Preview: Assassin’s Creed IV hoists a Black Flag in an open-world Caribbean

AC4 Black FlagIt shouldn’t come as any surprise that Ubisoft is planning another Assassin’s Creed release just one year after Assassin’s Creed III hit store shelves.  The annual release model has become the standard operating procedure for the series. But after five console releases in six years, are players exhausted of annual Assassin Creed games? Is there blood left in this stone?

AC4 EdwardLast week Ubisoft revealed the next game in the series, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. No official release date was give other than fall, but if it will likely be released in late October or early November as the other five were.  

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag also marks a handful of peculiar changes for the series. First, it’s going to be the first mainline Assassin’s Creed sequel to bear a subtitle. That might not sound significant, but the series has been deliberate in its use of subtitles up to this point. Associate producer Sylvain Trottier said point blank in a demo of this new battle between the assassins and the Templars, that despite the Black Flag subtitle, this is not an offshoot of like the PS Vita’s Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation; this is the Assassin’s Creed IV. Though when pressed about ACIV being an umbrella for multiple games Sylvain did laughingly say, “Wait until next year.”

Second, this will be the series first outing on the PlayStation 4 and other “next-gen” consoles, although it will also ship alongside PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, and Wii U releases. These two factors mark subtle but significant changes to the aging series as it enters a crucial stage of growth.

It’s important to mention these changes prior to getting into the creative nitty gritty of the sequel, because these factors are concrete, known quantities that will have an important influence on Black Flag. Based on the brief slide show of factoids, art, screens, and a truncated video of actual play, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is nothing but raw potential at this point.

Assassins Creed IV Black FlagBlack Flag’s emphasizes on exploration, expanding on the sort of seamless open world Assassin’s Creed is built on, and could help to shift the series even further in a new direction, possibly for the better. But while what Ubisoft showed us was promising, it wasn’t quite a video game yet, just plenty of good ideas for one. They are some exciting ideas though, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has undeniable potential.  

The 50 Environments of a High Sea

Filling the assassin’s hood this time out is Edward Kenway, grandpappy of Assassin’s Creed III’s Connor Kenway. Edward looks like a cross between mid-‘90s Val Kilmer and Captain Morgan; a blonde-haired, steely-eyed fighter carrying four pistols on his chest, two swords, and the token wrist blades of his order.

In addition to being an assassin, Kenway is also the captain of the pirate ship christened the Jackdaw, leading his crew around the East Indies in the year 1715 (and presumably over a course of several years as with the other games in the series), hanging out with the most famous pirates of the day like Calico Jack, Blackbeard, Anne Bonny, and others as they traverse the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Cuba. As per usual for the series, Kenway is present at significant historical events both big and small. For example, you’ll play through the destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1715 and get marooned on an island alongside the pirate Charles Vane.

The familiar Assassin’s Creed play template is present and accounted for. Kenway will stalk his enemies—Ubisoft wouldn’t give any story details about antagonists beyond them being those cagey Templars again—in a few major cities, including Kingston, Havana, and Nassau. But the similarities end there.

Kenway’s world is the full archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Ubisoft promises 50 separate environments that you’ll be able to seamlessly sail the Jackdaw to, including: hidden villages in small island coves, jungles, Mayan ruins, plantations, and even underwater caverns and shipwrecks where that you can reach using a diving bell in order to salvage treasure.

AC4 Naval BattlesTrottier and Art Director Raphael Lacoste said repeatedly in their presentation that the team’s goal has been openness since the game went into development in 2011, wanting no break or loading between running around a city and hopping on your boat. We asked if this extended even to the underwater sections of the game, and whether or not Kenway could explore anywhere underwater, but Ubisoft isn’t ready to go into detail on that just yet. 

The Dread Pirate Kenway?

That reluctance to go into detail on certain aspects was a common refrain throughout the Black Flag presentation – a common procedure for games this far from release. Only half a portrait was painted of how the game plays. Since the game is based almost entirely on the open sea, the naval combat is allegedly far more complex than it is in Assassin’s Creed III. At any given time, you will be drawn into unscripted fights with a variety of ships of the line, all while in dynamic weather.

Fighting another ship, boarding her, and then getting stuck in a massive storm at sea—the weather is also apparently unscripted—could also lose you precious crew members, forcing you to constantly recruit more of as you explore the world. There’s even whaling. Video of the game showed Kenway’s crew trying to take down a sperm whale, and Trottier said that crewmen can die in the process of trying to bring them down.

Ubisoft gave absolutely no indication of how any of these systems work, though. Things like how do you recruit crew members, what are the benefits of hunting whales or salvaging shipwrecks and what’s the point remain unanswered for now. There also seem to be environmental items that can be used in weapons, like an empty bottle in a bar fight, but Ubisoft was tight lipped on that as well.

Assassins Creed IV Black FlagThe now familiar multiplayer will also return in some form, but at the moment all Ubisoft would confirm is that there are new modes, before it showed an array of concept art for player-controlled multiplayer characters.

One of the big questions about Kenway – and one of the changes in the series – is who will be “driving” him from a present day animus? Not our good friend Desmond of Assassin’s Creed I through III, but an employee of Abstergo Entertainment.

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation also featured an Abstergo animus. Rather than the weighty plot line that Desmond was involved with, the Abstergo animus sessions are positioned in the fiction of the series to be for leisure rather than knowledge. But Trottier also said there will be more to it than with Liberation, and that play between the past and the present would be broken down in the same way as in past games. If Desmond’s story is complete and Kenway’s link to other characters is coincidental (which seems incredibly unlikely), why call it Assassin’s Creed IV? What’s the link to justify that number in the title? 

A New Team for a New System

Along with a new setting, character, and even system (or systems assuming the next Xbox is released around the same time as the PS4), Assassin’s Creed IV will feature a new creative team in charge. For Black Flag, Ubisoft tapped several veterans of other Assassin’s Creed titles, like Raphael Lacoste, the brand art director for Assassin’s Creed, as well as others from the Far Cry series. Black Flag will be directed by Jean Guesdon, who to date has acted as story and brand director on the series. It will be the first Assassin’s Creed title Guesdon has directed, but few people are as familiar with the series as he is. 

Free of the Desmond plot and with a new setting, how will this crew of developers distinguish its game? And how will it leverage the more advanced technology of consoles like PlayStation 4?

Black Flag“You can do some sexy stuff,” said Trottier, but that’s all he said beyond expressing enthusiasm for the platform. He and Lacoste joked that it was their demands for more power that led Sony to put 8GB GDDR5 RAM in the PS4. Past PC editions of the game could do some “sexy stuff” as well, but they weren’t always significantly more advanced than the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the games.

Ultimately, Ubisoft gave us just a taste of what to expect with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. There are several important questions that we need in order to get a better picture of what the game truly is, and how it will fit in what has become one of the most successful gaming franchises of this current generation of consoles. 

There are great ideas at work in this game, and if they all come together, they could reinvigorate a series in sore need of fresh perspectives. There is a lot of potential at play in Black Flag. Whether or not Ubisoft can live up to that remains to be seen. 

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