Playing the Hunter and the Hunted in Assassin’s Creed III
E3 2012: You’re not the only predator in this stretch of wilderness.
One of the most impressive things about Assassin’s Creed III is that you immediately see the game’s hero as a product of his environment, a Native American raised far away from the Colonial cities of early America. Whether he’s stalking a target from high up in the trees or defending himself from the wild animals that roam the early American frontier, Connor comes across as an assassin who knows the wilderness inside and out.
A lot of that comes from how Connor moves through the world, or more specifically, his world. Assassin’s Creed III features Colonial versions of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia, but it’s the game’s large tracts of wilderness where Connor seems most at home.
“We’ve gone from a very rigid environment made of buildings into a space that’s trees and slopes and cliffs, and all of them are organic, unusual shapes,” says creative director Alex Hutchinson. “It’s a different climbing puzzle for the player, a different combat puzzle for the player.”
An overhauled animation system gives the impression that Connor has spent plenty of time getting familiar with those puzzles. When he’s running up a steep hill, you see him lean forward slightly and keep his hands just above the ground lest he slip and fall. In the trees, he’s able to leap from branch to branch and quickly sidestep any thick trunks in his way. Connor just doesn’t seem bothered by what nature throws at him.
Other times, he uses those obstacles to his advantage. One mission in the game involves Connor sneaking into a British camp situated on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Rather than head right through the front door, Connor can explore the sides of the camp and discover a steep slope leading down to an unguarded rear entrance. He braces himself and slides through the dirt and snow, ready to quietly ambush a camp full of redcoats.
The way Connor exploits his surroundings isn’t always pretty. From up in the trees, Connor can throw a weapon that latches onto an enemy’s throat, and then instantly yank him upward so that his dangling body attracts the attention of those around him. At this point, you are ready to pounce on those remaining targets, tomahawk in hand.
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Watching Connor stalk his prey in the snowy frontier, you almost get the impression that he’s a little too talented at what he does. Where’s the challenge for the player? According to Ubisoft, there’s one simple answer to that: the frontier has plenty of predators not named Connor.
At various points throughout Connor’s journeys, he’ll encounter wild animals such as bears or wolves–each following different behavioral patterns. A pack of wolves, for example, might circle Connor, forcing you into a tense standoff where you’re eyeing the moving pack and trying to figure out who will be the first wolf to strike.
“We wanted you to feel as though it’s you versus the wilderness,” says Hutchinson. “So we worked a lot on how to make you feel that emotion. That included the behavior of the animals. Do you hear them before you see them? How do they attack you? What’s the player fantasy of that?”
For Ubisoft Montreal, it’s all about balance. Connor is a talented predator, using the contours of the rugged American frontier to his advantage as he seeks out enemies venturing outside cities and camps. Yet he’s hardly the only predator in the gameworld, so at any moment you need to be conscious of your place in the wilderness. A wolf or a bear doesn’t see a talented assassin with a hidden blade; it sees its next meal.
But don’t worry: not every animal in Assassin’s Creed III is a vicious killing machine. “We have a turkey in the game, and I think our turkey AI is phenomenal,” jokes Hutchinson. “I believe in our turkey when I look at it.”