Assassins Creed Unity, developed by Ubisoft Montréal in 2014, aimed to improve on the scale and visual fidelity of its game space. The combination of an updated game engine and increased power in home consoles allowed the environment artists and level designers to create larger more immersive spatial environments occupied with different elements that add to the overall game mechanics, missions or atmosphere.
Level Flow & Player Navigation
A brief outline of level flow is the process of maintaining a person’s experience as fluid as possible, the activity needs to reach a balance between the challenges of the activity and the abilities of the participant allowing the game to retain the player for longer and engross the player in its world. An example of how Assassin’s Creed Unity creates level flow is based in the player’s movement itself. The game space is built around the movement system and provides the player opportunities for vertical gameplay with buildings being key to complete missions, explore, survey the land or locate enemy targets. The rooftops in Assassin's Creed Unity allows the player to flow from rooftop to rooftop, without having to touch the ground, making them great for traversal and flow.
Designing for Game Mechanics
Designing for game mechanics is a large part of a level designer’s role and is key to creating level flow. The primary game mechanics of any Assassin’s Creed is to find and assassinate targets to both gain upgrades and progress the story.
Primary Game Mechanics:
Navigation & Movement
It is argued by the lead designer on Assassin’s Creed 2 that assassination is not a core gameplay pillar of the game but is in fact the culmination of using the fighting system, the navigation and the social stealth in concert. It is evident that these pillars have not changed since the inception of the first Assassin’s Creed in 2006.
Fluid Navigation & Movement
Marc-Alexis Coté, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s Creative Director, discussed that in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate they focused on the fluidity of movement, making it accessible and making sure that the Assassin goes where the player intends to, and does not hang on every object. Navigation is key to any game as it allows the player to understand where they are in the virtual world at any given point and gives the player a feeling of presence. A large part of the navigation in the title is provided by the placement of landmarks such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral. The combination of the vertical movement and the landmarks provide the player with opportunities to navigate the space effectively this in addition with pulley lifts allow the player to ascend quickly create a powerful combination to inherently allow the player to navigate the space quickly and effectively. It can be expected that the level designers worked to ensure that the navigation was fluid whilst still retaining challenge.
As the Assassins Creed franchise relies on its open world the level designer utilises the 3D space to ensure that traversing feels fun and makes for interesting engagements. In a traditional first person shooter title, there is not much back and forth with the level artists over walls and ceilings as long as the integrity of the play space is maintained. This indicates that an open world game such as Assassin’s Creed Unity relies heavily on the artist and level designer collaborating to decide how the player will traverse the space, what will the player grab on to etc.
For example, if a designer needs to make a climbing path along a building, they have to ensure the climbing path is placed on architecture that makes sense for the building. Utilising all the space makes the setup feel more natural, encourages choice and promotes replayability. Even if a path is linear utilising the 3D space will refresh the gameplay path and make it feel exciting. The level designers that developed Assassin’s Creed Unity utilised the 3D space in an effective manner as the buildings have interiors with multiple floors rather than the game taking control purely to break line of sight. The interiors allow the game to have mission transitions from exterior to interior events and provide the player with a number of options to approach a scenario or enemy encounter.
An illustration demonstrating fluid 3D space (Weber, 2016)
Stealth has been a core pillar of the franchise since the inception of the first title, albeit primitive. In past installments the stealth relied on blending in with AI groups and avoiding the line of sight of enemies. There was no option to take cover dynamically next to a wall or crouch behind a box to avoid detection seen in similar games such as Splinter Cell Blacklist. Assassin’s Creed Unity continues with the existing stealth mechanics but added crouching, despite this being a relatively small addition it allowed the game space to be further developed in terms of stealth gameplay and provided more opportunities to be a stealth orientated player. By creating tactical advantages for the use of stealth in their missions or gameplay sequences the level designer inherently creates or adds to the overall ‘good’ level flow.
In previous installments the spatial environment is very linear in terms of stealth gameplay and does not feel dynamic however due to the addition of crouching the level designer can place assets in a manner that would solicit stealth gameplay such as a series of crates placed tactically near an enemy encounter allowing the player to sneak up to an enemy unseen, adding to the overall depth of the game space and giving the level designer more mechanics to ‘play with’.
The game features a number of factions that the player can attack. Throughout the game there are clusters of enemies in the environment that act as a combat scenario that the player can initiate by entering the building by either choosing to be stealthy or direct. The hub like encounters are a smaller ‘level’ with the larger open world. In the smaller hub levels the level designers create smaller local levels with AI placement, collectibles and high value targets to solicit challenge and replayability. In the game the “local levels” can be seen to have enemy placements situated in both the exterior and interior with multiple approaches to facilitate different play styles. Good enemy placement is important to encourage players to engage in combat in open world games where the combat areas are less defined than linear games, i.e. they frequently do not have clear entry and exit points.
Furthermore the combat in Assassin’s Creed Unity is a combination of melee and ranged. Vossen states that games that have both combat systems are generally designed around mechanics such as the shooting and stealth rather than the melee systems, this can be argued to be true in Assassin’s Creed Unity. In the game the space utilises the Phantom Blade, a small crossbow attached to the character’s wrist, encouraging the player to utilise it before utilising stealth to move closer to the enemy and initiating the melee combat system. This can be seen in Assassin’s Creed Unity and illustrates how the designer has placed enemies underneath a vantage point allowing the use of both ranged and melee combat.
Immersing the Player & Spatial Configuration
While Assassin’s Creed Unity appears to look like other Assassin's Creed games at a glance, there is an extra layer that makes it feel much more realistic. With the improved graphical fidelity there is an enhanced sense of scale and depth in the spatial environment inherently immersing the player. Nicolas Guerin, the Level Design Director on Assassin’s Creed Unity, stated they built a playground first and then developed a visually striking and historically accurate spatial environment (Webster, 2014). Whilst the role of creating the art assets is primarily the environment artist’s role the designers have taken care to arrange the environment in such a manner that makes it accurate to both the time period and the player’s perception of that time period.
What this does for the player experience is that it helps to immerse the player in the world, by configuring the spatial environment to how interiors would look or making the assets and buildings appear natural for the time period assisting in creating a historically accurate playground for the player to explore, inherently retaining the player longer. Very small tweaks to the arrangements of assets that populate the spatial environment help to breathe life into any environment and diminishes the chance that the space looks unnatural.