Ruling the seas as a pirate assassin
I recently got to play a solid few hours of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and was able to do whatever I wanted, outside of the select core missions Ubisoft wanted to specifically show off. There was a lot to do, but I wanted to focus specifically the open ocean world and how you'll be interacting with it here.
Why? Because it was easily my favorite new feature for the Assassin's Creed series due to it being something fresh and different. Plus I liked ramming my big ship into tiny little ships because I'm the best pirate ever.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag (PC, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4 [previewed], Wii U, Xbox 360, Xbox One)
The biggest change, and possibly the most refreshing for the series, is your pirate ship the Jackdaw. The setting of Black Flag has you in this near-seamless open-world experience as you sail across the Caribbean ocean. Your ship is as much a character as the Assassin himself.
Because of this you're going to want to upgrade your ship every chance you get. Sure, you're able to ram ships smaller than you and obliterate them instantaneously -- an immensely satisfying pastime, by the way -- but it's the ships that are at your same level or higher that you can't mess around with.
You really have to play smart and use tactics when challenging other ships thanks to all sorts of odds. Multiple enemy ships can gang up on you if they see their buddies in trouble, you have to be 100% aware of your surrounding lest you slam into a cliff wall, wind direction can screw with your aiming, plus storms can turn the ocean violent at a moment's notice.
The combat is nowhere near as straightforward as the hand-to-hand combat, which is arguably getting stale -- not just in Assassin's Creed, but a majority of games like it. The whole "being surrounded by a group of enemies while they take turns striking at you" concept has always bothered me though, to be clear.
The weather effects going on all throughout the ocean gameplay look immensely gorgeous. I played Black Flag on a PlayStation 4 development console, and the power of next-gen really shows when waves are roaring and the water splashes on your ship's deck.
There are Spanish and English forces you have to contend with out in the open ocean, but thankfully for you these two huge empires are at war with each other. It's not uncommon that you'll come across the two sides battling it out. You could enter the battle, but I would just wait for one side to destroy the other before making my move, like any good pirate would do really. Plus, taking over naval forts will give you some major backup fire if you lure enemies into their firing zones.
Destroying ships will gain you items, but boarding them will grant you far greater rewards. Once an enemy ship is boarded, you'll have to kill several survivors still on board before they surrender and the ship becomes yours. From here you can then use the ship to repair your own, or have it join your fleet for use in the companion app.
One thing to note here is that if you're engaged with multiple enemy ships, they all will stop their pursuit once you've engaged in a boarding. I'm not sure if I'm really okay with this, as it hurts the immersion, but then again you'd just be obliterated with your entire crew preoccupied with the boarding process.
The companion app, by the way, is something I'm going to be using a lot of. The ships you capture can be sent off to do whatever it takes to gain more money for yourself. You'll give them orders, and after a period of time they'll have a glorious return or they may not come back at all depending on how strong their opponents were. I love apps like this where I can be somewhat productive on a bus or train ride, and then come home to actual rewards in the main game.
The other ocean stuff is great as well, again because of how different it all is. Specifically I'm talking about the underwater diving and the shark hunting. The diving portions are pretty intense, as only have so much air you can hold in one breath -- not to mention all the other dangers. There are pockets of air you can refresh yourself with (such as the diving bell), but it's always a race against time. You can also get caught up in currents that will blow you away to who knows where. Then there are the sharks. So many sharks. You're helpless against them, and you'll have to hide as best you can to get past them.
The role gets reversed when you go hunting for them, though. In fact all the hunting is fun, largely thanks to how up close and personal you can get with creatures on land. Chase an ocelot and when close enough, stab them in the back of the skull with your hidden blade! Sure, you can use your guns but stabbing things is so much better. Hunting, it should be mentioned, will go towards upgrading your character and your ship.
While I can't say enough good things about the ocean mechanics of Assassin's Creed IV, I do have to point out a couple of small annoyances. Specifically there were two missions where I had to follow an enemy ship without being spotted. Like the on-foot versions of this objective, you have to stay out your target's range of vision displayed on the mini-map. It's one thing when you're on land, running on rooftops or whatever to stay out of sight, but, uh, how can you miss a giant ship tailing you?
The first instance of this happening is set during the day when you're going through an entire enemy zone. There are ships all over on patrol, some that are looking dead at you at times but it's okay you're not in their range. The other mission was set during the night within a swamp where you had to follow a target while also avoiding enemy camps. If they were to spot you they'd raise an alarm and you'd fail the mission.
I failed it quite a few times, mostly due to the on-foot portions of this mission. It's the same design problem you've experienced before where the developers are trying to push you forward on a specific path, but if you stray off it you'll fail. Or in this case the path wasn't obvious until you failed it once or twice.
So legacy issues still exist, and I know a lot of you that are vocal about the game on Destructoid, but I think ultimately you should give Assassin's Creed IV a chance due to the new rating system. After each mission you can give it a rating of one to five stars. It's an optional feature, and one that I hope players take to heart in order to give Ubisoft some feedback on what people really like, and what they can finally hopefully maybe evolve, or at least please stop doing.