When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag arrives on October 29, it will mark a significant shift for the series. The fresh story, time period and protagonist will give new players a chance to step in without having to wade through an increasingly complex and detailed mythology. The setting will shift from land to a new “naval sandbox presentation.” It will also challenge what most people assume to be the background of the series.
“Assassin’s Creed has never been about the feud between Templars and Assassins, it has never been good versus evil,” Ashraf Ismail, director of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag told us. “It has never been that.”
We kind of looked at the whole scene and were like ‘We have to do a pirate game.’
Although Black Flag is in no way a reset for the series, it represents a clean slate and a new direction for it. In games past, the Assassins were the clear heroes. From the very first game when the Templars laid siege to the Assassin headquarters in Masyaf, to the brutal treatment a young Ezio faced at the hands of Templars who killed his family, the feud between the two secret orders has been biased in its telling in favor of giving you a worthy set of bad guys to kill. But according to Ismail, that was never the goal, and in Black Flag, a more balanced approach will be just one of the changes we’ll see.
“It’s two different philosophies on life, and you could agree with one or the other; in this game we play it up a little more,” Ismail says. “We kind of advertise the fact that it’s not good versus evil, it’s just two different perspectives, and you could disagree with one or the other, that’s no problem.”
That might come as a surprise to gamers who witnessed the cruelty of the Borgias, the family of Templars that brutally controlled Rome, and the enemies of Ezio de Auditore in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. It’s more in line with the more nuanced Templar portrayal seen in Assassin’s Creed III though, and more importantly, it keeps with the sense that Black Flag is expanding the previous story, rather than just continuing it.
Charting a new course
Since it first debuted in 2007, the Assassin’s Creed franchise has gone on to sell more than 57 million games worldwide on multiple platforms, spawn comics, novels, and in 2015 will become a major motion picture starring Michael Fassbender. This year’s iteration was handled primarily by Ubisoft Montreal, but the series has become an important annual offering for Ubisoft. Eight studios located around the world, along with more than 900 people, helped to contribute to the making of the newest game.
Development on Black Flag began well over two years ago with next-gen consoles in mind. For Ubisoft, that meant it was the perfect time to take the series in a new direction. The five previous games all featured the continuing story thread of Desmond, the modern-day Assassin reliving the lives of his descendants. While we will see a few familiar faces reappear, the story of Black Flag is completely new.
“Desmond’s story ended in AC3, so we felt this was an opportunity to create a narrative that would bring new people into the brand,” Ismail said. “Even though we have ‘four’ in the title, it doesn’t mean you have to have known or to have played the previous games to understand what’s happening in the story.”
The game features protagonist Edward Kenway, a pirate living in the early 1700s at the tail end of the “Golden Age of Piracy,” when Blackbeard roamed the seas and Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas and a British colony, became a pirate stronghold. Unlike previous titles, Edward begins with little or no connection to either the Assassins or Templars, and has no stake in their centuries-old feud. He is an Englishman who has decided to head to the Caribbean and seek his fortune. That presents an opportunity for both the developers and potential players.
Desmond’s story ended in AC3, so we felt this was an opportunity to create a narrative that would bring new people into the brand.
“Edward is a guy who is learning about the feud [between the Assassins and Templars] fresh, as a new player would be,” Ismail explains. “Same in the present day. In the present day you’re playing this new employee. You’re working for a company called ‘Abstergo.’ As far as you know it’s a cool company, cool stuff. And then you start, eventually, looking behind the veil and seeing what is behind all of this and why you’re researching the life of Edward; and it has a meaning, it has a purpose.”
The Abstergo name should be familiar to anyone that has played the previous games as a front for the modern-day Templars. Similarly, Edward Kenway should be familiar to anyone who played the last Assassin’s Creed game – he’s the grandfather of AC3’s protagonist Connor.
According to Ismail though, the decision to continue telling the story of the Kenway lineage wasn’t meant to connect the last game and Black Flag. Ubisoft developed the Kenway lineage behind the scenes years ago, and the character of Edward was already in the Assassin’s Creed “Bible,” the book that outlines the history of the Assassin and Templar feud. Assassin’s Creed III did provide the inspiration for its successor, but it came from the gameplay not the story.
“We were seeing these tests with AC3, where it was the original prototypes of the naval [combat],” Ismail recalls. “People are loving them, and there’s a really good vibe around it.” Between that and an accessible character with a pirate background, everything fell in place. “We kind of looked at the whole scene and were like ‘We have to do a pirate game.’”
Ismail and his team went to Ubisoft’s upper management and presented their plan. It was immediately and enthusiastically accepted, and from then on development began in earnest.
For the next two years, the team worked on creating an Assassin’s Creed game with a twist – it was designed to be a “naval sandbox game.” Black Flag is set in the Caribbean, and features dozens of islands littered throughout the traversable seas. Some of those islands will be deserted, others contain anything ranging from treasure to a pirate settlement. There are still cities to explore in the form of Kingston, Nassau, Havana, and others, but the bulk of your time will be spent at sea. That’s why the game features the subtitle “Black Flag;” Ubisoft wanted to make sure people knew that it was a pirate game, even the pirate game.
“When we started, we thought ‘we need to make the biggest, most badass pirate game.’ We need to be the definition of what a pirate game should be,” Ismail recalls.
Edward’s sometimes misplaced moral compass also represents something of a first for the series. The previous assassins were all heroes in their own way. Their motivations could be questioned, but they generally acted for the betterment of all. Edward is a more complicated character.
“[Edward] is funny, but at the same time you see a selfishness that sometimes he regrets, and you see that regret, that he did something he shouldn’t have done. But he still did it, because he’s not quite sure who he is yet,” Ismail said. “So there’s this real human quality to Edward.”
“The end of the game is literally him accepting his lot in life and kind of accepting responsibility for his actions. And I think, honestly, and I’m biased, it’s one of the best endings to any AC, because it’s really rounded. It’s a really beautiful moment. He accepts who he is in life.”
From the beginning, Ismail and his team worked with Sony and Microsoft to take full advantage of nex-gen hardware. But he promises the current-gen version is the best-looking AC game yet, and not far removed from the version coming for future consoles. “The pure content of the story, of the world, is the same. The seamlessness is the same. The missions are effectively the same,” he says.
Jumping into a series with a mythology that can claim 15 games on various platforms, five novels, and a continuing stream of comics can be daunting, to say the least. Black Flag will continue the story that began back in 2007, but it will also revamp it and streamline it for new players. It’s a new stage for the Assassin’s Creed series, and if early sneak peeks are any indication, a good time to jump in and start swinging.