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Assassin's Creed IV's promise of a seamless, open world

Telling the real stories behind the pirate myths

4:00 AM on 03.04.2013     by Hamza CTZ Aziz

Despite all the leaks in the past week, there's still a ton of stuff to tell you about Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag. The first thing is that the new game sees you playing as a pirate, but not the Disney romanticized, cliche style of pirates from films such as Pirates of the Caribbean or Treasure Island. "No hooks, no parrots, and no walking the plank," as one of the promotional trailers I saw stated. 

While the pirate theme is intriguing, the real big deal is the new world you get to explore, both on land and sea. Ubisoft is pushing for a massive open world, seamless experience akin to that of Far Cry 3. And that seamlessness will be huge when it comes to the transitions between naval and ground experiences all during Black Flag.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release: October 29, 2013

Ubisoft, as they do with its Assassin's games, dug into history to find the real stories of pirates and bring those tales to players. In the case of Black Flag, it's the dawn of the 18th century, and players come in during 1713 where a succession of treaties between England, Spain, and France bring peace and order for the first time in decades.

This peace leaves thousands of British sailors out of luck though, as the King no longer cares to support them. Poor, hungry, and in desperate need of money, these sailors band together and set out to live their lives as they see fit, thus creating the golden age of pirates.

"We feel that there's this incredible opportunity to tell the more credible and realistic version of what actually happened," game director Ashraf Ismail told me during a meeting with Destructoid. "Because what actually happened was thrilling. These characters, these men, they attempted to do something for the first time history which was to create a Democratic Republic. These men disconnected themselves from the Empire, and decided that we'll create a new government.

"But they were lawless men, they were pirates, they partied, they spent all their money. So imagine these people are trying to make a government. It fails in a spectacular way, and we put the player in the heart of this experience."

You play as Edward Kenway, father of Haytham Kenway and grandfather to Connor Kenway from Assassins' Creed III. Black Flag is looking to tell the story of how the Kenways family got involved with the whole Assassins and Templar conflict in the first place.

Edward is a British man who comes from a poor upbringing. He's charismatic, charming, very brash, reckless, and selfish. All characteristics that make for a perfect pirate. You'll begin your adventure with Edward as a pirate on the high seas, and as the story moves forward Edward will be introduced to the Assassin's guild, join their ranks, and experience a journey where he is at odds with his selfish pirate greed, while trying to serve the selfless Assassin's creed.

Edward will also come across many historical characters and moments from the time period. Players will meet Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny, and Black Beard, all legendary pirates from the era. You'll also be part of historic events such as the assault on 42 Portuguese ships, the massive gold wreck of the Spanish armada on the Florida coast, and the marooning of Charles Vane.

The story behind the game sounds promising, but what I'm really looking forward to is the actual gameplay in Black Flag. Ubisoft is promising for one big seamless open world between the ocean and land as you explore the Caribbean sea. There will be three major city location -- Havana, Kingston, and Nassau, in addition to over 50 unique locations you can visit,  plus the open seas in between all of the land environments.

All the locations will offer unique environments too. From hidden fisherman villages, plantations that will explore slavery aspects, hidden coves, thick lush jungles, naval forts, Mayan ruins, tropical islands, and a first for the series, underwater environments.

Traversing the ground in any Assassin's game is pretty fun as it's typically fluid. Thankfully, that fluidity will translate to the underwater sections as well and Ashraf told me that the controls should feel intuitive to players. It will be interesting to see how combat will work in these cases, especially when you encounter sharks.

Every great pirate needs a ship and that's where the Jackdaw comes into play. The Jackdaw will be your main vessel during your adventure and an essential part of your journey. You'll be upgrading your ship over time, and managing a crew in a variety of ways. Plundering is a part of a pirate's life as well, and virtually any ship you see in the game can be attacked, boarded, and pillaged of its goods.

While Assassin's Creed III teased it with only a cinematic, you will actually be boarding other ships in real time here. A basic example I was told is that players will see a ship, weaken it with an attack, then command the crew to throw hooks onto their target in order to drag the ships together. From there you can board it, continue your attack, and take what you want.

"ACIII started the naval combat experience," Ashraf told me. "They did something that was really credible, really wonderful. But for us, that was really just a foot in the water. It was a tease of a potentially bigger system. We're diving really deep on this [with ACIV]." 

The team started work on ACIV in the Summer of 2011 and knew ahead of time that the naval elements of ACIII would do really well. Their prediction came true as Ashraf told me that it was one of the most well reviewed aspects of the game. 

"We kind of knew ahead of time that this would be very successful. We played the really early versions of [the naval element] and we felt like okay there's something really solid here."

As always, there's a lot of options at your disposal as to how you want to engage your targets. You can swing in ahead of your crew during a boarding, or swim in the water to sneakily board and attack an enemy ship. You can also use the new free aiming system to shoot enemies from a distance (the lock-on system is still in place for close quarters combat.) Really, it's all up to you. One cool thing is that there are localized storms that take place and you can lead enemy ships into them to create new gameplay scenarios. Plus, you can hunt whales, Captain Ahab style. 

You don't want to attack just any ship though, not without at least finding out what the ships have to offer. Edward will be able to use a spy glass to get information on ships from a distance, find out what type of ship he's about to engage with, how difficult it will be, and what kind of loot it carries. Ships aren't just like ground enemies, as they will come in different flavors and scale in difficulty which actually affects player progression.

The Animus no longer blocks the player with its invisible walls, instead tougher enemy ships will. Some ships can easily decimate Edward and crew. The only way around them is to actually explore the world, and find stuff that can go to upgrading your ship. You actually have a reason now to explore and do side missions.

That was one of the complaints I had with ACIII. The Homestead concept sounded great on paper, but really didn't matter to the core experience. Now, the AC team is going the route Far Cry 3 took. I loved the open world setting of that game, and was more than happy to do trivial stuff like pick flowers or fix a radio tower as it actually benefited me as a player.

While the Jackdaw is important, it won't burden you either. There will be fast travel locations again, and doing so will pop you up in the location plus have your ship already stationed at the docks waiting for you.

Naval gameplay is a big part of the game, but the core AC experience is still there. Ashraf told me that in terms of the main path, about 60% takes place on land and 40% takes place in the naval sections.

"One important thing is we wanted to make sure that the player sees that all this stuff happens in one world," Ashraf explained. "And this one world, the Caribbean sea, is filled with stuff to do, there's lot to do in it. Exploration is really important for us. We're creating a world that has many locations, and we needed to make sure that players were motivated to explore this world, that there's always new content to find. There's always something new on the horizon."

As this is an Assassin's game, all of this pirate adventure stuff is taking place in the Animus. Desmond's story wrapped up at the end of III, so this time around you're playing a new hero that Ubisoft is promoting as you. You the player are this hero. What that exactly means isn't quite clear, though.

Whoever this new character is, he's a person that was hired by Abstergo Entertainment, a subdivision of Abstergo Industries, and is lead to believe he was brought on as a research analyst. The true intentions for this Templar organization is that Edward did something very important for them in the 18th century, and whatever it is continues the war between the Templar and Assassin's in the present day world. Whatever is going on, I guess SPOILERS that ancient god lady hasn't destroyed humanity, yet.

You can expect multiplayer to return too. The team iterated on it, improved it, made new characters with the pirate theme, have new maps, and there will be new game modes as well.

There's a lot of new concepts and mechanics being introduced into ACIV, but there are still some key ideas from past games that Ubisoft is retaining. From AC1 they're bringing back the open ended assassinations where you can kill a target however you wish. From ACII they're bringing back the way of how they introduce and thought gameplay mechanics to players. The support system from Brotherhood and the visual beauty of Revelations will be reflected in ACIV too. Additionally, the way ACIII pitted players into the heart of the an important part of history is ever present in Black Flag.

ACIII was my first real foray into the series and while it had some great elements to it, there were some parts that just hurt the overall experience. So far, it's sounding like Ubisoft is working on improving the formula and I'm definitely interested with IV, especially if the seamless and emergent nature they're striving for at least matches what Far Cry 3 pulled off.

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