PAX East 2012: Assassin’s Creed 3

On Sunday, amidst the swarming show floor of the third annual PAX East exhibition hall, I had the pleasure of sitting in on Ubisoft’s closed-door Assassin’s Creed III demonstration. Twice. For those who couldn’t make it to Boston this year (or who were too overwhelmed by the ever-intimidating line leading into the black box), here’s a walkthrough of the demo and some quick thoughts on what lies ahead for the popular franchise.

The Demo

After a brief introduction by creative director Alex Hutchinson (who provides the voiceover for the ten-minute demonstration), we are transported via animus to June 17, 1775. Location: Bunker Hill, Massachusetts.

A gorgeous New England landscape can be seen over the shoulders of a figure on horseback bearing the familiar trappings of the Assassin Order. As he dismounts and approaches the tattered array of blue-uniformed soldiers, we notice blue tails of fabric swaying beneath his white cloak. The assassin slides through the colonial ranks as a colonel — perhaps William Prescott — rallies his men into battle: “…and above all, do not fire until you see the whites of their eyes!”

Hutchinson takes a moment to familiarize new viewers with the game’s new ancestral hero Connor Kenway with a faster, smoother version of the video released several weeks ago, dispelling for good the rumors that Connor lacks a hidden blade before returning to the battle lines and showing, for the first time, the sheer scale of battle that Assassin’s Creed III plans on offering gamers this fall.

Across an open valley we see a steep hill virtually covered with red-coated troops lining up and unleashing cloud after cloud of white musket smoke. Deviating from the crowded streets of past games in the franchise, Ubisoft needed to up the ante for NPC populations. Whereas previously an Assassin’s Creed game featured a cap of a couple hundred onscreen characters, AC3 boasts a mind-blowing two thousand to 2500. It’s visually impressive and psychologically daunting, and as gameplay resumes one suddenly realizes that any one of those thousands of soldiers is armed with a potentially lethal musket that could be pointed in Connor’s direction.

The target — British Major John Pitcairn — is nestled safely atop the distant hill and beyond all those guns. Given the choice between the assault and stealth paths up the mountain (provided intuitively, not via intrusive UI) the demo opts for the latter, and after carefully timing his runs between, over, and under cover (new motion mechanics allow for seamless environment traversal) and dodging a few stray cannonballs (read: new reactionary animations are in full effect here), Connor is vaulting into the branches at the base of the hill.

Those concerned that the parkour elements of previous installments would transfer sloppily or seem forced in a natural environment can rest easy: a handful of new animations ensure that whether hopping or swinging from branch to branch or hugging a narrow trunk while easing around to the other side, tree traveling looks natural and convincing.

Eventually Connor happens upon a group of seven redcoats heading towards the front lines on a dirt trail. The demo opts for an ambush, and a slick new weapon-selection UI pops up from which the rope dart — a new and immediately likable weapon — is selected and subsequently hurled towards the unfortunate British point man.

What follows is a flurry of action that, if not for the manufactured pauses of the demonstration, unfolds with almost shocking speed and accuracy. Connor hooks his first target and uses him as a counterweight to swing down from the tree in which he’s hiding only to land right behind his victim’s not-quite-sure-what’s-happening companion. One throat-slash later and Connor is brandishing victim number two as a human shield to absorb the shots from the five remaining soldiers who have — like the well-trained infantry they are — lined up to take aim at the intruder.

Hutchinson comically points out the still-dangling feet of the first victim as Connor drops his meatshield and rushes the now-reloading group, using his tomahawk, hidden blade, and pistol — and the enemies’ own bayonets and muskets — to rapidly dispatch all five of them. The camera dynamically zooms to catch the action as it unfolds, backing out in time to aid Connor in countering each new and unfortunate attacker.

Then it’s back up into the trees — painstakingly designed to reflect the reality of New England woodland’s lack of uniformity — wherein the game exhibits a newfound and impressive degree of verticality. Seasoned tree-climbers will recognize the “okay, I got to this point, where now?” pause as getting to the nearby cliffside becomes a puzzle in itself.

The cliff is a welcome change from the contrived climbing limitations of most buildings in prior games. Hutchinson highlights the wide variety of fissures and jutting edges which players can choose from while scaling rock surfaces, and Connor occasionally has to use both hands to achieve proper thrust as he climbs towards the British encampment.

Cresting feels an achievement in itself, but rather than celebrate Connor must quickly seek cover as a nearby officer rides by. We are thus introduced to stealth areas — dark or heavily-foliaged areas in which Connor can move and wait undetected. Feeling both more natural and realistic than arbitrary hay bales and inexplicably-effective benches, hiding in the bushes affords an opportunity to assess the situation in the camp and plot a course for Pitcairn, who is idling on horseback beyond the tents and meandering soldiers.

We are given the last bit of info from Hutchinson as Connor waits for the guards to turn their backs: Assassin’s Creed III will feature a far more fluid assassination system, allowing for constant motion and banishing forever the awkward vulnerability incurred when assassinating part of a larger group.

The remainder of the demo is pure action. Connor breaks from the brush and beelines for two soldiers in the middle of the camp. The game slows just enough for the impact of Connor’s weapons to be felt, and he’s immediately back to full speed, rolling to his feet in time to vault off a rock and swing his tomahawk towards Pitcairn’s throat as the animus collapses out and the game’s logo tauntingly leaves us wondering what follows.

Looking Forward

Full disclosure requires pointing out that I am an unabashed fan of the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Though each game has had its minor flaws, I consider the series as a whole the most consistent and enjoyable of this console generation. Though it continues to run the risk of sequel fatigue, I have personally yet to feel that Desmond and his ancestors have outstayed their welcome.

My immediate reaction to the PAX demonstration was one of awe. The game’s sheer scale — especially character generation specs — is daunting. AC3‘s HUD is reinvented from the ground up to put more focus on action and less on navigation, shining with polish and pleasing in its minimalism. Everything moves so much smoother and faster than anticipated, and seeing that the tree-climbing is not, in fact, contrived put to rest one of my greatest fears for the decision to take so much of the game beyond city limits.

Much about Assassin’s Creed III remains unknown, and it’s still impossible to tell whether other aspects of the game will live up to the thrill of this weekend’s guided demonstration. Some little details — mechanical enemy behavior, for example — will hopefully (and likely) be ironed out over the next six months, and the faithfulness of 18th century Boston and New York will, I’m sure, be up for much scrutiny as I daresay more of Ubisoft’s demographic have walked those cities than, say, Constantinople.

Nevertheless if the size of the preorder line outside of the demo booth (which at times rivaled the size of the line for the demo itself) is any indication, seeing how good this game already looks leaves little reason for doubting that Ubisoft has on its hands a major contender for 2012 Game of the Year.

Special thanks to Spectra for providing access to the media assets used in this article.

The Guide

If you’ve ever played a Final Fantasy game, you’re probably familiar with the idea of “ultimate weapons.” The holy grail of offense for each member of your party, acquiring an ultimate weapon often entails as much effort as getting through the game, if not more. These weapons are never so much as mentioned within the world of the game; the components necessary for producing them are often random and isolated, seemingly trivial. If no one told you they were there, you’d never even think to seek them out; certainly you’d never succeed in finding them.

Simply put, if you want the ultimate weapon, you’re going to need the strategy guide.

In recent years, buying a strategy guide has acquired a sort of taboo. Though publishers have added incentives (heloooo artbook) to justify the actual expense, most “real” gamers still look down on those who “need a guide” to beat a game. The theory is that if you had the skills you could get through a game without hand-holding, and having used a guide dramatically undermines street cred for your achievements. On top of that, you could have just used GameFAQs. For free. So you really suck.

Well, haters gonna hate. But I imagine if you look at the necessary steps for acquiring the ultimate weapons in, say, Final Fantasy X, you’d agree that, sans guide, it ain’t happening.

See, gamers value autonomy. Shoehorn them down a corridor with only one possible means of progress and they will damn you with words like “linear” and “boring.” Give them open country and they’ll relish the chance for discovery; “open world” and “player choice” ship a lot of product. Nevermind how this is the pure inverse of the punishingly straightforward platformers that gaming calls its progenitors (here’s looking at you, Mario); the modern gamer refuses to be told what to do.

But freedom comes with a cost; if you’re not forced into making the right choices, you will inevitably make a few wrong ones. Whether the game responds by punishing you (LA Noire), by adjusting (Mass Effect), or doesn’t react at all (read: “optional” sidequests), the fact remains that liberty guarantees that you will miss out on at least some of the experiences the game-maker intended you to enjoy.

If you don’t follow a very specific path through the game, you’re going to miss out on something. Sometimes, this is trivial. Other times you won’t realize until hours, days, even years later that you made a really big mistake way back when.

Strategy guides preclude that epiphany at the cost of true freedom. When followed verbatim, they deteriorate the very act of playing; no longer is your experience your own — it is merely a guided tour of someone else’s. For those who choose to follow along anyway, this is an acceptable loss. Playing by the creator’s intended path is ultimately more rewarding than the independence it denies.

Some, of course, treat strategy guides like user’s manuals, consulting them only when they are in a jam and have exhausted all personal knowledge to no avail. They come hoping for someone to point out the obvious mistake in their thinking, the quick fix solution to their momentary trial. As soon as the boss is beaten, the guide goes back on the shelf.

Of course, sometimes the answer isn’t so simple. Perhaps the solution is the use of a weapon or power-up that, while wallowing in your sovereignty, you failed to acquire. And most guides, as they assume you’ve been following their advice all along, don’t bother providing alternative solutions. If you’ve dug yourself a hole and forgot to bring a ladder, it’s up to you to improvise an exit plan.

Oftentimes progress for those who’ve ignored the guide can only be achieved by arduous backtracking to meet the standards prescribed for success. Some will do the bare minimum, others will permanently shift their play-style in an attempt to avoid future pitfalls like this one. In this way the guide is versatile: it portrays the ideal solution and allows the player to choose how closely he or she will follow it. Advancement does not always require complete adherence.

And sometimes, consulting the guide as user manual results in a very simple truth: sorry, dude. You’re screwed.

Many people, Christians and non, have this awful tendency of treating the Bible like a user’s manual. When life is going well, when they’re getting what they want, the Bible stays on a shelf collecting dust, a collector’s item purchased primarily for its aesthetic value. But when hardship hits — job loss, death in the family, stock market crash — people snatch it up and scan it desperately to find out how to get out of jail free. A few Our Fathers and Hail Marys later and, if life brightens up, the manual goes away.

Backsliding or apathetic believers accept that following scripture is the ideal means of living, but they’re too lazy or stubborn to actually do as it says. They cut corners, ignore what’s inconvenient, and try to figure out how little of the Word they have to obey while still, technically, making it from one stage to the next.

But the Bible was not written as a self-help book, a twelve-step (or, for that matter, a ten-step) program to a better life. Cute bumper stickers aside, it was not written as a user’s manual for the human soul. The Bible is a strategy guide, and it’s meant to be followed at all times, in all stages of life. It provides advice on every aspect of this game we call life. The best armor, the most dangerous dungeons, the spiritual bestiary and, yes, the ultimate weapons are all there. In the ultimate meta-statement, the sword of the spirit is also the very book that describes it.

Like dedicated players, we recognize that sacrificing our own control to follow the Creator’s chosen path for our lives is the only way to guarantee the best possible experience. And yeah, haters still gonna hate. But I’ll stick with The Guide anyway.

The Creed

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
~Assassin’s Creed

Everything is permissible…but not everything is beneficial.
~Letter from Paul to the Corinthians

Great fiction has a tendency to draw us into its world. Games, books, and films captivate us with their imaginary universes with such strength that we find ourselves wishing, if only for a moment, that we could leave the real world to inhabit theirs. And when fictions overlap with reality in part, we sometimes wish they overlapped in full.

For me, Assassin’s Creed is one such fiction. After hours spent filling the shoes of Ezio and Altair through Desmond Miles, peeling back a conspiratorial veneer to reveal the true machinations behind so much of history, it’s almost disheartening to realize that there is no actual ongoing power struggle between the vast Templar and Assassin brotherhoods. Like many of the NPCs one recruits throughout the last two games, we are bored by a life driven merely by personal needs and desires; we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

A couple weeks ago I sent an email to my friend Jonathan regarding the opening of the epistle of James. “I just spent the majority of the last several days playing through Assassin’s Creed Revelations,” I told him.

One of the things I’ve always found really cool about the game is the idea of a brotherhood, an order of people all over the world who subscribe to a core set of beliefs about the world and live every day in an effort to make the world a little bit more like they believe it ought to be. And then I read this verse (N.b. James 1:1-2), addressing the letter to brothers scattered throughout the world, and I realize that’s exactly what my faith could be like (if less secretive). That said, “nothing is true, everything is permitted” is a lot easier to memorize than the apostle’s creed.

Candidly, he replied, “You could memorize 1 Corinthians 10:23 instead.”

Christianity is pretty complicated, but that verse from Paul speaks volumes to the overarching task we are faced with each day. Given freedom, it is up to us to determine which actions are best, which will make us and the world better, which will draw us closer to God and one another. Our end goal is the good of others (see verse 24), but we pursue this goal within the confines of liberty. As Altair says, “Our Creed does not command us to be free. It commands us to be wise.”

Ironically the “Christians” within the Assassin’s Creed universe — the Knights Templar — function in opposition to both the “Muslim” Assassins’ creed and the words of their own saint.  If the true Christian and the Assassin seek wisdom through freedom, the Templars seek freedom through wisdom. The conflict between the two views comes to a head about two-thirds of the way through the main story of Revelations, when Ezio is confronted by an antagonist who tells him “We both strive for the same end, Ezio. Only our methods differ.”

Ezio responds, “Liberty can be messy…but it is priceless.”

The misguided Templars of the AC universe provide a wonderful cautionary tale for modern believers. In our efforts to spread the gospel and reshape society to reflect God’s kingdom, we must never try to force our beliefs on the unwilling. Free will is part of our imago Dei; to suppress or deny it is to deny the face of God.

Indeed, despite the initial disclaimer that has appeared before every Assassin’s Creed title screen that the game is the product of a tapestry of religious cultures and faiths, the titular creed and those who have carried it down through the generations are extraordinarily Christian. Desmond comes to realize that who he is and what he can do are a direct result of the great lineage he is a part of. His greatness is quite literally in his DNA. Without that inheritance his life is meaningless and empty — a fact driven home in the Desmond sequences of Revelations.

Moreover Desmond’s ancestors, while productive in their own age, come to realize that they are merely conduits for a power and a story bigger than themselves; vessels for transmission of a message and a responsibility older than time. Such is the message of the gospel: a creed of love and liberation established before the foundations of the world and transmitted from God via Adam down through the generations to Christ.

It’s rather incredible, I think, that a franchise which could be summed up as “a Muslim terrorist killing Christian leaders in various holy lands” carries beneath all the violence and intrigue a deeply enriching message that affirms, rather than dismisses, a godly worldview. And given the new context, it’s rather thrilling to know we’re invited to be part of the brotherhood.

Nothing is true. Everything is permitted.
Everything is permitted. Not everything is beneficial.

What a creed.


Nb. Evidently 3 years ago I considered starting a blog like this and registered “godinthegame” on wordpress. If you go there, you’ll find only one post, but I’ll save you the trouble by posting it here. Not really the best introduction, thematically, to what I’d like this all to be about, but it’s some of the most fun reading I’ve ever offered. I say that as one who forgot it existed and was genuinely entertained by what I recovered.


Invisible hands juggle scraps of newspaper through the dusty city square under the watch of a concrete monument, the last remaining testament to a society that has long since faded into the musky gray of the past. Debris tells a story better left untold, one of hate, of war, of death. Thick, heavy air rises from the streets. What was once a metropolis is now a putrid mausoleum.

Glowing eyes stare unblinkingly from the shadows of the empty buildings as creatures of the dark, reclaimers of the city, lie in wait. Wind whistles through the cracked asphalt, rattling colorless weeds that have broken through.

A small pile of pebbles begins to rattle. At first, the movement is subtle, but as he gets closer, they begin to slide away from one another, bouncing on the concrete in time with the pounding of his boots. At first he cannot be seen. Then, glances through the swirling yellow air. Finally he is visible: wrapped tightly in militant garb, dusty combat boots, ammunition belts crossed over his shoulders and circling his waist. Yet he carries no bullets–his holster contains no guns.

He needs but one weapon, which he retrieves from its resting place behind his ear. It is a shiny silver pen.

He has come to this wasteland in search of life.
And where he finds it, he will write.

He is the recorder of hope.
He is the author of light.
He is the empyreal wordsmith, and he has come to the game in search of his Lord.