Be Excited About Assassin's Creed IV. And Be Sceptical.

We've been here before. It's time to tell you about a new Assassin's Creed. This part went oh-so-well a year ago. Many of you were enthusiastic back then about a new character, a new continent and a new era. Many of you were not as enthusiastic late in the year when you played the resulting game, Assassin's Creed III.Can you be excited this time?

For the third time in four years, the images of the next Assassin's Creed have leaked early. If you're paying enough attention, you know what the deal is: Assassin's Creed IV, a new numbered AC game, but, oddly, with a subtitle affixed: Black Flag.

Pirates. 18th century. Edward Kenway. Father of ACIII's prologue protagonist Haytham Kenway, grandfather of its main assassin, Connor.

Open-world naval exploration/combat, mixed with jungle and city adventures. Three major cities: Havana, Cuba; Nassau, The Bahamas; Kingston, Jamaica.

You can attack other pirates. You can harpoon whales from your ship. You can dive and explore underwater. You can assassinate bad guys in cities.

I saw the game a week ago, and, no, it's not all been leaked. There's a bunch of things even big-time Assassin's Creed news watchers don't know yet. There are reasons to be intrigued, reasons to be sceptical and reasons to be excited.

Oh God, Another One. Already.

I'm the kind of person who plays through every sidequest in an Assassin's Creed game. Odds are, you're not. In fact, you might be one of the people who has recently been swearing off the AC series due to disappointment that Assassin's Creed III didn't match its trailers — or due to the fear that this annualised series is maybe already performing a Tony Hawk/Guitar Hero franchise-killing leap into a too small stack of hay.

Last year, I met with ACIII's top creative team in the exact same office building in Manhattan where I met two top ACIV for an hour a week ago. The ACIII crew who were behind the adventures of a then-new Native American assassin had the advantage of following three straight years of Assassin's Creed games that starred the same character. Those three straight years brought the series its two most acclaimed entries — ACII and AC: Brotherhood — but led to the weird, beautiful, trying-too-hard (bombs and flamethrowers and did you guys forget what your subtitle promised?) Assassin's Creed: Revelations.

As I clearly established above (actually, I know I didn't), Assassin's Creed III was a very good game. Can we at least agree that a lot of people liked it? And can we agree that some people didn't?

Well, you're in luck. I present the following:

Things the Black Flag Developers Say About Their Game That Is Code For "Don't Worry, We Won't Make Some of ACIII's Mistakes

  • "The Caribbean Sea is big. We wanted to make sure that it never feels lonely and empty, so, to support the main gameplay loop, we also added a lot of secondary systems that make the pirate life even more cool. " — Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer

    How that sounded to my ears: We know you might have felt ACIII's frontier was a bit spartan or boring or not fun enough. We are filling our vast expanses with more gameplay: like tropical storms that might rock your boat, whales you can harpoon, islands you'll discover, ships that will attack you or that you can raid, and so on.

  • "We think we have a very strong gameplay loop, with all the systems helping each other to make sure that our players are constantly progressing in the game." — Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer

    How that sounded to my ears: Sure, ACIII had tons of things to do, but you could avoid most of them and, hey, what was that trading system for anyway?

  • "We have this super-cool setting people don't know a lot about." — Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer

    How that sounded to my ears: You won't be distracted by weird stuff like riding a horse with Paul Revere during Revere's famous ride, because you didn't grow up hearing the stories of our historical figures such as Calico Jack and Charles Vane.

  • "The goal is: when you get to a city, you'll know where you are. — Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer

    How that sounded to my ears: Boston and New York may have had some fun quests in them, but they looked like the same nondescript, bland towns (except that cool burned-out part in New York). ACIV's cities will look different from each other. The game's art director did say that Havana would feel a bit like ACII's Florence, but with Spanish influence, that Kingston is lush, British and dangerous and that Nassau is a pirate haven where "you can have your debauchery" and "build your city."

  • "We don't just have one path; we try to have systemic paths." –Raphael Lacoste, ACIV art director

    How that sounded to my ears: He was answering my question about the criticism that ACIII's campaign missions were too rigid and either didn't comfortably support the actions they called for or simply didn't allow for much leeway in how they were played. You can be stealthy or like Rambo in these missions, he was saying to me, in about as many words.

The "Can This Game Be That Good?" Part of the Preview.

Maybe these guys are just great talkers. Or maybe their spiel was practiced (of course it was!). Or maybe their game is going to be amazing. It's at least amazing in concept, as most games probably are.

Here's what they're promising/teasing/writing-checks-for, based on the footage they showed me, a whole bunch of slides they flipped through and a 20-minute interview following their presentation:

We're looking at a massive open-world game. You're Edward Kenway, a young, brash pirate in the early 18th century, born in Cardiff, Wales but relocated to the West Indies (the Caribbean) where you become a pirate and are later trained to be an assassin.

You have a ship called the Jackdaw, which you can upgrade as the game progresses. You have a crew, who you recruit and who help you take down other ships.

On the sea, the game is open. If I had taken a drink every time the game's associate producer, Sylvain Trottier, had told me the game would be "seamless" or "flowing" I'd be hospitalised. He promises, even on current-gen systems, that there will be no load times. "Seamless boarding," he said to me, barely a few sentences after he said "hello". He was referring to seamless boarding from Kenway's ship to the one he's attacking, no cutscene to hide the transition, as had been the case during the few boarding opportunities in the naval missions of ACIII.

No loads anywhere: seamless from land to sea, from sea to land, from above water to below. He said: "At any moment, you're going to be able to get close to the coast of an island you never saw before, dock your boat, dive in the water, walk on the beach and start discovering, all of this without any loading. This is true from sea to ground but it's also going to be true from ship to ship."

Seamless, systemic naval adventuring. Meaning that you can sail your Jackdaw up to an enemy ship at a 90-degree angle, or sidle up to it. No matter. Whatever you want. Raid at will.

You can take out your spyglass and spot a ship or island in the distance. You'll see a display of the enemy ship's toughness and what it has on board, so you can decide whether to attack or retreat. You can see if an island you come upon still has animals on it to hunt, treasure to dig up and high points to climb. I was told this; I was shown concept art of this; I was not shown this in the minute or so of gameplay footage I was shown.

When you're on foot in cities in AC games, you can cause a ruckus and then watch as tougher and tougher enemy guards and soldiers come after you. It's the series' version of Grand Theft Auto's heat system, which escalates the police response to your mayhem from squad cars to trucks to helicopters. Imagine this on the sea of Assassin's Creed IV, where mayhem on the ocean will trigger, the developers promise, the arrival of tougher and tougher enemy ships. A piece of concept art I was shown displayed a massive Man-of-war ship next to a nine-notch meter that was maxed at full alert. Trottier also mentioned the possible arrival of other classes of boats, for example the "Charger", a little ship with a strong bow that will be sent to ram you to splinters.

In the short gameplay montage I was shown, I saw Edward use a diving bell to go the sea floor. I saw manta rays. I saw him tussle with a shark. But they're not elaborating about underwater gameplay much right now.

From your ship, you can harpoon a whale.

See?

Oh, Ubisoft, your screenshots always look a bit better than the real game. Please don't be lying to our eyes too much!

There will be the three cities and the full shoreline of Cuba. There will be 50 land locations to visit, surely those from this image that leaked last week:

The developers mention fishing villages, plantations, hidden coves with smugglers in them, naval forts and dense, claustrophobic jungles that might sometimes contain ruins (hardcore ACIII fans might be wondering if the Mayan ruins DLC map in that game was a test for the jungle stuff; I'm now wondering that too.)

There's no campaign co-op (phew!). And what of the brotherhood, the band of assassins you've been able to recruit in train in some fashion in each of the last three main games? Trottier: "We have something cool [like that], but it's not the brotherhood."

There's action in the cities, similar to what was in the previous games' cities, it sounds like. Guards. Sneaking spots. People to kill or run from. Civilians. But they're not talking about that yet, other than to keep reassuring us that the cities will all look lovely and distinct.

They're promising revised naval gameplay controls and some tweaks to land combat. You'll be fighting with four guns (one shot each) and two swords much of the time; you'll be able to control the direction of your dodges as you battle in a crowd.

It sounds, for now, like the game tilts more to the naval than to the land stuff but that there's a lot of both. They estimate a game similar in size to the recent ones in terms of play time, but presumably vaster. "It's pretty huge, it's a very big scale," Lacoste said, "but I would say we focused more on the diversity. In ACIII we had this British colonial style. And the forest. Here we have many, many different flavours and locations. It's going to be extremely refreshing, but it's also very, very big in terms of scale."

They're ripping pages from history, saying we'll experience the 1715 wreck of the Spanish Armada, the assault of 42 Portuguese ships and that we will be marooned on a desert island with the real pirate Charles Vane. We'll also meet other real pirates, including Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack.

Here's a line I bet the devs have used on most of the reporters seeing their game: "We're not making Pirates of the Caribbean. We're not making a Disney, family entertainment version. It's really the HBO version of pirates."

Yeah, yeah. Gritty. Violent. Some semblance of sex.

But the gameplay's the draw and here's the money quote, as Trottier describes how playing the game should go:

"So you want to explore an island, but the island is protected by a Man-of-war. It's too big. It's too strong for you. So you go back and you do some plantations or some other ground activities or sea activities, get more money, and upgrade your ship. Once you feel you're strong enough, go beat the crap out of him and then get onto this new island."

Also, you can supposedly trick that Man-of-war into chasing you. Sail toward a terrible storm and get him to follow. Let the waves wreck him.

Sounds great. And sounds like the very good naval stuff in ACIII significantly upgraded.

What else, what else…

Multiplayer: They're not really talking about it. It's land-based. No ship vs ship stuff. New era, new settings, new game modes. More details to come.

Modern times: It's back, set in 2013. No Desmond Miles, descendant of the main games' protagonists. He's done for. Trottier: "The present day in ACIV is basically the logical continuation of the ACIII present day. But this time, instead of making you play through a character of the past through a character in the present, we wanted to make it even more immersive for the player, make it more fun. So, you are now a full-time employee of Abstergo Entertainment, and you've been hired there as a researcher. You are the one in the Animus doing the research on an important character from the past, Edward Kenway."

(For those of you who have no idea what that means: Desmond Miles was the Assassin-in-training who died (or something) at the end of ACIII but had been using a device called the Animus to relive the lives of his ancestors, his relivings constituting most of the gameplay in the older games. Abstergo is the front company for the Assassins' rivals, the Templars. For some reason, their Entertainment division sometimes makes games, including, according to the fiction, last year's PlayStation Vita game, Assassin's Creed: Liberation.

Patrick Swayze: I asked what Edward Kenway was like, if he was more suave and outgoing like ACII's Ezio. "I like the funny comparison of Bodhi from Point Break," Lacoste said, referring to Patrick Swayze's character from the 1991 action movie. "He's kind of a surfer, this kind of reckless guy, kind of a bandit." But about Kenway, he adds: "When he meets the Assassins, he will learn to be more focused and less selfish."

Don't Fall For It Too Hard. Not Yet.

Please understand that so much can go wrong. The game might not come together. The voice-acting might stink. The shark AI could be terrible. The game may ship infested with bugs.

You are reading a preview written in March for a game coming out in late October. Even the developers don't actually know how good their game will be, and no one is volunteering prophesies of doom. Of course they make it all sound awesome. Even in their minds, it probably will be.

Today's preview is going up the same day retailers will begin taking pre-orders. That's how this stuff works. Ubisoft lets the press see the game, asks the press to not publish a preview until a certain day, the day that pre-orders are available. They hope you'll pre-order now, which they believe will impress retailers to order the game in large quantities. But, really, you can't know if a game is worth your money this far in advance.

There could be problems. There always can be.

What raised my eyebrows the most when I was given a presentation about the game last week was the lead character. The developers refer to him as a "badass pirate." The debut trailer shows him bedding two women at a time and strutting across the deck of his ship like a handsome Hollywood lead. The trailer shows some stealth, but the overall feel I get is that, unlike Connor of ACIII, Edward reeks of presumed aspirational fantasy. He reeks of action-game action-hero, which brings back memories of the suave Ezio of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood manning that flamethrower and tossing those bombs in Revelations. It has me wondering if the series, which generally assumes its players are intelligent and interested in other cultures and some range of human experience broader than what we see is most action-genre schlock, is risking dumbing itself down.

[meaning Connor crouched if you walked him into bushes, for example]. What do you guys have in this one?

Lacoste: I don't know how much detail I can go, but we … push stealth opportunities into the design of the layouts.

Trottier: We want to make sure it's there. If you look at all the images, plantations are super-good places for stealth. Jungles are super-good places for stealth. Cities are good. There are lots of spots where you can do good stealth, and we're making sure that, for the users that like this kind of play style, they can [do it].

Me: Does that mean you are giving the player more direct control of when they are in stealth and when they are not?

Lacoste: Yeah.

Me: Is there a crouch button? Can you crouch?

Trottier: No.

Lacoste: It's more like the context of where you're in.

Me: So like ACIII.

Lacoste: But we have a lot more diversity for this context.

They promise me they are aware of the concerns about this stealth stuff. But without seeing a stealth sequence in action or, better yet, controlling it, the jury's out and the series hasn't earned the benefit of this doubt.

One more bit of skepticism: It's hard to assess how well the scope of this game is going to fit into the machines it is being made for. ACIV: Black Flag is coming to the PC, PS4, PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360 (presumably the next Xbox, too, though they're not saying that, of course).

The PC and PS4 can handle a whole lot more than those other existing machines can, but how well the game's big Caribbean Sea and seamless boarding will play on an Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii U is an open question.

All the developers are saying about tech right now is that they're working with a modified version of Assassin's Creed III's graphics engine, but as long as they have to program for 2005 hardware (that's the 360), surely some ambition will be curtailed.

***

To people like me, an Assassin's Creed per year is fine. With no portable game in sight, ACIV will actually represent a slowdown in the series' output this year, following the dual releases of AC: III and Liberation in 2012.

One hopes Black Flag can meet the hype, but this far out you never know. Could be great. Could be a mess. (Could write that line for any preview.) But at least Ubisoft's developer armies spend a couple of years on each of these Assassin's Creed games. At least they never skimp on content. At least they typically go somewhere new and succeed or struggle spectacularly.

Pirates? It's an odd fit for this series.

An open-word naval adventure done by the kind of international mega-team that makes Assassin's Creed games? Sure. That's exciting enough.


Comments

    i have to admit, i haven’t finished revelations yet, its pretty boring, and the main sections I loved from ACII and brother hood (the puzzles) are missing.
    And ACIII just doesn’t interest me in the slightest (Does it advance the main story at all? or the side story origin of the apple?)

    But a piratey adventure where i can go whale hunting and search for Buried treasure as well as murder indiscriminately.... Count me the F#*K in :D

    Yay another copy of Assassins Creed 2!

    When will they stop releasing the same game?

      AC3 > AC2 by a mile brother ;)

        If you mean MISSED by a mile brother, then yeah..

          word. AC3 the worst AC by far.

            So does it have everything Brotherhood had? Or have they "streamlined" everything? Still haven't bought it yet :/

            Brotherhood was the pinnacle of the series for me... and it looks like the main team moved onto WatchDogs after Brotherhood, as Revelations clearly shows.

              I agree. I notice they dodged and weaved about the crouch button until he flat out asked. To me thats a huge deal. When you're talking stealth an actual crouch button should be there, NOT automatic. You should not have crouching as contextual. That's plain ridiculous.

        I would agree had the characters and soundtrack been as good as AC2. But they really weren't.

    I really think Ubisoft did themselves a disservice by not making this game a new IP. As far as I can tell, it hardly has anything to do with the AC mechanics. I understand they want to go with a recognised brand but they are driving this franchise in to the dust. This way, they could have had two decent franchises running at the same time and could have pushed them out in alternate years – giving it more longevity.

      Yeah. From my perspective, this game is now in Red Dead Redemption territory. Whereas Assassins Creed used to be in it's own little niche.

      What I mean though is it really has to 1-up Red Dead Redemption to stay relevant :)

    I'm going to give the next Assassins a go. I really liked the boat stuff in the last one except for the fact I kept thinking about how great a Horatio Hornblower game would be.

    I think it would be great if they made a pirate type game like Assassin's creed but, you know called it something else and started all new mythology.

    Assassin's Creed 3 was a masterwork, and anyone who can't see that because they're obsessing over stuff like the protagonist being a little dull or the three or four missions that needed more playtesting is simply not very good at paying attention to what they're playing.

    But I'm not expecting much revelatory improvement from Black Flag. The subtitle all but screams out that this is an interstitial AC, in the nature of Brotherhood or Revelations, recycling as many assets as possible from AC3 while the core developers get to work on the next core title, presumably due late 2015.

    I -am- excited for more ship combat though. I would have played a whole game of just the ship combat and now here comes a bunch more of it. Huzzah!

      Nah. WatchDogs is obviously Ubisofts' main focus now... just wish they'd leave Assassins Creed alone... It used to be the series that was a cut above everything else, now they want to run it into the ground :/

    A friend just called this Assassins Creed: Wind Waker Rip-off.

    I just finished AC3 and found it beyond boring and disappointing (especially the bloody ending).
    This seems more like 3.5 (or another version of Brotherhood) than really making a new game. a stop gap until the new Desmond game lands on the next gen consoles (yes, it will be a Desmond game unless they do want to end that story thread that way).

    After AC3 left me so bitterly bitterly jaded and disappointed (same with Ac2.5 and 2.75 before), will take a lot to get me back to the franchise.

      The more Wind Waker rip-offs the better! The last great exploratory game I played was Freelancer

      I found Brotherhood to be the best game in the Assassins Creed 2 series - being able to form your Assassins guild and utilise them in combat was excellent!

      Though I get what you're saying if you loved the pure core Assassin mythos ;)
      (e.g. The only Assassin who could get the job done)

        I've always questioned why they are called assassins because everyone seems able to spot them and you aren't very subtle.
        When I played the first game, I honestly expected and wanted to be able to blend in better with disguises and the like.
        They brought it in -after a fashion- in the Vita AC game but that seems like a bit of a waste unfortunately because much more limited market for that game.

          the whole "ancient superior white race" aspects that was introduced to the series always bothers me greatly.
          All semblance of story pretty much fell apart at the end of AC2 in many aspects and just couldn't grab me again because it annoyed me so much.

    Wasn't AC3 generally considered buggy at times and unpolished?
    How will releasing another game barely a year later help?

      They had to have started development a while ago. It'd be insane to rush a game in their biggest franchise, right???

    Am I reading this right - the Brotherhood won't feature in the game? Or that recruitable Assassin's guilds from AC:B won't feature?

    4 words: No more mini games! Seriously, Im doing AC III, and the mini games are out of control. Surely game designers have realised that literally no gamer on the planet enjoys RSI inducing lock picking minigames, or that the "ride between 3 groups of dudes and shout FIRE" thing is frustrating, arbitrary and completely outside of the game mechanics everyone WANTS to play.

    AC is about running around as a hooded homicidal loon with parkour skills stealthily applying stabby stab for the greater good. That stuff is fun, balancing a fish on your nose playing 17th century sims (homesteading) isnt. It just takes the player out of the game.

    The sea battle stuff is kinda fun though.

      "AC is about running around as a hooded homicidal loon with parkour skills stealthily applying stabby stab for the greater good."

      Pretty sure that's Dishonored.

        Not really; Dishonored was about getting back at the people that framed you and got you imprisoned. The fact that it was also for the greater good was purely coincidental.

          No, no, no, Assassin's Creed was the one where you had a vengeance laundry list of people who had wronged you and your guild/family and you went and killed each one while also contributing to the relative greater good. Dishonoured was about fighting with a group of allies to overthrow an oppressive regime who wants to take power for themselves.

    Oh man. Assassins Creed 3 sounds like a Trial! But I have to play it to see where the story goes...

    I registered just to say a big thanks @Stephen Totilo for this article, really great stuff, but for those of us that play AC games for the storyline (which may have its faults) a big thanks for the massive spoiler that Desmond dies at the end. And although no doubt some ppl with give me S**t about Desmond’s lame storyline but the least you could have done was put spoiler alert somewhere and I wouldn’t have read it.
    But really thanks

    If the current gen consoles can't handle it, wait for the next one - they're not that far off, and consumers don't need yearly releases to know a franchise exists. Please don't let them release a half-hearted version of this.

    Edit: Aww, according to EB, the current-gen versions have a release date for end of October. There's a side note saying that a PS4 version is "coming soon"; I can only interpret that to mean it will launch on PS4 with the console, or soon thereafter, as the PS4 won't have an exact date until E3.

    Last edited 05/03/13 6:21 pm

    Since when did people not like AC3? Its an amazing game and i don't understand what is wrong with it that these people i've never seen or heard of. I saw that for some people it was really glitchy/buggy but there was only one problem i came across in the entire game and it was a really minor one.

    The trailer did reek of ''action hero'' and I am skeptical thus far. But who knows :)

    One thing that bothered me about this preview: "there's no single player co-op, phew!"

    Yeah, cause y'know what sounds boring? 4 friends on a ship, one steering, one in the crows nest, one manning the cannon and one swinging across to another ship and assassinating the captain. I'm falling asleep just thinking about it ... NOT!

    What are you smoking son?

    The Assassin's Creed series needs co-op BEFORE it needs death match. What a missed opportunity. And no ship based competitive multiplayer. What is ubisoft smoking? That's sounds freaking EPIC!

    I enjoyed ACIII. For the most part. The change of setting was refreshing and the naval stuff was a standout. Unfortunately however, I felt that there was so much in there that just didn't gel well with the game as a whole. I ignored all the trading stuff. And neglected a whole bunch of other side missions because it seemed irrelevant to the game as a whole.

    Upon hearing that Ubi were developing Black Flag around the whole sea based thing we saw in ACIII, I'm already sold. That is the best possible news for an AC title I can hear short of a properly realised game set in Japan. Yeah, nuff said about that...

    I was expecting them to go all meta and have the next assassin as a whore of somekind

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