Two weeks ago, I had the chance to take a look at Assassin's Creed Unity, Ubisoft's grand new beginning in its best-selling franchise. Together, ten internal Ubisoft studios have stripped the Assassin's Creed experience down to its core and rebuilt it for a new generation of consoles.
You've already read my preview of the game (or watched my preview video), highlighting a few of the systems that have changed in the latest Assassin's Creed. I also had a chance to sit down with Unity creative director Alex Amancio. Amancio offered some insights into game's development decisions, providing a clearer picture as to why some of Assassin's Creed's familiar mechanics have been changed or reinforced.
USgamer: Your aim was to create the "first fully-online Assassin's Creed". Do you feel you succeeded?
Alex Amancio: The idea was more to create the first full "Next-Gen" Assassin's Creed. Seamless integrated online was part of that. Assassin's Creed started back in 2007 and it really re-defined the genre of action-adventure. We felt that for this new generation, we needed to do the same thing. I think our core promise is still good and relevant, but it's about the way we actually achieve it. The execution that we needed to revamp and reinvent.
There are three core pillars: navigation, stealth, and combat. The combination of those three things is really unique, it's very Assassin's Creed. We had created iterations on them, but we've never really rebuilt them from the ground up. This was a great opportunity to do that. Even the way the missions were set-up, they were very linear: you do this, you do that, and if you don't do it this way then we de-sync and you start over. Now, we try to let you do the mission the way you want to do it. All of that was the fundamental evolution of the Assassin's Creed experience for new gen, a new beginning.
We had the multiplayer before. I think it was a good experience. I think it was a well-balanced experience. The problem is that people bought a certain game and then there was another game sold with it. The way you move, the way you blend, the way you actually interact with the world was different. We wanted to integrate online and the core game. So when we started figuring out what that meant, we quickly came to the conclusion that it was co-op. We've already introduced the Brotherhood; you want to play as an assassin, you just want to be able to do it with your pals. By providing you with that co-op experience, we felt this is where we needed to go.
"We wanted to integrate online and the core game. We quickly came to the conclusion that it was co-op."
Plus, if you go two [console generations] back, it was all about single-player games. Top-sellers were all single-player games. The previous generation was all about multiplayer. It went from a niche thing to the best-sellers of the last generation, but it was all about a lobby, a game mode, and then replay. This new generation is more about a social experience. Integrated online. More than would just fit into the core game. This is the direction we went.
USgamer: You've stated that this is the beginning of a new cycle. In my playtime, I've found that the game feels more like the first Assassin's Creed. Was that intentional?
Amancio: It was intentional. Assassin's Creed was ahead of its time in its structure. Maybe a little too ahead, in the sense that a lot of the variety that we gained from iteration wasn't there. The structure was limited by the underlying systems, which made the game a little too repetitive. We didn't have that richness of systems to bounce off of and create a varied experience. We have that now. We can now go back to that initial, more-open structure and create a lot of variety.
Revisiting Core Mechanics
USgamer: For this game, you've improved the stealth experience. You've add the low-profile mode and the cover button. These mechanics seem like they're taken from Splinter Cell: Blacklist. How did you find that balance between Splinter Cell stealth and Assassin's Creed stealth?
Amancio: On the surface, they're very similar. The simple fact of the matter is this a different engine; it's not like we took some code from Splinter Cell and integrated it into the game. We had two different teams that were dealing with similar issues; in this case, "how do you give more control and precision to the character? How can we make this more convenient and comfortable?"
Of course, we're going to come up with similar solutions because we're trying to deal with the same problem in a 3D world. That's how we arrived at the same conclusion. The way we executed it is different. Splinter Cell is a more hardcore game, so those features are a little more inaccessible. I think we've found a good compromise between adding more depth and keeping Assassin's Creed very accessible.
USgamer: Fans have become used to the core combat with countering and chain-kills. Were you afraid of changing that or did you decide that stealth was more important?
Amancio: By making stealth more robust, we could actually put more weight on it without it crumbling. By making fights more challenging, it makes it more fun. If you like fighting and you practice, you can see your improvement and have that satisfaction of obtaining mastery. Before, many of our systems were flat in progression. Navigation stayed static. The way we designed these features in Unity was really to try and add that layer of mastery. We want you to play and feel you're better.
We've added this really simple Star Rating system for your character and missions. If you want a mission to be a little easier, then do a lot of side missions, upgrade your Arno to two stars, and then try that one-star mission. You'll be more powerful and you'll have an easier time. Yes, if you become stronger, missions will be easier. This is what we want. We want everybody's experience to be different. We have one person in playtests who refused to buy anything or upgrade. He wanted to play through the game with his original assassin. He was able to do it. Sometimes he failed missions 10 or 15 times, but he found clever ways of manipulating the system and bypassing certain things. That's the point.
USgamer: In past Assassin Creed games, there have been elements like bombs and darts that have trivialized the experience. How did you decide which weapons to bring forward into Unity?
Amancio: Revelations introduced bombs. We introduced certain levers in the crowd mechanics that really set the stage for what Black Flag was going to achieve later. This was limited because we had to build these things on top of existing systems. This time around, there was a chance to actually achieve what we tried to do in the old games. We had to re-do most of these systems, making the game more systemic and more like a sandbox.
Yes, these options sometimes make the game easier, but if the system is well-balanced, the game will also react to that and counter-balance. Smoke Bombs make it easier to break line-of-sight, but because fighting is harder, you need to break line-of-sight. It's planned that way. Same thing with the Cherry Bomb, which attracts guards or repulses the crowd, all of that is designed from the ground-up to give you an advantage. We want you to have that advantage, but that doesn't mean it's a cheat.
Finding the Middle Ground in Customization and Online Play
USgamer: With the customization and co-op, is it difficult to balance the game?
Amancio: We consider many different approaches to this. Do we adapt if you're playing by yourself or with friends? Do we change the number of guards? We voted against that because this has to be an accessible game. The difficulty is set. If it's two-stars and recommended for two players and you play it with four-players, of course it's going to be easier. That's your call. If you want to replay that mission the next day with a friend, you'll find new way of completing it and hopefully the mission will feel different.
USgamer: How do you decide which features get locked behind the progression system? I noticed Double Assassinations are locked behind the skill system.
Amancio: The funny thing is if you give too much liberty, it often has the opposite effect. You stick with what you're more familiar with or what first attracts your attention, and then you only do that. By allowing you to start with a certain skillset that you might not be used to and then allowing you to purchase different skills, you gradually learn how to use these different skillsets. You open the system slowly. You're more inclined to try new things. Even if it seems a bit more restrictive, truthfully we've observed that people actually use more skills. It creates a funnel. People assimilate the game in different, more innovative ways.
USgamer: How do you approach matchmaking in Unity?
Amancio: Our approach to co-op is complementary. We discovered that when players take on complementary roles, like scouting or melee, they have a lot of fun. Our matchmaking is based on finding the people who are complementary to your playstyle. Odds are, if you play with those people, you'll have fun.
USgamer: Eagle Vision now has a limited duration and cooldown. What was behind that change?
Amancio: It was to allow for upgrades and improvement. Some players use it minimally. They'll be satisfied with the first level. Other players use it a lot, so they'll buy the skill to make it more stable and better. It's all about allowing you to specialize. For us, that was the necessary base.
USgamer: In customization, you have color sets instead of letting players pick from a palette of colors. Was that a technology decision?
Amancio: I think it was the Art Director's decision. I don't know for sure. I think he preferred to keep a certain control over palettes. That doesn't mean that we can't unlock or give you more color palettes in the game.
Telling a New Tale
USgamer: From a narrative standpoint, what does Arno's tale bring to the overall Assassin's Creed universe?
Amancio: Arno's story is one of redemption. A tragedy happens at the beginning of his life and he joins the Assassins as a means to an end. It's a multi-layered story and this is the first layer. Our character needs to choose between love and duty. He's in love with Elise; she's a Templar, he's an Assassin. It's not Romeo and Juliet, it's a different type of approach. Below that layer, there's an exploration of extremism: how two opposite sides if they're taken to extremes, loop back and become the same thing. On another layer, you have a treatise on the forging of our modern world. How an autocratic system gets thrown away and gets replaced by a bunch of merchants. It becomes more about money and desire, less about strict control.
"There's an exploration of extremism: how two opposite sides if they're taken to extremes, loop back and become the same thing."
The French Revolution is not the main story, it's a backdrop. It's a metaphor for the rest of the story. Unity is a new cycle and a new Assassin's Creed; if you've never played one before, this will feel like the first game. We wanted a character that was very charismatic, a little like Ezio, but we wanted to stay away from just copying another assassin. One thing about Ezio that we really wanted was this innocence when he looks at the world. I think this is why when we introduced Assassin's Creed II and you saw the world through Ezio's innocence, you fell in love with that universe. We wanted to re-create that. Arno begins with that innocence and through that players will re-learn about the Assassins and Templars.
Arno has a darkness to him, but unlike Connor who's a very stoic character, he actually has a sense of humor. It's a different sense of humor than Ezio. Arno is very sharp. I think that even translates to the way he fights. He goes for the killing blow as fast as he can. The character evolves throughout the game and I think his evolution matches the progression of the French Revolution. He starts with his ideals and goes through chaos, before ending with something better. The French Revolution is a time of contrasts. It brings us the guillotine and the deaths of thousands, but at the same time the Charter of Human Rights is written during the Revolution. We tried to capture that contrast within Arno.
USgamer: Do you feel the French Revolution will resonate thematically with current issues like income inequality?
Amancio: I think so. It's funny, I had a comment from a journalist who asked how we always end up finding things that are current. When AC 1 was released, it was right around the Iraq War. Truthfully, it's a combination of two things: serendipity and when we pick a setting, current topics seep into our choices and we try to reinforce that. It influences our creativity and it finds its way into the game. Any piece of art-- if you look at Catcher in the Rye, Salinger having those pages with him when he was fighting the Nazis, that experience seeped into the work whether he wanted it to or not. In the same way - to a lesser level - I think it seeps into Assassin's Creed whether we want it to or not.
USgamer: Will we ever see an Assassin's Creed where the Assassin Brotherhood is on the wrong side of history?
Amancio: The Assassins are about total freedom and the Templars are about total control. I think they're both wrong. I think the best path is somewhere in the middle. I hope that people feel that in every game. We try avoid the idea that the Assassins are the good guys and the Templars are the bad guys. Especially in this game. As I said before, opposite political views taken to extremes loop back and become the same. This game is a bit of a morality play on the Assassins and Templars and what they could've done to prevent this. Some people in each order may have tried to take a step closer to the middle, so what happens to these people within opposing groups? I think you'll find in Unity that we try to stay away from generalizations. You'll see each assassin as an individual, rather than "the Assassins". Within those different characters and orders, you'll find that some are wrong and some are right.