Do you really trust me, reader? How do you know I’m who and more importantly what I say I am? There’s a name up there at the top of this page, and if you click through to our staff section you’ll be able to put a face to that name, but what does that prove, exactly? How does it set this sentence apart from the spam comments that clog our CMS? Everything can be falsified on the internet, after all, humanity included.
Browsing Google the other day, I stumbled on one of my very own articles, pilfered and fed into some clumsy but effective piece of script that swapped out every adjective, noun or verb for a synonym. It was an unnerving experience, like peering into a carnival mirror: familiar constructions rewired, turns of phrase bent back on themselves, a weird alloy of man and program.
I’m getting a similar vibe from the monk walking down this bustling alleyway towards me. He’s wrong on some level, out of step. Literally out of step, that is. He keeps dodging forward, jostling the elbows of the group he’s with. When they turn to avoid a pile of crates he looks, for a second, like he’s about to scamper up onto the obstacle and springboard off it. He isn’t my target – my proximity gauge is only one-quarter full – but I may very well be his.
Keeping my pace slow and natural I tilt the reticle over him, lock on and shift my thumb to circle button, ready to unleash a debilitating counter-blow. But caught in my crosshairs, he seems suddenly harmless. I note that he gets a leg caught on an awning – a pathfinding issue, possibly. Perhaps he’s just a bot after all. Perhaps it’s safe to break cover.
As I shuffle on, undecided, a courtesan idling on a bench stands up casually and whisks a razor-tipped Venetian fan across my jugular. Blast. Top assassin’s tip: let your prey come to you. I was right to be wary of the monk, though. My assailant’s arm barely has time to complete its sweep before he jerks out of formation, stamps on the back of her knee and rams his crucifix into the top of her skull. Second top assassin’s tip: catch ‘em in the act.
You’d better pay attention to NPCs when playing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood online. They’re important people. Or at least, they may be important people. Ubisoft Montreal’s crowds are as convincingly realised as ever, bewitching in their ebb and flow, but they’re a whole lot more, nowadays, than spongy, bovine masses to elbow through or terrorise. Nowadays they’re secretly stuffed full of sharp objects – breeding grounds for rival killers, hunters and hunted in turn.
Each player’s character spawns with cruise control toggled, another ordinary citizen about his business, and it pays to spend a few seconds just watching yourself move, getting reacquainted with how an NPC walks, how sharply an NPC turns, whether they favour the middle or the sides of a street, where they stand when they’re chatting to one another. Learn the computer’s habits, and learn them well. Sudden changes of direction, moments of only-human hesitancy, shoving too authoritatively past bystanders – these are behaviours to watch for and avoid. Cultivate a serene automaton’s demeanour. Settle into that lobotomised stroll. Bide your time.
There are special abilities, two per player per match once you’ve unlocked the slots, to make blending into the AI mob easier. Morph, for example, transforms all nearby civilians into dummies of your character. If you’re lucky, the player on your tail will knife one of these hapless innocents by mistake, invalidating his assassination contract, diminishing his score and exposing himself to a swift smack round the ear (you can’t bump off pursuers, but you can knock them senseless for a few seconds, leaving them vulnerable to assassination themselves).
There’s still a place for directness, mind. Sooner or later a target will get wise, whether because he’s looked straight at you and gleaned ill-intent, or because the game itself has decided that you’ve caused enough ruckus to trip the warning lights on his HUD. The best and most common response is to leg it, breaking line of sight for long enough that the contract will expire, and so the softly-softliness of each round periodically escalates into panicky bouts of the parkour the franchise is famous for.
The key difference between Brotherhood online and the campaigns of prior games is that lethal, eye-catching agility and studied discretion are now equal partners in the endeavour. Entertaining though they were, Assassin’s Creed 1 and 2 struggled to foster a sense of consequence. You were nudged towards stealth, encouraged to work the crowd, but you were never punished too much for simply barging into a hotspot, stabbing at random till you found your target, then beating it up the nearest vertical surface. It wasn’t so much a game for assassins as a game for pre-industrial Spidermen, all speed and flourish.
The new game rectifies this, and in doing so produces something quietly revolutionary: an online experience where the challenge is to identify a human being while passing yourself off as a lump of software, to distinguish the one from the many while remaining indistinct. There’s a lot more to talk about – not least the single player mode, which we’ll be getting our hands on next week – but that, for the moment, is enough to make Brotherhood one of this winter’s most exciting propositions.
The game’s out for PS3 and Xbox 360 in November, with a PC version following in Q1 2011.