With a line-up of titles including Rainbow Six: Vegas, Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Brothers In Arms Hell's Highway, Ubisoft had one of the strongest set of titles of any publisher at E3. With such big titles making appearances, you would think a game like Assassin's Creed would get overlooked. Thankfully that wasn't the case. As with many attendees of E3 this year, Assassin's Creed earns my vote for best of E3. Here's why.
Assassin's Creed puts players in the role of Altair, a stealthy white-robed assassin who, instead of using the shadows to conceal himself, must rely on blending in with crowds and swooping in for the kill. In fact, Assassin's Creed requires players to manipulate nearby crowds without drawing too much attention - something which Ubisoft repeatedly referred to as a social stealth system.
Taking place during the Third Crusade, the demo begins with Altair mounting a nearby horse and riding in to the city of Acre. According to Ubisoft, horseback riding will play a huge role in the game, being the preferred method of transportation for Altair as he travels from city to city.
Once in Acre, we caught our first glimpse of the social stealth system in play. Altair climbed a small building, before saving a screaming woman who was being harassed by two hoodlums. As fate would have it, the woman is associated with a group of monks who just so happen to be wearing similar robes as our hero.
'Altair can either walk slowly and give a gentle nudge to nearby NPCs, which will draw less attention to his presence, or he can rile things up by running past civilians and being much more aggressive with his pushes.'
Altair then leapt down to the city streets below and we were shown two different methods of interacting with the crowd. Altair can either walk slowly and give a gentle nudge to nearby NPCs, which will draw less attention to his presence, or he can rile things up by running past civilians and being much more aggressive with his pushes. In essence, the more of a hurry Altair is in, the more attention he draws. This also affects the way people interact with Altair: If he's in no rush and gently pushes aside an NPC, that character might not react and continue upon his or her daily business; however, when Altair is in a hurry, and starts shoving people aside, some NPCs might refuse to give in to his aggression and push right back, or even draw their swords.
But back to the social stealth system: Altair then attacked and killed an innocent civilian, causing the crowd to go bonkers and frantically flee the scene of the crime, while subsequently drawing the attention of a few nearby guards. Our assassin then ran towards the nearby monks who gladly welcomed him into their circle for his good will. Because Altair blended in with the monks, the crowd settled down and the guards returned to their posts.
Like Prince of Persia (after all, this game is designed by the same studio that made Sands of Time), Assassin's Creed is as much about cunning acrobatics as it is blending in with the crowd. You can run up walls, leap across giant chasms, and generally do everything you could in Prince of Persia. But the coolest aspect by far is that Altair can climb any ledge or object that sticks out by at least two inches. So, if you're standing next to a wall, and you think you might be able to climb it, chances are you can.
Next up Ubisoft demonstrated the combat system, proving once and for all that a good defence is a great offence. Altair has a confidence and energy meter that is used to determine how many blocks and counters he can perform. As he blocks, dives out of the way and counters each enemy, the meter depletes and his actions become less effective. The example of this we witnessed had Altair atop of a roof battling it out with a single guard - both men armed. The guard first took a quick swipe, which Altair easily blocked. Then the guard lunged forward and Altair parried his attack, side stepped around him and plunged his sword into the guard's back. Because the system is meant to be realistic, we were reminded that getting into fights with multiple guards is hardly recommended. As Altair's attacks are, for the most part, defence manoeuvres, once his meter is depleted, he's open for attack, and will likely be hacked down by those pursuing him.
As the demo continued, Ubisoft demonstrated an assassination, which took place in three parts: Tracking the target, killing the target, and finally, the escape. For the tracking aspect of the mission, Altair was shown leaping from building to building until he was looking down upon a crowd where the target supposedly was. An icon in the form of an eye then appeared in the top right of the screen. By pressing triangle, Altair entered a sort of enhanced vision mode that Ubisoft referred to as 'Assassin's Intuition', where he was able to spot the glowing target. Next up was the assassination.
Further assessment of the area revealed that a group of monks, similar to the ones who helped Altair before, were moving about the area below. Altair then dropped down in to an alleyway (if you were to drop from the roof of a building in to a crowded area, you would rouse the guards' suspicions) and then proceeded to follow the monks as they moved closer and closer to the target. Finally Altair broke off from the group, snuck behind the general, and thrust his sword through the target's back. Mission accomplished... well, sort of. Now Altair had to escape.
The slaying obviously caused quite a stir, and the inevitable chase began. As Altair ran around the streets, some innocents moved out of his way, while others (who favoured the guards) tried blocking his way. With the guards closing in on his position, Altair then took advantage of his surroundings by slicing through the supports of some scaffolding overhead, sending it tumbling down and ultimately blocking the guards' pursuit.
The demo then ended with Ubisoft purposely killing Altair. This was a little odd at first, but it was so we could see a secret Ubisoft had up its sleeve. A futuristic looking HUD appeared with a woman looking directly at the screen. I wasn't able to hear what she was saying as her voice was muffled by Ubisoft's reminders that this game does not involve time travel whatsoever. Exactly what this end sequence means is unclear, but it certainly suggests the game isn't going to be exactly what we thought it would be.
Assassin's creed was a little rough around the edges at times, with NPCs appearing out of thin air and a patchy frame rate spoiling things somewhat, but these issues are to be expected in a game that isn't due until early 2007. With such fluid animations, already gorgeous graphics, and a combat and stealth system to die for, it was easy to put this at the top of my most wanted list. Expect Assassin's Creed to hit store shelves in Q1 2007, for the time being only on PlayStation 3.