Assassin's Creed 3: The AnvilNext Engine

Ubisoft Montreal has rebuilt AnvilNext from the ground, giving AC3's protagonist Ratohnhaké:ton a whole new deadly playground.

It can€™t be easy to keep a franchise going. You€™ve got a lot to maintain €“ change too much and the audience will grumble. Change too little and the audience will also grumble. We€™re an ungrateful bunch and we€™ve been spoiled for choice for far too long by a unending stream of new, exciting and innovative video games. With a new Assassin€™s Creed 2 expansion title dropping literally once a year for the past three years, and #3 being announced so soon after Revelations, the franchise is quickly starting to feel like the R.L Stine€™s Goosebumps of the gaming world. Many feel that, with the imminent release date, Assassin€™s Creed 3 is being churned off the Ubisoft production line just in time for another Christmas like Brotherhood and Revelations. Not so! This third outing has been in the workshop since the moment Ezio€™s first parquet misadventure hit stores in 2009. With Assassin€™s Creed 3 Ubisoft have always been keen to rock the proverbial boat. While Brotherhood and Revelations were developed and released using the game€™s original Anvil Engine, Creative director Alex Hutchinson has been confined to the workshop with his team, designing and creating an entirely new platform for Ratohnhaké:ton - or Connor, for those without a Native American dictionary €“ AC3's protagonist to play on.

The AnvilNext Engine

€œWhen you€™re working with engineers who have solved massive problems in the past and set the bar really high in terms of animation and character navigation, we knew we could push the bar,€ says Hutchinson. Given the upgraded moniker of €˜AnvilNext€™, Hutchinson€™s new and improved game engine has been rebuilt from the ground, and makes some mighty intriguing promises. Among the new aesthetic features are things like deferred lighting, ambient occlusion, new and improved camera functionality and a more thorough crowd AI that interacts more intuitively with the central character. One of the more important developments for the franchise though comes in the form of its animation. It€™s been important to Ubisoft to create a game that feels completely different than Assassin€™s Creed 2, while staying tru to it's roots in fluidity; and even more so in the face of waning interest in the franchise (brought on through fans playing essentially the same game three times). According to all sources, Connor just feels different to play than either Altair or Ezio; he moves differently, climbs differently, he stalks lower to the ground and by all accounts he€™s all together more predatorial, but while still retaining that smooth Assassin€™s Creed feel. €œAnimation fidelity is such a big part of the Assassins brand that if we were going to do it we wanted to do it right,€ Hutchinson says. €œ our goal with the new game is to have no animations from the previous ACs,€ he reiterates. €œWe don€™t want you to see anything from previous ACs in this game unless we deliberately put it in there.€

Navigation and Combat in the €˜Frontier€™

Perhaps one of the biggest issues with AC3 has been with navigation and combat in its wide open €˜Frontier€™. Connor will be able to fully traverse a young America€™s vast wilderness and this has brought with it its own set of problems for the dev team. It€™s been important not to lose sight of one of the franchise€™s main draws: free running. Obviously, losing the ability to climb and free run in the wilderness would be one of those €˜too much€™ changes and so Ubisoft have been keen to innovate a new and improved climbing system which incorporates the Frontier in its design. Ubisoft knew it couldn€™t keep its players grounded and so, apparently, practically every surface you see in the Frontier is climbable €“ from trees to cliff faces. They€™ve been studying climbers to accurately recreate this new form of vertical navigation so theoretically you€™ll spend no more time on the ground in the Frontier than you will within the heart of the cities. Another big challenged faced by Hutchinson and his dev team has been combat in the Frontier. In a city, where surfaces are even, combat animation is easy. It might not sound a huge fanfare for the casual gamer, but in AC3, slopes and uneven surfaces are factored into the animation, meaning if you€™re fighting on a hill, Connor€™s animation will react specifically to that particular hill. €œThink about every game €“ just mentally picture it again €“ and you realize every has been very clever over the years,€ Hutchinson says. €œYou run over these uneven terrains and then you get to the fight arena and, €˜Oh look, it€™s flat.€™ There are problems with foot placement, swordfighting with someone when they are above you or below you, the ragdoll when you collapse on the ground and you€™re hurt €“ once you get away from flat ground it€™s nightmarish to solve all of the problems.€

Just Like Hollywood

Another of Assassin€™s Creed€™s big crowd pulling aspects is its complex, multi-stranded Story. And with the new game engine comes new possibilities for cut-scene animation. Ubisoft have championed several innovative developments in character animation and motion capture that allow for a more realistic, movie like experience in AC3€™s cut-scenes. Animators now have double the amount of facial bones to work with, especially in those key areas of emotion like the eyes and mouth allowing for more interesting close-ups. Textures and physical objects have been improved to aid in creating a more cinematic, realistic narrative experience. With the new system, it€™s possible to motion capture for body motion, facial performance and voiceover for six actors at a time (as opposed to recording each in turn and stitching these elements together). This basically means that there€™s more demand on the actors to interact with each other, more emphasis on facial performance and a cinema-like emphasis on character interaction. Ubisoft approach this new style of motion capture very much like a movie studio. Creative leads meet to discuss the scenes, which Hutchinson then breaks down into €˜cut-scenes€™ and €˜in-game cinematics€™,before storyboarding the action. Actors rehearse the scene with each other before shooting several takes in order to get that perfect performance. It€™s just like Hollywood, kid. €œWhen you get in the studio, it really feels like you are putting a movie together,€ Hutchinson says. €œIt doesn€™t feel like grabbing some animation and recording a voice. You€™re trying to actually capture a performance. Which was the goal.€ In shooting AC3€™s in-game movie, Ubisoft hired 30 professional actors, 20 voice actors and 7 motion-capture experts to create an estimated two-and-a-half hours of footage. It seems that the gap between movies and video games really is getting smaller and smaller. €œIt€™s kind of scary when you€™re used to having your attention on the game part, and then you realize you€™re shooting a movie as well,€ joked Hutchinson. For more on Ubisoft Montreal€™s reinvention of their AC3 franchise check out WhatCulture€™s Assassin€™s Creed 3 page, in the new and improved Games tab. As always, we'll be posting updatedand news right up to our full review.

Assassin€™s Creed 3 is out on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC in October 2012.
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Stuart believes that the pen is mightier than the sword, but still he insists on using a keyboard.