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November 17th was a busy day for Partick Plourde, Lead Designer at Ubisoft Montreal for the blockbuster AAA project: Assassin’s Creed 2. Not only was it launch day for the (non-PC versions of the) game but Patrick was at the Montreal International Games Summit where he gave a lecture to fellow developers and students of game programming about what managing such a huge project is like.
He then used a banner to run up a wall behind the podium and disappeared into an air vent. I was worried I would have trouble tracking him down for our interview, but I found a hay cart in the hotel lobby and sure enough, he was hiding in there. Ok that was a lie. What really happened is that after his speech Patrick gave interviews all day. I was the last one, and he begged me and the PR people to let him use the bathroom first, so I was a little worried he’d had a long day and would be pretty run down. Had there actually been carts of hay to hide and nap in, he may have tried.
As soon as Assassin’s Creed 2 was mentioned though, he launched into descriptions with the fervor of a proud father telling you about their kid that hit three home runs’ little league game. But he wasn’t talking about a little league game; he was talking about AC2.
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Assassin’s Creed 2 Takes Desmond to New Old Places
When I gave Patrick free reign to tell us what had him excited about the game, he immediately started to discuss plot points. With the marketing and tech budgets at Ubisoft and EA’s disposal for AC2, it is great that the first thing he wanted to talk about was story. I tried to avoid too many spoilers, but if some got through or the editing of quotes looks choppy, I apologize.
“The [new] game picks up right at the end of the first game… It starts with escaping Abstergo." I was excited that they were finally letting us do what we’ve wanted to have Desmond do all through the first game. “It was important that it stay like that. The reason why is [that in] the first game the motivation of the character was: he was a victim. Desmond was a victim, and in the second one, he is free from Abstergo. He’s been offered to return to the Animus, a version of the Animus that the Assassins have, in order to complete his training as an Assassin…
“That’s Desmond’s side of the story. As you do that, he lives the life of Ezio Auditore. In terms of structure it’s really different than the first one. We start the game at his birth. There is a birth sequence where you see Ezio as a little baby, and we show the player the puppeteering concept where moving the arms with buttons, you know, buttons are associated with parts of the body." Assassin’s Creed 2, like its predecessor, uses a control system dubbed puppeteering: buttons are mapped to the avatar’s limbs or head: push the right arm button to attack, climb, etc., depending on context and if you have another key pressed. The use of a baby finding their hands as a tutorial ties in really well with this button equals limb idea and seems much more interesting than the Animus fog training session from the first game.
Image from developer's media site.
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Ezio Auditore di Firenze: Noble Youth, Talented Assassin
“You start off as the baby, he doesn’t move, and as you press buttons he starts moving. Once he moves, his father goes ‘Ezio Auditore!!!’" You can tell this is one of Patrick’s favourite moments: he mimics Auditore senior and thrusts his arms in the air; holding aloft an invisible baby Ezio and shouting quietly (you really can’t shout out loud in a room where there are a half dozen different interviews being recorded at once). Listen to the audio of the complete AC2 interview for all the info I didn’t have room to cram in here.
Using Desmond and the Animus, we fast forward to Ezio’s teen years. “You are a nobleman living the dolce vita [the sweet/good life]. It starts like that, you’re not a fighter; you’re not an Assassin. You have fun with your brother… get into a little street fight… you meet your family, father and mother… you get to know them a little bit. And then something will happen that will just destroy that comfortable life. Basically, that is the catalyst… you will become an Assassin."
Image from developer media site.
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Assassins Creed 2 Will Be a Big Deal
If you think it is hard to ignore the buzz around Assassin’s Creed 2 where you are, drop yourself in a hotel during a game conference in the city that hosts the studio that made it. And it is the biggest studio in said city. It is hard to miss the poster of Ezio that runs the length of the thirty foot hallway between the entrance elevator and lobby. I asked Patrick what it’s like to know that something is going to be pretty huge.
“I think it’s gratifying. People have asked me: ‘Are you nervous?’ I am not nervous. I don’t know if it’s normal or not… It’s the job well done feeling. This is what we wanted to do: it’s really interesting, I think it has a good flavour to it. I think we also identified what Assassin’s Creed was - something we struggled [with] in the first game- to find that identity with all those new ideas that were thrown left and right.
“You push really hard to find something innovative, and I think the first one was like a diamond in the rough… The core was good and entertaining but all the faces were not necessarily polished."
So how is this diamond being cut and set?
Image: Author photo
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Assassin’s Creed 2 Order Up: Deep Main Plot with A Super-Side of Quest
I figured one of the facets that could use some polish was the side content. Assasin’s Creed 1 had some, but it wasn’t all that thrilling. I asked if Assassin’s Creed 2 was going more non-linear.
“I think the game is more open and more linear at the same time. The main quest is more linear: it’s really guided by the story. It’s the story that drives the events: it’s not the player that drives the story; the player lives that moment… It’s not a roller coaster like Modern Warfare. He has freedom to do tasks, but what he is going to do- what is proposed to him- is guided by the story. He is going to meet people; he is going to trigger some events. So, the spinal cord of the game is linear.
“And then, everything else is based- built- around that. The player is free, if he wants to go between two vertebra, to just go." Patrick draws an elaborate side loop between two invisible vertebrae in the air with his fingers. It doesn’t look like it would be good for your back, but it should do interesting things to weave the side content along with the main story.
Image from developer media site.
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More on Assassin’s Creed 2 Collectables, Side and Main Quests
“In terms of side quests, we wanted something that was more reflective of the fantasy of being an Assassin, and closer to challenging the core game mechanics. For example, we have assassination missions- that are optional- thirty or forty of them." I asked about how much optional content was included in total. “I would say it’s sixty missions." And in hours? “The optional stuff, it’s more like ten to fifteen…
“The main quest would be twenty hours, or twenty to thirty hours. It depends on what the players do. My objective was that players could be at pretty much everything done by thirty hours. At that size it’s kind of manageable, it’s not overwhelming. More than that you’re kind of scared… ‘This is like that forty, fifty hour epic where I’m never going to see what the game has to show.’ But we wanted something that would breathe enough – that would feel epic."
How about really stretching it out for those collectible hounds? The first Assassin’s Creed was chock-a-block with them, but they were only really appealing to those who like to check off their whole achievement list. “In terms of collectables, we have one like that which are the Feathers. It’s presented in the story, and there are rewards, it’s not just for achievements… This time we didn’t want to have the players driven by achievements to grind."
As you find Feathers, you will further a sub-plot involving Ezio di Firenze’s family and receive in-game items. There is one of the most powerful weapons in Assassin’s Creed 2 at the half way point. Once you have all one hundred Feathers, you get a whole whack of climax and dénouement in the side story, along with the Auditore Cape. Not just an extra costume, when worn, the reward for collecting all the feathers turns you into an attack on sight target, so it makes for a good challenge and some replay. The story elements here are deep, but I glossed over them to avoid spoilers: if you want all the details check out the audio of the complete Assassin’s Creed 2 dev interview here.
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Returning AC 1 Veterans and Assassin Noobs
Making a sequel that will appeal to existing fans while still being accessible to newcomers isn’t easy. Patrick describes some of the tricks used in AC 2: “In the game, we have a little system where the player can manage the difficulty." The next bit was interesting because you can see some of the balancing act devs do when deciding on feature implementation, and how they don’t really know for sure how something will finally be received.
“We’ll see how that pans out, but I think the concept was interesting. That’s the thing with Assassin’s: we always push a little bit for those out of the box concepts… It doesn’t come at the expense of the game, I’m pretty sure… Players would be performing well, so, would perform like double assassination, air assassination, would kill a lot of guards; would make a lot of guards flee in fights because they would do spectacular stuff; the game would acknowledge it, and guards would start spotting you on sight, because you would be notorious."
What if the Florentine flat-foots are more trouble than you had anticipated? There are three ways to get them off your case: tear down some wanted posters of Ezio; bribe Orators to lay off you in their speeches, and my personal favourite: “There’s a judge, witnesses we call them… corrupt witnesses that walk in the city, and if you kill them, they will stop talking about you."
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Assassin’s Creed Three?
You didn’t think they would announce it yet did you? Patrick did offer the following tease: “As long as we have something to say with Assassin’s Creed, and there are some people that are willing to listen, or interested to listen to it, I think there’s going to be more Assassin’s Creed."
For now however, the PC version of Assassin’s Creed 2 is still delayed, so you may not be ready to rejoice at the thought of a trilogy quite yet. I will stay my tongue since late is better than never, and some AAA titles don’t even make it to PC, or even more than one console.
Thanks for reading. Once again, the audio of the whole Assassin’s Creed 2 interview is here. There is a lot of great stuff, but some spoilers as well. Please share your comments or other questions below and I will see if I can get to them to Patrick.
Images from developer media site.