Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - An Ideal Evolution - Nikolas Davidoff Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag - An Ideal Evolution

*This is a repost after the original blog was mysteriously lost. Many thanks to GI Zach for restoring it and Orochisama LEVON, Spectre for pointing me in his direction.*

Everyone expected this to happen. In the wee hours of March a new Assassin's Creed was revealed in preparation for an October 29, 2013 release (or November 1 for the Europeans among us). Well, not many could have anticipated the precise date, but 'another year, another Assassin's Creed' could be heard echoing across the internet with the very first clicked headline. A new setting and protagonist failed to rustle the loins of the vocal public as the new pirate theme immediately became a new dart board when the yearly release argument got a bit bored. An announced next-gen console release in addition to the PS3, 360 and WiiU couldn't overshadow the shortcomings of last year's Assassin's Creed III. A lively CG announcement trailer meant nothing to the residual complaints about robotic Connor, now over a year since qualms over a redundant Ezio. Welcome to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag.

[Announcement trailer from AssassinsCreed YouTube channel]

Truth be told, Ubisoft has put themselves in a unique and difficult situation with the series since 2010's AC Brotherhood. Never before has a company tried to annualize a story driven single player game and their most recent efforts have been flawed in just the right ways for this release model to take the blame, even when the flaw owed nothing to it. 2011's AC Revelations deviated little from its predecessor and when it did it never made a strong technical contribution to the series as a whole. Revelations' importance came from its story, as it tidied up plot threads in preparation for its narratively complex successor, which then raised the question of how much invention is possible in a 12-month development time when the average sequel is made in 2 years? Then came ACIII in 2012, a game focused on an assassin that squandered the personal agency and robust stealth the fantasy is fuelled by, instead focusing too heavily on the frontlines of battlefields and strictly guided sequences. In response, people were quick to reiterate the yearly release schedule even though the game was developed in just under 3 years.

Yup, despite releasing a mere 12 months after its predecessor ACIII was no rush job; development secretly began with a different team of developers in the gargantuan Ubisoft Montreal in January 2010, just 2 months after ACII's November 2009 release. It was Ubisoft's first move towards combating the rapid-fire fatigue of annulization, falling in line with what ACIII Creative Director Alex Hutchinson told Eurogamer in September 2012; "our goal is to ship a game every year but to never develop a game in a year." ACIII's team was unburdened by the exploits of the later Ezio games, while also working in tandem with numerous global Ubisoft studios to maximize progress in less time, so that the series can meet yearly requirements without cutting essential time short or burning out the individuals tinkering away at the games.

Therefore, unlike Revelations, ACIII's complexes have no relation to its development time, instead they were simply brought about by error in design, a trap door any developer can lose themselves in. ACIV is now continuing this pattern, as its development started with another team of fresh minds in mid-2011, months before Revelations was even released, building up to what will be roughly a 2 and a half year effort. See, that's a whole 6 months longer than the average sequel! Plus another 7 international studios to multiply efficiency.

So is annulization counterproductive to the goals of single player games? If it compromises quality then it certainly is, but what about when that quality is assuredly high? Then the overfamiliarity will sap all that is special about the series and turn its inevitable return into a nonevent. But then what happens when the developer's goal is to refresh said series with a fantasy that has never been successfully realised?

Of all the themes fetishized by pop culture, from the zombie apocalypse to gangster life, pirates have never properly manifested in video games, and in fact have never been authentically captured in other entertainment mediums either. Yes, Blackbeard was a real pirate who strung lit fuses under his hat to heighten his fearsome persona but, sorry Bruckheimer, he certainly did not wield a magical sword in the search for the Fountain of Youth. ACIV looks to circumvent the exceedingly romanticised 'history' of pirates in the same pursuit of historical accuracy that led to the candid portrayal of George Washington in ACIII as a brave, insecure, slave owning war hero. Set from 1715-1725 during the Golden Age of Piracy, the period when pirates were at their most influential as they dominated the Caribbean (and also where much of the myth derives from), the spotlight is on Edward Kenway, grandfather of ACIII's Connor, a British pirate trained by Assassins whose desire for personal prosperity is put at odds with the greater purpose of the Assassin/Templar war erupting around him. But how can pirates work with Assassin's Creed's fiction and dry legged gameplay hooks?

The answer lies in the philosophy of freedom that ties together the series' narrative and gameplay elements into one cohesive whole, with two particularly pervasive systems lying at the heart of this; practical movement and AC's specific breed of stealth. The protagonists' parkour skills allow them to navigate any dry terrain without frustration, turning the simple act of moving about the world enjoyable, an act that's normally an obstacle in other open world games, usually to be solved with a vehicle. While stealth is focused on interacting with a crowd that broadens the focus from skulking around shadows to hiding in plain sight around the busiest street and on the brightest day. Freedom in some capacity is a goal for every open world game, but AC is set on the flexibility of interacting with the world, allowing you to get in anywhere, at any time and do what you please with the games' systems, whether it requires weaving between clusters of people to find an opening to the lightly guarded rooftops or hopping between trees to kill a soldier from above and snatch the treasure he was protecting.

ACIV now aims to broaden this freedom even further into the naval space, while unifying the world into a more cohesive whole. Unlike ACIII's frontier, the ocean isn't being made to serve as another playspace secluded from the rest of the game, as its main intent is to connect the numerous and varied locales across the Caribbean with an organic, freely flowing gameplay space. How expansive are these locations? There are the 3 expected large cities, Havana, Kingston and the pirate haven Nassau, plus a reported 50 "unique" locations scattered about in the forms of smaller settlements, beaches, claustrophobic jungles, caves, coves, ruins and even jaunts underwater, which all coexist in this huge bowl separated only by the fickle waves of the ocean. While previous games successfully simulated freedom until they jarringly loaded (or 'streamed' for you technophiles) into a new environment, the ocean now serves as a giant hub by which Edward can travel anywhere he wishes without having to constantly stare at a sterile loading screen. The cut and paste boarding cutscenes of ACIII are also gone, so you have the freedom to come and go from ship to ship as you please, and Destructoid also reports that there is even a team dedicated to minimizing loading breaks before and after cutscenes. According to both Destructoid and Gameinformer only the 3 major cities will need to load in, which can be seen and approached by ship but not directly crashed into, so its likely that each one will sport a small port area to dock at before walking up to the main gates, which will then load, much like Skyrim's use of stables as entrances to its big settlements.

The implications of this bring ACIV much closer to its genre peers, from Red Dead Redemption to Sleeping Dogs, where, bar the major cities, there are no gamey distinctions between different kinds of 'maps', just one coherent world to get lost in, albeit one with an exotic, tropical flavour. In theory you could be doing some busywork in Havana, jump onto your ship, sink a few galleons, dive for treasure, sail out to explore a Mayan ruin and finally arrive at Nassau to spend your spoils while only taking two potty breaks at the front and back of the journey. However this geographical variety is both a defining feature and a curse, as the concept of all these landmasses streaming seamlessly with complex ocean physics sounds like a nightmare on current gen technology, especially with the series' current track record. With such ambition its understandable why the cities still need a breather, but in this industry there is always an arranged marriage between ambition and new technology.

When ACIII required 1000 man battles and varied weather patterns, Ubisoft engineered AnvilNext, a next gen game engine built for the future and scaled down for use on more immediate platforms. Now ACIV will bring this engine to its proper homes as the first game in the series to also be made for the Playstation 4 and Xbox One, consoles specifically designed to accommodate loading promises. The key is in the machines' incredibly high 8 GB of RAM, of which the PS4 packs an even faster variety, the type of internal memory that dictates how many functions the system can actively operate at once without stopping or loading, like playing a game while DLC is downloading in the background. So in game performance terms, more RAM reduces the frequency and length of load times and texture pop in, because the machine can quickly bring more stuff into the world without needing to stop and catch up. More RAM also results in more detailed textures so brown coats don't look like smeared mud.

It is also unlikely that the next gen versions are going to be shoddy ports with upscaled graphics, as Ubisoft Montreal Chief Executive Yannis Mallat has stated in an interview with CVG that "it [current console generation] has been a long cycle, so we didn't wait for the guys to come and give us their specs... We quickly targeted the high-end PC for our developers to get ready to tackle that. Suddenly we've got Watch Dogs, Black Flag and all those nice projects coming up." Since the PS4 and Xbox One are built like customized PCs, Ubisoft's educated guess has allowed them to be prepared for next gen for at least 3 years now, (Watch_Dogs' development began in 2010) permitting them the time to properly utilize their capabilities. Furthermore, Creative Director Jean Guesdon has directly addressed the importance of the PS4's power in realising this seamless tropical world in one of Sony's Conversations with Creators videos, so even if ACIV cannot live up to the promise on current gen, it is fully capable of becoming a reality on the next.

Despite this, the ocean is of course not here to just ferry Edward around (there is a standard fast travel system in place to dart to discovered areas), as there is a wealth of opportunity to be found while at sea, from whaling and diving for treasure to engaging other ships. ACIII's naval combat was a brilliant introduction to the concept, as it retained more of the previous games' freeform systems than the rest of the highly scripted land missions. The ocean sections were basically big arenas without strict boundaries, allowing the player to dabble with the hindering qualities of the wind and waves and the various forms of attack (4 types of cannon fire, swivel guns and ramming) to create strategies at their own discretion. Obviously ACIV is adding to its complexity with new enemy types and more ways to engage them, but the most significant expansion is in the fact that this gameplay exists in a persistently occurring open world where land and sea coexist harmoniously. Game Director Ashraf Ismail provided a simple example of the possible interplay between these systems in an interview with Rev3Games, where he said "I can jump off my ship at any time, swim up to a beach and chase after a guy, or vice versa. I could be chasing a guy on land, he jumps into a ship, I jump into my Jackdaw [name of Edward's ship] and chase after him into the naval, and then I can destroy his ship or board his ship and assassinate him."

This doesn't even illustrate how you can engage that ship with the expanded mechanics, or what could get in your way during the pursuit. Inspired by Far Cry 3, a Ubisoft Montreal game lauded for its rich open world filled with enticing optional activities and unpredictable emergent moments, it is a prime goal for Ubisoft to take you away from the story and indulge in the world for more than feather collections. "Far Cry 3 had that awesome element of completely distracting the player and having you pulled off the main path," Ismail told Destructoid. "We actually have a bunch of Far Cry 3 development members in our team and they're helping us bring this to the naval world." Ubisoft Montreal as a developer applies lessons from their experiences across all of their games, as evidenced by the cross pollination of the viewpoint and Borgia tower concepts from AC into Far Cry 3 and Watch_Dogs, so if the relocated team members aren't proof enough these promises of emergent gameplay are not idle chatter. Ismail continues to elaborate, "we have a bunch of systems that are fairly defined with rules and these systems when they interact with each other is where you have emergent gameplay. This is something that was successful in Far Cry 3 so we have these guys as part of our team now to help push this element, and this is new for the franchise."

However this was not the only key to Far Cry 3's fame, as it also brandished well defined stealth mechanics, an area that has been enviously lacking as of late in a series about assassins, and while Ubisoft Montreal's multitasking open world has not been directly cited as an influence in this area, their studio culture implies that it is. "We know that in AC3 there was a lot more handholding done, and we do want to go back to an older philosophy where we just present you with a simple objective and we let you choose the gameplay you want," Ismail strikes again, this time in an interview with Joystiq, "we don't tell you 'go here, touch this thing, interact with this thing, push this guy' to accomplish the goal. It's really just where you need to be, get there as you wish." Joystiq added that there are "augmented stealth mechanics and stern encouragement to use them, as well as the major assassinations being "more open to planning and improvisation."

This makes sense, as previous games (especially ACI, ACII and Brotherhood) sent you to areas much like Ismail describes here, and even ACIII had the optional Forts that featured multiple breaching points and alternate methods to capture them, but were marred by horrendous AI and a complete absence of stealth mechanics to exploit them. However, rose tinted specs aside, no game in the series has ever had the kind of dynamic sandbox that could compete with the likes of Deus Ex or Dishonored, so tapping Far Cry 3's success tree is the best possible approach. ACIII failed to reinvigorate the series because it was too focused on 'perfecting' what its predecessors established instead of popping its head out to soak in how game design was evolving by 2012, a blunder that Ubisoft is keen to not repeat. Rather than getting too absorbed in its own history, ACIV is looking to purely invent while seeking outside inspiration to solve its deep-seated problems. More detailed proof of this ambition is present in the naval and open world components, so its only logical for it to apply here as well. Hopefully as Wikipedia states that AnvilNext was built with improved AI its second outing will also get that bugger right.

The final crown jewel on ACIV's freeform gameplay ethos is the new economy system that fuels it all, and while details are currently scarce, ACIV seeks to improve upon both Ezio and Connor's day jobs by broadly exchanging focus from a specific mechanic to the inclusion of all the basic AC activities into the economic loop. Treasure will be found underwater, in the cities, on ships at sea and across the other landmasses in the Caribbean, reflecting how pirates earned their wealth from their exploits, not complex business agreements, and also serves to remove the pragmatic barrier from the enjoyable aspects of the series.

The chief draw of making money here is to upgrade Edward's ship, the Jackdaw, making it - er, her - capable of destroying nasty guard ships that block certain areas (effectively replacing the artificial Animus walls) and opening up more of the world to explore, which in turn provides more opportunity to accrue money to continue decking the Jackdaw out. The end result should create a new kind of Monteriggioni from ACII, which Ezio spent most of his income renovating so that discounted shops could open in the town and consequently generate more wealth from operation to continue spinning the cycle. However, ACIV's prize is an interactive one, the very ship that you will move around and fight with, so the thing you are building will have more tangible value. This also presents a substantial opportunity to develop a great attachment to the Jackdaw, a technique Ubisoft Montreal showcased beautifully with Monteriggioni, for much like the villa a pirate's ship is his home, so the effort put into improving her and the need to repair any damage has all the potential to cause heartbreak if she were to face a fate like that of the villa in AC Brotherhood. Gushy feelings aside, this loop alone has great potential; essentially it means doing what you like earns you the money to further explore those activities through upgrading the Jackdaw, much like how skill progression is achieved in Skyrim.

The high concept to take away from all this is that ACIV will be the very first open world game in history to set you loose on an ocean, free to travel from the confines of a city into the diverse wilds of the Caribbean, while battling with imposing vessels and the sea itself. Ubisoft proved its capabilities with naval combat and navigation in ACIII and here it is going to be even broader, presenting more options and the freedom to engage them at any time in the open world. The entire game is set to become a deep, systemic toybox ripe with personal invention, creativity and unpredictable aftereffects, fuelled by an economy that keeps the focus on doing what you enjoy most. ACIV is in the ideal position to not only be a return to form for the assassin fantasy, but also to become an open world game that is important to its genre, something the series hasn't been able to say in quite some time.

So are pirates compatible with Assassin's Creed's heritage? Realistically the Assassins would have needed a footing in the seas to remain effective from this period onward, but their demeanour is also remarkably compatible. Wikipedia makes it clear that buccaneers, the accepted distinction for pirates active in the Caribbean, used stealth tactics when raiding both towns and other vessels, often sneaking up on their enemies' blind sides and quickly attacking, preferably before any alarms could be raised. In an interview on UbiBlog Ashraf Ismail expressed how "pirates were sailors and they would climb rigging, they would climb masts, so they had this really incredible navigation ability," which instantly speaks to AC's characteristic parkour.

However the most important point made lies in the whimsical philosophical space, conveyed best by lead writer Darby McDevitt in a (video!) interview with Gameinformer. "...When you have a game, an open world game, with a certain set of mechanics like fighting, climbing, stealth, players in an open world game want to naturally mess around with these tools. And the pirate theme, and the pirate attitude is the perfect kind of excuse to allow the player to mess with all these systems and still feel in character. Often in these games with lots of shooting and killing, if you're too noble of a character, you can kind of feel a disconnect sometimes. But we knew that when making a pirate game, that the natural inclination to say like 'I see that ship, I wanna take it. I see that beach, I wanna land on it, I wanna go find treasure, I wanna rough some guys up, I wanna sneak around.' That naturally fits with a pirate character, and so its almost like tailor made. There are very few stories that are tailor made for video games, but I think the pirate's milieu is one of them."

Pirates were not lovable, naughty rogues, they were vicious people who hurt, killed and stole for their personal gain. "The thing that all pirate movies do is that everyone is always searching for treasure that doesn't belong to anybody, and that way very few people get hurt," McDevitt elaborated in yet another Gameinformer interview. "Real pirates actually robbed people, they were bank robbers on the sea." Pirate crews were basically gangs that operated on the ocean, but they also were not cartoon villains that destroyed everything in their path. They were people with depth, individuality and a skewed modern image, much like the Assassin Brotherhood. In fact the origins and chief conflict of both the Assassins and Golden Age pirates have a striking similarity that contributes to ACIV's ideal direction.

It is difficult to nail down the precise genesis of the Brotherhood; in the fiction the first recorded assassination performed with their trademark hidden blade was on Xerxes I of Persia in 465 BCE (via Assassin's Creed Encyclopedia: Second Edition, wow getting all official here!), while philosophically the origins can be traced back even further to humanity's revolt against the oppressive First Civilization. But whether you want to take the sci-fi route or not, it is clear that the Brotherhood was formed as a response to the suppression of freedom, and being the protagonists of the series, they carry a heroic image as pure as their signature robes, when in truth their guiding ideology inhabits a much greyer area.

The Assassins do not fight for peace, but for the protection of the freedom of choice, as they believe the only way humanity can evolve as a whole is by learning from its mistakes and giving individuals the unshackled knowledge and self expression that enables them to grow and invent. Basically they believe the components need to advance so that the entire machine can, while suppression stunts humanity's growth and takes away the thing that makes us human in the first place. However this noble goal comes with a twist, for the Assassins' methods of safeguarding this freedom involves theft, destruction and murder. Just think about the various gameplay mechanics introduced over the years, from pickpocketing, trespassing (sorry, infiltration), evading the law, igniting riots and hiring thieves and prostitutes. These unassuming video game activities are a reflection of the Brotherhood's loose morals, as they find allies in the seediest corners of life and make a fine art out of crime. Hell, they even have a hand at torture in the first AC Lineage short film. The Assassins have no qualms about breaking the laws that protect the people they fight for, preferring to live in a chaotic world as free people than in the utopia envisioned by their enemies.

Yes, utopia is an apt description for the Templar Order's goal, because despite their desire for absolute control over humanity, they seek it as a means of achieving world peace and stability. The Templars believe that humanity will kill itself if left alone, that our ability to make mistakes forever drag the race away from its full potential and our inclination toward violence, discrimination and debauchery are ailments that can only be cured by removing free will. They believe that if a select reasonable few are able to steer the general populace unchallenged, then we will no longer have strife and live as a peaceful, stable civilization. However both Orders share near identical methods, a fact that ACIII illustrated beautifully in its first 3 sequences, as committing murder, theft and the like are just a part of another day on the job. The only real differences are in the Templars' indifference to the innocent and how they slink into public positions of authority to provide legal cover for their actions, while the Assassins work underground, preferring to wholly avoid attention. Both factions commit the same crimes, and are only distinguishable through their differing grey ideologies.

This struggle bears parallels to the final decade of the Golden Age of Piracy ACIV is set around, which was caused by the aftermath of the War of the Spanish Succession, in which two groups of European nations violently disputed the worthy successor of the childless Charles II as king of Spain. At the time Spain possessed the largest physical European empire with land that stretched into the Americas, but was a struggling economic and military power, which made it a ripe target to manipulate and war over. By his will, the initial successor to Charles II was Philip, Duke of Anjou, son of the heir to the French throne, who was supposed to exchange his Spanish title for France if his father bore no other children. This game of musical crowns freaked out many of France's buddies like Great Britain, as the current king manipulated previous wars and treaties to propagate French power, and if he were to go back on his word here, his kingdom could merge with Spain into a massive superpower that would derail the balance of power in Europe. So Britain's allies sparked the war in the hopes of installing a neutral (read: non-French) king of Spain.

The war spilled out into other regions in addition to mainland Europe, one of those being the West Indies (now the Caribbean), a region fought primarily by the nations' privateers who attacked Spanish and Portuguese treasure fleets and colonial towns. Privateers were basically legal pirates or mercenaries on the sea who would receive letters of marque from a nation that allowed them to attack a nation's property during wars, pressuring that nation to expend greater resources to protect their investments and straining their commerce in the process. Sailors liked the work because they could get as violent as they wanted and still make off with a cut of the valuables they looted. Monarchies liked hiring them because they were cheaper than sustaining navy wages and could disown them in precarious situations because they didn't fly any flags. Privateering was really an ingenious way to legalise crime and direct it at the enemy. However when the bulk of the war ended in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht (France still danced with the Holy Roman Empire for another year), these privateers were recalled and left unemployed in a lovely post-war economy. Things were at their worst in Britain, as those 'lucky' enough to be admitted into the Royal Navy were conscripted by Press Gangs who strong-armed candidates against their will, as living conditions in the navy were harsh and yielded low pay.

These men were tired of swallowing their misfortune and most importantly resented the monarch that refused to look after them, but they hailed from a time before it was fashionable to go on strike, so in 1715 (the starting date for ACIV's story) a group of British sailors turned to piracy and reignited the movement for their brethren back home. They led a successful attack on a crew of Spanish divers who were attempting to recover gold from a sunken vessel near Florida, and established the abandoned city of Nassau as a safe base of operation for pirates. Most fortuitously, by this time triangular trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean became a beloved practice, creating a constant cycle of money, slaves, weapons, sugar, molasses, rum and so much more for the opportunistic pirates to take advantage of.

Like the Assassins, piracy was born out of people's desire to break restrictive bonds and make what they wanted out of their lives. This time the oppressive force came in the guise of a monarch, but its simply a different (nonfictional) actor taking on the same role. In their freedom pirates stole, destroyed, murdered and committed countless acts of debauchery, while the European monarchs hunted them down to maintain order so that they could pursue their vision for their nations. In the end, what is the difference between captaining a ship to pillage a town and sending one out to do the same with legal consent? The compatibility between Assassins and pirates is evident even in the announcement trailer, as in it Edward committed all the typical pirate crimes of plundering, killing and dallying with prostitutes, while the general reaction just drew connections to Ezio.

However there is also more nuance to the pirates' lifestyle than popular culture has awarded them, including the establishment of a rudimentary democracy among their kind, defined by the Pirate Code. While the specifics of the code varied between each ship, they all shared the same basics: a curfew was set, all treasure acquired was shared among the entire crew, compensation was paid for various injuries, every man had free access to food and drink unless there was a shortage, no money could be spent on gambling and clothes and weapons had to be clean at all times. Arguably the most important rule was that the captain and quartermaster of each ship was elected by the crew, so they were always smart and capable fighters that were worthy of trust, not lazy authority figures. However they could not curtail their selfish natures, as personal gain was the motive for their careers, so their democracy could never be truly successful because it was too tempting for them to stab each other in the back. Yes the captain of a ship was elected, but there was always that fun thing called mutiny to fall back on.

It is here that the similarities end and the distinctions shine through, because how could the story be interesting without moral conflict? What the Assassins have over the pirates is discipline and a higher calling that keeps them straight, as two of the most important tenets of the Creed forbid harming an innocent and compromising the safety of the Brotherhood. An idealistic Assassin will endure torture or death before bringing harm to another member of the order, a selfless attitude a pirate would find difficult to embrace. Therefore pirates and monarchs can be seen as selfish versions of the Assassins and Templars respectively; two factions that share the same core value but exercise it on a totally personal level without caring for a grander scheme. This contrast then raises an interesting question about the Assassin ideology; how much freedom is too much?

Edward Kenway is an opportune character through which to explore this question, as the ever quotable Ashraf Ismail explained on UbiBlog that he does not have any allegiance to either order until later in the game. "He starts understanding that maybe this is an interesting way of life, this Assassin's Creed. But it goes against his inherent selfishness." Edward starts as the archetypal pirate and therefore has the potential to be a neutral filter to analyse both philosophies, possibly fighting both Templars and Assassins because he doesn't stand for either and continues to learn about them from a clean slate. Most prominently his maturity as a character could show the parallels between the Assassins and pirates, and then demonstrate how important the disparities are as he embraces the higher calling. ACIII delved deep into the two ideologies while fostering Connor's vast character growth over the course of its single story, so Ubisoft's pedigree in these two areas imply exciting possibilities for ACIV.

In addition to these pensive implications, this story will undoubtedly be very colourful, as each pirate brings a rich personality to Ubisoft Montreal's historically accurate pens. Edward 'Blackbeard' Thatch was never known to harm his captives and hung fuses from his hat to create a fearsome, smoky appearance so that he could keep his killing to a minimum. Crews surrendered their ships in fear. He was as much a shrewd businessman as he was a fighter, marooning more men than he killed and even blackmailing the colonial government of South Carolina for medical supplies without a single drop of blood. On the other hand, Charles Vane was infamous for his cruelty and fell in and out of captaincy with multiple crews. Jack Rackham was nicknamed Calico Jack after one of his favourite fabrics to steal, which he wore constantly, and frequently invited the crews of his captured ships to join his own. Finally, the reluctant captain Bartholomew Roberts was admired even by his enemies for his bravery, established a strict code after being betrayed and abhorred cowardice, preferring to fight a crew willing to defend their ship than watch them flee. He also exercised cruelty to his prisoners largely to appease his crew, recognizing his vulnerability to a new election.

These individuals had interesting personalities in their pure forms away from the cliched bluster, and Edward is promised to be just as lively. When justifying his outlaw lifestyle, Roberts is quoted as saying "a merry life and a short one shall be my motto," a phrase that justly defines all of these pirates. They thoroughly enjoyed their lives, living as much off the treasure as the adrenaline fix it brought, which is a refreshing mantra to indulge after the necessary gravity of ACIII.

ACIV is building up to a multi-layered story where each level is representative of a common overlying theme; the philosophical war between freedom and control. At the grandest scale there is the global struggle between the Assassins and Templars, but this is also reflected in the conflict between the pirates and monarchs that seek to silence them, and once more within Edward's journey as an individual as he learns these values and trades his black flag for one of the Orders' standards. ACIII achieved this by matching the global conflict with Connor's domestic fight for the freedom of his Mohawk village and a nation's war for independence, but ACIV also presents the chance to properly investigate the meaning behind the conflict due to Edward's initial neutrality. This is perfectly poised against gameplay systems that both seek to work in harmony with each other, and to naturally coalesce with the fantasy of the narrative. If executed well, the end result will be a wholly unified game, where the story, gameplay and overriding fantasy all work in unison and the entire world feels coherent.

While the proof is months away, these ideas are strong and are being cultivated by a Ubisoft tempered by blunders, making one thing clear. After years of perfecting the formula, they are now ready to refresh, and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is in the ideal place to do it.

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