“So. Yet another Assassin’s Creed,” quips Ubisoft senior producer Vincent Pontbriand to laughs from the crowd of journalists. “This one is the best yet, of course.”
Plus ça change. Another year, another Assassin’s Creed. Actually, there are no fewer than four upcoming Assassin’s Creed titles right now, but this is the only one that matters: it’s the first in the series developed exclusively for the PS4 and Xbox One, meaning it’s the first ever game in the series developed for the generation of consoles released in 2013, not 2006.
A lot of truth is said in jest though, and when Ubisoft chiefs are cracking jokes about the relentless nature of the series, you know the company has at least heard fans’ complaints about the annualisation of its biggest franchise. They need you to know that the new platforms really do mean a line in the sand.
That’s why we’re here at the Musée de l'Armée in Paris, the country’s biggest military museum, for the first ever playable preview of the game’s core story campaign. It’s a fitting setting for the game, which takes place in the city during the French revolution, putting you in the boots of Arno Dorian, a decidedly less thuggish protagonist than last year’s Welsh sociopath Edward Kenway.
Of course, the challenge still remains the same: run around the city (lovingly recreated in a 1:1 aspect ratio for the very first time in the series), finding a nice vantage point and dropping down on your victim with your patented wrist stabber. And therein lies the challenge for lead developer Ubisoft Montreal, which began work on the game almost four years ago, immediately after the release of Brotherhood. How do you keep fans coming back for more, so often?
“It’s always hard when you have an existing IP to try and bring it to the next level without changing its core values,” explains Pontbriand. “So we hope you get a chance to appreciate the changes we made.”
In a ballroom in the Hôtel National Des Invalides, we’re given the chance to play through several sequences early on in the story to get a feel for what those changes are. Over the course of a couple of hours, we scale bell towers, get lost in catacombs and wander around the slums of northern arrondissements in search of Macguffins and Robespierre’s informants.
The controls have changed (handily, there’s now a button to climb down as well as up, and crouch) but it’s the combat where the change is most immediate. Arno is not a hulking brute, or some lithe MMA expert. He’s a skinny guy, better suited to the shadows: it’s no longer a piece of tasty royal cake to pull off counter-kills. If you’re caught out in the open by more than three guards, you’re almost certainly going to die unless you run away.
As a result, stealth is your friend. The good news is that you’ll often have more than one route to an assassination attempt. One such job, and the highlight of our preview, takes place inside Notre Dame, recreated in all its hulking glory. You can try and slip in through the front door while the crowds are busy burning books outside, or you can steal the key to the towers and enter undetected, providing you can scale the cathedral: it’s so tall that finding the right way up is a serious task. Once you’re inside, you can nip between pews and bookshelves to stay out of sight or crawl through the rafters to find your prey.
It’s all open to you, in other words, which is key to what Ubisoft is trying to attempt with Unity. You can explore the entire city from the get go, and more importantly, roam right through it. Many buildings have open windows, doors and staircases to lose people in pursuit through (you could run into a tenement, dash up the stairs and leap out onto the roof in the same direction you came in), and they all load seamlessly in the background, along with those vast crowds of hundreds.
The rabble is not just a decorative afterthought, like the crowds in a game of FIFA: the characters in it are all separately animated, and can either severely slow Arno down or provide useful cover. Visually, certainly, this is a next-gen Assassin’s Creed. That must have been no small task, we suggest to the game’s creative director, Alex Amancio.
“It was very difficult. There were certain projections of what the new consoles were. I worked on Far Cry 2 which was the same thing, it was for the Xbox 360 and PS3 before those consoles were really set up. It takes a different type of skill set because it’s the type of thing where you need to project something. There’s the technology: you need to be able to figure out what these machines are going to be able to pump out. You need to make everything a little bit scalable. But it’s also in predicting what gaming patterns are going to be three or four years from then.”
This is where Ubisoft’s embrace of co-op play for the first time ever in the series comes in. You can now pair up with a friend to take on standalone assassination missions, or three others to pull off heists, using your own customised character to their advantage (you can progress as a scout or a lockpick, for instance, making certain routes in a mission much more viable) and tagging targets for synchronized kills and extra points.
“If you look at two generations ago again, Xbox, it was a world dominated by single player games,” says Amancio. “This previous generation it was multiplayer games, it was the multiplayer generation, a lot of games where you waited in a lobby and then you played a match. This new generation is going to be more of a social generation. It’s more about sharing the experience rather than waiting in the lobby for a certain amount of time, it’s more seamless. So this was a bet we made a while ago, we went with co-op.”
Assassin’s Creed has had multiplayer for years, but this is the first time you’ve been able to team up like this, and it works, to an extent. In tandem, assassinations give you that adrenaline rush of calling in your brotherhood to swoop down, but you and a friend are acting in concerto.
Four player heists meanwhile seem more like a game of who can stab the guards first rather than a truly co-operative team mission and a bit of a bloody muddle, but our characters hadn’t developed to the point where one could act as scout and another as a fighter, so it might be too early to say. Coming up with a co-op mode that didn’t just end in multiple clones of Arno tripping over himself was a challenge, Amancio says.
“It was a technical feat and a technical struggle from the very beginning up until the very end. When we began testing we very soon realised that what we wanted to reproduce the single player experience of Assassin’s Creed but to be able to share it with friends. And then we began experimenting with that fun.
"We very quickly realised that complementary was key: if you are the stealth guy you will move around in the crowd and I’m the fight guy, he will tag enemies for me and I’ll go around and kill them. It started to be fun and we started to see patterns where players would take on roles automatically and start really coupling each other, which led us to customization. If you want players to actually play in different ways why not let them do that?”
They also quickly honed in on the gameplay mechanics Assassin’s Creed fans are sick and tired of by this point, and walked them to the guillotine.
“For example, tailing a guard,” Amancio says. “That was not fun in co-op, because you generate a lot of frustration with ‘You got spotted again!’. We started realising that the more we opened up, any sort of mission that was too restrictive – you have to do this and then that and then that – was not fun. This in turn encouraged us to make more open-ended missions which ended up benefitting the single player. Even in the single player missions, the missions that are more restrictive, they’re less restrictive than they’ve ever been right. We really let the systems adapt to replace that.”
Amancio says this is the age of social multiplayer, but it’s also the era of anti-social multiplayer. We’ve seen games like Dark Souls 2 and even Ubisoft’s own Watch Dogs let you seamlessly invade the single player games of others to either help or hinder their progress. Was that ever considered for Ubisoft’s stealth series?
“It is definitely something that we looked at,” Amancio says, before admitting that it didn’t quite make sense for the saga. Aren’t you supposed to be hunting Templars, not other assassins? “The most important thing for us really, whenever we start to add anything, is we ask ourselves does it fit with the core values of the brand. And then we started asking ‘We’re all playing assassins, is it justified that we’d all be trying to sabotage each other?’ This is essentially why we went with co-op, because it felt more natural, playing together rather than at opposites.”
One platform you won’t be slaying counter-revolutionaries on with a friend, however, is the Wii U. While Nintendo’s console received the last two Creed instalments, and is getting a belated port of Watch Dogs, Ubisoft are dropping it for Unity, and with good reason, says Amancio. It just couldn’t handle the graphics, the scale and the vision of Unity.
“It couldn’t, it really couldn’t. I mean this is why we from the beginning, this was going to be a new-gen-only title, because the crowds aren’t aesthetic, they actually have impact. If we did anything to hinder that or to reduce that it would have a detrimental impact, it wouldn’t be the same experience. I don’t think that would be fair to fans, to sell the same game but with different levels of experience. Even the seamless nature of the series and the scale of the game right, we couldn't do that. We never load Paris. It wouldn't be possible, in our minds we’d be cheating fans by providing a lesser version of the same game.”
That’s not to say that Assassin’s Creed Unity is as revolutionary as the upheaval of 1789. Despite the changes, this is still an Assasin’s Creed game with many of the same flaws as its predecessors. Much of your time is still spent running over rooftops or sitting on park benches, and the missions we tried, while bigger in scope, did not stray away from the locate/sneak/stab gameplay Ubisoft’s been working on for seven years now.
Evil people inexplicably have Cornish accents, Ubisoft apparently deeming French accents unpalatable for other markets when it had no problem with faux-Italian ones. And the build of Unity we played was also as buggy as Parisian sans-culotte’s lice ridden straw mattress: at one point, we were able to make Arno traverse the Seine by using a floating wash bucket as a stepping stone.
Still, the team at Ubisoft are adamant that the game is as novel as it is authentic. They have their own in-house historians to guide the writers and developers, and even go so far as to verify the authenticity of their scripts with two independent historians. The Marquis De Sade might not have been an assassin, but he certainly was in Paris stirring things up at the time. The team don’t ride roughshod over their advice either.
“We changed the ending,” reveals Amancio, as our interview comes to a close. “The events, the meaning of the ending is the same but the actual context was changed because there was one specific historical character that had a lot to do with the ending, and that character was given a little too much importance for that date.”
Ubisoft isn’t saying anything, but given our location, it’s hard not to come away thinking that character is in fact Napoleon, who rose up the ranks of the military in the 1790s. “Had the ending been two years later it would have been fine, but that’s how faithful we want to be to history, you know a year and a half is a year and a half too much.”
A game every year though? That’s not too much according to Ubisoft. We’ll find out if the returns are diminishing or not when Assassin’s Creed Unity goes on sale next month.
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