MONTREAL – A Frenchman with a crossbow perched on the spires of Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris versus an Irishman with a grenade launcher at the helm of a ship in the iceberg-infested waters of the North Atlantic.
Come this fall, fans of the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise are going to have two very different death-dealing, history-hopping protagonists to choose from.
In an unusual move, French game development giant Ubisoft is releasing two separate titles from the same franchise across two generations of gaming hardware. Assassin’s Creed Unity, set in Paris in the early 1790s, will debut Oct. 28 on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and Windows PCs.
Then, two weeks later, Assassin’s Creed Rogue will come out for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, with a storyline set in the northeastern U.S. and Quebec during the 1750s, featuring a seafaring anti-hero out to eliminate the Order of Assassins.
At a recent preview event in Montreal, Ubisoft showed off the two newest members of the Assassin’s Creed family, games that feel more like second cousins than blood siblings.
Unity is a rethinking of Assassin’s Creed that aims to refine the core gameplay while also returning to the franchise’s roots, by setting the action in a sprawling, densely populated recreation of late-18th century Paris, where Versailles-born assassin Arno Dorian is swept up in the events of the French Revolution.
“The French Revolution combined all the different narrative beats and all the different key elements that we were looking for,” said Ubisoft Montreal creative director Alex Amancio. “We thought about (a more modern Paris) for about half a second but we said no, this period is too perfect.”
And while the Assassin’s Creed games have always featured a present-day component – the in-game action is usually framed as a virtual reality simulation of historical events – Unity will actually have players playing as... well, themselves. Somehow.
“You are the star of the game. Everybody actually gets to play themselves in the game,” said Amancio. “You are at home. You are you.”
So, uh, we’re playing a game about ourselves playing a game? That’s some meta mindjiggery there. “You’ll find out more about that later,” promised Amancio.
In my hands-on time with Unity, playing co-operatively with a Ubisoft developer, the game felt comfortably familiar to previous Assassin’s Creed instalments, albeit with next-generation visuals and more fluid traversal up and down the sides of buildings and monuments. With a significantly more challenging combat system – Unity will focus on stealth and smarts over head-on attacks – tag-teaming groups of soldiers with my sidekick was almost a necessity.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue, on the other hand, embraces confrontation. Set during the Seven Years’ War, the game will connect the storylines of last year’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and 2012’s Assassin’s Creed III, featuring a turncoat named Shay Patrick Cormac who joins the nefarious Templars and hunts down high-ranking assassins.
"Assassin's Creed Rogue." (Supplied)
As a Templar, Shay has access to all kinds of weaponry and gadgets – including a primitive form of grenade launcher – and isn’t saddled with a code of honour.
“We’ve removed the inhibition that you can’t just kill civilians,” said Assassin’s Creed Rogue game director Martin Capel. “You choose what you do, and all the elements are in place to react.”
Players will still receive better rewards if they complete objectives “elegantly,” said Capel, “but as a Templar, the ends justify the means.”
Similar to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Rogue features a strong naval component, with Shay sailing the coastal waters (and occasionally rivers) of northeastern North America in his upgradable and customizable ship, the Morrigan. While some of the ship’s gear seems a tad anachronistic – particularly the machine guns that can shred the masts of enemy vessels – my hands-on time with Rogue was supremely satisfying, as I nimbly skirted around icebergs to open fire on British vessels, then liberated a coastal village by going ashore and stealthily killing the soldiers commanding it.
Where Assassin’s Creed Unity is experimenting with new online multiplayer components, Rogue will be a strictly single-player experience, and only available on the previous generation of consoles (for now, at least – a possible current-generation version is “a decision that will have to be taken down the road” said Capel.)
It could present a tough choice for Assassin’s Creed fans this fall, though. Arno or Shay? Unity or Rogue? Or heck, why not both? Vive la difference and all that.