PREVIEW: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

It’s nice when dreams come true. When I played Assassin’s Creed III, I was dumbstruck by how well the naval side missions worked, and I thought that a whole game based on that premise would be a wonderful thing. Lo and behold, Ubisoft Montreal delivered, with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. (Just don’t be expecting Henry Rollins to appear.)

Assassin’s Creed IV takes us into the historical life of yet another ancestor of Desmond Miles: Edward Kenway, father of Haytham and therefore grandfather of Connor. Edward turns out to be a British privateer (let’s just say pirate) in the Caribbean during the late eighteenth century, the Golden Age of Piracy. He pilots his own ship, the Jackdaw, and sails around coastal villages and ancient ruins in the perpetual war against the Templars. It looks like we won’t be playing as Desmond in the contemporary narrative, though: the Templars are now able to access his ancestral memories through the magic of the cloud.

The core gameplay is very familiar to fans of the franchise. Despite the sailing, there is still a lot of running, climbing, assassinating, and combat to be had. The developers have designed missions to be completed in a number of different ways to allow for different playstyles or preferences, though individual missions still seem to be a goal-based, relatively linear affair. My presenter emphasised that they have aimed to bring back the stealth into Assassin’s Creed, and a new blowgun with homicidal psychosis-inducing poison creates distractions for Kenway to pass unnoticed. (Is this really all that new, though?)

The open world of this game is even more open than usual, and naval transport makes it possible to present a larger game world than ever before with three main cities to play: Havana, Kingston and Nassau. In this way, the open seas have the same role as the frontier of ACIII: They are a barrier but also a pathway, and they offer unique events such as whale sightings. Despite the protests of PETA, the developers have persisted with offering whale-hunting side missions. I must say that I’m not sure I could undertake these missions without a prick of conscience, and I don’t think it would be an entirely enjoyable affair.

[img_big]center,10876,2013-03-04/AC4BF_SC_SP_02_Whale.JPG.jpg,Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag[/img_big]

These unique events can be shared with friends via the peripheral device app (read: Smartglass or equivalent), and friends have up to 24 hours to take on the mission. Other side interests include a fleet management system, much like the trading system of ACIII: I found this element awkward and singularly unengaging, so hopefully it is better integrated into the main gameplay this time. The peripheral device can also be used for maps and inventory management, and it will be interesting to see what other functionality is included. Being able to explore metagame information or run the fleet management mini game could be a great activity for a couch coop partner.

Of course, the main game is all about the sea missions. Honestly, if it was just more of the same I would still be happy, but there does seem to be a few improvements as well. Dynamic weather now affects manoeuvres and combat, and vicious storms can destroy ships, making for new strategic options as well as more danger to your own vessel. Firing cannon is now more affected by the roll and swell of the surf, and both sea and rain animations are more lifelike and deeply textured. Swimming is a natural part of traversing the environment (remember when it used to kill you? Well now the sharks do), and diving from high platforms or sync locations into the water is an even more exhilarating experience that plummeting into the ubiquitous haystacks. It is even possible to dive using a bell to discover waterlogged treasures.

[img_big]center,10876,2013-06-10/1370772262_acivbf_screenshotsp_e3_caribbean_boardingprovocation_130610_4h15pmpt.jpg,Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag[/img_big]

Boarding other vessels is now a much smoother affair: there is a simple transition between the Jackdaw and the enemy’s ship, as if it were just another building. No loading screens or minigame mechanics: this makes the naval missions and the core combat gameplay much more integrated. Your own crew is also able to fight and defeat the enemies, and a kill count tells you how close you are to achieving the board. Once you have properly boarded a ship, it is possible to kill or recruit the crew for your own ship, and to either salvage for repairs and upgrades or take the ship for your own fleet management minigame. Here’s hoping that the ship upgrades are substantial and cater for different playstyles.

Overall, it looks like Ubisoft have taken the most successful aspect of ACIII (to my mind at least) and developed it into a core component of the new game. Even so, it still feels a bit like an add-on: there are still great things that could be done (properly commanding a fleet in battle, for instance, or including multiplayer in the naval sections), and I don’t know if there is quite enough innovation in gameplay and design to make this feel like more than oversized DLC. Nonetheless, I’m still very ready for more of what has made this franchise turn another very exciting corner.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag releases in Q4 across all the major platforms in both generations.

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