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ASSASSIN'S CREED 4: BLACK FLAG Exclusive INTERVIEW WITH GAME DIRECTOR ASHRAF ISMAIL!
WATCH DOGS THE LAST OF US ASSASSIN’S CREED IV: BLACK FLAG
GAMER CONTENTS: OCTOBER 2013
4. INTERVIEW Exclusive interview with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Game Director Ashraf Ismail.
8. REVIEW We review the amazing game, The Last of Us.
4. INTERVIEW: ASSASSIN’S CREED IV
8. REVIEW: THE LAST OF US
12. NEWS: WATCH DOGS
Latest news and rumours for the upcoming Watch Dogs game.
MADE BY MITCHELL HICKEY 2013 2013 OCTOBER GAMER 3
ASSASSIN’S CREED 4: BLACK FLAG INTERVIEW: GAME DIRECTOR ASHRAF ISMAIL AUTHOR: DANILE NYE GRIFFITHS
ne of the biggest successes, critically speaking, of Assassin’s Creed III was its introduction of naval combat and missions. After all the climbing, wall-jumping and general parkour action of the Ubisoft’s banner franchise, it turns out that players enjoyed the opportunity to get their sea legs aboard the Aquila, flagship of the Assassin fleet.
The success of this latest Assassin’s Creed game is important for Ubisoft – not only is it a tentpole release in a vital third quarter, but it will also be one of the first releases on nex t-generation platforms – a new and costly battleground where the console manufacturers are also flexing their first-party muscles to provide a tempting launch lineup.
As you would expect of a game based around the golden age of piracy, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has taken the nautical ball and run with it, adding an open world to the waters around the Spanish Main. As angry young man and piratical hopeful Edward Kenway, players can sail their ship, the Jackdaw, across the digital seas, besieging forts, capturing vessels and raiding plantations.
As game director, Ashraf Ismail is responsible for making sure that the new features of the new game harmonize with the existing systems of the franchise, and that they are integrated with the narrative.
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(Whenever you play a game and find yourself being shown in great detail how to perform an action that you never actually need to do again, a game director somewhere is making a sad face.)
So, the first order of business, he explained to me at Ubisoft’s Montréal offices, was to ensure that there were enough gameplay elements to make the experience of virtual life in the Caribbean sea feel populated and engaging. “Internally, we’ve always wanted to do a pirate game. But to do a pirate game, and to do it justice, you need naval, you need land, you need cities and organic environments. With Assassin’s Creed III it seemed like the team was pushing a lot of things at us that could be used.” “[Creating an open world] - making sure that there were enough tools in the game so that it was fun – to approach a challenge, to approach an island, to approach a fight scene the way you wanted to. Two, making sure the tech was capable of handling it as well. So from a game mechanics perspective some of the things we’ve pushed because of that open world is the progression system – making sure that the Jackdaw had a massive range of upgrades you could define your play style with.” “We also needed a huge variety of enemies for the Jackdaw – ships that were way too tough for you to fight at the beginning of the game, and still presented a challenge at the end of the game. So, we spent a lot of time on the enemies.”
PROGRAM TO REPEL BOARDERS! Although ships can be sunk directly in naval combat, the aim is usually to seize them – taken ships can be broken down for timber to repair the Jackdaw, or added to Captain Kenway’s fleet or scuttled and their crew recruited to replenish his crew. So, ship-to-ship combat had to be harmonized with the business of boarding. The way that the ships come together, Ismail explained, can be different every time – Kenway can begin boarding at a different distance or from a different angle each time
swim mode, if you want to be stealthy about it and kill the other side before your ship arrives. Or you can pull up really close. …We’ve had people doing 20 or 30 boardings, and trying to do it in different ways, and in ways that surprised us.” Ashraf Ismail talks through an attack on a Templar-controlled fort. Some of those surprises turned into gameplay elements of their own. “We have ropes all over the jackdaw. Initially we didn’t have many, but we found people were climbing the masts and jumping on to the ropes that were there, so we thought we should add some more. [...] A lot of the behavior that is now in the game is a result of the testing. The rope swings, and the “stealth swimming”. People would try to do that (swim to the enemy ship and assassinate targets before their men arrived), but would be detected right away, because it was a combat scenario. But people expected it, which we hadn’t realized. So, for boarding there are a lot of really cool features that came in – even how far away the ships were. We originally did it when they were very close, but we found people were trying to initiate combat further away, so they could get to the top of the mast and leap across or dive into the water.” For the dedicated assassin, it’s even possible to spy a ship from the shore, swim to it, board alone and kill every last mother’s son aboard before nonchalantly rejoining the crew of the Jackdaw and claiming the now unguarded prize. “Taking out everyone means the ship is yours. If you kill some of them, it will update your objectives once you do board – that’s a hardcore mechanic, but it’s available.”
“It’s all player driven.” When you demast a ship, that’s a cue that you can start boarding. Your opportunities for navigation change. You can’t always depend on “I jump onto this mast, jump over to this one, go here”. You have to assess the scenario each time. The way you approach it is really up to the player.
Mate for life
Like, the distance you start from matters. It’ll take a bit of time for your crew to throw the hooks, so you can man a swivel gun and do some damage, or you can dive into the water. We have a stealth
“If you’re attacking a man-o-war and don’t have enough crew, you probably won’t survive. If you’re heavily outnumbered, your crew will die very quickly.”
Before the Jackdaw is upgraded, picking a fight with a big fish (in the metaphorical sense – one can also literally pick a fight with a big fish) is likely to end badly, even if you manage to knock down their sails.
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The player’s guide to maritime combat is Kenway’s first mate Adewale, an escaped slave and committed pirate. “Adewale is a very important narrative character, but as first mate he gives you a lot of tutorials. For example, if you are struggling against a fort, Adewale will start giving you advice on how to fight. The same with fighting in storms. We use Adewale quite a lot for warnings and feedback.” In a naval world designed to offer a new event every 30-60 seconds – a sandbank, an island, a storm, a ship or a shark (the big fish you can pick a fight with), it’s important to make sure the player is not overwhelmed, figuratively or literally. Ismail and the team spent a lot of time balancing simplicity and simulation in the sailing mechanics. “Assassin’s Creed is about credibility and authenticity. It’s not about realism. Early on we did a lot of prototyping around the navigation – we practiced tacking [traveling against the wind by cutting a zig-zag route through the water]. We tried giving you full control over the sails. In the end we found the most engaging method for an open-world action/ adventure game was physics-driven, with simple
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control over the sails and full steering control, and then having fun with the physics of the ocean. “So, when a big wave hits you you have to steer into it, and you’ll feel the wave under you. It’s much more about the fun of the physics system, and the heaviness, the weight of this massive ship. It gives it a unique aesthetic.” “We saw some of that in Assassin’s Creed III, but the ocean is now totally simulated. In Assassin’s Creed III it was linear, whereas here it’s a system running over your ship.” “Combat also will be very different… Naval combat has been constantly our highest-rated system. We’re very proud of it – the different ammo types and the strong strategic elements of using the different weapons. So, if you drop a bunch of fire barrels in the water, you can shoot them with your swivel gun and create a chain reaction. Or you can use the mortar on the same barrels to create an Apocalypse Now inferno (laughs). We wanted a lot of depth in the system.” The Assassin’s Creed games are noted not only for the openness of their worlds, of course, but also for their detail, with renaissance Florence,
Ottoman Constantinople or revolutionary New York being recreated with a range of contemporary landmarks.
So, it’s not a cinematic – you are still watching your ship travel the sea within the game engine, albeit in rapid motion – but it is cinematic?
I interviewed Assassin’s Creed’s art director, Raphael Lacoste, on the look and feel of Edward Kenway’s piratical world, but Ismail mentioned a mechanical feature which helped the ocean, which being generally blue and wet for the last several millennia was not necessarily so rich in historically meaningful landmarks, to take on a character within the game.
“Exactly – we wanted to give people a chance to see the world. You can drop out of it into combat very quickly, and it’s functional. But it gives you that fantasy of being a pirate, the vision of the Caribbean, these beautiful sunsets.”
“We’ve added a third travel speed [additional to regular travel and fast travel, which one can use between land missions and the Jackdaw using a rowboat, and when sailing the Jackdaw between any previously discovered “sync points”]. We’ve called it… ‘travel speed’ (laughs).”
Assassin’s Creed IV will be released on consoles at the end of October in the US and the beginning of November elsewhere, with next-gen console and PC launches to follow, so the beauty of those sunsets – and the success of the integration of new mechanics into a very well-established world – will soon be open to critical examination.
From an aesthetic point of view, you don’t feel like you’re traveling too fast, but in fact you are traveling really fast. And it also creates this picturesque vision – the camera pulls back and you get this three-quarters shot of the ship. There are some visions of it which are breathtaking.” 2013 OCTOBER GAMER 7
THE LAST OF US
REVIEW: APOCALYPSE WOW AUTHOR: ANDY KELLY
t’s been two decades since a viral outbreak devastated the United States and society collapsed. Its once-great cities now lie in ruins as survivors cling to their humanity in tyrannical military quarantine zones. Either you endure the hardship of the QZ, or risk life outside where the infected lurk in the shadows and ruthless gangs run wild. Veteran survivor Joel has to escort Ellie, a young girl with an important secret, through this savage, unforgiving world, and it’s their relationship that defines the game. Years struggling on the road have made Joel brusque and practical, but he has a likeable warmth in his laconic Texas drawl. Ellie, born after the outbreak, is spirited and witty, indifferent to the desolation around her. Neither character is a lazy cliche. They have flaws and nuances, and are brought to life by impressively natural voice acting. They feel like real people. Naughty Dog’s performance capture technology has improved since Uncharted, picking up subtler movements and making faces much more expressive. Joel is the anti-Nathan Drake, never accepting praise or celebrating his triumphs. “It was luck,” he grunts. “And it will run out.” A traumatic event from his past, which you experience first-hand in 10 GAMER OCTOBER 2013
the shocking prologue, has made him reluctant to open up to people, but as he gets closer to Ellie, he begins to drop his guard. That makes it sound like a saccharine romantic comedy, but it’s handled in a way that never feels forced or overly sentimental.
“THE NARRATIVE AND CHARACTERISATION ARE IMPRESSIVE, AND NOT JUST ‘FOR A GAME’.” Ellie is the perfect counterpoint to Joel: upbeat and talkative, with a goofy sense of humour. Joel considers her a burden at first, but grows to like her. She’s fascinated by life before the outbreak, always asking Joel about the past, which he understandably isn’t always keen to share. As the pair travel together she begins to look up to him and you notice her mirroring his personality. When another character compliments her skill with a rifle, she says “It was luck.” They’re richly painted characters, and the script never betrays the unrelenting bleakness of the world. If you think something is going to happen in the story, your expectations shaped by years of predictable video game writing, it probably won’t. The narrative and characterisation are seriously impressive, and not just ‘for a game’. We’re so invested in the characters that moments of suspense and danger, of which there many, are given an extra urgency.
“THE VIOLENCE NEVER FEELS GRATUITOUS. IN THIS HARSH, BARBARIC WORLD, IT’S FIGHT OR DIE” The infected are everywhere. They’re humans who’ve been consumed by a parasitic virus, making their heads sprout with gruesome fungus and turning them into violent monsters. But like all the best post-apocalypse fiction, humans are just as much of a threat. Taking advantage of the chaos, groups of bandits roam the country hunting for people and camps to plunder. Joel and Ellie meet a few friendly survivors, but most are hostile, giving you no choice but to fight back. Joel can handle himself, but he isn’t superhuman. Combat is something you find yourself trying to avoid, using stealth to outsmart enemies. Ammo and health are limited, so straight firefights are rarely a good idea. It’s all about adapting; knowing when to sneak, when to attack, and when to flee. In listening mode, activated by holding R2, footsteps and enemy chatter reveal their position, allowing you to ‘see’ them through walls, but its range is limited. Throwing objects will lure them away, giving you a chance to slip past, or separate them from the group and take them out.
horror, including sneaking through a pitch black tunnel full of them, with only a flashlight and their unnerving clicking to help you navigate through the darkness. While some encounters force you into a specific play style, most are dynamic. It’s this choice that keeps The Last of Us interesting for its 15 hours, allowing you to mix and match your tactics. You might use motion-triggered bombs to set up a defensive perimeter, then intentionally alert nearby infected so they run into your trap. Or maybe you’ll find a tight corridor, lure them in, then burn the whole group with a well-placed Molotov. If you’re spotted during stealth you can sprint away with L2, break their line of sight, and try again. There’s a lot of room for creativity and improvisation.
The fighting is incredibly brutal, and you really feel the impact as you slam a steel pipe down on an enemy’s head, or bury an axe in their neck. The extreme violence never feels gratuitous, though. In this harsh, barbaric world, it’s fight or die. If you attack someone near a hard surface, Joel will grab them and slam their head against it. Blood drips from noses, squirts from arteries, and leaves crimson splashes on walls. It’s ferocious, ugly, and tremendously satisfying. The infected require different tactics. Runners charge you as soon as they see you, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Their mad shrieking alerts their allies, so eliminating them silently, one by one, is usually wiser than shooting. Clickers, named for the eerie clicking and popping noises they make, are more powerful, and will kill you instantly if they grab you. Luckily, they’re blind. They ‘see’ with sound and you can sneak past them by gently teasing the left stick. But make even the slightest sound, or bump into them, and it’s game over. This makes for some brilliantly tense moments of claustrophobic 2013 OCTOBER GAMER 11
“IT NEVER LOSES SIGHT OF THE FACT THAT IT’S A VIDEO GAME, NOT A FILM” Also notable is the use of sound. The magnificent score by Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla is sparse and delicate, but a lot of the time there’s no music at all - just the ambience of your surroundings. Birds sing, insects chirp, and neglected skyscrapers creak and groan as they struggle to stay upright. Environmental audio effects also impact gameplay, allowing you to gauge the distance of enemies by sound alone.
Ellie is genuinely helpful in combat, even when she doesn’t have a weapon. If an enemy is about to creep up on you, she’ll shout out their position, giving you time to react. “Joel, to your left!” When he reluctantly gives her a pistol, she’s a crack shot, and will help you break free if an infected grabs you. She’s a smarter, more useful AI companion than BioShock Infinite’s Elizabeth. She can’t swim, though. The game regularly throws simple environmental puzzles at you to break up the action, usually involving getting Ellie across bodies of water. Joel can climb some things, but he’s no Lara Croft. His movement is weighty and realistic, and you have to use planks as makeshift platforms to cross gaps. The game isn’t afraid to slow things down, and moments of calm are common. This gives you time to admire the gorgeous world, get to know Ellie, scavenge for supplies, and learn more about the outbreak. Your post-apocalyptic road trip takes you through crumbling cities, abandoned suburbs, flooded subway tunnels, and stunning countryside. There’s a huge variety of environments here, with the mood, weather, and scenery constantly changing around you. Environments are large, detailed, and littered with secrets and optional buildings to explore. It’s a linear game, but it masks it well. The level design also complements the dynamic combat, with multiple entry points and escape routes. The art design is outstanding as well, with a striking attention to detail. From sun-dappled forests to rain-soaked city ruins, every location feels lovingly hand-crafted and drenched in atmosphere.
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Exploring rewards you with crafting materials that you use to create health packs and weapons. Supplies are scarce and ammo is rare, giving the game a compelling survival aspect. Mostly they do a good job of hiding the gamier elements, but there are a few concessions. Magical pills you find scattered around allow you to upgrade things like your max health and crafting speed, while training manuals grant passive bonuses, including increasing the radius of your Molotovs. This doesn’t sit entirely well with the game’s fiction, but it isn’t too intrusive. Occasionally the game spoils its exquisite atmosphere with slightly clumsy, illusionshattering moments, like when Joel is strung upside down in a trap and inexplicably has unlimited ammo to fight back waves of infected - even though up until that point we’d been carefully conserving bullets. The level design also slips up sometimes, and you’ll know enemies are about to appear because of the sudden appearance of convenient, waist-high cover and throwable objects.
“THE LAST OF US IS A REMARKABLE ACHIEVEMENT, AND ONE OF THOSE RARE GAMES THAT YOU NEVER WANT TO END.” But that’s where our complaints end and, honestly, we had to dig for them. The Last of Us is a remarkable achievement, and one of those rare games that you never want to end as you approach the finale. It tells a moving story that will linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled, but never loses sight of the fact that it’s a video game, not a film. It’s a masterful marriage of storytelling and game design, and easily Naughty Dog’s finest moment.
THE VERDICT: A brutal, beautiful survival horror game. An astonishingly pretty, detailed world Multiple ways to approach combat Likeable characters with surprising depth
Some encounters are too obviously signposted Eventually, it has to end
DEVELOPER: NAUGHTY DOG PUBLISHER: SCEA PLATFORM: PS3 RATING: R 18+ RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW
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NEWS: WATCH DOGS HAS MANDATORY INSTALL AUTHOR: DAVID SCAMMELL he current generation versions of Watch Dogs will require a mandatory installation similar to Grand Theft Auto 5, creative director Jonathan Morin has confirmed.
As for when we’ll see footage of the current-gen versions, Morin isn’t sure.
Speaking to VideoGamer.com at Eurogamer Expo this morning, Morin revealed that the Xbox 360 version will ship on two discs - one being an installation disc and the second being a play disc.
Watch Dogs launches on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PC & Xbox One on November 22. A PlayStation 4 version is due to follow on November 29.
“Yes, there are two discs,” he said. “It’s the same thing as GTA” It is assumed that the Wii U version will carry similar requirements, with the PlayStation 3 version expected to ship on a single Blu-ray Disc. It isn’t yet known how much storage space will be required for the installation. 14 GAMER OCTOBER 2013
“That you should ask marketing,” he said. “I have no idea. But yeah, it looks pretty good.”