It’s time to start practicing your sea shanties and packing enough fruit to stave off scurvy, because Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag will be sailing into the harbor of local game store’s at the end of this month, and there are probably many more ways in which we can torture this metaphor before it arrives. Then there’s the review still to come.
Assassin’s Creed 4 takes a step back into the past from Assassin’s Creed III and focuses on the life of notorious pirate Edward Kenway, grandfather of Connor Kenway from the previous game and friend to the likes of Blackbeard and Anne Bonny. Players can explore an open world map of the 18th century Caribbean in Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, all through the eyes of an Abstergo Industries employee who can use Edward’s memories to solve a modern day mystery.
A lot of the gameplay, both travelling and combat, takes place on the deck of the Jackdaw and the decks of whichever ships Edward manages to cripple and board. The ship has been described as the second most important character in the game, and a new update from UbiBlog explains how the development team used the Jackdaw to introduce a sense of progression to the game.
“They can hide in the shadows and kill with a single blow. They can take down the toughest targets with a swift stroke of a hidden blade. They are Assassins – and when they’re able to perfectly plan and carry out their missions, they are virtually unstoppable. Which, of course, creates a challenge for the developers behind this long-running franchise: How do you build a believable and full-featured reward loop for the player when your main character can (for the most part) defeat anyone in his path with a few well-placed, well-timed hits?”
The short answer? Give the main character a ship and focus the progression and upgrades on the naval gameplay. This was one aspect of Assassin’s Creed III that was almost universally praised, which is perhaps why Ubisoft has chosen to build Assassin’s Creed IV almost entirely around sailing, pirating and battles on the high seas. While there’s no mention of whether Edward himself can be leveled up or upgraded, director Ashraf Ismail sounds pretty excited about his ship.
“Enter the Jackdaw. With a ship at the heart of Black Flag’s gameplay, Assassin’s Creed IV now has a way to offer genuine progression that’s fully integrated into the experience. ‘We have enemies that will destroy you in two seconds at the beginning of the game,’ Ismail says. ‘If you face a Man-of-War, you’re toast.’ That means players will need to upgrade the Jackdaw’s armor, its cannons and more, in order to get ahead in the game.”
“‘Having the Jackdaw allows us to have a really deep progression system,’ Ismail continues. ‘We have a lot of different weapons with a lot of upgrades. This really ties everything together. It gives us a reason to travel the world. It gives us a reason to find collectibles.’”
This is certainly exciting news for gamers who were on the lookout for a decent pirate simulator, but those who enjoyed the assassinations in the previous games might have been hoping for more progression of the climbing and stabbing elements. After all, part of the fun of playing a game where the protagonist is an assassin is being able to take down even large or well-armed opponents with skill, precision and a hidden blade in the right place, so it’s bizarre to hear the developers talking about this as though it’s been a detriment to the series so far. Ismail even laments that Edwards skills mean, “You can’t really have enemies with a million hit points,” as though the lack of bullet sponges in previous games was a problem.
Gripes aside, this does seem like a good solution to encouraging and rewarding exploration and collectibles. There have been attempts in previous games to reward the player for digging up all the lost items in the game world, such as the additional cutscene after finding all the feathers in Assassin’s Creed II and the Desmond Miles gameplay that’s unlocked by finding data fragments in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations. Making it necessary to upgrade the Jackdaw will not only make finding collectibles worth it, but will also hopefully negate the need for invisible walls in the ocean.
I got a definite sense whilst playing the demo of Assassin’s Creed IV that it was intended to be wholly a pirate game, and that any remaining ties to the concept of assassination are grudging at best. Perhaps the series’ own progression could be taken as a positive sign, but it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for classic assassinations when you’ve gone from sneaking your way into an enemy’s castle to just blasting the castle apart with cannonballs and climbing in through the still-smoking hole.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag releases on PlayStation 3, Wii U and Xbox 360 on October 29, 2013. It will also be available on PC November 19, 2013, and PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on their respective launches.