There is a good reason that the fascination of swashbuckling pirates has remained strong throughout the centuries. It was a life without rules beyond those the pirates accepted, where you could go anywhere at anytime. It was freedom in a way few of us can truly relate to. It was also a life filled with action and adventure set against a backdrop of exploration and discovery. The appeal is obvious, and in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, you get to live out that fantasy.
Black Flag isn’t a reinvention but it genuinely feels like a new chapter…
As with all the Assassin’s Creed games, Black Flag remains true to the elements that define the series – free running, open world environments, assassinations – while adding a handful of features that fit with the new setting of the game. It also feels very much like a Ubisoft Montreal game, inheriting features from their recent games, like Far Cry 3, that are a welcome addition to the Assassin’s Creed series. Black Flag isn’t a reinvention but it genuinely feels like a new chapter, and a good jumping on point for new fans, as well as a strong continuation for old.
The “Golden Age of Piracy”. Edward Kenway, grandfather to Assassin’s Creed 3 protagonist Connor, is not a typical assassin. In fact, he may not be an assassin at all, at least not for much of the game. Building on the story twist in AC3 revolving around Connor’s father Haytham, Edward is not a participant in the seemingly endless war between the Templars and the Assassins. Instead, he is an Englishman that left his home to seek his fortune in the New World. But like so many others, events transpired against him.
Without going too heavily into spoiler territory, Edward is trained in an unusual way and so he doesn’t have the same loyalties that the other assassins have. Rather than fighting in the hidden war, he takes to the seas and becomes a pirate during what is commonly known as the “Golden Age of Piracy,” which begins for Edward in 1715. The story follows the young pirate through a significant chunk of his life. Throughout it all he remains the consummate and archetypal rogue, but he grows and learns, both about himself and the secret war he finds himself drawn into.
Piratocracy. One of the reasons the years between 1716 and 1726 are considered to be part of the golden ages of piracy is due to the social maneuvers that began to occur in the Caribbean during those years. While piracy was often cruel and barbaric, there were a number of pirates that believed in democracy and commanded their ships through popular vote. Violence to them was a means to an end, but brutality was never wanton.
Black Flag is heavily influenced by the real history of the age, when pirates like Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Benjamin Hornigold, and “Black Sam” Bellamy began to govern their ships and fleets democratically. The game builds on these themes even if it does take a few liberties, but the real people of the time, including the aforementioned pirates, all play a part in Edward’s life. It’s a story of freedom and the search for rule based on justice, something uncommon back then that resonates today.
No more apples. The bigger issues of the time act as the backdrop for the game, Edward has a mission of his own. After commandeering a ship and renaming it the Jackdaw, he begins his hunt for “The Observatory,” a place that most consider to be a fantasy along the lines of the city of El Dorado. What this place really is, and how this ties in to larger Assassin’s Creed story isn’t clear yet, but it seems likely that this location is connected to First Civilization seen in the previous games. Desmond’s story may be complete, but the events he set in motion continue in Black Flag. The present day story takes place through the eyes of an employee of the Abstergo Corporation, the modern face of the Templars.
Tropical parkour. The gameplay in Black Flag remains much the same as it was in the previous Assassin’s Creed games. Combat revolves around counters, and you have a wide selection of weapons, including pistols, blowguns, and swords (which you can dual-wield) to complement your hidden blade. What has changed is the world itself. The parkour-inspired traversal mechanics feel much like they did in AC3. Edward shares Connor’s ability to free-run through natural environments, so you’ll be scaling trees and cliffs as well as buildings. Unlike AC3, there’s no separate “frontier” and “city” spaces; most of Black Flag‘s settlements, jungles, open waters, and more are contained within a single, seamless open world.
… sometimes the risk of attacking a more dangerous foe is worth it – you are a pirate after all.
During our demo only Nassau was available to explore, but it will be joined by Havana, Kingston, and more. In keeping with actual history, the port of Nassau is far less populated and developed than cities we’ve seen in previous Assassin’s Creed games. Population centers will still play a major role, but the world is far more seamless and less segmented than in the previous games. You won’t reach the end of a city and find yourself prompted to travel to the frontier. Beyond the immersiveness offered by a true open world setting, this has handy gameplay elements as well. Eluding enemies by hiding above them in trees is now well established for the series, but pulling off an aerial assassination, using the trees to stay out of reach, and then cliff diving into the waters bellow where you can then swim to you ship for an escape is like nothing else in the series’ history.
Watery graves. Black Flag’s world is massive, and it is filled with things to do and explore. The cities are their own entities where you can spend time engaging in side quests and mini-games just like in the previous games, but the majority of Black Flag’s open world is designed to be explored on the Jackdaw. There will always be a goal, or goals to push you in a particular direction, but taking your time and exploring has its benefits. Seemingly deserted islands may hold treasure or collectibles; rare animals you need to hunt and use for crafting items (another Far Cry 3 carry over) may be unique to a remote atoll; certain marked locations also allow you to dive deep underwater using a diving bell that is unlocked in through the story, allowing you to search ship wrecks while dodging sharks; dock at remote fishing villages and engage the locals. Ubisoft wasn’t saying just how big Black Flag is, but it is by far the biggest game in the series in terms of world size.
As a pirate, Edward’s life and livelihood are tied to his naval prowess. This mechanic is similar to what was introduced in AC3, but where Connor’s nautical adventures were the stuff of mini-games. Edward’s life on the sea is an integral part of Black Flag and has been expanded upon considerably. The Jackdaw has three speeds; the slower it’s moving, the better the maneuverability. Lining up and hitting the broadside of an enemy (or a potential prize) with cannon fire exposes a weak point that you can attack with your smaller, turret-mounted scatter-gun for big damage. Once the opposing ship is on fire you have two options: board her and fight, which is riskier but more profitable, or sink her and loot the wreckage to sell later. The Jackdaw is a powerful ship, but it is no match for a massive ship of the line. Knowing your targets is important, but sometimes the risk of attacking a more dangerous foe is worth it – you are a pirate after all.
Water never looked so watery. Our AC4 demo ran on a PlayStation 4. In terms of content, the current and next-gen games are essentially the same. In terms of visuals, the next-gen versions are impressively detailed, with water that moves realistically, rain made up of individual drops, and environments that are detailed in a way the current gen just can’t match, down to the fabric in clothing. The new hardware also allows a deeper range of view. As a pirate, being able to gaze into the distant horizon and make out the sails of a treasure galleon is an important part of life.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag feels familiar in every way, but the key difference is the new historical playground that lets you role-play as a pirate, and the world of Black Flag is massive. The oceans teem with life (some of it you can even hunt, including sharks and whales), and there is always something to explore, or someone to attack. If the pirate setting appeals to you, the world should help to immerse you in the period and give you an appreciation for the time period that many nowadays commonly associate with the idiotic Jack Sparrow, even if it is heavily romanticized. Just like any good historical fiction – regardless of the medium – should.
(Check back with us for more coverage on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, including a closer look at the multiplayer)