The Assassin’s Creed franchise has seen some pretty bizarre events occur. From off the wall historical conspiracies, conducting time travel by way of DNA, and ancient precursors looking to destroy humanity; it's amazing to see how they manage to up the ante with each game. Even after the third numbered entry’s seemingly conclusive finale, Ubisoft have got no plans to stop their best selling franchise now.
Just prior to Gamescom, Ubisoft invited Destructoid out to their San Francisco office to play the latest build of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Along with a new setting, main character, and storyline, this new entry has some bold plans for the franchise. And judging by my hands-on time, Black Flag looks to be the series’ most open-ended and innovative title to date.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag: (PC [previewed], PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Publisher: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: October 29, 2013 (NA) / November 1, 2013 (EU)
While much of the narrative is still being kept under wraps, Assassin’s Creed IV is both a continuation of the present day Abstergo storyline, but also set before Assassin’s Creed III’s historical storyline. Taking place during the 1600s in the golden age of piracy, players will take on the role of Edward Kenway, a former royal navy sailor who breaks from the authority and enters the dangerous life of being a pirate and assassin in the Caribbean. Edward’s character feels more like a return to Ezio’s roguish and arrogant personality, compared to Connor’s stoic and earnest poise in ACIII. Much like previous titles, Edward journey will take him from humble beginnings to a notorious assassin with an army at his disposal. And of course, there will be a complex conspiracy to unravel.
A major goal for Black Flag’s shift in narrative focus and setting was to not only give a greater level of diversity in gameplay and exploration, but to also expand the Kenway family arc and create an alternative to the Ezio saga. Speaking with the Lead Writer of Black Flag, Darby McDevitt, he talked at length about the AC team’s desire to take the franchise to the golden age of piracy.
“When we finished Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the small team got together and thought about what we wanted to do next,” said McDevitt. “When we looked at the technology we had, the new engine being developed, and the new naval battles we were making for ACIII; we sort of made hints about doing a game as Connor’s grandfather, to create a Kenway family saga.”
The current build had us exploring the waters around Cuba and the major city of Havana. Players can expect to sail freely around the game world, exploring small islands and caves for treasure, engaging in missions set in the three main cities and small port towns across the Caribbean, taking on the Templar and Spanish armies in naval and melee combat, and taking part in underwater diving and traversing through abandoned ruins. While you're free to go anywhere you desire, some areas of the map are populated with powerful ships and Templars that can easily overpower you without the proper resources.
Even with my somewhat brief time with the game, Black Flag felt much more refined and thoughtful in its presentation and gameplay. ACIII in particular was criticized for poor pacing and heavy focus on the main missions, so having ACIV offer much more freedom and giving players the drive to explore, loot, and interact with the world at your leisure makes the experience feel fresh, but still familiar and comfortable.
Naval combat was a much loved feature from Assassin's Creed III, and fans will be delighted to know that Black Flag takes the sailing gameplay even further with open world exploration. You'll be able to outfit your ship, the Jackdaw, with new armor, weapons, and bonus abilities to take on the challenges of the high seas. McDevitt was well underway with writing much of the plot of Black Flag upon ACIII’s release, and seeing the kind of response naval combat got from fans helped reinforce their resolve for the pirate setting.
“We were already confident about it and we knew it was good decision based on how it all came together, but we felt relieved to see the response to ACIII’s naval gameplay,” said McDevitt, while elaborating on the expanded naval gameplay. “Of course, we upgraded it vastly, went from ACIII’s sectioned out approach to a seamless open world in Black Flag all without any loading, that was our challenge on the tech side.”
Not only has the game engine been upgraded, but the gameplay has seen some sizable improvements related to the naval traversal, combat, and crew expansion, so much so that it feels like it could be an entire game on its own. The developers cite other pirate and open sailing games such as Sid Meyer’s Pirates! and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker as influences for the upgrades to the naval and exploration gameplay. Edward Kenway will be able to recruit new crew members, plunder opposing ships, and stretch out his influence across the Caribbean and the east coast of North American with sub missions taken on by crew members with captured Templar and Spanish ships.
And all of this is done through seamless transitions without the use of loading screens (besides the start up). With the previous games being limited by technology and having to section out the various locations, McDevitt cites the change in setting as the biggest motivator for Ubisoft to upgrade the game engine. Because of the increased focus on travel across the three major cities, open waters, and underwater gameplay, the player’s experience would become jarring with transitional loading screens.
As fans have no doubt seen in the various videos throughout summer, players can board enemy ships in real time during naval combat and engage the opposing crew in traditional melee and long range combat. Switching from naval combat to on foot traversal and combat was entirely seamless, and it feels natural and smooth. Actually getting onto the ship can be done in a number of ways, such as swimming or using the masts and ropes of your own ship to cross. The amount of options are pretty staggering, but of course you can forgo boarding and just destroy the ship. Which of course would be at the loss of resources.
My time with the game made me a believer. Despite the sheer amount of data the game has to render, Black Flag manages to look stellar throughout. Graphically, the waters while sailing move in realistic fashion, and the engine handles high seas action and combat without much drops in visual performance. Even before release, this title will no doubt be the best looking game of the series.
The world of Black Flag feels alive, and unlike past games, it feels like you’re interacting with a living breathing world that goes about its business whether you’re there or not. There’s ocean life to interact with, traveling merchants going about their business, and stranded sailors looking for help. Even while sailing you can come across the Spanish and Templars armies engaging in naval combat, and you can choose to take advantage of the chaos by looting the surrounding waters, or you can choose surprise both sides with your upgraded ship and crew.
Another new change is that the in-game economy will now see some revisions. To be blunt, Ubisoft’s redesigned much of the economy to ensure players aren’t sitting on mountains of gold with nothing to spend it on. Players have to take part in making investments towards your crew’s overall growth, maintaining trade routes throughout the Caribbean, and acquiring new goods for your ship and for Edward‘s arsenal. From the looks of it, the road to being a notorious pirate/assassin with political and trade influence will be perilous, and also quite expensive.
Unfortunately, during my time with the game, I came across one troubling issue that happened often to me and with others during the press’ session. The current build of the game, playing on some pretty high end PCs, were prone to several lock-ups and crashes. Each station playing the build of ACIV crashed several times and had to be rebooted. I’m sure many haven’t forgotten about ACIV’s game crash during the Sony E3 Press conference, so it’s troubling to see that the crashes are somewhat common, even during traversal on the open waters.
I sincerely hope that Ubisoft can remedy the bugs with Black Flag, as this game apparently has a lot going for it and the amount of detail they’ve put in is awe inspiring. It would be quite a headache if this issue were to become common in the retail release.
In many ways, Assassin's Creed IV feels like the biggest step forward that the franchise has taken in quite a long time. I came away pretty damn impressed with what the developers at Ubisoft managed to pull off. I just hope for their sake, and for the consumers, that they can squash the game ruining bugs that plagued my time with the game. Despite this problem, the value that Black Flag expresses is still apparent, and even long time fans who felt burned by the last entry may want to keep their eyes on this one.