Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
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 conceived.
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 mechanics.
The Fate of Edward Kenway
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 can succeed.
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 on swords.
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 Mistakes
Bugs and Glitches
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 this world."
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.