Ask any fan of Assassin’s Creed to name their most memorable experiences with the series, and it’s unlikely they’ll mention anything other than a sequence starring Ezio Auditore, set centuries in the past. The developers of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag are aware that not every player enjoys being pulled from a rich history back into today’s cubicle-filled world, and are taking steps to alleviate the problem.
Make no mistake: Ubisoft isn’t getting rid of the narrative conceit – explaining that for good or bad, “it’s part of the brand” – but with Black Flag, players will choose whether to spend minutes or hours unraveling the mysteries of Abstergo – finding some significant answers if they dig deep enough.
As much as players may criticize the Assassin’s Creed series for sticking with their premise of ‘modern day people re-living ancient memories’ instead of simply producing historical action games, Ubisoft has their reasons. They still claim that there is one massive story in the process of being told, and for our part, the closing scenes of Assassin’s Creed: Revelations alone proved that the dual timelines can offer something unique.
Even so, Ubisoft isn’t blind to the fact that the contemporary story of the series isn’t a high point for every player. For Black Flag, the writers have crafted a brand new twist on the fiction: players are no longer Desmond Miles, but themselves a recruit of Abstergo Entertainment, the secretly Templar-run company letting test subjects re-live genetic memories for recreation.
Even with the new Abstergo digs, there’s no question that fans aren’t particularly thrilled by office architecture. That’s the reason, explains director Ashraf Ismail, that they’re leaving it up to the player this time around to determine how deep they’d like to dig in today’s world:
“In total, if you were to do everything in the present day – find everything, hack every computer, access every room – it’s a solid three to five hours. For the main path – the stuff you’re required to do – it’s somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes. You leave the Animus five times during the game’s main path and each time you’re there for about three to four minutes.”
And with that, skeptics or Desmond-haters can breathe a sigh of relief. But what about players who actually want to know how the modern-day Assassin/Templar conflict will play out? The story (and conclusion) of Assassin’s Creed 3 proved quite divisive among fans, but either way, the centuries-old war didn’t simply stop once credits rolled.
Ismail promises that fans who actually value the greater story won’t be left out in the cold either, as there is definitely a mystery to uncover in the Abstergo offices – and even some closure for the game’s previous protagonist (spoilers for Assassin’s Creed 3 ahead):
“It’s there to progress the story because there’s this meta story that we’re telling. Why are you researching Edward? Why him specifically? What did he do that’s interesting? There is a story that connects everything together. We pretty much tried to boil it down to its most core essence because we know there are people out there who really don’t like the present day, and that’s okay. You don’t have to like it, but it’s part of the brand. For the people who like the present day and are big fans, we put in a lot of fan service and a lot of fun optional content. You get to choose if you want it or not.
“You have to hack computers and figure out how to access certain rooms and get through security. There is gameplay in just being able to access that stuff. When you access it, the content you find is a reward for us. Through this content you see what happens to Desmond after Assassin’s Creed III. We used it as an opportunity to say goodbye to Desmond.
“The First Civilization, Juno… all that is part of the brand and yes, there’s progression in it. It’s not just a nod that we make to it. It’s actually part of the meta story. You see what happens after Assassin’s Creed III – you see the ramifications of that, and we push it further.”
That tease might be enough to convince players on the fence to do a bit of extra digging once the game is released, since the ‘First Civilization’ allusions throughout the series have ranged from jaw-dropping to confusing. We can only hope that the gameplay required to unlock the information is less frustrating than the ‘Memories’ portion of Revelations.
It seems that the modern-day setting won’t exist only to deliver facts or story details to diehard fans, but a few laughs, as well. The parallels between modern video games and Abstergo Entertainment are easy to see, but Ismail confirms that the developers took the opportunity to take a few shots at the games industry as a whole, and their own studio in particular (note the Montreal skyline outside of Abstergo’s offices, the same city in which the studio is located).
All that being said, Ubisoft has been featuring the pirate-centric action surrounding Edward Kenway in their marketing, with little to no reference of the Assassins or Templars. At this point, it’s even unclear how Edward Kenway factors into the core story at all. We expect Ubisoft to employ some clever writing to connect the dots between not just Edward, but his first mate Adewale, and the return of AC3: Liberation heroine Aveline in her own PlayStation exclusive missions.
But Ismail makes it sound as if these disparate elements might not be so haphazardly included after all:
“She’s not from the same time as Edward, of course, so her story is not really directly connected to Edward. There is a connection in the brand but I won’t say what it is. You get to see it when you play as Aveline. Aside from Aveline… There are awesome cameos. Let’s put it like that.”
And on that note, we’d ask any of you to throw out your own theories on what the secret could be. Will you be interested in solving these mysteries from inside Abstergo? Or is it the pirate’s life that catches your eye? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag will be released on October 29, 2013 for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC, and on next-gen consoles.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.