With everything shown of Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag so far, a casual observer might assume that besides being developed by the same team(s) and sharing a common title, there is little tying the seafaring pirate adventure to the larger Assassin’s Creed fiction. Sure, new protagonist Edward Kenway is an ancestor of Desmond Miles, but the trailers have chosen to highlight Kenway’s role as a master swashbuckler, not a member of the Assassin Order.
It is fitting, then, that the extended preview of Black Flag granted to us at E3 2013 focuses almost entirely on Edward’s career and expertise in the buccaneer business, and does little to explain how Assassins or Templars fit into the mix. We’re not complaining, since the demo shows serious promise for those hoping for a triple-A pirate adventure from a proven studio. And if Ubisoft grasps the opportunity to chart a new course – Assassin’s Creed game or no – it could be a wise move for the brand as a whole.
While much of the marketing surrounding Black Flag‘s first announcement centered on the historically accurate Golden Age of Piracy that will act as the game’s backdrop, the demo did little to shed light on Edward’s relationship with Blackbeard, Calico Jack or any others. Perhaps after Assassin’s Creed 3‘s use of historical figures and themes was not quite universally praised, they’ve decided to focus on gameplay over story for the time being.
Explaining that the demo takes place in Edward’s quest to become a Master Assassin, the developers on hand made it clear that the star of the show is not Edward, but the open-ended and expansive world in which the game is set. Giving players the chance to navigate the massive waterways separating the Caribbean islands – and the ports and cities spread along them – is the main goal. And the first step to immersing players into the mind of a pirate is removing any obstacles between combat, sailing, and exploration.
From that standpoint, there really is little shown in the demo that could be identified as distinctly ‘Assassin’s Creed’ in nature, aside from the combat and emphasis on stealth; where AC3 introduced navigable high seas sailing, Black Flag is taking every aspect much farther, and making it a larger part in several aspects of the game’s design.
For starters, the selected mission wasn’t set in a bustling urban center – like Havana, for instance – filled with towering terraces and rooftops on which Edward could run/climb/fall. Instead beginning in a small fishing village (one Edward will seemingly be visiting regularly) the mission centered on the series mainstay ‘Assassination Contracts.’ A pair of marauding brothers were the targets, and it was left to the player to decide how they would be dispatched.
Instead of eliminating both on the spot, one of the targets was allowed to flee in their own ship, while Edward climbed aboard his own vessel, the Jackdaw, docked nearby. Without loading times or a cut-scene breaking the flow of gameplay, Edward’s crew began pursuit of the target’s ship, and engaged in combat largely resembling that seen in AC3.
Once enough damage was done to the enemy ship – not enough to sink it, and risk losing the cargo contained in its hold – an on screen button prompt appeared to initiate a boarding attack. Again, without a loading screen or pre-scripted cut-scene, the Jackdaw’s crew began hurling grappling hooks onto the enemy ship’s deck, leaving Edward to cross the distance with a leap, climb up the ships’ rigging and drop from above, or aid the crew with firearms or deck guns.
With each captured ship comes the opportunity to either collect the cargo (to be sold later for a profit), recruit the crew into your own ranks, take them prisoner, salvage material from the enemy ship to repair your own, and more. Adding a ship to your fleet grants the chance to send them on raids when away from the console, thanks to the tablet companion app. Few details were given on the tablet functionality, but aside from a second screen map, expect micromanaging your fleet’s activities to be a large part of the experience.
When the battle had finished – and the chance to take both the dueling Spanish and English ships nearby by surprise was decided against – the Jackdaw sailed to a neighboring island, dropped anchor, and Edward leapt from the deck to swim ashore and being exploring. Seeing the divisions between sailing and land-based exploration removed entirely was a welcome surprise. And although the combat, stealth and treasure hunting that soon followed was a placeholder, the seamless shift from one form of gameplay to another was promising.
The concept of climbing to the tip of a ruined temple, looking out over the island and knowing that a leap from the cliffs would take Edward right back to his anchored ship may not be a groundbreaking proposition – especially to longtime PC gamers. But for console games, and Assassin’s Creed, it is a strong step in a more ambitious and promising direction.
The key term for this E3 has been “open world,” and Ubisoft is choosing to emphasize the size and seamless nature of their game world instead of the narrative or more linear missions. If that’s a sign that the developers are giving control over to the player – and making the world one worth exploring -then fans of the series, open world titles, and pirates may all be winners.
Ubisoft has already conceded that Black Flag will sell less than its predecessors, but if strained mythology and a centuries-old rivalry are removed from the spotlight in favor of new mechanics and open-ended exploration, this game might bring some new fans into the fold. Since we know nothing about where Ubisoft is taking the series next, this may not be (and hopefully isn’t) the last time they change up their formula.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag will be released on October 29, 2013 for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC, with next-gen releases coming later.
Stay tuned to Game Rant for more on the new games and hardware on display at E3 2013.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.