Interview: Assassin's Creed Revelations presentation director Brent Ashe

By Jeff Mattas, Jun 17, 2011 6:45am PDT

For a series that--by most accounts--had a rocky start with its first outing, the Assassin's Creed franchise has certainly managed to turn things around. Both Assassin's Creed 2 and the subsequent Brotherhood offered some incredibly significant improvements over the original game. Assassin's Creed Revelations follows the events portrayed in Brotherhood (which I won't spoil here), and though it won't be the end of the Assassin's Creed series as a whole, it will mark the conclusion of the adventure of Ezio, series protagonist Desmond's ancestral alter-ego for the past two games.

At E3 2011, I had a chance to suss out some more details about Revelations during a conversation with the game's presentation director, Brent Ashe. We discussed some high-level story details, efforts to further blend the series' primary gameplay pillars (combat and traversal), as well as some of Ezio's new gadgets and abilities, like the dual-purpose "hook-blade" and bomb-crafting.

Despite the fact that Ezio is the primary focus of Revelations, he isn't the only ancestor that Desmond will inhabit throughout the course of the game. "One of the first things that's really, really cool about Revelations is that you're going to be able to play as Ezio again, but [also] as Altair, who we introduced in Assassin's Creed 1," said Ashe. "We're going to explore some really cool new gameplay opportunities." How exactly those 'new opportunities' will play out in gameplay terms, however, isn't yet being discussed in detail.

It's already been revealed that Constantinople will be one of Revelations' primary settings, but astute observers or the E3 trailer may have also noticed the city of Masyaf (a location from the first game). Ashe explained how things would be a little different for Ezio this time--including his motivation--now that he's no longer operating on his home turf.

What's interesting about Revelations is that we're really taking [Ezio] outside of his element.

Ezio never set out to be a master assassin. His motivation has primarily been revenge: Revenge against the death of his family; against the death of his uncle at the hands of Cesare [Borgia] in Brotherhood. So, in taking him on more of a pilgrimage--a personal journey now--it's sort of leading him to discover the secrets left behind by Altair.

There are these five keys that Altair has left behind that unlock the seal in Masyaf at the Assassin temple. And Ezio also discovers in the course of this, that the Templars are also in pursuit of these secrets. So we set up this really nice narrative, kind of a race against time, so it's a different motivation for him this time. What that's doing, like I said, is taking him outside of his element. You're in these new cities, these new places, and you're going to discover that the Assassin Network sort of expands beyond what we've seen in the previous games.

The Assassin's Creed Revelations live demo shown at E3, illustrated one such example, as Ezio met a man named Yusef, head of the Assassin's Guild in Constantinople. Among other things, Yusef teaches Ezio about the new "hook-blade," which serves both as a new weapon and for traversing Constantinople's network of zip-lines.

[Yusef is] going to introduce [Ezio] to some things, for example, like the new hook-blade. And one of the things we're really happy with from a gameplay perspective is how we've managed to layer the combat with the traversal. Since those are really core aspects of the franchise--we've always been known for the free-climbing, the free-running, and then the combat as well--when we introduce the hook blade, you're going to see where you can scale buildings much quicker.

We wove into the narrative that the local order of assassins there would have created a network of ziplines to help them navigate the city much quicker and more efficiently. And then when we layered that with the concept of the hook blade, it really came together very organically.

By all indications, Constantinople will be another massive playing area, though not the only city players will visit in Revelations. For some perspective, I asked Ashe how the new city would geographically compare to the Italian locations from the last two games, both in size and composition.

We took advantage of the style of the architecture in Constantinople. It's a very layered city, and it's sort of on a slope. We've never really seen that in any of the games before. It's also a very dense city, so the buildings are incredibly close together. It's also varied, in terms of height, style, and architecture, because half of the city is sort of on the European continent side, and half is on the Asian [side]. So it's a really nice clash of cultures and architectures.

I think I can safely say that [Constantinople] is not as large as Rome, but it's also larger than any of the cities we saw in AC2. There are actually four districts, so right away, that kind of gives you a clue that we'll be exploring the economic system again. You saw the Borgia towers, for example, in Brotherhood, and how that sort of fuelled the economic system. You're going to see a return of some of those ideals.

The hook-blade isn't the only new tool that Ezio will get to play with in Revelations. A robust bomb-crafting system will allow players to design and create explosives that cater to a variety of different play-styles.

We introduced the smoke bombs in AC2, and brought them forward into AC: Brotherhood. What we're doing now is really, really expanding on the idea of that mechanic. What the player can do--in terms of buying, trading, selling, and acquiring ingredients from around the cities--they can mix and match and create all different types of bombs that suit some of the different pillars of the franchise. So, when you talk about combat, traversal, and stealth, you'll have bombs that are geared toward a more aggressive combat style. There's something in the demo called a "splinter bomb." [Ezio] tosses it at two of the larger, brute-style guards. Normally, in hand-to-hand combat, you can take them out, but they're much more formidable than the average guard. With the splinter grenade, you can quickly just dispatch them and move on. It favors a player who maybe wants to go in with a more aggressive style of play.

We've upgraded the smoke bomb--it's something you can craft. And then [after throwing a smoke bomb] you can go into Eagle Sense, which we've also upgraded, and then do three quick stealth kills. So you can go right from that really aggressive style with one bomb into more of a stealth style with another. And we're allowing the players to craft these themselves, so they'll mix and match different ingredients using a menu system. It's a large amount [of ingredients]. Because of the nature of how you're combining, there are several different types of combinations you'll be able to make. Again, it's really nice because you're going to discover more different types of ingredients as you progress through the game.

In Assassin's Creed 2 and Brotherhood, Ezio could quickly dispatch large groups of enemies by throwing an (arguably overpowered) smoke bomb and then shanking the living daylights out of those caught in the cloud. I noticed in the demo for Revelations that smoke bombs also obscure the player's view as well, requiring the use of the improved Eagle Sense ability. Previously, Eagle Sense allowed the player to identify their targets or spot hidden glyphs in the world, but Ashe told me that Eagle Sense was another gameplay mechanic up for some serious refinement and enhancement in Revelations.

Because Ezio is truly now a master assassin and really in-tune with the Eagle Sense [ability], we're going to expand a bit on that and allow him to see more than you've seen before. You saw in AC2 and AC: Brotherhood how you could identify targets, and what not. We're going to go a little further with that aspect. It's not something we're really going to show or talk about at E3 this year, but leading up to the release of the game, you're going to see how that plays out, and how it layers in with the different mechanics.

In a nutshell, Assassin's Creed's action is wrapped in the premise of a man named Desmond being forced to relive the lives of his ancestors (Ezio and Altair, so far) using a high-tech device called an Animus. With each successive title, players have been treated to an increasing number of gameplay segments where they control Desmond, himself.

We're finding more and more that players are very curious about Desmond and his storyline. You can kind of see in the progression of the three games how in each game, we've allowed you to do a little bit more and more as Desmond. This one is going to open up narratively a little more about what we know and don't know about Desmond. Because his mind has been fractured due to the "bleeding effect"--he's been inserted into the Animus so many times that he's reliving the memories of Ezio, of Altair--you saw a parallel thing happening with Subject 16 at Abstergo. It's kind of a mirror of what we've seen before, but involving Desmond now. Because he's in a coma and his mind is sort of fractured, that's reflected in the Animus as well. You're used to seeing the white room--the pure, clean technology. Narratively, we deduced that, "Well, if he's in a coma, the white room isn't really functioning at full power." It's almost the analogy of like a shell around the Animus. So, it still functions... at a limited capacity. [Desmond] is almost on the outskirts of the Animus, if you want to put it into narrative terms. Visually, that gives us something very fresh in terms of the presentation, and it also allow us to kind of explore the aspect of putting Desmond's mind back together through gameplay.

I also asked Ashe about the return of the 'brotherhood' mechanic introduced in (appropriately enough) Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood. In short, the ability allowed Ezio to recruit assassins to his cause via side-missions, and then send those recruits out to perform tasks, ranging from bribery to assassinations. He could even call on them to assist in combat. The feature ended up being a fan-favorite.

The 'brotherhood' returns. Every time we introduce a new feature, we really like to expand [it]. We want to take the fan feedback and really expand it in a way that suits what they like about it, but that also really organically goes with what we have planned. Because the fan-response was so positive, ... we're going to expand on the style of missions that you can recruit the Brotherhood from this time. And it's again because Ezio's in new locations. There's going to be different types of missions that suit the different cities. The way the actual mechanic of sending them out on missions to level them up? We're already working on new ways to kind of take that further, as well. Post-E3, we're going to talk a little bit more about those aspects, too.

Subject 16 is another one of Assassin's Creed's enigmas, of which there are many. On the edge of sanity (and once an Animus-traveler, like Desmond), Subject 16 has been leaving clues for Desmond to find in the Animus that speak to a much larger mystery. Ashe told me that one of the goals with the development of Revelations is to provide some closure regarding some of the questions the series has raised so far.

We will be exploring [Desmond's] relationship with Subject 16. We see a little bit more of him each time, too. In AC2, he was spoken about. In Brotherhood, you got to sort of see him manifest at the end. As Desmond's storyline progresses, it paralells with some of the things we've seen with Subject 16. One of the key goals of Revelations, narratively, is to try and really bring some of these plotlines together that we've introduced over the [previous] three games, and then set up the all of the possibilities that are sort of at hand for future installments. We're not saying anything specific, but we all know that there's all kinds of interesting ways that we could go. So, why not start to resolve some of the plotlines and set up a nice foundation to go forward.

Assassin's Creed Revelations is planned for a November 15 release on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3. It's developed by Ubisoft Montreal with help from Ubisoft's Annecy, Quebec, Singapore, Bucharest, and Massive Entertainment studios.

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