Preview: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

While it seems that Assassin’s Creed III was released only yesterday, Ubisoft have wasted no time in revealing the exciting new direction for the series with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. With a new protagonist, setting and gameplay mechanics, this could be the most ambitious Assassin’s Creed yet.

• Developer: Ubisoft
• Publisher: Ubisoft
• Available On: XBox 360, PS3, WiiU, PC, PS4.
• Release Date: Autumn 2013 (Worldwide)

Last Wednesday, I was lucky enough to attend the official launch event for Black Flag in London. While the name and rough details of the game had been leaked that morning, we were all intrigued to find out what the newest addition to the Assassin’s Creed franchise would be like. Apart from a slightly bizarre introduction where we were given a retrospective of the series’ history, told through the medium of poetry by none other than Ralph Fiennes, it was a relatively low-key affair where the details of the game were allowed to speak for themselves. We were shown a couple of CGI trailers as well as pre-recorded gameplay footage and an in-depth presentation with plenty of screenshots, but unfortunately not a live version of the game.

Black Flag is set in 1715 in the Caribbean; the hotbed of piracy at the time. You play as Edward Kenway, a pirate captain who is actually the grandfather of Connor from ACIII. Motivated by infamy and money, Edward is smart, handsome, charismatic and brash, and is trained by the assassins when he stumbles across their war with the Templars.

Of course, Assassin’s Creed wouldn’t be Assassin’s Creed without a parallel story taking place in the present day. As those of you who finished ACIII will know, Desmond’s story has come to an end, so who do you play as instead? Well, this is where it gets interesting. You play as yourself. The first Assassin’s Creed game was released in 2007 and took place in 2012, so now that we’ve ‘caught up to it’, Ubisoft are putting you directly into the storyline. Exactly how this will work wasn’t revealed, but this could be very interesting indeed.

The supporting cast of characters are, as you’d imagine, a motley crew of pirates. What makes this intriguing, though, is that these were all once living, breathing people. Calico Jack, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Anne Bonny and even Blackbeard all make an appearance and the development team are ensuring that their portrayals in-game are as true-to-life as possible.

At the launch event, it was made clear that Black Flag will be focusing on the reality of piracy in the 18th century, not the fantasy. Ubisoft believes that, when it comes to pirates, “truth is stranger than fiction” and that ACIV will be telling the “true story of piracy”. In fact, there were even so bold as to say that the game will be “redefining the perception of piracy in modern media”.

This will be achieved not only through its real-life characters, but also through its real-life events. The siege of Nassau (The pirate republic’s capital) by the British Navy, the wreck of the Spanish Armada and the marooning of Charles Vane all feature in the game, further strengthening the AC franchise’s reputation for in-depth research.

Most excitingly, I think, is the inclusion of the assault on forty-two Portuguese ships, where one pirate took them on and won.

By setting Black Flag in the Caribbean, Ubisoft have been able to create the most varied locations ever seen in an Assassin’s Creed game to date. There are 50 unique locations within the game, ranging from fishing villages, plantations and jungles, to ports, hidden coves, Mayan ruins and deserted islands. These locations each bring something different to the game, as you’ll be racing to find treasure within hidden coves before rival pirates do, upgrading or repairing your ship at a fishing village or stealthily infiltrating plantations to attack warehouses of sugar.

The three main cities in the game are Kingston, the capital of Jamaica known for its plantations of tobacco and sugar, Havana, the capital of Cuba with a very European aesthetic, and Nassau in the Bahamas, which was a safe haven for pirates. Also, as you’d expect from a game about pirates, you’ll be able to spend a lot of time underwater which we’re told will bring “new and challenging gameplay” to the story.

Each and every area looks completely stunning and has been faithfully recreated, as we’ve come to expect from the series. Interestingly, it was apparent that all screenshots were from a current generation platform (Although we weren’t told which one), even though the game will also appear on next-generation consoles. Of course, all of these locations are at risk of feeling disjointed and out of place if it wasn’t for Black Flag’s most exciting aspect: it is a completely open world.

Traveling between areas is as simple as sailing your ship to a location, dropping anchor, swimming to shore and exploring. You’ll be able to see villages and caves from your ship, as well as other ships which you can choose to engage in battle or to ignore, you may get caught up in powerful tropical storms and can even go hunting for whales. A spyglass feature will allow you to look at these areas or ships from a distance and will give you hints on what resources or weapons they may be carrying.

What makes Black Flag interesting is that this seamless world will be completely open to you right from the start. Well, to an extent. Certain important areas will be heavily guarded and it will be up to you to upgrade your ship in order to battle your way through to them. This will hopefully give the game a very natural gating and progression system and is just how things would have been historically.

As you’d expect, your ship is crucial to the game. Named the Jackdaw, Ubisoft have described it as being another character in the game. You have your own crew to manage (After all, Edward is a pirate captain) and you are able to track down and hire new members from locations throughout the map. It’s also possible to lose crew members, whether through tropical storms or ship-to-ship battles.

Speaking of these battles, they build heavily on the foundations of ACIII’s naval battles and will form a large part of Black Flag. The encounters are completely dynamic and unscripted and there are five ‘archetypes’ of enemy ship. The example we were given at the press event was of the ‘Charger’, which creates space between you can then races forward to ram your ship.

The goal of each battle is ultimately to kill the captain of the opposing ship, but Black Flag takes its lessons from the first Assassin’s Creed in that you can choose how to do this. Once you have done enough damage to the other ship, you give the order to your crew to launch hooks and pull the two vessels close to each other. This creates a 3D ‘play area’ in the middle of the ocean and it’s up to you how to cross over. You can swing from rigging, leap from the deck or dive into the ocean and swim across.

Once the enemy captain is dead, you plunder all of their resources and then use these to upgrade your ship in whichever way you prefer. You could go for a slow but powerful beast, or something agile and light.

When it comes to regular combat, not much was given away on the specifics, but we did get a good glimpse during the gameplay video. Edward carries two long sword and four pistol-type firearms, as well as the assassin’s trusty hidden blade. From the video, it appears that combat has the satisfying weight to it as well as the slower, more tactical aspect that long-term fans of the series will recognise and love.

Multiplayer will return, but nothing was really mentioned about this other than that there will be new characters, maps and modes.

The easiest way to sum up Black Flag is as an open-world pirate game, wearing an Assassin’s Creed skin as, even without playing it, it has that recognisable look and feel of an AC title. With its focus on exploration and with such a varied range of locations, it has the potential to be the most exciting AC game so far, as well as a welcome and refreshing change of direction for the series after the disappointment of AC3. Pair that with the historically-accurate look at the era of piracy, and you have a game which has the potential to be the biggest of 2013. Let’s hope that Ubisoft manage to pull it off.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag will be released in Autumn 2013 on all current consoles and PC, as well as the PS4. No mention was made of the next-generation Xbox, or if these next-generation versions of the game will be released at the same time.

Official Game Site

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  1. Don't tell 'Em Pike

    Ah, this annual issue, should I? shouldn’t I? I have to say despite being bored by the recent AC games, I can’t help but be excited for this game, this Caribbean theme really does sound cool and on next-gen has the potential to look stunning. This could be a new refreshing style that AC so badly needs.

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