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First Look: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag

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Later this year, Ubisoft are to release the fourth instalment of its epic Assassins Creed saga: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. At a recent press event in London, Ubisoft unveiled key details surrounding this next adventure in the series, including its development, new features and the brand new story that we can expect to enjoy.

If you are just looking to find out the key points about the game, feel free to skip to the end of the article for a list. Hardcore fans and people who like to read, carry on!

As the name of the new game suggests, the focus this time around is on piracy, but more specifically its so called “golden age” at the beginning of the 18th Century. Ubisoft are promising to “tell the true story of the golden age of piracy”, and strongly believe that the Assassin’s Creed franchise is the perfect franchise to bring piracy back to the gaming world (meant in the most legally clean way of course!). These are bold claims for the developers to live up to, but the presentation which followed this speech did not suggest that they might be wrong…

Our hero in this new instalment to the saga is Edward Kenway, father to the previous game’s Templar Master, Haytham, and grandfather therefore to our previous Assassin, Connor. Edward Kenway is a pirate trained by Assassins, a point on which Ubisoft did not greatly elaborate on but did suggest was to play a significant part in the game’s main storyline. Some background to Edward’s past outside of the Assassin element was revealed however. Edward is a British character; a former Privateer in the Royal Navy who found himself out of work when peace treaties called halts to the wars around the world in favour of trade. Alongside many others in his situation, Edward turned his hand to piracy, utilising his particular set of skills learned from the Assassins to find himself Captain of his own ship and crew. The setting for the new game will be the seas and isles of the West Indies; better known today as the Caribbean, where piracy played its greatest role in history.

Following this brief introduction to the new game’s background and hero, as well as a viewing of an intriguing cinematic trailer, the stage was taken by Creative Director Jean Guesdon. Jean spoke on some of the new elements of the game, gave some more in depth information about its setting and characters, and detailed a few of the main new systems which we might enjoy. He began his talk by describing the pirate-ruled seas of the Caribbean as “the perfect setting” for the continuation of the Assassin’s Creed saga, and again promised a historically accurate representation of the period.

His first announcement then proceeded to grasp the collective interest of the entire room. Rather than merely a handful of playable locations being available in this game as in the previous titles, there are to be fifty of them; quite a leap forward for the series in terms of size. There are to be three very key city locations in the game; the European-controlled Havana, capital of Cuba, the English-controlled Kingston, capital of Jamaica, and the pirate-controlled Nassau, located in the Bahamas. A neat little history lesson about this final city taught the audience about the Republic of Pirates; a democratic body of pirates often ignored by popular history, which operated in Nassau and was the world’s first democratic republic. The remaining locations in the game will take the form of fishing villages, plantations, hidden coves, jungles, forts, Mayan ruins, coconut islands, and maybe most interestingly and explorable underwater setting. Jean stated that after running on rooftops and climbing around forests, this underwater setting would be the next exciting new world the game would allow the player to experience.

The next in this series of surprising and exciting announcements was one of the most interesting new features that Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag will offer. The developers have aimed this game at being “the first true naval open world game”, quite a spectacular achievement if it has been well constructed. Jean added that there would be “seemless and fluid” transitions from land to sea, sea to land, and ship to ship (a feature which was elaborated on later). It was asked that we made note that there would be some in game loading screens, presumably on entrance to larger city areas although this was not confirmed. The game however is to allow the player to spot a location of interest, drop their ship’s anchor, and leap immediately from the wheel to land without any waiting or transitional elements getting in the way. This will certainly be a welcome new feature for the game, particularly for those players who love to fully explore the world.

Next up Jean described some of the game’s key characters, as well as some of the major events from the period that the new game would feature. The supporting roles of the game include famous names such as Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack, Charles Vane and the legendary Captain Blackbeard. The roles that these individuals will be playing were not made entirely clear so as to protect the game’s storyline, but Blackbeard looks to be holding some kind of positive relationship with Edward Kenway from what has been revealed. In terms of major events to feature in the game, Jean was keen not to spoil the storyline but did name a few events without revealing any specific details of where they fit in. Players can expect to experience an epic assault on 42 Portuguese ships, the wreck of the Spanish Armada, a marooning with pirate Charles Vane, and an “explosive assault” on the Republic of Pirate’s base city of Nassau.

It was promised at this event that the bulk of the story would take place on land in order to stay true to the Assassin’s Creed experience of running on rooftops and sneaking in streets that fans loved most. Naval warfare however was the next key part of our presentation. The naval warfare feature was first introduced in Assassin’s Creed III, which put the player behind the wheel of a ship to command assaults on naval fleets. Now a lot more work and thought has been focused on improving this experience, making it “dynamic” and a “genuine challenge”. The player will have control of the Jackdaw and its crew, a good ship but by no means the largest or most powerful on those seas, but will face opposition from enemies who are genuinely difficult to defeat. As opposed to the juggernaut-style adversaries faced previously in the predecessors to this game, who whilst harder to kill than your average for we’re easily beatable with a little skill, this game may face your comparably-small vessel against the great galleon-class ships of the Royal Navy, with a hundred cannons at the ready to tear you apart.

Players may be forced to retreat or avoid battles on the seas where it is simply not possible to achieve a victory. It is in such situations that the next new feature to be unveiled may prove useful; the spyglass ability. While this may seem a relatively simple feature to include, it sounds as though it will be a crucial one during gameplay. The spyglass will allow the player to look ahead of their vessel, both to identify potential opportunities for treasures and to assess the threat or opportunity posed by other ships roaming the seas. Being an open world with dynamic naval mechanics, the player might encounter any opponent at any time, which will make caution, alongside this new spyglass ability, essential to play. Also new to this naval experience is the need to command, replenish and recruit a crew, the dynamic naval experience of the game means that combat may see members of the player’s crew killed, but this is not the only threat that these seas pose. Events such as storms may come out of nowhere and might also cause lives to be lost, and a ship without a crew is as useful as no ship at all, so ensuring its maintainable will be a key challenge the player will have to face.

The new feature which Jean praised most highly, believing it to be the game’s “most important breakthrough”, is the ability to board enemy ships during combat, again in a dynamic fashion. The player may choose to throw hooks, swing from ship to ship via ropes or climb and leap from mast to mast in order to infiltrate an enemy vessel. Furthermore, this may be approached from any perceivable angle, which may be the key to the success or failure of a boarding attempt. This will be an exciting element of the game to be sure, but whether this will be the greatest if the new features will have to wait to be seen. As well as all of these grand naval mechanics which are being introduced, treasure hinting, harpooning and exploration are also activities that will be open for the player to enjoy. According to the developers, the player will need to learn the cycle of exploration, plunder, upgrading their ship and defeating their enemies in order to succeed on the seas.

There was a very quick mention of multiplayer features made, introducing new player models and locations to play in, but no great detail was given on this area. Following this however Jean went on to talk about gameplay outside of Edward Kenway and the piracy experience of the 18th Century, back in the modern day side of the game. This is a side of the story which fans will no doubt have been wondering about, following the conclusion of the Desmond Miles series of events in Assassin’s Creed III. In this instalment of the series the modern day storyline will be different, leaving behind the Desmond character but continuing the storyline from this.

Jean tried to explain the idea that since December 21st 2012 our world has entered the Assassin’s Creed world, as if we have now caught up to the story that we have been following up to now. The modern day character which you will now follow therefore is you. Yes, you did read that right, it is you who is involved now in the modern day affairs of the game. At first this caught the room of guard a little bit, but Jean went on to try and explain how this would work. In the game you will be visiting Abstergo Entertainment, a sub-corporation of Abstergo Industries, to explore the history of your ancestor, Edward Kenway. How exactly this links to the story which has come before it was not made clear, but it will certainly be interesting to see how Ubisoft go about this new idea in the game.

Finally, Jean promised that Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag would draw on all of the best features of its predecessors to provide the greatest Assassin’s Creed experience thus far. In his final comments, Jean said that this game would provide a “challenging experience”, would be “giving players the opportunity to play the way they want”, and that “this game will shine”.

Nathan’s Thoughts

Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag certainly looks like a strong continuation of an epic series, which appears to be taking some massive leaps forwards in its development. Some of the game’s new features, especially the open world gameplay, look particularly exciting to try out, and with only small parts of the storyline having been revealed I cannot wait to play it! I have been left with many questions in my mind now which I look forward to seeing the answers to in the future, like how is Edward linked to the Assassin Brotherhood, what role will the legendary Blackbeard play in the story, how will the modern day story lead on from the story of Desmond Miles, and how will our new Assassin follow a line which will see his son become a Templar?

As well as having these questions floating around in my head, I have been left with both some hopes and some ideas about what may be coming. My first and most prominent hope for the new game is that it will remain an Assassin’s Creed game and not simply drift from what has come before it and become a pirate story. As awesome as pirate games can be, and while this may be an exciting and clever setting for the game, I only hope that Jean’s claim that the game will hold true to the Assassin’s Creed experience that fans love is true. When I wrote my review of Assassin’s Creed III, I commented that Ubisoft could make a fantastic pirate game based on the naval experience which that title introduced. While they have undoubtedly done a fantastic job expanding on this in the new title based on the level of thought that appears to have been put into it, I had not expected the naval game I suggested may be a good idea on their part to be the next Assassin’s Creed chapter. My hope here is that while these features may be well integrated into the new game they do not take over as its key focus and divert attention from the Assassin himself.

Aside from this, I also hope that the modern day side of the game will be well thought out. It is a clever idea to make this character the player themselves as long as this idea is used smartly to really pull them into the game. Ideally this will be a first-person experience for it to be fully immersive. There is also some potential in this part of the game at least for ideas such as Kinect integration for controlling the Animus menus so that the player really feels as though this character is his or her self. This is also a good opportunity for the developers to have rekindled the storyline in the modern day side of the game. Many gamers felt as though the Desmond story was always lacking some spark to keep players interested in it and only enjoyed the game fully while they were playing as his historical ancestors. Hopefully Ubisoft will have taken this point into account and come up with something a little more immersive for this new take on the storyline.

In terms of my ideas for this game, or maybe theories you might say, my main thought is that Blackbeard may play some part in the Templar side of the story. This could be the missing link between Edward as an Assassin and Haytham as a Templar. Perhaps the legendary captain will reveal his position in the Templar order towards the end of the story and cause this transition to occur in some way… Further to this, I am not entirely convinced that our new hero will make it out of this game alive, and that if there is to be a fifth instalment in the series then we will see a new Assassin, setting and story again. Finally, as my “predictions” go, I am not certain that you as the modern day character will be linked to the Desmond story until the end of the game. I would guess that Abstergo may realise your connection to the same bloodline as Desmond and “secure” you at the end of the game, ready to lead on to whatever the next chapter may be so that they might use you to find more of the ancient treasures which they seek…

As a whole, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag looks to be a very exciting continuation of a fantastic series of games. Another interesting new setting and direction for the story have been developed, with some intriguing and fun new features to try. Personally, I can’t wait to sit down with a copy and get going as soon as I can!

Laurence’s Thoughts

Hosting an event in London’s ridiculously plush Merchant Taylor Hall – a building that has stood in the city unchanged since 1347 – sets a certain bar, makes a certain impression, casts certain expectations in the mind of an invitee attending with only the knowledge that something Assassin’s Creed related is being announced.

This is not a place you book to reveal a PSVita title, or a spin-off, or a tie in animated movie. This a venue you book to reveal a significant move forward for your brand. And that’s exactly what Ubisoft have in mind for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. With the end of Desmond’s story arc, the team have taken the perfect opportunity to move forward with a franchise that many are beginning to doubt. Bear with me while I explain this. It’s going to start out a little dubious. But if Ubisoft can deliver on even half of the promises they’ve made for Black Flag, it’s going to be one of the best games of 2013. Here’s hoping they can fulfill their ambition (and come on, if anyone’s capable of fulfilling ambition, it’s Ubisoft. Beyond Good and Evil 2 and AC: Revelations notwithstanding).

Opening in the Merchant Taylor’s Great Hall, we receive an ominous speech, leading us to recall running through Jerusalem’s cramped streets as Altair so many years ago, fighting in the Crusades, living Ezio’s entire life from birth to death in the Italian Renaissance, a flower of intelligence blooming in the wake of darkness, and finally, stalking the ripe and revolutionary streets of Boston as freedom fighter Connor. This vast span yet tiny sliver of history we have experienced together, we are told, is more important now than ever – but it’ s time to set a new course and sail towards the future, with a new hero at the helm of the Assassin’s Creed franchise with a name we’re not likely to forget for a long time.

This is a huge step forwards for the franchise and it looks as though Ubisoft are definitely moving outside of their comfort zone with the most morally ambiguous Assassin yet. With a huge leap forward in what we can expect from the gameplay itself and the series’ signature storytelling, this will either be a fresh new direction for Assassin’s Creed or a complete shipwreck. In my humble opinion, Black Flag will continue to establish Assassin’s Creed as this generation’s most ambitious franchise.

Key Features

  • New Setting – The 18th Century Caribbean, during the “golden age” of piracy.
  • New Hero – Edward Kenway; “a pirate trained by Assassins”.
  • Historically Accurate – Follow the true story of the golden age of piracy.
  • 50 Playable Areas – Including the cities of Havana, Kingston and Nassau.
  • New Lands – Explore everywhere from islands, to coves, to under the sea.
  • Open World – Experience the “first true naval open world game”.
  • Dynamic Naval Experience – Learn to explore, plunder, upgrade and destroy.
  • A “genuine challenge” – Maintain your crew and face far harder adversaries.
  • New Modern Story – Desmond has passed, now play YOUR story.
  • Multiplayer Experience – New multiplayer character models and locations.

Big thanks goes too, two fine artists Nathan O’Grady and Laurence Stark who attended the convention over in London. Also we would like to thank Ben Talbot and all the Ubisoft Staff for laying on a great event and looking after our staff.

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