At E3 in Los Angeles last month, there were several obvious points of distinction between Assassin's Creed Origins and the 10 or so major Assassin's Creed games before it. It will be the first AC in ancient Egypt. The first with stargazing puzzles and swimming hippos. One thing I heard about but didn't see, however, seems the most franchise-shaking.
The innovation I'm talking about involves a combination of the game's new quest structure and its artificial intelligence. It results in missions that involve players doing Assassin's Creed things and interacting in signature Assassin's Creed ways with characters who don't sit still like they did in older games. In a change for the series, many non-player characters in this new late-October game will move through the game world like clockwork.
"We developed this new technology to be able to populate thousands of human [non-player characters and] animals that have a life, have a persistency, that have schedules, that have places to go to sleep, places to go eat, go to the bathroom, work," the game's creative director Ashraf Ismail explained at a showcase hosted by Ubisoft as about a dozen people played the E3 build of the game in a room behind him. "This is married into the quest structure."
I needed an example to understand the significance of the change, and Ismail obliged, telling me about an assassination side mission in the game involving a guy who has his own routine: "He's a target. You have to go after him. Through the quest you find pieces of info about his life. During the day he's out scouring the land on his chariot. At night, he goes home to his fort and sleeps in his cabin.
The idea is: 'There you go: you have that info, he's your target. Do what you want.' Do you want to go in through the stealth approach to fight him? Do you want to go out in the open world where he is on a chariot and is an awesome vehicle combat situation? But it's a completely different situation. We play around with this a lot."
You can see elements of this in other games where the world functions differently if it's day or night. When the sun sets in various Zelda games, for example, skeletal enemies emerge from Hyrule field. Nights in Minecraft's adventure mode also trigger monstrous attacks. Ismail's example is more tantalising, since Assassin's Creed has always been a game about hunting people down.
If their location and activities change throughout the day, that has a lot of potential. Players will be given the ability to change the game from sun-up to sun-down at any time by pressing R3 on their controller, which offers a hint as to how meaningful the day-night switches may be.
Ismail said that Origins will still have missions that advance the game's main story, and it still has a big story to tell about our protagonist assassin Bayek the origins of the assassin's brotherhood. He was proud at E3, though, to talk about the richness of the game's myriad sidequests, all triggerable in the world and tied to shorter narrative loops.
"We did a lot of research on Egypt and what we found was there were a ton of stories, hundreds of stories that [involved] super-cool characters, people, real-life people who did really interesting things," he said. "We wanted to be able to propose these stories to players, so that's why we went with a quest structure."
Here are other things Ismail shared about Assassin's Creed Origins:
It draws some unexpected inspirations from the previous Ismail-helmed Assassin's Creed, the Caribbean pirate adventure Black Flag (and, whoops, might have had a different name before, one you may have heard about):
Ismail: "One thing we took from Black Flag is we wanted the wilderness element. We wanted the fact that it's more than cities. It's a countryside. That you can be lost in a forest or lost in a desert. This was important in the world.
"In terms of game systems, we had the naval combat and the progression system from that and this is something we took away from that and said, 'OK, can we blow that up and make the game really about that and that's where the action-RPG element really came in for Empire... [laughs] for Assassin's Creed Origins.
"Why did we want to go that route? We wanted the gameplay depth, the rewards mechanism that comes from that. We wanted to be able to put tons of rewards in the world, from quests, activities, meeting characters in the world, going to locations ... we wanted to make sure the world made sense, that it wasn't just a collectible but had a gameplay value."
They have removed the mini-map for good reasons... Ismail: "The world is really beautiful. Our artists, our tech engineers, our level designers, they put so much love and effort into the world that we wanted players to keep their eye in the world. We felt we didn't need it."
And you can de-clutter the game's interface at will is nice, but, please, game designers, you don't have to do every single thing that Kirk Hamilton is always banging on about: "You have options to turn off the HUD, have a light HUD or heavy HUD."
The combat system is no longer "paired," meaning the player and the enemies no longer pull toward each other for each attack, instead working in a way that will make player skill and differences among weapons matter more: "We went with a hitbox system. In layman's terms, you swing your weapon, if somebody's there, they're getting hit. If they're not, well, you swung at open air and maybe opened yourself up to attack.
"The reason we wanted this is because of the gameplay depth that we wanted to have. We wanted to make sure combat had a long curve of talent, of depth. We wanted the player to care about the weapon they have. How does this weapon attack? Its length, its speed, my position, the number of enemies around me and where they are. So, fighting with a spear is very different than fighting with a khopesh or dual swords."
There will be boss battles, a rarity for this series, if you don't count that one fight with the pope: Ismail: "We wanted boss fights in the game. We really wanted an AC with boss fights. So we've littered the world with tons of optional content to fight bosses, but also in the main questline."
There is some naval stuff in the game. Ismail says it's too early to be talking about that, even though there's a pre-order incentive that promises access to the "Ambush at Sea naval mission": Ismail: "There is the simple kind of boat combat between the little boats you've seen in the demo. In terms of the bigger ships… There is naval combat to a certain degree, but it's in select missions and I think at this point in the campaign we're not talking about it too much. There is an element of it but it's not in the calibre of the size of Black Flag."
There may or may not be modern day elements, but Ismail says it's too early to be talking about that, either: Ismail: "We're not talking about modern day at this point in the campaign."
As our interview wrapped, I asked Ismail about that comment he made about "hundreds" of stories his team had learned about ancient Egypt. In a livestream earlier that day, he'd mentioned that they'd put that many in the game. He assured me there was a lot and, perhaps catering to my affinity for the series, told me he was excited about a lot of the things they'd hidden in remote parts of the game. There would be treats for long-time fans, he said, that would make exploring the game's vast world worth it. I thanked him for his time and went off to wait my turn to play.