Assassin’s Creed Mirage is just a few weeks shy of release. The game originally began as DLC for Valhalla, but as you can read in our preview, the French developer chose to prune the experience and bring the series back to its roots, rather than simply adding more branches to the already overgrown formula.
We recently got a chance to talk with the game’s Quest and World Director, Simon Arsenault, and he told us more about how the team has tried to capture the spirit of the old games, without necessarily turning back the clock on the gameplay.
Gamereactor: In previous games, while the tools were there, it was often easier to go straight into battle than engage in stealth. Did you do anything in this game to encourage taking a stealthy approach?
Simon Arsenault: Everything was built so that stealth would be the focus. We want it to be both fair and challenging. And even a little punishing, so that – after you’ve been in combat for a while – you feel encouraged to go back to stealth.
We also have some higher-level mechanics, like the familiarity system where illegal actions in the city are punished, and that includes not just killing, but taking out your sword, hitting people or looting a chest. Wanted posters appear and eventually the citizens look at the posters and call for guards if you are in the area.
This strengthens the parkour and stealth, because if you’re just at level one on the notoriety system, you can get onto the rooftops and you’re still relatively trouble-free. But if you keep doing illegal actions, your fame will increase, and at level two you have lookouts on the rooftops. So your playground on the rooftops is no longer so free. All this is to encourage you to go back to stealth.
In many ways you look to the past with most of the mechanics, but the mission structure is not the same as in the old games where you had GTA-like, stand-alone missions. Why did you decide not to return to this structure?
We could have done that, but we felt it took away a bit of the emphasis on the city itself. The old mission structure also brought a lot of restrictions. You had to have mission failures if you strayed too far. You had to have out-of-bounds. All those things are kind of old school and in the newest games we don’t have those anymore, and we feel a little bit liberated by it.
We wanted a more modern take on mission structure and gameplay. You can start a mission by just being at the Bureau, and if you want to deviate and look for a chest, you can. And if you have a chase around town, thanks to the familiarity system, it’s fine and you can always go back to your mission in the end. There are a few times when we cheat with that rule, but mostly we try to make the city alive for the players.
Another way the city felt immersive during the previews were these kind of detective mechanics of finding clues and overhearing conversations. Personally, it reminded me a bit of the newer Sherlock Holmes games, and perhaps the Dreadful Crimes investigations in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. What was your inspiration for these mechanics?
Our goal, as you said, was to go back to that kind of detective feel. It was also present in AC 1 where, when you started, you had to find your goal. It was really very mechanical, but it was the mechanics of tailing, eavesdropping and so on. And then you would have to kill your target.
We wanted to get back to that feeling, and the inspiration came not only from Assassin Creed, but also from the Sherlock Holmes games, especially for the grouping of information or the kind of investigative board. It was fun to look at in terms of inspiration (even though we didn’t use it in exactly the same way) like for finding information, grouping it so the player can remember it and having the objectives evolve over time depending on what information you got.
You’ve talked a bit about how bagdad of the game is a “reactive city” and it says it a lot on the official website and in press materials as well. But what does the term mean to you personally?
I touched on it with the familiarity system. It’s one of the biggest systems it affects. Otherwise, it is the crowd in general. Our crowds are not just a background, background noise or background scenery. Of course, they are a good way for us to show the culture and era of 9th-century Baghdad. But because the pedestrians are calling you or you can mingle with them, they are part of your strategy and gameplay from moment to moment. That’s why the city feels more alive for us.
We also did some side activities that make the city come alive as well. You can stumble across stories that are not part of Basim’s story. And they’re not part of the Hidden Ones versus Order of the Ancients conflict. They are more about the people you meet in town, and they will reveal more about the mood, religion and culture of the era. What we could not incorporate into the main story, we could bring to life through these Tales of Baghdad or side quests.
During the previews, I was surprised how big the map was. How big is the map we’re talking about compared to, say, London in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate?
Syndicate is a little harder to compare to because it had vehicles. The carts required very long distances, wider roads and so on. Going back to a city traversed on foot or on horseback, we are closer to Unity and Constantinople [van Assassin’s Creed: Revelations] in terms of the city itself. But we’re not just doing the city, which is why the map may look big to you, even though it’s not that big compared to Valhalla. We also have an environment around it that gives us some palate cleansers. You’ve been in the city for a while, you go out into the desert, and when you see the city from afar, it also looks bigger.
What are you most proud of with Mirage?
The parkour was a huge undertaking. We had the architectural style that helped us, like the flat roofs and the smaller size, which allowed buildings to be paced better. It’s often smaller buildings that help us bring variety to the traversal. But adding just these ingredients was not enough. It was also about bringing back the ideology or philosophy of the older games, which was: you’re in one location, you want to go somewhere – don’t even look! – and on instinct you get there.
It’s easier to say than to do, and I think we did it pretty well. Once you’re on the roof, you’re free to go wherever you want. But we always pull you left, right, to your location. If you fall down, no problem, we’re going to catch you on the way back up and you’re right back on those parkour highways, as we call them. I’m proud of that on the parkour side.
On the quest side, we were able to bring back some of the older mechanics, like tailing – a new take on it. Disguise we were also able to bring back in some quests and eavesdropping. All those mechanics make you feel like an assassin like the old games did and it was really good to bring them back and embrace them.