Assassin’s Creed – Bringing back research and investigation to the series

In one of the blog posts I wrote last year I jotted down some ideas on how to improve the enemy AI and at the same time introduce elements of research, investigation and assassin personalisation.

As I was re-reading the post I realised that I could have definitely explained better what I have in mind so I decided to rewrite the blog post and to take advantage of this to add some more elements that I wanted to include in the original post.

We all agree that back in the days of AC1 the game was very repetitive but – at least I still do – we still talk and remember the game as being special, in a league of its own. And it happens often to read comments by fans of the series who say, “that is when I felt like an assassin” when they remember the good old days of Altair.

The latest entry of the Assassin’s Creed series, Syndicate, very rarely made me feel like an assassin, I felt more like a superhero who knows everything and can kill everyone in a heartbeat.

Besides, I found the below issues pretty annoying as I progressed further:

1. Lack of variety

I counted no more than eight different type of enemies in the game and with the only exception of the sniper who can kill you from distance, all enemies act in the same way and can also be killed in the same way.

2. The AI level is just a number

Jacob/Evie can kill a Level 10 enemy even if their level is 1. Also, it’s funny how enemies dressed in exactly the same way and equipped with the same weapon can have different levels.

3. You know the level of the enemy with Eagle Vision

I understand Eagle Vision is a very powerful feature of the game but seriously, understanding the level of an enemy by just using Eagle Vision is way too easy.

4. Evie = stealth, Jacob = combat? Not really.

When I unlocked Evie’s invisibility skill by mistake, I switched to Jacob to complete the remaining side missions yet sticking to a stealthy approach and I noticed very little difference between the two.

5. The skill tree to upgrade your assassin

In the game you earn experience points that you can use to unlock certain skills regardless of the way you approach the game. For example you may complete a number of main/side missions in stealth mode without ever engaging in combat yet you then spend the earned skill points on the “multi-finisher” combat skill. In other words, why should an assassin spend hours completing missions in stealth mode to then upgrade a combat attribute?

6. The game doesn’t ask for a second playthrough

Play it, complete it, forget about it. That’s the reaction of many to Syndicate, including myself. When I did try to replay already-completed missions by applying self-imposed rules, I realised that it was still the same as my first playthrough. With what I”m proposing below, I believe a player will enjoy an almost complete different experience on his second and third playthrough.

The Solution

In my opinion, one of the reasons why we “felt like an assassin” in AC1 is research and investigation: we had to collect data, we had to plan, we had to investigate and only after going through all of that we were ready to finally assassinate the target.

I would bring that back in the form of three steps where all the information collected will be saved in a log:

  • Enemy research
  • Enemy investigation
  • Area investigation

Enemy research

The open world should ideally include more than just eight different type of enemies with no information available about them at the start of the game. This means that as the game progresses, your task will be to actually find all these different types of enemies.

Before moving forward, let’s analyse three of them to understand what information you need to collect:

I will of course explain the enemy’s level, custom armour and custom head protection later on, for now let’s take it one step at a time, starting on how you can actually find the different type of enemies in the game:

By roaming the map
Just like Watch Dogs 2, I expect the open world to be available as soon as the game starts and this would give us the possibility to research a number of enemies

During missions and side missions
Starting a side mission is a clever way to research a lot of enemies grouped in the same area. It is dangerous, especially if a lot of high-levelled enemies are patroling the area, but not impossible.

By using the Pet Eagle
If rumours about the next game are true, you will have an eagle under your control. If you unlock the enemy research skill of your eagle, you will be able to use it to quickly research enemies

There is no need to be face to face with your enemy in order to complete a research but you have to be close enough to understand the type. Maybe you could also use a tool similar to Edward’s naval eyeglass to keep at a distance, for sure is that when you have a visual you can use Eagle Vision (or a button as it was the case in ACIII’s “Encyclopedia of the Common Man”) to add the enemy to your log.

And if we are to check the log after researching the above three enemies, we will find this information:

This is because research will only tell you the type; to discover the level, custom armour and custom head protection you have to investigate the enemy.

Enemy investigation

Watch Dogs 1 included crime detection events where as you’re roaming the map a notification pops up on the screen to alert you about a detected crime. I would introduce a similar system in Assassin’s Creed which would alert you when a researched enemy can be investigated.

Your job – if you decide to investigate the enemy – is to tail him until he reaches a restricted area where your task is to reach a specific spot inside the area without being detected in order to closely investigate the enemy. Needless to say, unlike researching, you have to be very close to the enemy to understand the level and other attributes.

At the end of investigation, the information in the log will be complete:

I will explain later on how the level of the assassin comes into play, for now, understand that if your assassin’s level is 3, the “Agile Ottoman” is the only enemy you can kill because he’s the only one with a level that is lower or equal to yours.

Area investigation

So far we saw what is required to research and investigate enemies but why should you do this? It is needed because before you assassinate a target or maybe steal an object you have to investigate the area to understand the best possible path to reach your target.

Let’s see an example (I suggest you click the image to see it enlarged):

I will not go in detail about any research you have to do to actually find the area, that’s outside the scope of this blog post although going back to AC1 maybe even to just find the area you would need to look for clues such as “your target is inside an area with a very big red, white and blue flag with a golden anchor in the middle”.

Let’s instead keep our focus on the enemies and here I”m assuming that every person in the picture is an enemy guarding the area.

Our target is the red “X” and from this viewpoint we can see that the left-hand path of the restricted area is guarded by five guards(marked in blue), the middle path is guarded by seven(marked in orange), including a sniper at the top of the hut and the right-hand path is guarded by only two guards(marked in violet).

Below is a lighter representation of the above zone, a picture similar to what will go in your log the more you investigate the area. I kept the blue, orange and violet colours to understand the three different paths we can take to reach the target:

Remember how earlier on we assumed the current assassin level is set to 3? Based on the information collected we know that:

1. The violet, right-hand side is the easiest path since it’s only guarded by two level 1 enemies but I would still need to enter the orange, middle path at some stage to reach the target

2. The orange, middle path is heavily guarded and it will be exteremely tough to reach the target if I decide to take on five enemies whose level is higher than mine

3. The blue, left-hand path seems to be the most logical path to take, also because I can reach my target without entering the orange path but unfortunately there is an enemy I”m yet to research so I don’t know his level.

Based on the area investigation, your options are:

1. Take the left path and take a risk, hoping that the level of the unknown enemy is lower than yours
2. Find another path, although we have seen that such an option, in this case, is not possible
3. Take the left path, kill the first four guards and then sneak past the unknown enemy to reach your target
4. Take the left path, kill the first four guards, stay undetected to research the unknown enemy, leave the area to investigate him and come back when the level is known

At this stage you may ask: If as per option #3 you can sneak past the unknown enemy of the blue path, why not sneak past all the enemies of the orange path?

It should of course be possible, in fact it’s a type of assassin you can decide to be, a “Splinter Cell” if you like, but you will need a lot of patience and time to actually reach your target without being detected. Incidentally, this type of assassin can complete missions without knowing anything about his enemies.

Let’s now look a different scenario:

This time, the number of unknown enemies in the blue path are three so your options are:

1. Take the left path and take a risk, hoping that the level of the three unknown enemies is lower than yours
2. Find another path, although we have seen that such an option, in this case, is not possible
3. Take the left path, kill the first two guards and then sneak past the rest
4. Take the left path, kill the first two guards, stay undetected to research the first unknown enemy, leave the area to investigate him, come back when the level is known and repeat two more times until you have investigated all enemies
5. Take the left path, kill the first two guards, find three good spots to research all three unknown enemies, leave the area to investigate them and come back when their level is known

At this stage you may ask what is the difference between option 4 and 5? If you opt for option 4, you only need to research one enemy before leaving the area to start investigating and here I fully understand that everything would become way too repetitive if you decide to take cover, research, leave, investigate, return and then do the same two more times.

Option 5 eliminates such a repetitive loop as it would allow you to research only once but it’s risky. As I said earlier there is no need to be very close to an enemy to research him so this option is less risky than option 3 but you still need to be at an acceptable distance and if you get spotted and killed at some stage during research, even if it is after successfully researching the first two enemies, all collected information will be lost and you would have to start from scratch.

In all fairness, there is a sixth option you could opt for: the Pet Eagle if the enemy research skill is unlocked. If this skill is not unlocked, the eagle can still be useful as you would use it to get a good look at the three unknown enemies, take notes of how they look like(yes, I mean the old traditional pen and paper system) and instead of researching them by entering the restricted area, you would then research them by going in the open world hoping to meet them during free roaming.

And also let’s not forget the possibility of deciding to leave the area and to only come back after adding more enemy information to the log.

The Assassin’s Level

By now you know that before entering a restricted area you have to research and investigate enemies in order to understand if you’re strong enough to complete your objective.

Unlike Syndicate, the assassin does not have just one level, but multiple attributes each having their own level.

Some attribute examples are:

Noise
This determines how much noise you will make when approaching a target either on the ground or from above. If this level is lower than your target’s level, the target will hear you when you try to perform an (air) assassination.

Throwing knife damage
If the level of this attribute is equal or higher than the enemy level, one knife is enough to kill him

Throwing knife precision
This determines the size of the marker that appears on the screen when you want to throw a knife.

Throwing knife range
Just because the throwing knife damage attribute is higher than the enemy’s level it doesn’t mean that I can kill him from anywhere. If this level is not very high then I have to be relatively close kill my target.

Agility
This determines whether the assassin can kill from a hiding spot: haystack, ledge, corner, well, etc. If this level is lower than your target’s level, the target will notice you when you try to assassinate him from a hiding spot.

Combat
Determines the weapons you are able to carry and use. If this level is 2 you will not be able to use a weapon requiring level 3 and you won’t be able to engage in combat with >L3 targets.

Let’s analyse a particular type of assassin:

Noise Throwing knife damage Throwing knife precision Throwing knife range Agility Combat Eagle Vision Health
3 3 3 6 2 2 Low Low

Based on this information, we know that I trained my assassin for stealth and that:

1. I can (air) assassinate an enemy whose level is 1, 2 or 3 because the enemy will not hear me.

2. I can kill an enemy whose level is 1 to 6 with a throwing knife but the knife marker will be small so I have to be very careful when aiming for a headshot. Also, I have to be relatively close to him or else my throwing knife will not travel long enough to kill.

Let’s now analyse a different type of assassin:

Noise Throwing knife damage Throwing knife precision Throwing knife range Agility Combat Eagle Vision Health
0 0 0 0 4 7 Low Low

Based on this information, we know that I trained my assassin to be a combat machine and that:

1. I can kill in combat an enemy whose level is lower than 8

2. I cannot (air) assassinate enemies but if I am able sneak and reach a hiding spot, like a haystack, I will be able to kill enemies whose level is lower than 5

All of this means that when you investigate an area, the enemy level is not the only aspect you have to take in consideration before choosing the path but also elements such as where you can take cover, where you can hide in haystacks, where you can blend with the crowd by sitting down, etc.

For example, if we are to go back to the previous image from Black Flag describing an example of area investigation and assuming that I trained my assassin to be “stealthy”, hence using throwing knives to perform assassinations, I know that the left path has some barrels and boxes I can hide behind to assassinate the three guards grouped together, meaning that there is no need for my throwing knife range attribute to be very high as long as my throwing knife damage attribute level is equal or higher than the enemy level.

I also know that the left path has no haystacks where I can hide so I have to be extremely careful not to engage in combat because my combat level is very low.

Cause and Effect

Over at the Reddit sub some weeks ago we discussed the “cause and effect” design to be available in the next game. This can be adopted for the system I’m describing in a way that as the game progresses, an assassin attribute level equal or higher than an enemy level may not be enough to kill your target.

For example, if you kill a lot of enemies with throwing knives headshots, at some stage, they will add or improve their head protection and to kill them with a throwing knife you have to actually upgrade the throwing knives by finding ingredients and crafting the material.

Going back to the “Janissary” enemy type, at some stage he will start wearing a great helm to protect his head and straight away your log will be updated to make you aware of this change and to also let you know what ingredients you need in order to craft a throwing knife upgrade capable of crushing the material of the great helm.

This means that to kill a Level 5 “Janissary” with a custom head protection with a throwing knife, not only you have to reach a “Throwing knife damage” attribute level of 5 but you also need to find the right ingredients and craft the required throwing knife upgrade.

Border line scenarios

What if your assassin’s “Throwing knife damage” attribute level is 8 and the level of the enemy you want to kill with a throwing knife is set to 9?

Or else, what if your assassin’s “Combat” attribute level is 5 and the level of the enemy you want to kill is 7?

It is clear that certain attributes will still allow you to kill your target even if your level is not high enough. To take the throwing knife example, there should be some sort of algorithm which would allow you to accomplish your task with, let’s say, 2x headshot throwing knives.

I mean, it makes no sense at all to throw 50 headshot throwing knives and the level 9 enemy keeps walking around as if nothing happened just because your throwing knife damage is set to 8.

For combat, maybe a system similar to Styx: Master of Shadows could be adopted, where if your combat level is lower than the enemy’s, you would need to parry his attacks multiple times before being in a position to kill him.

All of this does not apply to attributes such as noise, if your noise level is set to 3 and you try to (air) assassinate a level >4 enemy, he will hear you and move to avoid the hidden blade.

Upgrading the Assassin’s attributes

I’m looking at a very simple way to improve each and every attribute of your assassin.

Training
It is clear that to move from level 1 to level 2, you will have to complete a relative easy training mission but to move from level 5 to 6, 6 to 7, etc. things will get tougher.

For example to upgrade throwing knife precision you would have a training mission where you have to hit a ball that is swinging from one tree to the other. Another training mission to upgrade the same feature would be four of your own people grouped together and you have to hit only one of them. Or maybe one of your people jumping from one building to the other and you have to hit him during the leap.

By completing (side) missions

You will earn experience points the more missions you complete that can be used to improve your attributes.

A background algorithm
Besides training, agility is one of those attributes that can be calculated automatically. If you kill 50 enemies from a hiding spot, the background process will add points to your agility level automatically.

Wouldn’t such a system become way too repetitive the more you progress?

Maybe, which is why I would add informers and spies that you can add to your brotherhood.

An informer’s job is to investigate enemies and a spy’s job is to investigate areas.

Informers and spies can be added to your brotherhood by completing side missions and the tougher the side mission is, the more experienced the recruit will be.

Experience is very important as it will determine how long a recruit will take to complete the assigned task.

Going back to the area investigation example with the three unknown enemies, after research is complete, you may decide to investigate one of the three enemies yourself and assign two informers to take care of the remaining two. All of this adds an element of teamwork in the game, similar to the recruits available to Ezio and Connor in Brotherhood, Revelations and ACIII.

Regardless of the approach adopted by the player, one informer has to be added to the brotherhood as he will be the one to investigate enemies for armour and head protection upgrades.

And if I want it easy?

I understand such a system is not for everyone as you would spend most of the time researching and investigating with little or no action involved.

If you want to quickly update the log with enemy information, you can roam the map to find and open chests to have enough coins to buy what I’m sarcastically calling the “book of books”, a book having all information you need on all enemies in the game.

In respect to upgrading your assassin, when you start a training mission you will get a screen where one of the options is to skip training in exchange of coins. In a blink of an eye you will be able to upgrade all attributes of your assassin.

Conclusion

Why did I say that a second and a third playthrough will be as equally fun as the first? Simple because for your first playthrough you would personalise your assassin according to how you prefer to play the game, for example focusing on noise and throwing knives, for the second playthrough you may focus on agility, to complete as many missions as possible by using hiding spots and for your third playthrough you may opt for a combat machine.

On your first playthrough you may decide to use your informers and spies to gather information. On your second playthrough you may decide to be an Altair and do everything without any help. And on your third playthrough you may decide to always use the Pet Eagle.

Combinations are almost endless and it’s not the game telling you how you should approach missions and what tools to use, it’s up to you to decide how.

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Assassin’s Creed – Bringing back research and investigation to the series