians, they will be unkillable. "We wanted them in the world, and we don't think there's any awesomeness in letting people kill kids," Hutchinson says. "And even if you did it accidentally, or you did it once to see what would happen, it sort of colours your experience of the whole game. And it's slightly distasteful. So we were just like… lock them out."
- Players will be able to summon some sort of fighting brotherhood, as they have in the last two games, but there will be twists. "The story is definitely not about building the brotherhood, but we like the idea of you having buddies that you can call on," Hutchinson said. "We have a whole new system for how you get them, what they can do, again, is being rebuilt."
- The game's story is designed to surprise you. "We have some serious twists," Hutchinson says, "We have a goal with this story of being unpredictable. In other words, in a game where someone says, 'Go meet Jim' and Jim is there and says, 'Hi, I'm Jim,' it's tedious. It's no surprise. There need to be things you're asked to do that twist and turn and change. And surprise you. And I guarantee you, that that's the story."
- The game includes at least one major historical deviation that they'll note as it occurs, but they are otherwise trying to stick to a feeling of earnest historical fiction, not fantasy.
- The developers estimate that 80% of the named characters in AC III were real people. Major members of the supporting cast include the legendary George Washington and Benjamin Franklin as well as the superb military commander Charles Lee and Native American expert William Johnson.
- Ben Franklin, who didn't really fly that kite, won't be playing the role of Assassin's Creed II's Leonardo Da Vinci, the loyal buddy-inventor. "He is not inventing tools for you," Hutchinson says. "At first, we did what everyone did and said, 'Oh my god, we've got another famous inventor. Great! This fits cleanly.' And then, after about six months, we realised that's terrible. That's a terrible idea. It's too familiar. .. And then when we were reading [about him, we realized] he's in America for like three months. He's in France for 90% of the war. So even then, we can't have him be your buddy who's hanging out with you. He's in France."
- You'll be killing real historical figures, hard as that was for the development team to achieve. "History is this big challenge," Hutchinson says. "It's a huge, rich resource to mine. But then, half the time, it doesn't do what you wanted it to do. People didn't die a lot in the revolution. Common people did. Famous people did. Finding people to kill was six, seven months of [returning Assassin's Creed I, II and III writer Corey May] reading to find people who died…Every assassination target is a real person who dies at the right time at the right place. How they died we'll let you get a little bit artistic."
We'll have more about Assassin's Creed III in the coming days. If you have questions about the new game, fire away in the comments.