Assassin's Creed is one of my favorite game series of the last generation. It features a lot of really great things to like: interesting characters, a conspiracy nut storyline, an expansive world to explore, clever (although not at all accurate) integration with real-world history, and more. Now that more information on the long-awaited Assassin's Creed III is starting to come out of the woodwork, we're also beginning to see some of Ubisoft's renewed vision for the franchise.
Among this is a statement by Alex Hutchinson, Creative Director on the title, about the revised controls for Assassin's Creed III. It's an interesting read, and it got me thinking about the control scheme of Assassin's Creed, as well as how it ties into the overarching design of the series. Unfortunately, that train of thought also led me to realize that the existing control scheme of the Assassin's Creed series is, in many ways, deeply flawed. In this article, I'll be going into detail about that control scheme, and examine how and why it doesn't work, as well as how it can be improved upon.
The Puppeteer System
The original Assassin's Creed control scheme was one of the first things discussed in the run-up to the game's release. Whereas most games control by having actions tied to specific buttons, in Assassin's Creed, the complexity of the environmental interactions necessitated by the game's parkour-style climbing in turn requires a different approach to controls. When you can climb, jump, grab, swing, and everything in between, managing all those movements across a small handful of buttons can get very difficult.
Enter the "puppeteer" control system. The principle behind it, which has since been used for all subsequent games in the Assassin's Creed series, is that the player's controller can be conceptually thought of as puppet strings connected to the different appendages of the avatar. The A button controls the legs, for instance, while X controls the weapon hand, B controls the off hand, and Y controls the head. The second component of this system is the high and low profile configurations. By default, the player is in "stealth mode", or low profile, but holding RT will cause the player to enter high profile mode. In high profile mode, attacking enemies is messy and loud, the player can run faster, jump farther, and generally perform actions that raise suspicion.
For a stealth game, this, in theory, is a fantastic control system. Not only does it get rid of the "am I sneaking or not sneaking?" problem that some stealth games exhibit, it also consistently maps certain types of conceptual actions to certain buttons. Pressing Y will allow the player to examine objects or scenes in the game world, just as holding Y will allow the player to enter Eagle Vision mode, highlighting different characters and interactive objects, for example. When something involving the head, eyes, or looking occurs, the player can be confident that pressing Y will trigger the correct action.
Tyranny of the Open World
Unfortunately, the control scheme itself does not actually work very well in Assassin's Creed as a final game. The original title was built around key assassinations, as well as performing mini-challenges to collect more information on the target - collecting part of the information would reveal the target's location, while collecting all of it would often provide some sort of bonus in the confrontation. All of this took place in an expansive open world, relegated into very large areas on a city-by-city basis (with one large transitional area between them).
The big problem with the controls as realized in Assassin's Creed isn't really the controls themselves. It's the rest of the game. See, Assassin's Creed, especially the later titles in the franchise, isn't really a stealth game. The marketing and the image might tell you it's about stealth, about assassinating, about being a silent predator... but it really isn't. No, Assassin's Creed an open world game that is primarily about getting from A to B. Whether you're running from objective to objective, or trying to solve a challenge, or escaping the guards, there's a good chance 90% of your game experience will be running and jumping. Bearing this in mind, the controls, as they are implemented, do not support this mode of gameplay well.
Take, for example, the necessary input to run at top speed, something the player is bound to want to do just about all the time. Assassin's Creed requires the player press and hold two buttons, the A button (for sprinting and jumping) and RT (for high profile mode), in order to move quickly. Two buttons, plus the analogue stick? Really? When running for several seconds or even minutes, this becomes fatiguing. Surely, it would be much easier and more comfortable if the player could run at full speed solely by moving the analogue stick, without pressing any buttons at all?
Despite featuring a beautiful open world, the Assassin's Creed series struggles to provide controls that work for navigating its complex geometry.
This was made worse in subsequent Assassin's Creed games. Whereas the first in the series had a lot of additional gameplay to perform while the player was running from A to B, in the form of guards to avoid, cover-blowing beggars to fend off, and so on, this was mostly removed from Assassin's Creed II onward, presumably because players were annoyed with having to stop every few minutes. While the first game could be said to resemble one big stealth and movement puzzle, becoming quite difficult in the later levels, Assassin's Creed II was effectively Grand Theft Auto: Italia, minus the cars and guns.
There is one argument that could be made, and it's a very poor one, in my opinion. Grand Theft Auto IV (and some of the prior games) featured a very annoying control mechanism, whereby the player had to tap the run button as quickly as possible in order to sprint. The reasoning behind this mechanism is that the player feels more involved when running around if he or she can press a button - it triggers the "something's happening!" sensation that interface designers will know makes animated loading screens a necessity. But, open world games aren't about mashing buttons - the open world exists to give the player choice in experiencing and solving gameplay challenges. Moving around is a function of choice-making, not the game in itself. If you need to resort to the player holding down or mashing buttons to make things "interesting", you have a very serious problem with your game.
The end result of Assassin's Creed overall design is that, given the open world nature of the game and its heavy focus on traversal, the existing control scheme is simply not conducive to smooth and fun gameplay. Players just want to get from A to B and stab someone, after all, and doing that is much more complicated and awkward than it needs to be. I, for one, don't find it surprising that a control system designed primarily for a game about stealthily sneaking around, evading guards, blending in crowds, and so forth is not suited to the new model of gameplay realized especially in Assassin's Creed II.
Contextual Controls & Obfuscation
Spending more time with Assassin's Creed reveals another very interesting side of the gameplay - despite being more complex than they need to be, the controls are actually very deep in terms of the move set offered to the player. There are all sorts of really cool things you can do: short jump vs. long jump, run across walls, wall jump, etc. While Assassin's Creed is often derided for its imprecise controls, it actually has extremely precise ones - in fact, just about all the game world is assembled in a way which makes them useful. If you take the time to master the puppeteer system, you will, in theory, be able to play the entire game without ever making a single mistake.
Despite this high level of precision, though, almost no player I've seen has actually been able to control Assassin's Creed in a way I'd call precise. The context-sensitive nature of many of the controls, combined with the expectations players bring into the game, often ensures that our old habits simply do not work. Additionally, by making everything context-sensitive, the game has to effectively guess at what the player wants to do when more than one action is available.
In a game like Uncharted, the controls are so smooth and precise because there is always only one path to follow: pressing up can only either mean "forward" or "up", not both. But Assassin's Creed, set in an open world, has to contend with all sorts of problems. Does the player want to climb? Jump up? Spin around and hang from the nearby ledge? Leap off a roof and stab someone on the way down? Wall jump? The controls are precise as they can be contextually, but they are not intuitive because the context is very often different than what the player anticipates.
Uncharted lets the player do all sorts of crazy context-sensitive stuff, but it only works because of how limited the player's world is. In an open world, those context-sensitive controls become a lot harder to fine-tune.
Part of this can be mitigated by proper teaching, which, unfortunately Assassin's Creed does not do very well. Even though the first two games in the series have extended introductory sequences and take close to an hour just to give the player a weapon, I can guarantee almost no player will have a keen grasp of the controls or game functions by that point. Even though we're master assassins, we're still running into walls and accidentally leaping to our deaths.
The reason for this is that the Assassin's Creed games do a poor job of actually teaching the player the more advanced maneuvers available. While it will explain high and low profile, or how to run, or stab someone, it won't explain the precise control combination needed to wall jump in a certain direction, or how to hang from a ledge rather than jump over it, or how to fall straight down from a rooftop rather than leaping forward at full speed.
All of this more advanced information, fundamental to smoothly navigating the complex 3D geography of the world, is instead buried in optional tutorial videos and challenge modes. The only reason I even know about all this is because I took the time in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood to get gold medals on all of the optional challenges. Most players will not do this, and yet the game almost requires the knowledge in order to control properly.
I don't have a perfect way to solve this problem. It's a difficult and complex one that Ubisoft have clearly struggled with over the last several games in the series. Still, there are some very basic and fundamental changes which I would make to the existing scheme that would go a long way towards mitigating the issues introduced by using a stealth-driven control interface in an open-world action-adventure.
- Ditch the puppeteer system. I realize that this is one of the Assassin's Creed hallmarks and probably one of the biggest innovations the game has to offer. But to be frank, it just does not work. It is needlessly complicated and does not mesh well with the core gameplay, as I've explained above.
- No more high and low profile modes. Like the puppeteering system, it's needlessly complicated and only adds additional button presses to rote game functions. Walking slowly can be done by moving the control stick gently, or pressing the stick once to enter stealth mode. Stealth kills and messy kills can be assigned to different buttons, or tap vs. hold. That's all players really need the high/low profile modes for anyway.
- Play to player's expectations, not with them. Familiar control schemes may not always be perfect, but if they work because players know them, that's better evidence than any to adopt them. That's why most modern shooters use the left stick for moving and the right for looking - it may not be perfect depending on who you ask, but defying convention here is just going to increase a game's learning curve to no real benefit.
- Provide adequate tutorials that cover when and how players can use certain moves and perform certain actions. Assassin's Creed does a really good job of this with combat, with environment interaction, and so on... but it falls on its face with the most important thing, movement. If the player is going to need to learn how to do something to simply navigate the environment, then ensure the player actually learns it, and learns it well.
- Avoid feature bloat. This is a more general design comment, but I would argue that the control situation with Assassin's Creed has only worsened over time. More features mean more items, weapons, moves, and so on, and that means more buttons are going to be occupied on the controller, and there are more context-sensitive scenarios. Keep the controls simple from the beginning and only ever add a new function to a button if you're a) sure it won't interfere with the core control concept, and b) certain it's necessary to the gameplay you're trying to achieve.
If I had to devise a control scheme for the game, I'd come up with something resembling the following instead:
- A is your all-purpose jump and climb button. Pressing it once near a wall initiates climbing, and subsequently it allows the player to jump in a direction based on the analogue stick's direction.
- B is a universal "cancel" button, as well as a "drop down" button.
- X interacts with an object. For civilians, this means picking pockets. In combat, this means drawing and using your sword. For objects, it means opening doors or picking up crates.
- Y activates the currently selected sub-item, like the player's gun, crossbow, throwing knife, etc.
- LB provides loud and lethal assassinations.
- RB provides quiet and stealthy assassinations.
- LT initiates lock-on mode, which ideally would take the general shape of Zelda-style targeting.
- RT blocks when in combat.
You may notice that some of these ideas are, in fact, borrowed from other Ubisoft games - specifically, LB and RB mapped to different types of attacks was first seen in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, which mapped lethal and non-lethal to the triggers. Meanwhile, I do think some of the existing control ideas in Assassin's Creed are pretty good - I like the universal climb/jump button, I like the targeting mode, I like the radial menu for weapons and items, and I like the general interface navigation. Those things don't need to change because they work just fine. Unfortunately, they're strapped onto a problematic core control scheme.
The radial menu introduced in Assassin's Creed II is a smart solution to feature bloat, and is well laid out to allow for reflex-action selection of key items and weapons.
There are still some issues with the above layout, as well. Having different buttons mixed up a little between combat and exploration game modes is probably more inconsistent than it needs to be. At the same time, if the goal is precision when performing different assassinations, then the bumpers work well; meanwhile, if you want button-mashy, timing-based combat, then using the X button is more appropriate in my opinion. And, of course, you can't market the game based on your inventive control scheme, but that's a small loss when all's said and done.
Assassin's Creed, despite all its issues with controls in my opinion, is still a fantastic game series and one of the few truly original and entertaining properties to come out of this console generation, especially one that deviates from the standard shooter model. There is a lot of room for improvement, and I hope I've outlined that clearly in this article, but I do want to stress that the franchise still has plenty of successes as well, and they far outweigh the issues with controls.
For Assassin's Creed III, I hope Ubisoft will take a long and hard look at how to overhaul the control scheme, not just in terms of modifying the existing setup - they need to radically rethink it from the ground up, studying other titles in the same open world genre, and examining what works in other games, and why. Here's hoping the next game is the first one where I don't end up accidentally killing myself as often as my targets.