Following the divisive launch of Assassin’s Creed 3, fans grew concerned that the series would begin to feel stale with its annual release schedule. With Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, however, Ubisoft looks to change the formula drastically, as this time around, players will control Edward Kenway, a pirate operating in the Golden Age of Piracy.
We recently met with representatives of Ubisoft to experience a small portion of the single-player and discuss the creation of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, a title which looks to bring a completely new feel to the series.
According to David Bédard, International Product Manager at Ubisoft, the changes made in Assassin’s Creed 4 were not a direct result of fan criticism or a need to keep the franchise fresh, but rather an idea that the team really wanted to pursue. “The decision to make a pirate game was kind of like all of the stars lining up,” he says. “[Ubisoft] Singapore was bringing the naval combat to life, plus we knew we wanted to use this character called Edward Kenway, who’s age fit perfectly with the pirate republic, and when everyone on the team realized that we had the opportunity to make a pirate game, with an already really solid foundation of the Assassin’s Creed engine and mechanics. It was a sort of happy coincidence, but it made it fresh, but that’s not what we set out to do.”
Bédard further explained that the setting of Assassin’s Creed 4 is not a direct response to fan feedback. “When we started development, Assassin’s Creed 3 wasn’t even out yet, but we knew from the start that we wanted to do something very different from what Assassin’s Creed 3 was doing,” he says. “Before we read any praise or criticism, we knew what we had to focus on. We knew the naval [combat] was going to hit hard with the fans and the press just through playtests and playing it ourselves. It seemed really interesting and fun. We knew this was something we could focus on for our game.”
Playing Assassin’s Creed 4, it’s evident that the sailing mechanics have been fine-tuned for more widespread use. The ship is nimble in the way it handles, and the ability to stop anywhere and disembark the ship to loot, pillage, attack, explore, or just go swimming, is an exciting prospect. While sailing around, players will also notice a real-time weather engine, which features a natural day/night cycle, as well as dynamic storms that happen randomly. The team has also hit a metric which will cause the players to encounter something while sailing around at least once every 30 seconds, meaning that there will be very little idle time spent in transit.
While exploring the world, players will have various opportunities to upgrade their ship, the Jackdaw, using items they stumble upon in the water and on other ships. Players can also complete various, randomly-generated harpooning missions, which range from common, easily battled bull sharks, to slightly more difficult hammerhead sharks, to a single great white shark that players can find and battle in the world. Once players enter the harpoon mission, the title essentially becomes an on-rails third-person shooter as far as mechanics are concerned, as Edward tosses a limited number of harpoons towards his target in hopes of harvesting what it has to offer to be utilized for upgrades and progressions.
Bédard is very excited to use the Jackdaw to give Assassin’s Creed fans their first glimpse of true progression in the series. “With the ship, we can get an actual progression system that’s apparent for the player,” he says. “It’s hard to make a human character much stronger through a progression system without physically breaking the game. If he one-shot kills everyone, then there’s no challenge anymore. With the ship, you can actually feel the progression through it by adding cannons, adding strength, and adding armor.”
This time around, Ubisoft Montreal has added extra emphasis on the stealth approach. “We really encourage people to try and play stealth in this game. We put in a bunch of mechanics in the game to do this,” Bédard says. “For example, there’s a new enemy archetype called the gunner. He’s easily spot-able on the map, since he has a unique icon. He’s very strong; he’s like a sniper that can kill you in two or three hits. Having a very strong enemy like this requires players to think before they rush in, look at the surroundings, and think of a plan of attack, not just blindly run in.”
The stealth-based design approach was evident in the assassination contract that we played. With the powerful gunners lingering above, we opted to crouch into some foliage and stalk our prey that way. Using the newly-enhanced Eagle Vision, we easily spotted all enemies through walls and located the target. Using the new visual queues, we made absolutely certain we were out of sight of the enemies as we approached our target. We waited until the time was right, and when the target was alone by the brush, we plunged Edward’s hidden blade into the target’s stomach.
With the commotion surrounding the assassination spreading throughout the small camp, several enemies descended upon our location. We quickly ducked around those who were searching for us in the vicinity, hopped onto our ship and escaped the entire island in a matter of minutes, leaving our pursuers scratching their heads. The fact that players can completely leave the island as a method of escape adds an interesting dynamic to the traditional Assassin’s Creed pursuit convention.
From there, we navigated to Havana, Cuba for a short duration. Upon arrival, there was a slight feeling of déjà vu. Bédard notes that this might be due Havana’s design influence. “Havana is very much inspired by Assassin’s Creed 2′s Florence,” he explains. “It’s really tightly packed, so you never fall down on the street unless you want to. The rooftop navigation is super fun and super fluid. The other cities are very different from one another, so we tried to give each one of them a unique flavor. Havana was almost freshly built at this time in history, so it’s not the ramshackle town that you think you’d have in a pirate game. It’s all fresh buildings, fresh paint, beautiful colors, and flowers. It’s got a nice vibe. Kingston is much more military. It was a slaver-trading town, so it’s a bit more stern with much more vegetation because it was a newer city. Nassau is a pirate haven, so it’s a shantytown basically with huts and ropes. It’s got a nice vibe as well.”
That very diversity is the reason that Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag could prove to interest virtual explorers more than anyone else. “Assassin’s Creed 3‘s [design] was a city, a forest, then another city,” Bédard says. “This has cities within the open world. It’s part of a hub world, basically. On top of the cities, we have smuggler caves, underwater, forts, and Mayan ruins to explore. Every time the player explores a new area, there has to be a new kind of excitement for finding a new place that you can do stuff in.”
The overall gameplay of Assassin’s Creed 4 feels very similar to previous entries, with slight refinements throughout. The free-running seemed to be more momentum based, and the climbing felt even more fluid than in Assassin’s Creed 3. Natural formations in rock walls return, as does the tree navigation ability from the previous game. This time around, the protagonist is much more well-equipped to deal with enemies head-on, as Edward Kenway will have access to multiple guns, blades, and ranged weapons. On top of that, Edward is also able to dual-wield cutlasses, making him a formidable force in battle.
Those who choose to purchase Assassin’s Creed 4 on PlayStation 3 or PlayStation 4 will enjoy added features, including a special integration of the multi-touch touchpad on the PlayStation 4 controller to allow for familiar pinch-based controls for the world map. Aveline, the female assassin from Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation on Vita, will also have a PlayStation-exclusive mini campaign in the game. “In the present day version of Assassin’s Creed 4, you play an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a branch of Abstergo that uses the research they do in the Animus to make products,” Bédard says. “You’re able to walk around the office and see what your co-workers are working on. One of these stations you hack into contains the Aveline missions. It’s a smaller campaign – it’s only about an hour long – but it gives some closure to the story of Aveline and tells what happened after [Assassin's Creed 3: Liberation.]”
With seamless integration between the ship and the world, as well as a vast offering of differing landscapes and locales, Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag could be the shakeup the franchise needs. The refined stealth mechanics, at the very least, seem to guarantee that this will be the best title in the series from a gameplay perspective. For further impressions of how the game plays, be sure to check out our hands-on preview of the multiplayer components here.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag will launch on PlayStation 3, Wii U, and Xbox 360 on October 29 in North America, October 31 in Australia, November 1 in Europe, and November 28 in Japan. For both Xbox One and PlayStation 4, the title will be available at launch, while PC players should see the game before the end of 2013.