With Assassin’s Creed hitched to an annual release schedule, Ubisoft has two things to prove in previewing each new game – first, how well it fits in with previous Assassin’s Creed games, and, second, what it does that’s new for the franchise.
My demo with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was clearly targeted more toward the first proof point. A producer driving the game talked me through a 20-minute segment of open world play – where main character Edward is now free to accept contracts, sail his boat around, and otherwise do things that make him a pirate. Beginning from a small fishing village somewhere in or around the Cayman Islands, Edward accepts a contract to kill two Templar smugglers docked at the village. He finds them at a local bar, drinking.
The producer chose to take out the first with a traditional assassination – sidle up to the bar directly behind one brother, wait for the “assassinate” option to come up on the action button, and then take him out with a blow to the head against the bar. At this, the other brother took off running and got onto his boat to sail away (which happens way faster than real boats could actually move – but, eh, video game). The producer explained that he could jump onto the fleeing boat and fight the smuggler’s crew to kill him, or he could run back to his own boat and sail after the guy (conveniently tagged on the map).
Boats are what Black Flag brings to the Assassin’s Creed franchise. Assassin’s Creed III first introduced the concept of sailing, exploring and attack with a ship – but Black Flag builds out this feature and adds new ship types, the ability to board and capture vessels, and a fleet-building mechanic where captured ships can be sent out on off-screen missions to bring back plunder than can be spent upgrading Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw. While in command of a ship, players can give a handful of orders to Edward’s crew – including one to take shelter when the Jackdaw is under fire.
The producer sailed after the smuggler and demoed the now-familiar long shot cannon and swivel gun attacks on the smuggler’s ship. By damaging the ship just enough to cripple it (say, by knocking down the mast), he was able to pull up alongside it and order his crew to board and attack. This is where recruiting becomes important – the more crew Edward has, the more quickly they can dispatch the opposing crew of a ship (a minimum number must be killed before they rest will surrender). During the course of the game, Edward’s crew can be killed at sea in many ways – meaning he has to replenish his crew pretty consistently, or get better about telling them to take cover during naval engagements.
After offing the smuggler and killing the minimum number of crew for a successful board, Edward received plunder from the ship and had the option to recruit some of the captured crew to his crew (there is no prisoner-taking mechanic). After receiving a pop-up list of achievements for the completed assassination and a plunder list, Edward appeared back at the helm of the Jackdaw and the other ship appeared to have just vanished, leaving nothing but an open sea for the producer to explore. He chose to steer to a nearby island, have Edward jump off the board and swim up to it to explore, and looted a treasure map from a marooned pirate’s corpse. This generated another point on the map — which the producer sailed us to after swimming Edward back to the Jackdaw.
On the way, we saw both a storm and an NPC naval battle between Spanish and British naval forces. Both events provide the player with challenges and advantages. A storm might completely wreck the Jackdaw (and drown its crew) with rough winds and the odd waterspout. But, on the other hand, clever players can use storms to evade pursuing enemies. Naval battles between NPCs, meanwhile, can attract unwanted attention to the Jackdaw from the anti-pirate Spanish. Or it can create prime opportunities to board and capture naval ships for precious cargo and the chance to add to Edward’s fleet. The producer declined to comment on whether bounties would be taken out on Edward or his ship. But he did confirm the Spanish will give chase to both under some conditions.
The Cayman Island/West Indies Sea area I saw on the map had more than half a dozen land-based spots all around the archipelago where Edward could dock and explore. These land segments are fleshed out like the neighborhoods in Florence and Rome from Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood – each its own microcosm of activity. The next land-based location the producer shared was the site depicted in the treasure map – some Mayan ruins on a nearby “restricted area” island where Spanish forces were apparently also digging for the treasure. Sailing up to the new island automatically created a fast-travel point for that island.
This is where the Black Flag demo had to prove the first point – about how much of an Assassin’s Creed game it could be given that pirates are better known for swashbuckling than stealth. The developer has tried very hard to provide enough stealth opportunities for players to play through the entire game as more assassin than pirate (at least while on land). The Mayan treasure, for example, was accessible by many routes – those most direct of which would involve head-on brawls with lots of Spaniards. By climbing trees and hiding in bushes and dark corners of Mayan ruins, however, Edward can stealth-kill or completely avoid all of the Spaniards en route to the X on the map. (The producer took this opportunity to show off the new blowgun weapon – which is a lot like the mini-crossbow from Assassin’s Creed 2, which could be loaded with different types of bolts. He shot a Spanish captain with a berserk dart that made the captain fight his own men.)
Back on the route to the treasure, Edward comes upon two pirates being threatened by Spaniards. Assassinating the Spaniards automatically adds the pirates to Edward’s crew – but a botched attempt or all-out brawl may result in both potential crew members being killed. The producer handled it by scaling a nearby column, and waiting for both Spaniards to meander close enough for a double drop-down kill.
The demo ended when the producer found the treasure and free-ran his way up a tree to reach a synchronization point (another Assassin’s Creed must-have). Syncing in these spots automatically creates fast-travel locations for that point on land.
All in all, I felt better about Black Flag than I had about Assassin’s Creed III – the setting appeals to me more, the stealth and free-running elements are there (if not particularly fresh), and the exploration of the open sea is much broader than what I’ve been given so far. It may be that the pirate gameplay makes Black Flag feel less like an Assassin’s Creed and more like “Edward’s super awesome sea adventures.” But if it plays well, fans are likely to be forgiving.
Assassin’s Creed IV is also offering a companion app for tablets that allows players to keep track of their fleet, send the fleet out on missions, and monitor their progress through the game’s missions. We saw the producer access and edit objective markers on the world map from the app, which immediately turned up in the main game. No word on whether or not this is a free or paid app, or if it will feature microtransactions.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is due out in North America on October 29.