Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - PreviewPlatforms: Microsoft Xbox 360 | Nintendo Wii-U | PC | Sony PlayStation 3
Usually I am a rock. A craggy pile of bemusement staring pointedly at yet another pointless promotion of a rehashed release. The industry likes to make a big song and dance of indentikit sequels that merge into one giant blob of military grey. Usually. Then Ubisoft said something about pirates and my timbers suddenly shivered. My weary eyes look up, my mind whirrs into action... hell...that’s actually a good, not entirely unoriginal, idea. An Assassin’s Creed set in early 18th century West Indies makes sense. It makes good sense. And... Pirates!
Edward Kenway be your captain and hero. A rough, rude, drinking man. British of birth but clearly shying away from his nationalistic routes and living the merry life at sea. At some point the creed of Assassins take him under their belt and train him in the ways of stealth and subtlety creating a salty breed of killer. He uses the hallmarks of this murderous trade - the cloak, the wrist blades - but clearly not afraid to resort to his more filibustering roots to get his way. On the massive screen in a room filled with journalists, ears pricked up by the mere mention of pirates, we saw Kenway pepper his foes with shot from his blunderbustering pistol before smashing a bottle o’rum over their head to finish them off. He’s still a pirate after all.
The jump to the Caribbean is a natural step for the series with a fair chunk of the Assassin’s Creed III taken up with naval battles. The AnvilNext engine has proven itself capable of handling sea combat and, possibly more impressive, making it enjoyable. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (the suits at Ubisoft seem to have decided this one is special as it requires a sub-title) promises to have bigger ships, larger fleets and seamless boarding, in whatever manner you choose, be it swinging from the rafters or climbing stealthily from dark waters.
But what does all this talk of buccaneering mean for the Assassin’s Creed franchise, a series built on historical murderous freerunning rather than high-adventure at sea? Up stands Jean Guesdon Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s creative director to help us out. “The main pillars of Assassin’s Creed still stand, we’re shying away from the clichés of pirates and bringing it back to reality.” No merry jaunts on a Louis Stevenson Treasure Island or rolling along on giant wheels like a mental Johnny Depp then. We’re talking scurvy, dysentery and whores. Up pops on the screen some boobs just to prove this point.
There will still be some free-running too. The cities of Havana, Kingston and the pirate haven of Nassau will all play a large role in the storyline. This means that we shall see very differing sides of the Caribbean due to colonisation from various countries, with tinges of Spanish, Portuguese and British. Arguably this cannot match the majesty of renaissance Florence or character of Venice, yet the ramshackle layout of wooden huts held a charm of their own, ripe for free-running, if not epic tower climbing.
Within these streets and out on the high seas Kenway will come into contact with some of the most famous names from pirate lore. Captain Blackbeard, with cannon fuses tied in his hair and a stare that could kill a man. Benjamin Hornigold, famously overthrown from his ship for his refusal to attack British ships. “Calico Jack" Rackham, Anne Bonny and the infamously cruel Charles Vane will all make an appearance. Along with these famous faces come the factual events with which the series is known for, such as the fall of Nassau or Vane’s marooning on a desert island.
Perhaps the most intriguing prospect of the game will be its seamless transitions from ship to shore, something Guesdon was keen to constantly point out. Edward Kenway will be able to hand control of the captain’s wheel over, dive off the ship and swim to land. Here he will be able to galavant off on many an adventure and side quest that arguably made Assassin’s Creed III slightly too bloated. Capturing forts, searching Mayan ruins, discovering hidden coves as well as deep sea exploration with authentic diving bells were just a few possibilities mentioned.
Guesdon goes on to point out that while the world, comprising mainly of Cuba, Jamaica and the surrounding islands, will be completely open, you will need to progress, hire crew and upgrade your ship to be able to explore completely. Indeed Guesdon went on to say that your ship, the Jackdaw, “would become the second main character of the game”, presumably meaning it will play a vital role in every part of the game, in a similar manner to the third’s homestead or the villa in the second. Areas will not be off-limits but huge galleys will stand in Kenway’s way, preventing all but the most experienced pirate from proceeding. It sounds tantalising, and I’m sitting there wondering how close the game will come to a three dimensional evolution of Sid Meier’s Pirates! complete with fencing or dancing with governors’ wives. We’ll have to wait and see to be able to answer that question.
Then there’s the future. That awkward bit of the series that no-one really cared about. With the possible future of the original series now aligned with ours in the year 2012 and dull, dim-witted Desmond’s story coming to a conclusion in Assassin’s Creed III, will Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag continue with this strange science fiction component? Jean Guesdon lets slip a confusing tidbit of information here mentioning “you will play you in the future”. We all stare bemused by what this may mean or whether this is a confusing mis-translation. My guess is that these sections would play out in first-person (avoiding a complex character generation section) hinting, in that Assassin’s Creed conspiracy theory fashion, that this game could be reality. This is all pure supposition at this point however...
And that brings proceedings to a close. The lights go up and everyone tattles about how pirates and Assassin’s Creed may or may not work, replete with involuntary gruff “arghs” and parrots in the distance screaming “Pieces of eight”. At least that’s what I heard in my head. Just a few details before we go. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has been confirmed for current and next-generation consoles, including Wii U, PS4 and possibly, although it was not explicitly mentioned, the Xbox (insert arbitrary geometric extension here). There was also a brief confirmation of multiplayer, but everyone coughed in that ‘are we surprised?’ manner. Finally the game is scheduled for fall 2013 (October 29th to be precise according to the leaked trailer above), which seems awfully close. That means we should be getting details thick and fast like volleys of cannonfire until then. Time will tell whether the game will set the world alight or whether we should prepare to be bored dead...