As a pirate, you’re even more morally ambiguous than previous protagonists.
Preview written by Craig Owens.
Assassin’s Creed III’s best missions involved boats, and I’m not just talking about the naval warfare. As thrilling as it was to heave your hulking frigate in alongside some poor schooner and unleash a spectacular, splintering volley of cannon fire, Connor Kenway’s ship was also a useful pretext for leaving the American Revolution behind.
"we’re going back in time to the turn of the eighteenth century, a period when the New World really was new"
“Gosh,” I remember thinking the first time some beautiful Caribbean island hoved into view off the Aquila’s starboard bow, or the first time Connor disembarked to skulk around some far-flung West Indian fort, “how extravagant to do all this research, and produce all these assets for such a tiny part of the game.”
I was being naive. The glimpses of paradise seen in ACIII and the briny lashings of ship-versus-ship combat accompanying them were merely a tease for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Yes, there’s a numeral together with that subtitle, suggesting that Black Flag is more its own game than Brotherhood or Revelations were. Or suggesting, if you’re feeling cynical, that Ubisoft want to put some clear blue water between Black Flag and the disappointment surrounding ACIII. To be fair, there’s also a new lead character to justify that numeral: pirate captain Edward Kenway, Connor’s granddad. This means we’re going back in time to the turn of the eighteenth century, a period when the New World really was new, and privateers could carve out a lucrative career for themselves on the high seas.
“So, we meet again, Threepwood! ...I mean Kenway.”
More importantly, we’re moving to a place where the naval tech showcased in the third game can take centre stage, and a place where Ubisoft can introduce the changes to Creed’s structure it needs if they’re going to maintain that yearly release schedule. Traditionally, Assassin’s Creed games have centred on urban spaces, linked by sprawling but mostly uninteresting countryside. I liked scampering through the trees and descending upon redcoat patrols like a giant, murderous squirrel in ACIII’s frontier, but even that was a place you mostly visited on the way to the more bustling settings of Boston and New York.
"Black Flag doesn’t have a single landmass, it has an archipelago"
Black Flag doesn’t have a single landmass, however: it has an archipelago, and rather than swinging through foliage or galloping on horseback, this is a place you explore from behind a ship’s wheel. The Jackdaw, Edward’s vessel, lies at the very heart of Black Flag, and you’ll use her to voyage around the 50-something unique locations that make up Ubisoft’s Caribbean.
“It’ll be the most different Assassin’s Creed game in terms of world structure,” says creative director Jean Guesden. “We’re not dealing with a few large maps, but with one gigantic hub. You can go wherever you want with your ship and explore these locations.” He goes on to promise a sprawling list of environments: “There’s our cities: Havana, Kingston, Nassau. There’s fresh settings, like the fisherman’s villages; there’s plantations obviously, they were a reality of that time. There’s hidden coves with treasure, jungles, Mayan ruins, and obviously a lot of tropical islands – we’re in the Caribbean.”
Mayan ruins will make a nice change from clapboard towns.
Don’t expect to sail around the West Indies unaccosted, however, like some pensioner on a cruise. Rival pirates, not to mention the British, French and Spanish navies, will be patrolling the waters. These serve as organic barriers to your exploration of the islands: the plunder you take from defeated foes can be used to upgrade the Jackdaw and enable you to take on tougher opponents. “This big loop... this is how we want players to see the world and progress through it,” says game designer Ashraf Ismail.
"Plunder you take from defeated foes can be used to upgrade the Jackdaw"
Assassin’s Creed III’s naval battle system managed to convey a surprising amount of weight and drama despite its relatively simple mechanics. Black Flag will add all sorts of rigging to that fine vessel. “Game progression is something we’ve worked on a lot,” says Ashraf. “Traditionally in Assassin’s Creed the enemies were human, and so it’s actually very hard to give challenging progression. But because ships are inanimate, we can always have more cannons, more hull for defence, new abilities.”
One enemy type is the charger, a battering ram of a vessel that uses its superior speed and manoeuvrability to line up with Edward’s ship and slam its prow into the tender flanks of the Jackdaw. I didn’t get to see any other ship types, but Ashraf did explain how players are expected to size up potential enemy encounters: “One of new tools is the spyglass. At a distance, you can look at any ship in the game, you can assess the danger they possess, their strengths, even the cargo they carry, the loot. From a distance you can prepare your strategy for the fight.”
Early Wilkinson Sword safety razors went through a shady and little-documented testing process.
"The emphasis is still very much on quick kills in crowd-control scenarios"
It’s when you get close that the technological enhancements from ACIII become clearer, however. And when I say close, I mean very close indeed: “Boarding is one of our breakthroughs,” Ashraf says. “In ACIII it was a cinematic, now it’s completely seamless. Imagine a scenario where you see a ship, you like its loot, you attack it, weaken it, and you order your crew to throw the grapples to bring the ship in, and this can happen from any angle for orientation. As soon as the hooks are in, Edward lets go of the wheel, and as a player you can do whatever you want to accomplish your goals.”
So if you’re a lily-livered coward, for instance, you could use the free aim to shoot enemies on the ship from the safety of your own vessel. Braver souls can use a swing rope to board their victim, while cannier sorts can climb the Jackdaw’s mast and parkour their way across to the neighbouring vessel. “You can even jump in the water and swim around and sneak on from the other side,” adds Ashraf. “You know, we take a lot of pride in this, we want to make it this perfect blend between piracy and Assassin’s Creed’s core gameplay.”
A noble aim, but I can’t help feeling that the piracy mechanics are considerably more exciting than any further iterations on Assassin’s Creed’s core systems. From the glimpses I get to see of Edward boarding enemy vessels and duelling colonial soldiers, the emphasis is still very much on quick kills in crowd-control scenarios, rather than the one-on-one swordfights a dedicated piracy game might have inspired. Edward also seems to enjoy wielding dual cutlasses: a very literal interpretation of his assassin/pirate heritage that just looks a bit silly.
A game where you steal away to hidden coves like this? Sold.
"Events such as the marooning of Charles Vane will be woven into the narrative, as will a cast of historical pirates"
Combat isn’t the only piece of Assassin’s Creed heritage likely to get in the way of the rumdrinking, shipplundering fun, either. A fourth-wall-breaking frame narrative is still very much a part of the series, although you won’t be playing the muchmaligned modern ‘star’ of previous Assassin’s Creeds, Desmond. Instead, you’re a nameless tester for Abstergo Industries’ new Entertainment division. This is the setup that last year’s multiplayer mode introduced, and it hopefully means less obstructive present-day sections than in previous games, with 100% less Nolan North. That said, the sci-fi yarn is still a core part of the game: “It won’t be less important,” Jean insists, “because the present day is the main link between every time period we visit, but we’re putting directly within the AC universe for the first time.” It’s been clear for some time that AC doesn’t really need this hokey crutch, but at least this time they aren’t using it to tell some dullard’s tiresome story.
As ever, it’s the setting that intrigues. Ubisoft claim they want to capture ‘real piracy’, clearly hoping to ensure there’s no muddling of Black Flag with Johnny Depp’s more family-friendly adventures. Historical events such as the marooning of Charles Vane will be woven into the narrative, as will a cast of historical pirates. The desire to reveal the reality behind the myths seems a little lost in the pitch however: the first thing I’m shown is a trailer in which Blackbeard yarrs his West Country-accented way over a pint of what looks suspiciously like grog.
Still, this is a brave move for a series that has always been focused on the physical abilities of its protagonist. Edward Kenway will still have plenty of things to clamber across and opponents to stab, not to mention the ability to dive and explore the ocean depths, but it’s telling that Ubisoft spent more time during their presentation discussing the Jackdaw than the chap captaining it.
Animus patch notes, v51.2: ‘Fixed hole randomly appearing in cliffs.’