The lights are on
Since the dawn of
Assassin's Creed in 2007, the series has followed a set of established ground
rules. Players assumed the role of Desmond Miles, a present-day hero in the
center of a secret war between Assassins and Templars. He controls ancestors in
a device called the Animus to unravel modern mysteries and help the Assassin
cause. The needs of Desmond's order have always required him to move further
along in history, but that time is over now. Desmond's chapter is closed, and
with it many of Assassin's Creed's conventions.
After a trilogy of titles chronicling the life of Italian
assassin Ezio Auditore, Assassin's Creed III signaled a fundamental shift with
a new era and hero. With the fourth installment, it's happening again. Instead
of continuing Connor's story, the franchise is shifting back in time to the
days of his grandfather, Edward Kenway. Players steer this pirate captain
through dangerous waters to greatness in the West Indies as he merges his
swashbuckling ways into the world of Assassins and Templars. In addition to
showcasing all-new expansive cities in the Caribbean, the latest entry
introduces an open-world ocean to explore and fully realizes the ship mechanics
that were, in hindsight, merely teased in the last game. Welcome to Assassin's
Creed IV: Black Flag, a new course for Ubisoft's blockbuster franchise.
The Real Pirates
The development of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag began
back in September 2011. By the time ship combat was conceptualized and proven
for AC III, the Black Flag team members believed they could build out the
mechanic as a core concept of an entire game. "When AC III was in development
and we knew we were doing this Haytham-Connor, father-son story, we realized if
we went back just a few decades in time we'd be right at the golden age of
piracy," says lead scriptwriter Darby McDevitt. And so Edward Kenway was
The father of Haytham and grandfather of Connor, Edward grew
up poor in Britain and got married at a young age. When class and family issues
came between the couple, he set out to the West Indies to seek fortune and make
a name for himself. He served as a privateer for a while, but once the
monarchies of England, Spain, France, and others signed a series of treaties
around 1713, the contracts dried up. After a few years of peace and poverty,
Edward and the rest of the now-struggling privateers began working for
themselves as pirates, raiding ships and hauling in loot throughout a ten-year
span when pirates ruled the Caribbean.
While Ubisoft didn't talk specifics, it confirmed that competitive multiplayer is returning.
"We're giving a pirate fantasy to all of the multiplayer," says game director
Ashraf Ismail. "We'll have new characters, new maps, and new game modes." While
the development team never indicated one way or another, it would be an
incredible missed opportunity to not include ship battles in multiplayer this
time around since they are so essential to the pirate gameplay. Hopefully,
we'll get confirmation on this before too long.
As with all Assassin's Creed games, Black Flag is based on
historical record. Between 1715 and 1725, pirates like Blackbeard, Calico Jack,
Charles Vane, Benjamin Hornigold, and Anne Bonny became legends. In Black Flag,
these colorful characters cross paths with Edward during his adventures.
Don't expect the cartoonish Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean. The
development team isn't interested in clichés like fantastical talking parrots
and hooks. "If it didn't occur or if it wasn't prevalent, then we're just not
going to do it," McDevitt says. "What's real is already amazing. We don't need
to resort to any of the fake stuff."
In addition to historical sources, the developers are using
more grounded entertainment for inspiration. Movies like The Mission and Master and
Commander and TV shows like Deadwood
may not directly connect with pirates, but they nail the tone the writers are
targeting. On the gaming side, they looked to Red Dead Redemption, hoping to do
for the pirate fantasy what Rockstar did for cowboys.
Black Flag is not solely a pirate game. At the beginning of
the story Edward is immersed in the swashbuckling lifestyle, but he soon comes
into contact with Assassins and Templars. "Assassins are compassionate
anarchists, and Templars are benevolent dictators," McDevitt says. "We realized
we could actually go further along those extremes. With the pirates, it's an
even more extreme version of the Assassin philosophy. We liked widening the
scope of that conflict." Edward's innate seafaring and combat skills are
further honed with Assassin training, but he struggles to reconcile his
selfish, cavalier pirate attitude with the two competing higher ideals.
Ubisoft bills Black Flag as the "first true naval open-world
game." While we haven't seen the high seas exploration in action, combining the
visuals and mechanics from the previous game with an ambitious open-world plan
fills us with excitement. Whereas AC III had linear, contained, and scripted
missions at sea, Black Flag features a massive ocean that connects 50 different
unique land locations in the Caribbean. These waters aren't simply a method of
transportation; they serve as one of the core pillars of new gameplay
The Fate of Edward
Unless you keep up regularly on video game novelizations,
you may not have realized that the hero of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag has
already appeared in a book released last December. Assassin's Creed: Forsaken is the story of Connor's father,
Haytham, spanning back to his early days as a young boy in London. Long-retired
Edward trains Haytham in the ways of combat in the early part of the book,
though his pirate Assassin past is veiled in secrecy. We're not going spoil the
whole plot, so if you'd like to know more about Edward's later years and
Haytham's turn to the Templars, check out the book.
If you thought there was lot to do in AC III, Black Flag
ratchets up the amount of activities. At any time on Edward's ship, the Jackdaw, he can pull up a spyglass and
search the horizon for points of interest like an uncharted island. Onscreen,
players see a list of grayed out items, only displaying the basic details once
you dock at the landmass for the first time. These locations include hidden
coves, fishing villages, jungles, Mayan ruins, plantations, and large cities
like Kingston, Havana, and Nassau. "We don't want players to feel like all
these varied locations are separate maps that you have to load into," says game
director Ashraf Ismail. "It's very important for us that the game feels
unified, that this is one world and that players really get immersed."
To that end, players can sail to any island, get out, and
explore it without any loading breaks (traditional large cities still need to
load, however). You can even jump off the boat anytime and go for a swim. The
primary purpose of going overboard is to experience the new underwater
exploration segments. Using a diving bell (a large metal structure that holds
air in its cavity as it submerges) the diver can descend into the depths of the
ocean, swim out to nab treasure, and return for a fresh gasp of air without
heading to the surface. Edward uses this to search wrecks for lost treasure and
hidden secrets while trying not to drown and get eaten by hungry sharks. Great
whites aren't the only aquatic life he encounters. Concept art at the studio
revealed a whale-hunting mechanic, which should be quite profitable if you
The true danger and opportunity on the open seas is the wide
array of other ships. The trusty spyglass can reveal what kind of cargo is
onboard and what kind of defenses a ship has. Depending on the risk and payoff,
some ships might not be worth going after, but practically every vessel players
see can be attacked. These range from smaller sailboats to lumbering warships,
each with recognizable behavior traits. Ubisoft offers the "Charger" as an
example, which prefers ramming you at full speed to a strategic cannon battle.
Ubisoft wouldn't detail the changes it's making to the core
naval combat, but stressed that boarding has received a complete overhaul.
Edward can command the crew to use grapple hooks to pull the two vessels
together from any angle. Instead of boarding using the same repeating cutscene
from AC III, players can choose any tactic they wish. Edward can assault the
other crew in straightforward gun/melee battle, jump into the water and swim
around to sneak up on the rear flank, or even climb his mast, hop over to the
other, and perform an aerial assassination on the enemy captain. Just be sure
to keep an eye out for patrolling military ships before raiding. These
well-equipped craft rush to fight off any marauders.
In combat, Edward draws from the traditional Assassin
playbook with dual hidden blades, swords, and pistols. This long-range option
is now free aim, so you have more control over what you are targeting. Don't
worry about Assassin's Creed turning into Gears of War, however. Guns still
only hold a single shot and require the same cumbersome reload time as in the
previous game, though Edward carries four pistols on him at all times. While
Connor dual-wielded smaller weapons, Edward is the first Assassin to double up
This plundering and pillaging results in cargo holds full of
goods and gold, but any smart pirate knows you have to invest in your business
to increase returns. Black Flag's economy encourages players to spend most of
their riches on upgrading the Jackdaw.
Offensive, defensive, and navigation add-ons can make your ship more formidable
against a wider array of ships. Some particularly tough warships camp out at
intriguing islands and attack any curious under-equipped vessels. Barriers such
as this keep your experience more focused in the early part of the game and
offer incentives to participate in activities, earn loot, and buy upgrades so
you can surpass them later.
Learning From Past
Bugs and Glitches "We're working with
the management side of things to be very aggressive about making sure we polish
stuff, and we're giving ourselves a really big buffer at the end of the game,"
says game director Ashraf Ismail.
Long Intros "This game starts off with a bang," he says.
"It doesn't happen right away, but pretty quickly into the
game the world opens up. At that point you can do whatever you want wherever
Of all the changes that Black Flag is introducing to the
Assassin's Creed franchise, the new take on the modern time period is the most
drastic. "Desmond's saga ended with AC III," Ismail says. "We had to ask
players to believe you are playing a guy named Desmond who is playing a guy
named Altair, Ezio, and so on. Because [Desmond's] story is over, we wanted that
one level closer in. You're not playing another guy. You're playing yourself in
The player assumes the role of an Abstergo Entertainment
research analyst who's digging into the life of Edward Kenway using an Animus.
Since you're not part of Desmond's family line, fans may raise an eyebrow at
the fact that a non-relative can experience the memories of another. Ubisoft
assures there are story foundations for this teased in AC III. The most likely
scenario would seem to be tied to Desmond's conversation with his father,
William, late in the game after the old man is rescued from Abstergo. When
Desmond asks if the Templars got to him, William replies that he was able to
resist, but it may not have been enough. "I know they've been working on ways to
extract memories and let others sift through those memories," he says. "Maybe
they're even analyzing mine right now."
William's fears are confirmed after the end credits, when
players begin controlling Connor as someone other than Desmond. An unknown
voice directs your quest to find pivots within the Animus. Once you're
successful, the voice celebrates, "Holy crap. We did it. It's done. His data's
uploading to the cloud. Vegas baby! Vegas!" The player's real-life gamertag is
then shown to be "synchronized with the cloud." Is this William Miles' data? Is
the voice on the line an employee of Abstergo Entertainment?
Playing the role of yourself as an Abstergo agent isn't
completely new. The Assassin's Creed Revelations multiplayer rewarded fans with
first-person videos of what it was like to
climb the ranks within the Templar organization. AC III's multiplayer
videos showcased Abstergo Entertainment propaganda, while further unlocks
revealed hacker group Erudito's altered takes on the videos. AC: Liberation on
Vita was also an Abstergo product, though it didn't contain present-day
gameplay outside of some messages.
Playing as the Assassins' enemy worked in a separate
multiplayer setting, but it seems strange that the single-player is going to
the dark side as well. The team assures that it's not that simple. "You start
the game being an innocent employee just doing your job," Ismail says.
"For new people, we want to reintroduce the conflicts of the
present day," McDevitt adds. "They'll be like, 'Oh this is my job.' For people
who know the franchise, working for Abstergo might be a little weird, but
that's part of the joy of discovery. It's like, 'What kind of weird s--- are my
employers up to?'"
Even though most of what you knew about the present day
timeline is absent from Black Flag, the ongoing tale will continue. "We pick up
right where the old story left off," McDevitt says. "But because you are the
character, we have to introduce you into the world in a different way. It'll be
full of surprises. All of the things set up by the ending of AC III, those
continue as well."
Hopefully, this opens the story to a new, more personal
scale, though it's difficult to imagine how the writers are incorporating the
all-powerful goddess Juno into a sterile Abstergo office building. We're
hopeful that this new present day direction leverages the tossing of Desmond's
present-day baggage without removing the soul and personality that a fully
written character provides.
This article appears in issue #240 of Game Informer magazine.
Watch our video interviews with Ubisoft Montreal on choosing the pirate theme and exploring the open world of Black Flag.
Email the author Bryan Vore, or follow on Twitter, and Game Informer.
Well I never got into AC except the DS version, but pirates are cool.
I'm totally getting this on the next Xbox.
This looks so great. I'm interested to see where they go with the stories in this one. I love the pirate theme and everything that goes with it. This will create some great conflict and produce some true outlaw-ism ha. Can't wait for this one to come out, definitely going to get it.
Seems an promising game, love the Assassin's Creed series : )
This looks fantastic. And unlike everybody else, I only ran into one glitch in the entire AC3 game and I didn't even download the patch for it. This looks amazing though, and I hope that it pulls me in like AC3 did. Beat that thing in 2 days.
Alright, I was skeptical on this setting at first and I would still love at some point a feudal Japan setting, but reading this has made me pretty damn interested
Would like to see a Western or Ninjas next time
So much for "We are going to take a break after III."