Assassin's Creed III is shaping up rather nicely from what we've seen thus far over the past few months. At Gamescom 2012 we caught up with lead game designer Steve Masters to get some perspective on how AC3 came into being, and what will differentiate the adventures of Connor Kenway from those of Altair and Ezio before him.
Matt Gardner: Ezio Auditore da Firenze was a much loved character. How do you go about replacing such a charismatic central protagonist?
Steve Masters: We didn't want to create the same character again. We wanted someone with a different personality, a different sort of style. Honestly, it was a huge amount of effort between a number of guys – so we had the lead creative director and the story guys injecting personality into the role, and then the concept artists as well developing his look. We've got a Mohawk consultant on board to ensure that the cultural representations in the game are authentic and that we don't do something incorrect in any way. So it's been a collaboration between a number of people, but it's spearheaded by our creative director, Alex Hutchinson, who's basically been responsible for ensuring that Connor has his own personality and his own character.
Matt Gardner: So who is Connor? What is it that differentiates this character from his predecessors, and how (if at all) does that feed into the gameplay?
Steve Masters: He's not as outgoing or flamboyant as Ezio maybe was; he's a little more reserved, he's quite taciturn, and a little bit more unrefined. He's not the product of high society, he's a half Mohawk-half British assassin. So he's an outsider – he's always been on the periphery of the cultures and societies he's been exposed to, so that's reflected in a different personality. But we wanted to take that sense of character and bring it to bear in gameplay terms as well, so he's a little bit rougher, a bit more brutal, and we've redesigned a number of the classic Assassin's Creed core moves and styles in order to reflect that and move the series forwards. Seeing his takedowns for the first time might provoke something of an 'Oh!' moment he can dual-wield now, and killon the move without breaking his flow.
Matt Gardner: Casting our minds back, before the game was officially unveiled, there was a great hubbub of wild theorising over the potential setting for this game. From the Far East to Victorian London to the slave trading in the Caribbean to the Terror of Revolutionary France. Why this setting? Why did you choose the American War of Independence?
Steve Masters: Well the American Revolution for us was a significant moment in time that brought great change to a vast society very quickly. We like to go to those pivotal moments in human history, we're all about times of great change, and the Revolution it starts a series of events that leads to an incredibly dramatic change in the relationship between citizens and their government. So as well as being one of those pivotal moments, we thought that it would be quite relevant to what is going on in the world today, and we thought we could expand the reach of the series with it.
There were some interesting gameplay possibilities too, like bringing in muskets. I mean, they're very basic guns, but their incorporation now allows us to do interesting things with pistols. We had the hidden gun before, but the introduction of flintlocks and some of the crazy weaponry that comes out of this era gave us a rich playground to work in.
There were so many events in this period there were absolutely iconic and full of dramatic potential. So we saw the time period as advantageous in both narrative and gameplay terms, as you can see from the stuff we've been showing.
Matt Gardner: It's interesting, one of my personal favourite things about the series has always been its historical focus on melee combat. So we've had weapons and armour constructed around blades and clubs and hammers and pikes. We've had arrows of course, but the hidden pistol was really the first proper firearm, and only Ezio had it so it was almost something of a superweapon. Now, of course, all of the soldiers will be packing muskets and god knows what else. How have you balanced that out, and how has the inclusion of widespread firearms affected gameplay for this instalment?
Steve Masters: Thankfully this is still pre-breech loading. There were one or two rifles out there at the time, but they weren't in wide use. The muskets take twenty seconds to reload, and that's for a trained soldier operating in prime conditions like on a summer day in a parade square. [Unless your name is Richard Sharpe – Ed.] You see a line of people with muskets pointed at you, yeah you're not going to want to hang about, that's going to be really dangerous. But the reason that they lined up like that was because the accuracy of those guns was absolutely dismal. You could fire at somebody ten feet away and still miss. So the mass rank fire provides an opportunity for numbers to to overcome inaccuracy, but that long reload time gives an assassin a great edge. If you can take an advantage of that moment to lure them into firing, and then protecting yourself with a meat shield or just moving fast enough, you'll be able to close them down really quickly and start engaging them in melee. The muskets have 12-inch bayonets on the end of them, but you're a melee specialist. You're going to be tearing people apart in there. So it's really a case of being cautious that then playing to your strengths.
Matt Gardner: My personal favourite instalment in the series is Brotherhood, and part of that is down to the fact that I get to explore Renaissance Rome. Previous games have had globally iconic settings in Constantinople and the Holy Land of the Crusaders. How have you tried to appeal to virtual tourists perhaps without that for this game?
Steve Masters: Well yeah, as you say, virtual tourism is a huge part of this series. The Animus construct is really a device to just let us explore any part of history that we want. We don't have something dramatically recognisable as, say, the Coliseum or Sophia Hagia, but we do have Boston and New York, recreated faithfully on a 1:3 scale and they have landmarks that you can still visit today. If you know the history, if you know those cities well, there are key features and structures that you'll recognise. If you're a student of American history, you'll recognise key moments.
But it also allows us to do something completely different. We had dramatic urban vistas before, but we get to do that environmentally and shake the gameplay up with that too. So you have these amazing sights from on deck when you're sailing the ocean, engaged in the naval aspects of the game. When you get out into the frontier, it's a completely new environment, and provides the opportunity to do things that we've never done before in this series. To leverage the technology to account for rolling terrain, scalable cliff faces, and the tree-running, I think people are going to have a lot of fun revising their platforming rulebook. It's still intuitive, of course, but we've added in completely new elements to the series with this game, and it's the setting that's really allowed us to do that. The naval battles aren't just a tacked-on part of the game. They were hugely historically significant, and putting Connor on a ship, in the thick of that action, provided yet another opportunity to explore navigation and combat in a fresh and exciting way.
Matt Gardner: How did you go about creating the naval battle sections, how authentic are those elements?
Steve Masters: These were ships of the line. They'd spend hours readying themselves, lining up in groups of twenty, making hundreds of minute calculations to ensure the right elevations and angles to compensate for the conditions, and then they'd blow the hell out of one another. But this isn't a sim game, and as a player I don't want to be spending an hour sorting out one sail. So we decided early on that there's a balance to be struck between historical authenticity and what's actually fun to play. We just didn't feel that spending hours adjusting the sails would be of any great benefit to the player. So we've taken the history on board, and I think we respect it well within the game, but equally we've gone for a more action-oriented, high-tempo approach.
But on top of that, we've got the dynamic ocean on a 1:12 scale. We've got dynamic weather patterns so the engine can produce calm seas one minute and typhoon weather the next. We're pushing this current gen tech hard with this game, harder than we've ever done, but that's a challenge in itself too. How can we push the limits of this technology and still impress? And I think that the naval sequences really show off how we've done that. The organic terrain in the frontier, too.
Matt Gardner: How will these naval segments feed into the game? Are we talking side missions/mandatory scenarios/optional extras?
Steve Masters: Well one or two will be mandatory; this Chesapeake level, for example. But others you'll unlock as they come up in the game.
Matt Gardner: One of the other reasons that I loved Brotherhood so much was because it felt utterly complete. Assassin's Creed gave us some fantastic features, but it was Assassin's Creed 2 that really took those, separated wheat from chaff and tightened everything up to deliver a huge upgrade, and then Brotherhood seemed like the definitive article – superbly polished, with a fantastic array of content that crucially felt entirely cohesive, in a way Revelations perhaps lost. Aside from the change in locale, what's been done to ensure that this numbered sequel is a step up, not just a sideways move?
Steve Masters: Well we started work on this game three years ago, and it was very much a case of targeting the same sort of step up that we'd had with Assassin's Creed 2 from the original game. I personally worked on Brotherhood and then rolled straight on from that to this. But one of the things that never changes is that you're always learning. We're always taking on feedback, and I think that one of the most important things for this game, one of the most frequent messages we took from our fanbase, was to not stray too far away from what it is that makes Assassin's Creed great. The navigation and exploration, the freeform combat, and the stealthy aspects to the game and player choice when it comes to executing hits. So really what we've done is break our game down into those core elements, and build it back up in new ways.
So the combat system, for example, still works on the same principles and the same basic philosophy as before – strike first, strike fast – but we've expanded the tactical options to make it faster and more fluid to engage and disengage from enemies. We've worked hard on different kinds of enemies and upgrading their AI to allow them to resist certain moves and present you with tactical challenges. There's no one dominant strategy any more, you have to think about when to engage and how to engage a lot more now, to use the surroundings and time your attacks.
And it's the same with navigation. The hookblade in Revelations was a lot of fun, and zip-lining around was great, but we knew we were going to a whole new locale with organic terrains, the rocks, the cliffs, the trees. Just being to fight realistically on a curving incline, things you don't see or dismiss in other games, required work. We rebuilt the navigation system from the ground up to service these new terrains and help Connor take advantage of them in, what you'll hopefully agree is, spectacular fashion.
But there's strong continuity there as well, and when you strip back the game down to its core elements, we really knew exactly what we wanted to do. I worked on AC1 and ACB, over half of the team worked on AC2, so there's a lot of experience and we know what we're building on, we know what the foundations of the game are, and that's crucial when treading new ground. The history is important, too. We knew, after doing some research, that we wouldn't be able to tell this story fully without going onto the sea. But the naval elements are built around those pillars: navigation and combat in particular.
Matt Gardner: Are you looking towards a yearly trilogy of games once again for this setting and character?
Steve Masters: Yeah, Corey's got a plan. Oh wait...for AC3? That I don't know. But the arc of AC1-AC3 is certainly a trilogy.
Matt Gardner: So is this where Desmond's story ends?
Steve Masters: I can't say anything specific about Desmond, but he is back, he's got a really important part to play in this game, but I can't tell you what's going to happen to him.
Matt Gardner: Will we see his somewhat divisive first-person platform mini-levels return from Revelations?
Steve Masters: No they won't be coming back, though I personally thought they were rad!
Matt Gardner: Are there any thoughts on where the franchise might go after this?
Steve Masters: Well it depends on the history, really. After this game releases, no doubt there'll be a big discussion about where to go next. There's already a lot of things on the table right now, but we'll have to see what makes sense for our game, and the history we present in that game, and how we're able to weave our narrative in and out of a particularly point in history. But yeah, there are a lot of ideas on the table right now and we're listening to the fans too.
Matt Gardner: Very quickly, before I'm dragged out of here, what is the best, most kickass, gloriously wonderful, fantastically brilliant thing in this game, in your personal opinion? What is it you're most proud of or excited by?
Steve Masters: Oh man...that's really hard. I'm going to say throwing war clubs! You can just pick them up, hurl them at an enemy, it's really visceral and...wait...no, I'm changing my answer: assassinating on the move. Previously, you'd just stab them, there'd be a little animation, and that would be that. Now, though, you hit them, slice them, stab them, whatever, and you keep moving. It's fast, it's dynamic, it's fluid. It's incredibly satisfying! You can do these double assassinations where you're running, you stab one guy, dance over, stab the other guy, and you keep moving at speed, roll over some guy whilst slitting his throat and you're still running. It feels great, it's a massive upgrade, and it looks incredibly cool.
Matt Gardner: Brilliant stuff, thanks so much for your time today.
Steve Masters: Thanks, have a good show.