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Paris will be the true star of Assassin's Creed Unity

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The developers are going to great lengths to ensure it

Modern-day Paris is vastly different than the city that served as the backdrop to one of the most famous uprisings in history: the French Revolution. Some of the greatest locales of the revolution are now gone -- either on the cusp of being forgotten by society, or repurposed altogether. The exact spot where the guillotine was used to behead Louis XVI can be pinpointed by going to Concorde Square and counting one, two, three lampposts in. The Bastille, the prison that was infamously stormed and destroyed is, well, destroyed. It’s been reduced to a scant few blocks next to a metro platform where commuters mostly ignore it. What was the residence of royalty now houses other treasures such as the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo.

Therein lies the challenge for developers of Assassin’s Creed games. How do they capture the mood and atmosphere of a city that’s so far historically removed from present time? The setting is always the star of Assassin’s Creed titles, no matter which installment in the franchise you’re playing. But, they have to tread carefully because a dull city makes for a dull game.

The gut reaction is to assume that getting as close to photo-realistic as possible is the goal when creating a game of this magnitude. Despite current generation consoles allowing the resources to get closer than ever, the Assassin’s Creed art team actually wants to try to take a step back from this. By carefully toeing the line between photo-realism and stylization, the team is able to convey a sense of emotion that a cold, hard world lacks.

Art director Mohammed Gambouz, who worked on Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, explains that his team tried to bottle the essence of artistic photography and transform that into all the assets for a large, open-world game. Studying paintings from the era and mimicking the style of movies such as Sherlock Holmes, they worked with internal historians to recreate some of the world’s greatest landmarks with their own added touch of personality.

On a broader scale, the developers had a unified mindset for Assassin’s Creed Unity, in which they wanted to accomplish three things: to make a monumental Paris, to have diverse districts and themes across the city, and to have substantial and accessible indoor and underground areas.

In order to create a memorable Paris, the developers needed to do more than to just cobble together a string of impressive edifices. They needed to visually channel central themes of the game. Working with the tenets of richness, hope, aging, and chaos, they chose to implement these ideas through the use of colors, light, decay, and smoke, respectively. The inspiration that rebellion brings might be aptly conveyed by the sun peeking out from behind a column of smoke. Or, the classist undertones of the time might be expressed by comparing two districts of town – one with its missing street signs, and the other with its well-lit streets and pristine shops.

The sense of disparity between the districts should be easy to see because lighting is the number one thing that the team focused on when moving to this console generation’s hardware -- not polygon count, not resolution, but lighting effects. Even though the thematic differences between the eight areas of town should set them apart, the layout of the urban blueprint also defines them. Upscale parts will have an orderly configuration, while poorer districts will have a more disorganized feel about them.

However, the game’s outer world only makes up a fraction of the space for the player to play in. World design director Nick Guérin estimates that the interiors of Unity are at least three times larger than the surface. Ubisoft believes that the Parisian people and their stories will assist tremendously in creating a believable city.  Because of this mindset, the player will have the chance to see more than just citizens wandering the streets; they'll get to experience many of them living inside their houses, too.

Maybe it'll be the regular occurrence of the common non-playable characters that really ties Paris together, but Unity is intent on filling up plenty of those interior spaces with some of the most recognizable people and myths in French history. Like most Assassin's Creed titles, side missions will provide a sizable chunk of the game's content. One such example is a murder mystery string of quests which deal with the Red Man of the Tuileries -- a ghost who haunted the monarchy for centuries with death predictions. Possibly most appropriately, another side mission focuses on Madame Tussaud, who made death masks from executed citizens which ended up being a symbol of the French Revolution as they were held high in the streets.

Ubisoft's take on Paris is an ambitious one, for sure. According to Guérin, the surface space of the city is 21.4 square kilometers. That's good enough to be the largest in Assassin's Creed history to date. The developers divided the city into three parts to determine how they could effectively model it. The inner city was given the most attention, as they strove for a 1:1 replication. Working outward, they attempted 1:3 for the mid-city, and 1:6 for the outer limits. 

After seeing the exact approach that Unity's developers had in mind when creating Paris, it's enough to make you wish that the game would ship with some sort of tourism mode -- a way to experience the city stripped of the gameplay elements. Technically, exploring and not playing would accomplish the same thing, but it'd be more grand to just watch. Look at the famed landmarks as they were more than 200 years ago. Observe the citizens as they slip into frenzied dissent. Feel the pulse of the city as the French Revolution unfolds. Ubisoft's version of Paris is sure to be a lively one, and that's why it's poised to steal the show in Assassin's Creed Unity.

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Brett Makedonski
Brett MakedonskiManaging Editor   gamer profile

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