Fueled solely by caffeine and pure grit, we managed to get some hands-on time with Ubisoft's much anticipated action game, Assassin's Creed at E3. Our session with Ubisoft began with a representative walking us through a sample mission (which, incidentally, is the same one Jade Raymond walked us through last night at the MS press conference) to show us the ropes. Of course, like any good company rep, he also made sure to lay down some readily quotable stats. First of all, the city featured in the demo, Jerusalem, is fifteen times larger than the city featured during last year's E3. Pulling the camera back, we could see that the city was indeed pretty damned big. What's more, our rep informs us that all of it is interactive. You can climb it, throw enemies into it, use it to hide, whatever. Every surface that extends more than 2" from a wall is scalable, and Altair -- AC's protagonist -- will make his hand-holds realistically. In other words, there is no canned climbing animation. Finally, the city is populated with lots of NPCs, some of which can be hostile (guards and mad vagrants), others can be helpful, and the rest are neutral. And of course, they all have dynamic AI and other quotable features. But how does it play?
The first thing we had to come to grips with was the control scheme. As Ubisoft puts it, the buttons are laid out to correspond to parts of the body (the demo was running on a 360, so the buttons here refer to a 360 controller). The Y button is for the head (vision commands), X is for the weapon hand, B is for the unarmed hand, and A is for the feet. The right trigger serves as a modifier, switching Altair from "low profile" actions to "high profile" actions. As you would expect, high profile actions are more likely to get you noticed by guards. So, for example, the B button causes Altair to politely brush people aside as he walks by. With the right trigger held down, the B button forcibly grabs and pushes people away (which is handy for dealing with pesky beggars). This use of the right trigger allows Altair to alternate between behaviors like blending in with the crowd and walking (low profile) with others like sprinting and tackling those in your way (high profile). The system is a bit confusing at first (and truthfully we didn't have enough time to get the hang of it) but with practice it should become second nature. Anywho, on with the task at hand: killing a dirty, dirty slaver.
Our mission was simple enough: infiltrate a fortified area, assassinate the dastardly slaver, and make it back to assassin HQ. How you go about this is completely up to you. We used a particularly nasty method to distract the three guards at the gate. Whilst milling about among the civilians, we inconspicuously assassinated a woman in the middle of the crowd. Being the sneaky assassin that Altair is, no one notices ... at first. Once the woman actually keels over dead, the guards come running, leaving the gate unprotected. Our Ubisoft rep informs us that killing innocents has a negative effect on enemy awareness of you. Killing guards, on the other hand, is positive. Whether or not your moral path has any larger influence on the overall story, we don't know.
Upon reaching our target within the fortified area, we were greeted by his cadre of personal guards, giving us a prime opportunity to explore the combat system. The left trigger targets your nearest opponent and the X, B, and A buttons allow you to attack, grab, and advance respectively. Holding down the right trigger transforms X, B, and A into counter, counter grab, and backstep. The combat felt highly reminiscent of Prince of Persia, as counters were the most effective way of dispatching enemies. We didn't mind too much though, as these counters provided us with some particularly gruesome finishing maneuvers. In addition to your three weapons -- dagger, sword, and assassin blade -- you can also throw your enemies into environmental traps or over ledges (which is pretty satisfying).
Having dispatched the guards, we then followed the fleeing slaver onto the roof. From this point onward, the chase begins. Chasing an enemy requires quick thought, efficient navigation of crowds, and effective use of the environment. We're sure a thorough knowledge of a city's layout will help here, as you'll be able to cut off your enemy before he reaches his destination. Unfortunately, the slaver managed to outpace us and call for help before we could assassinate him. This resulted in another large battle, denying us the pleasure of assassinating him in one blow.
Once the assassination is achieved, you must return to your headquarters. Of course, you don't want the guards to discover the location, so you'll have to ditch them first. You have many ways of hiding in the environment, including blending in with a crowd, hiding in a bail of hay, or seeking refuge in a rooftop hiding spot. You may have to dispatch a few guards so that there aren't any around to see you hide. This proved to be the most difficult part of our demo, taking several minutes to finally accomplish.
All in all, Assassin's Creed is shaping up to be a very solid title. Once players master the controls, leaping from the rooftops and assassinating baddies should be a thoroughly entertaining experience. But what about all the secret plot elements that Ubisoft is (attempting) to keep under wraps? Our rep informed us that the secret will be revealed in the first five minutes of gameplay, so don't expect any big twists. What you should expect is a heavily polished and enjoyable game.