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[Design] Non-Lethal Stealth

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Leo K
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Assassin's Creed Unity and Assassin's Creed Syndicate both contain an amount of Non-Lethality in their Stealth gameplay. It is the barest minimum acceptable in a Stealth game, but it is present, and for that, I'm grateful. The Non-Lethal Chokedown animation in Unity is long. It can be interrupted, if the player needs to run from guards that are turning around, but the more optimal decision is to finish the Choke, because it removes one of the enemies that would otherwise begin chasing you.

AI Manipulation is possible in Unity with Cherry Bombs, and at-will line of sight blocking is possible with Smoke Bombs. These two are largely the extent of the Non-Lethal possibilities available at all times. Unity is very barebones when it comes to Non-Lethality. Because there is nothing Arno can do from a Choke animation, except to finish it or cut it short and cause a deliberate Detection, playing Non-Lethally involves the use of a lot of Tools, perhaps even more so than playing Lethally.

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[AC Unity] "Graduation" Non-Lethal Chokedowns
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OcN5ldp96YU

***

The pacing here feels stuttered, staggered, a little unnatural. Compare that to the fluid stabs and hits that are possible with a Hidden Blade Kill, which lets the player quickly harvest the lives of multiple enemies in quick succession. If a player tries to play the game both Lethally and Non-Lethally, they will notice that Unity is balanced around Lethal gameplay to the extreme.

  • Enemies investigate Cherry Bomb lures long enough for the player to run past them from behind, or to kill them one after the other with their Blade, but they do not investigate Cherry Bomb lures long enough for a player to successfully choke more than one of them without a Detect.
  • They are stunned and their vision is obscured by Smoke long enough for a player to successfully kill up to four or five guards in quick succession, but they are not stunned/obscured for long enough that the player can Choke Down more than two guards, sometimes not even more than one if they were too far when they threw the Smoke Bomb.
  • Guards that are eliminated Non-Lethally will drop to the ground and make a loud noise that always "distracts" nearby guards and makes them investigate. This makes the Non-Lethal takedown functionally useless for intentional Stealth gameplay if the the player's target-guard is too close to other guards, and the player does not use any Smoke. When a Low Profile kill is executed with the Hidden Blade, the target sways on their feet for several moments before going down, only then do they make the noise and only then are their allies informed that something happened at all. During those two to three seconds, the player is free to move away from the guard's position, allowing a Low Profile kill into a stealthy exit, which is the entire fantasy of Assassin's Creed.

Since the Non-Lethal takedown animation itself takes so long, it's more than reasonable to have the Assassin gently lower the enemy to the ground so that it doesn't make any noise.

There are Weapons in AC Unity that have the "Non-Lethal" tag attached to them; these are weapons that, when hitting an enemy with a Finisher, will not actually kill them, but leave them wriggling in pain on the ground. It may seem at first a clever and expedient way to shortcut and "reskin" weapon usage for the Non-Lethal fantasy, but it does not work, due to the fact that Weapons in AC Unity are fundamentally attached to the Combat Playstyle. As such it's completely useless for Non-Lethal *Stealth* because there is no way for the player to engage with it. If there were a way to clobber a guard over the head with a Rifle for a noisier, but much faster Non-Lethal Takedown, that would be a different story. AC Unity does not allow that.

***

Assassin's Creed Syndicate added a number of things that show Ubisoft are experimenting, trying things out, attempting, making little efforts here and there to enhance the Non-Lethal fantasy in their games about shadowy rogues sneaking around and staying subtle. This is good. Let's take a look at some of these new tweaks, and what Syndicate learned from the expression of Non-Lethality that existed in Unity.

First, there is the [Speed Knock-Out] Perk, which lets the player's Knock-Out animation finish much, much faster. To unlock this, of course, the player has to Stealth Kill a huge number of guards throughout the game. This is a step forward, and a half-step back. On the one hand, in order to enhance your Non-Lethal fantasy, you must engage in the Lethal fantasy a hell of a lot more. I shouldn't need to point out the design-dissonance here. On the other hand, this means Ubisoft have considered a method for the player to UPGRADE their Non-Lethality. This is super encouraging. Future games can allow upgrades to Non-Lethal Chokes or Takedowns that don't involve engaging in the opposing playstyle.

Second, once a Choke Animation is finished, the Assassin can haul the enemy over their shoulder by tapping the Choke/Non-Lethal button again. This is taken verbatim from Dishonored, and doing this does *not* cause a detect or alert from enemies nearby. It is a method of taking down a guard and removing them from the area without being noticed. This is good, this is progress. The only thing wrong with this mechanic is that it is *not* included for Lethal/Killer players. This is bad. This is a half-step back. Once a player stabs a guard, they should also be able to hold down the Non-Lethal/Grab Body button to fluidly transfer into a similar animation of picking them up. This is an obvious oversight and it should be corrected in later releases.

Third, the player now has a method of moving the enemy before the takedown; the "Kidnap" mechanic. As silly as its name is, and as much as it should really have been called "Take Hostage" this mechanic is exceptionally powerful, and combined with Smoking an area to approach the Kidnap target, can almost single-handedly break the entire game. Still, its inclusion is good because it does help the Non-Lethal role do what it needs to do. Sometimes, Choking a guard in the area they're already in would be a bad idea. Moving them somewhere else before taking them down safely is a useful option to have. Additionally, Kidnap serves the function of allowing a player to, more or less, "Corner Non-Lethal Takedown" much more consistently. Mashing the Kidnap button while an enemy comes to investigate the player's Whistle at a corner makes sure that you can Choke them from Kidnap without having to time the actual button press very precisely.

It's worth noting that Kidnap, Choke, and Carry Body all combo into each other in that order. During a Kidnap, the player can also *cancel* a choke to punch the enemy in the stomach again and move them somewhere else. This does not cause a Detect and is a good way to change your mind and take your target away from some approaching enemies who might see it.

Fourth, I mentioned Whistle before. Whistling is back in Syndicate, and this is good because it represents the ability for On-Position AI Manipulation. IE, it's a Distraction that has the Assassin as its origin-point. It will always lure enemies to the position you were in when you Whistled. This means a player can Whistle, knowing the enemy would come to that point, then, say, circle around a building and move behind the investigating enemy's back.

There is, however, another step back that Syndicate committed; its Throwing Knives can sometimes be helpful as a Distraction item to lure enemies around to a position that's not player-originated, but most of the time they're not the ideal distraction tool. It's a damn shame that Unity had Cherry Bombs, but no Whistle, and Syndicate had Whistle, but no Cherry Bombs.

Lastly, *neither* game has a Ranged Non-Lethal weapon. The player doesn't need to have many of these, and indeed, maybe they shouldn't, but letting them carry a maximum of three Sleep Darts, combined with all the Non-Lethal-related mechanics from both Unity and Syndicate, would be an absolute dream, and would finally let certain players be the *type* of Assassin they want to be.

The type of Assassin that sneaks into a guarded location, leaving everyone alive except for the Target, who is found the next morning with their blood all over their desk, running from a slit throat. The message is clear; "I held *all* of your lives in my hands. I could have killed *all* of you, but I believe you better than your boss. Do not prove me wrong, or I may have to come back for you as well. Good day."