Assassin-s Creed 3: Why Starting From Scratch Has Been Worth It – Interview
Assassin’s Creed 3 has been in development for three years, with work beginning on the ambitious project shortly after Assassin’s Creed 2 launched.
Ubisoft started entirely from scratch, with a brand new engine, the stunning Ubisoft-AnvilNext, a new protagonist in the guise of 17th century hunter Connor, and a fluid combat system that puts previous efforts to shame.
To learn more about some of the new features Assassin’s Creed 3 brings to the table, NowGamer caught up with Ubisoft Montreal’s creative director Alexander Hutchinson, and found out new information behind the gameplay and plot of Assassin’s Creed 3, as well as the little matter of making Desmond awesome again.
The American Revolution setting for Assassin’s Creed 3 is looking superb so far. Just how significant is this setting in the grand scheme of the overarching plot?
Our story explores the ongoing power struggle between Assassins and Templars. The Assassins have been in America for many years, watching over the Colonies unchallenged from the days of Columbus.
But over time they grew complacent and by 1765 the Templars have all but wiped out the Assassins in the Colonies. While the Assassin’s cling to existence, the Templars pursue their goals- and when the Revolution begins, the Assassins rise again to challenge the Templars as the Colonies struggle to free themselves from imperial oppression.
In the middle of all of this conflict we have new hero Connor. How will players carve our Connor’s personal journey throughout the years spanning Assassin’s Creed 3, and his impact on the wider world?
Our new protagonist is Ratohnhaké:ton, who is half Native American and half British. He eventually adopts the name Connor when he joins the Assassins in order to move more easily in Colonial circles. We wanted a new personality, someone who would be fresh for players.
While in the first Assassin’s Creed Altair is driven by duty and then Ezio by revenge, Connor is a man of the people. His goal is to resist injustice wherever he sees it. He begins by trying to fight for his people’s place in America, but is eventually swept up into the revolution, and the struggle between Assassins and Templars.
How does Connor’s unique past affect how he acts as an assassin?
His background also gives us the chance to introduce a bunch of new tools and weapons, from his dual handed fighting style starting with a tomahawk and knife, through to his use of a bow, and other period weapons such as muskets and one shot pistols.
With Connor we wanted to create a new and unique hero who was clearly different from previous Assassins and hopefully from most other videogame protagonists. Connor is a man driven by a strong desire to do what’s right.
He fights injustice wherever he sees it, whether it’s in the oppression of his people, or the British rule of the colonists, or the threat of the Templars.
The story of how he moves from a child born in a Mohawk village to someone who is pushed to join the Assassins and eventually become involved in the revolution is the core of the game.
Assassin’s Creed 3 will also continue the story of Desmond. Many fans have expressed a dislike for his character over the years. In what ways has this feedback help shape his story in this game?
Assassin’s Creed 3 begins directly after Assassin’s Creed Revelations, with Desmond waking up and arriving at a brand new present day location. We’re not talking about it in detail yet but we promise some serious resolutions in Desmond’s storyline and some big events!.
Our goal with Desmond is to resolve a big chunk of the dangling threads in Assassin’s Creed 3 and to provide some sense of closure to people who’ve been with us from the start. I have been banned by from saying anything else, but stay tuned.
The locales of Assassin’s Creed 3 are massive and deliver plenty of frontier exploration. What challenges did you face when creating a huge and rich wilderness for Connor to explore?
The goal with the new game was to take the core features of Assassin’s Creed in terms of navigation, combat and stealth and to apply them to new environments. We didn’t just want to add features, we wanted to take players to entirely new worlds and show them entirely new styles of gameplay.
Our goal with Connor was to create a character that is as comfortable climbing cliffs and moving through trees, fighting on uneven terrain and hiding in forests, as Altair and Ezio were comfortable in cities. While many games have built forests, we want to show people that forests can be fully realised gameplay environments and not just obstacles to avoid.
Can you also give us an insght into how big the frontier area will be, and how you have populated it to make sure it doesn’t feel sparse?
Our frontier map is a slightly shrunk version of the American North East, and as a map is about 1.5 times the size of Rome in Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood.
Within it we have historical locations like Valley Forge, small towns like Lexington and Concord, Connor’s village and more: it’s as dense a location as cities were in previous Assassin’s Creed games, with many of our core story missions taking place in it.
We’ve also added various new mission delivery systems like the Clubs, and allowed players to layer their experience: you can now have more than one active mission at a time, and more than one task on your plate, so people will be more in control of how they play their game.
Add to that the fact that we’re investing more on mission variety and custom mission events than ever before in a story that takes place over 30 years, and you have a vast experience. We can’t wait to get it into people’s hands.
Aside from the frontier, you also have two big cities in the form of Boston and New York. How far removed are these locales from Assassin’s creed staples Florence, Constantinople and Rome, and what is your approach to city-based missions this time around?
We are not revealing just yet how the cities have evolved but we are improving the cities with the same goal as with the rest of the game – we didn’t just want to add features, we wanted to take players to entirely new worlds and show them entirely new styles of gameplay. Stay tuned.
Are you going to bring back economy and city building?
I can confirm you will not be rebuilding cities, as with Rome or buying Constantinople, but there is a unique gameplay loop that fulfills some of these needs: stay tuned.
Connor has a great deal of combat choices open to him. As this is the most modern era in the series, how do you ensure that the combat stays in line with the previous games in the series without resorting to a focus on gunpowder weapons?
Having a character with a Native American background who then joins the Assassins gives us access to not only all the usual Assassin tools, but a bunch of new equipment based on his heritage.
His basic weapon is a tomahawk, which gave us a huge assortment of new attacks, especially when you remember that all of Connor’s new fight is dual handed.
At first we thought we couldn’t add a bow as a weapon, as most people had switched to rifles and pistols in this period, but with further research we found that many tribes were still using a bow and arrow to hunt from horseback as they were faster and more accurate on the move. So luckily we managed to justify it, and add a really iconic weapon for Connor.
To what extent will gunplay enter into combat?
Pistols and rifles are a feature of this period so Connor can use those, but luckily they’re single shot weapons and for enemies they were also notoriously inaccurate so we remain a primarily close combat game.
How do these historical combat traits feed back into how Connor fights at close quarters?
We rebuilt the combat system from the ground up. Everything from the player strategy to enemy types to animations and camera implementation is new. Connor’s combat system is based around a two handed fighting style, so he uses either tomahawk and knife, assassin’s blade and knife, as well as many other combinations.
The core for us is a redesign of the health system, so that instead of having health units and needing to heal after combat, you now have a regenerating health system which means you can’t regain health during combat – you need to escape and rest.
Were you concerned that people might find the game too easy as a result?
This exponentially increases the challenge. We also built brand new archetypes and enemy behaviours, and redesigned the player strategy to push players to use all the different buttons on the controller and all of Connor’s moves from counters, to offensive moves, to tools like pistols and throwing knives.
We’ve also seen that there will be a great deal of hunting while roaming the frontier. What new techniques can Connor use while hunting animals?
We have a lot of new stealth features that are a lot of fun. You can now take cover against walls, and Connor will automatically adjust to hide when a guard approaches, which also leads into a new assassination move from cover.
We’ve also added the ability for Connor to hide in tall grass or bushes: if you walk through these areas he will automatically crouch allowing you to move undetected when approaching enemies (or when hunting).
As far as animals go in term of hunting, they are the ‘crowd’ of the wilderness. Players can obviously hunt the animals, but we really want people to immerse themselves in the tracking and trapping elements of interacting with animals.
How does hunting affect the wider story? Can Connor use materials gained to craft bombs or other items?
We want people to see some species just by navigating the world, but many others will require the player to use tactics and strategy to find and kill them.
In a sense, we want players to assassinate animals more than just shoot them: this will result in different quality skins and other objects that can be sold but also used to satisfy side quests in the game.
We also wanted people to have opportunities outside of the main story path to interact with animals and other new gameplay, so we’ve built several alternate gameplay loops that encourage the player to explore and then rewards them with more gameplay.
Like hunting clubs?
Clubs are a good example. If the player hunts a lot, then the game will notice and send a character to meet them, who will basically say, ‘You seem like a good shot with that bow, have you thought of joining the hunting club?’
They will give the player an invitation which will allow them access to a previously inaccessible area of the map where they can join the club and gain a bunch of new side challenges and rewards. As for bomb crafting, it’s not in the game – it was Ezio’s tool, not Connor’s.
Connor will encounter many historical figures from both sides of the Templar-Assassin conflict throughout Assassin’s Creed 3. How will these individuals advance the plot and impact on Connor’s stance in the middle of the war?
We feel we have the richest group of secondary characters yet for the franchise. Everyone loved meeting Leonardo in Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood, but we will show players a new side to key historical players like George Washington, Ben Franklin, Lafayette, Charles Lee, and many more.
Around 80 per cent of the characters in this game are real people and if you have a working knowledge of American history. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces. We encourage people to hit up Wikipedia throughout the game to check out their real-life stories, as we’ve done a mountain of research on this game and we want people to enjoy it.
Assassin’s Creed 3 has been in development for three years, and during this time there have been many advances in tech and in game design. To what extent has the AnvilNext Engine helped you to stay ahead of the curve during development?
Ubisoft-AnvilNext game engine is the stunning technology evolution that pushes boundaries on Assassin’s Creed 3 with powerful graphics, lifelike animations and immersive combat. Developed specifically for AC3 here in Montreal, it dynamically manages multiple layers of content to bring a cohesive, believable world to life.
The result is a breakthrough in the player experience with detailed models, atmospheric weather and vivid graphics. Also, AC3 will include worldwide cinematographic quality thanks to simultaneous motion capture and facial/voice performance.
How does the engine impact Assassin’s Creed 3 from a gameplay stance?
Artificial intelligence has also been revamped which enables the team to produce a believable world. This comes off mainly through revamped NPC-Character interactions that bolster credibility of the Crowds but also and for the first time for AC, NPC to NPC dynamic reactions that will directly impact gameplay opportunities
Ubisoft-AnvilNext also manages the passage of seasons and the weather system builds more fidelity in the world simulation. It affects the crowd life; different activities and crowd compositions based on season.
It also affects the AI and gameplay. It supports the managements of snow, ice, rain, wind, fog and more. Weather directly influences combat as it modifies multiple variables (visibility, surfaces impact navigation, etc) which require situation specific strategies.
We’ve heard that Ubisoft believes Assassin’s Creed 3 is an ideal starting point for newcomers to the series. How challenging was it to strike a balance between keeping die-hard fans happy, and catering to the new school?
It was a huge challenge to find the right balance between changing the game enough to keep it fresh and exciting, and to make it attractive and easy for new players to jump on board while making sure that everyone who has been with us since the first Assassin’s Creed was satisfied.
We had endless meetings, lunch time discussions, after work arguments over beer, until we realized that what we wanted to do was to treat it like a new IP built around the pillars of the AC franchise, which still obeyed all of the core narrative rules of the brand, and fit within the established fiction.
To essentially deliver a degree of familiarity for long-time fans?
We kept the idea that the gameplay was built around navigation, combat and social stealth, but we completely changed the way they were built and how the player would use them.
it was clear that we wanted a new assassin and a brand new time period, but we wanted them to fit into the history of the brand, so the character didn’t need to be aware of the brand history but players could understand him as part of a lineage.
But we believe that Assassin’s Creed 3 is the perfect point for new players to join the franchise, and we’re also happy that long time fans will be able to look below the surface and find many references to previous games and a new perspective on the Assassin’s Creed mythos.