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Assassin’s Creed 3’s creative director talks about burning New York City to the ground, and the end of Desmond

Assassin's Creed 3

Ubisoft has really had an easy time in showing off Assassin’s Creed 3 to the public. Not only is the game a long-awaited step past the “Ezio Auditore” mythology that the three most recent console entries explored, it’s also packed to the brim with new content of the sort that hasn’t been seen in the series before. The world got its first look at the game all the way back in March, and yet Ubi was still able to surprise fans months later at E3 with the reveal of the game’s naval combat. We didn’t even know the story went to the Caribbean!

The bulk of new hero Connor’s story unfolds in colonial and post-colonial America, before, during, and after the Revolutionary War. The wilderness, realized in the game as the capital-F Frontier, is a huge expanse of east coast countryside that sits squarely between the game’s two main cities, Boston and New York. We’ve seen Boston already (see the video below for a walkthrough of Boston with commentary), a bustling metropolis for the period and a flashpoint for much of the conflict during the American Revolution. New York remains a mystery, however, and one that likely won’t be revealed prior to the game’s October 30, 2012 release.

As a native New Yorker, this is not okay with me. That’s why I pestered Ubi Montreal Creative Director, Alex Hutchinson, for a few nuggets of info on what we can expect from the studio’s 18th century rendering of the Big Apple during a recent preview event. He must have taken pity, because he actually offered a couple of enlightening hints on what we can expect.

The first big question relates to the distance between New York and Boston. I’ve been wondering for months about how these two cities will be connected within the game’s larger Frontier, if they’d be walled off by loading screens or if they’d simply sit inside the larger world. 

“We had a big discussion about that early on in development,” Hutchinson admited. “What we realized was, we could make it contiguous and have you run from Boston through the Frontier to New York, but it made it feel like Disneyland. If you can run in five minutes from Boston to New York, it stops feeling real. In the end, we decided to keep them separate [with load screens]. There’s not a big, swampy chunk of New York, we just went with the densest part of [the city].”

The look of the city will also stand out clearly in comparison to the game’s rendering of 18th century Boston.

“It is slightly different, in that there is a lot of Dutch influence in New York at that time,” Hutchinson said. “So we have those unusual buildings with fake fronts… and then sloped roofs behind them. That changes the free-running a little bit. It’s most of lower Manhattan, the tip that was there at the time. The population wasn’t anywhere near as big as it is now obviously, so we were able to get a lot of the city in that was actually there.”

It’s hard to imagine now, looking at photos of New York City’s concrete jungle, but much of the land in that area, including parts of Manhattan Island itself, were swamp at the time. Assassin’s Creed 3 will re-create that less developed version of the city — complete with recognizable landmarks like Trinity Church and Canal Street — but the most striking elements of the virtual Big Apple are informed by a real-life disaster.

“Most of the gameplay that takes place in New York is around or after the period of the Great Fire of 1776, so there’s a huge chunk of it that’s actually burned,” Hutchinson revealed. “That’s one of the things that we researched that’s included in the game.”

The Great Fire destroyed almost a quarter of the still-growing city on September 21, 1776. British forces, under the command of General William Howe, occupied the city on September 15; The American forces, led by George Washington, withdrew to the north toward Harlem, recognizing that New York’s capture was pretty much a certainty. The cause of the fire that flared up less than a week later is a matter of speculation even to this day. It is believed to have started in the “Fighting Cocks Tavern” during the early morning hours, though accusations of arson have never been proven. Historical documents suggest that neither the British nor the Americans have a solid idea of what actually happened. Could the fire be the result of the ever-raging Templar/assassins conflict? We’ll have to wait and see. 

The blaze ravaged a large portion of lower Manhattan, spreading west from Broadway and consuming everything right up to the Hudson River coastline. Estimates of the destruction vary wildly; 10-25 percent of the city was ruined, amounting to as many as 1,000 buildings destroyed. Interestingly, Trinity Church was one of the structures consumed by the fire, and it’s also one of the landmarks Hutchinson specifically named as being in the game. Was he simply referring to the ruins of the grand church? Will Connor visit New York City before the fire breaks out? Could he perhaps have played a role in whatever series of events led to that fateful day? We’ll have to wait until October 30 to find out.

Elsewhere in the Assassin’s Creed-verse, Desmond Miles is still out there waiting for his story to play out. We got a sense of where he’s headed next after Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, and we also know that 2012 is a significant year in the Templar/assassin struggle — and in Desmond’s story specifically — but Ubisoft has remained mum on how the present-day protagonist factors into the upcoming game. Given all of this, it’s understandable to wonder just how much of Desmond’s story has been mapped out from the start. Hutchinson joined the team in 2010 at the start of AC3‘s development, and he reveals that at least some of what’s transpired and what’s still to come were known at the time, and had been decided upon as far back as the first game.

“The big beats were always sort of known,” he explained. “I think one of the challenges of popularity for the franchise has been a request for more continuity. There was a bit of a scramble, I think, during AC: Brotherhood and into AC: Revelations for the franchise itself to get to the point that we can plan better for future games. I think we’re in a good spot now and that we have what we hope is a good plan for moving forward. We had an ending in mind for Desmond [from the start] that we’re going to stay pretty true to.”