At this point, there may be no hands-off preview I'm less willing to trust than an Assassin's Creed demo. Last year, Assassin's Creed III just looked so good, so full of potential... and the final product was a mess. So when I went and watched a big chunk of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag in action, I did so with a massive grain of salt clutched in each hand.
I was sorely disappointed by Assassin's Creed III. The game was a jumbled disaster, and almost entirely unfun for me. And yet when I saw it running at press events and last year's E3, it looked fucking amazing.
So, here we go again. Will ACIV manage to address some, or even any of the problems its predecessor had? It's not yet clear. The game I saw looked pretty damned cool. It's easily the biggest departure from the core AC formula yet. A vast open sea, a pirate ship at your command, and all kinds of Far Cry 3-like jungles and ruins to explore, in addition to the urban parkour stab-fest that the series is known for.
Does that mean that this new game will remedy Assassin's Creed III's problems? Or does it mean that it'll just replace those problems with a whole new set of problems? I can't yet say.
Late last week, I stopped by Ubisoft's San Francisco HQ to watch ACIV in action, The walkthrough I saw was the same behind-closed-doors demo being shown at E3, but not the one that will be shown during their press conference. The demo was designed to give a sense of the open world, and the seamless way that it all flows together. Seamless. Did you notice how I used that word? That is Ubisoft's favourite word, when talking about Assassin's Creed IV.
The demo I saw, narrated by the game's head writer Darby McDevitt, had the protagonist Edward Kenway (father of ACIII's Hatham Kenway and grandfather of Connor) captaining his ship the Jackdaw across the wide blue Caribbean Sea. He was attacking and boarding enemy ships, swinging down from ship riggings to engage in swashbuckling derring-do, diving off of the ship to stealthily infiltrate an enemy island outposts, and peering through a spyglass into a torrential storm. And yep, there was nary a loading screen in sight.
In other words, I saw a demonstration of all of the stuff Ubisoft told Stephen about in March. It looked about as they described it to him. In other words, it looked impressive. But I've been down this road too many times, and I remain sceptical of a lot of what Ubisoft is showing. I'll remain sceptical right up until I play Assassin's Creed IV.
Here's what I saw, condensed into helpful bullet-points to help with your E3 news-digestion.
- The core conflict of the story, according to McDevitt, is that Kenway doesn't adhere to the Assassin's creed as strongly as past protagonists. The idea here is that he's a bad boy rogue who Doesn't Play By The Rules. Awesome! I never get sick of that character archetype. OK, I kind of get sick of that character archetype.
- That was about as much story as I got. The demo I saw was entirely side-mission stuff; I didn't get any kind of a sense of Kenway, his personality, or the main storyline of the game. This demo was much more about the open-world sea and how it all works.
- The overworld map is quite large - the majority of this world is connected, except for some cities and the larger jungle islands. That's a significant departure from past games, which felt more like an unconnected chain of large hub areas. This is more of an open-world game with a single, all-encompassing map. On that map, there appears to be a lot to do: whaling activities, naval forts, plantation raids, and all kinds of other side-activites. Noted sidequest-addict Stephen Totilo should be a happy camper.
- Okay, so, hype warning: The comparison I'm about to make might cause you to become very excited, but when you read it, just think back to how disappointed you felt when you first realised that ACIII just wasn't very good. OK. Ready? The overworld navigation feels like a current-gen, M-rated version of Wind Waker. There, I said it. But it does! Assassin's Creed: Wind Waker.
- In the demo, Kenway took an assassination mission, which you can accept by activating a point on the map just like in previous games. He was in a small, colourful portside town, and his target was some guy in the town. He tracked him down, and the dude started running. Because if there's one thing we've learned from Assassin's Creed, it's that they always run.
- Here, McDevitt got quite explicit about how in ACIV, chase sequences won't be anywhere near as stringent as they were in ACIII. You won't fail for making a single mistake, and the chases can go down in a multitude of different ways. He was very clearly referring to that horrid final chase sequence in Assassin's Creed III better known as the worst thing I played in 2012.
- Case in point: Kenway chased his target down a dock (and man, was I having flashbacks), but McDevitt made it clear that Kenway could catch the guy before he made it to his ship, or leap from the docks onto the ship and fight the guy on the decks, or any other possible scenario. Instead, the dude reached his ship unmolested and Kenway hooked a left and hops onto his ship, the Jackdaw.
- The chase at this point became a boat-chase, and it was Kenway's job to either board his target's ship and kill the guy, or just sink the ship.
- It will be very interesting to see if any other outlet's demos from E3 contain any variants from what I saw. If they can actually demonstrate that this chase could play out in more than one way, I'll be interested. At the moment, I'm not convinced this whole thing wasn't canned.
- The Jackdaw eventually caught up with the target's ship, and they got into a pitched sea battle. It was pretty sweet, in the same way that the naval battles in ACIII were pretty sweet. Aiming seems to have been refined from ACIII, and it's possible to aim at ships directly in front of the Jackdaw. It also appears possible to fire faster. That said, it's more or less the same naval combat as in ACIII. Not a bad thing, as far as I'm concerned.
- At this point in the demo, with cannons firing and masts exploding, McDevitt explained that the smoke we were seeing was the sort of next-gen effect we could expect from the game. Next-gen cannon smoke! I got them to clarify that the version we saw was running on a PC, but that it was a PC that was more or less identical to a PS4.
- When I asked later about what the differences between the current-gen and next-gen versions of the game would be, McDevitt told me that the games would be identical content-wise, but that the next-gen versions would have more elaborate effects, like the smoke they'd showed. Weather effects, too, will be more elaborate, and there will be more variety to the environments. I asked about performance, since a big advantage the PC versions of past Creed games has been that they run at around 60 frames per second instead of 30. McDevitt wasn't sure, but a Ubisoft PR rep later told me that the console versions run at 30 FPS.
- Back to the game. The Jackdaw equipped chain cannonballs to disable the enemy ship without sinking it, which would allow Kenway to "recruit" the ship later and add it to his fleet. With his target's ship disabled, it was time for Assassin's Creed IV to show off its coolest trick: Raiding enemy ships in real time.
- The Jackdaw pulled within a highlighted circle around the disabled ship, and with the press of a button, Kenway's crew began to leap across the gap and attack the enemy crew. It was full-on pirate shit; Kenway himself climbed into the rigging of the Jackdaw and, using his musket, picked off a few enemy riflemen. He then ran out onto a rigging and leapt from the Jackdaw's mast onto the deck of the enemy ship, taking down a couple of enemy soldiers as he landed.
- Okay. So you know I'm sceptical about this game. But that shit was pretty cool. Things to keep in mind: I wasn't playing this, and it's a fair bet that the controls will be dodgy as hell. It'll probably be difficult to pull off that kind of move with any frequency. It is very easy to imagine a nightmare single-player mission that involves taking an enemy ship and easily devolves into maddening, frustrating bullshit. WIth that said: What I saw more or less ticked every box in the "What I want from a pirate game" card.
- After landing on the deck, Kenway got into some standard-looking AC combat and eventually killed his target. Of note: He was fighting with two swords, which was neat. Kenway's men then sacked the ship and adopted a few of the crew, who had surrendered, into Kenway's own crew. The ship was then sent off to be repaired and added to Kenway's fleet.
- Shortly later in the demo, Kenway found a treasure map that worked like a map in Red Dead Redemption; it gave a location and some sense of where the treasure is located, along with a drawing of a landmark. It was time to go get some treasure.
- Kenway then had to make his way through the ocean, navigating his way to the location marked on the map. Navigation was made much easier with the help of a nifty companion app that will turn your iPad or other tablet into a map that updates in real-time with the game. Since ACIV is coming to Wii U, it looks more or less as though the companion app gives any tablet the same functionality as the Wii U controller. And given how much of a nuisance the map in Assassin's Creed games tends to be, it'll be nice to have the map open on a second screen.
- At this point, the Jackdaw entered a storm, which had a pretty serious-business look to it. At one point, Kenway spied a water-spout through his telescope, and watched as the reverse-tornado destroyed and sank a distant ship. It was pretty bitchin', though again, it did have that feel of a "canned E3 demo event" to it.
- After navigating the storm, the Jackdaw pulled up to a tropical island, upon which lay the buried treasure. In a single move, Kenway let go of the wheel and dove over the side of the ship, swimming to shore. So, yes, this was seamless.
- We then watched a stealth sequence in which Kenway took on British soldiers guarding the camp, making his way to the treasure.
- So, how can I put this… generally speaking, stealth in Assassin's Creed games sucks. Did this demo give me any hope that they'll finally make these games fun? Not really. Not saying it can't happen, just saying I'm unconvinced.
- Kenway pulled off all of the moves that we saw Connor pull off in Assassin's Creed III. Cover was contextual, so he crouched in the bushes when he got near. He hid around a corner, but wasn't stuck to it. He popped out of cover when the guy controlling him pushed the stick forward. But there's still no "crouch" button, no way to put Kenway into stealth-mode. No helpful way to get a sense of the enemies around you.
- During the demo and afterward when I spoke with him, McDevitt made repeated assurances that stealth has been improved in this game. The controls haven't been changed — sorry, no crouch or "sneak" button — but the levels and the enemy AI have been. Levels are, he said, laid out to better facilitate stealth. And when enemies spot you, it'll be easier to confuse them and double back, and you won't wind up with a yakety-sax chase sequence quite as quickly. OK.
- Here's something that will reassure those annoyed by ACIII's stealth: There will be no missions that will become desynchronized if you get spotted. So, no more controller snappingly frustrating instafail stealth segments. That is indeed progress! Of a sort.
- Another clear improvement over ACIII — the inventory. No longer will you have to go to an entirely different screen to switch items; it looks like you'll be able to use the d-pad to switch between weapons and tools. You know, like literally any other video game made in the last several years. Again, progress! Of a sort.
- The stealth segment felt very familiar. I still saw Kenway get spotted by a guard standing below him, and have to quickly scoot out of the guy's line of sight. Watching Kenway sneak about, I still got the sense that this wasn't an empowering stealth game that rewarded creativity, but more an act of following the level design and hoping that the predetermined hiding spots don't betray you. I'm not convinced that stealth in ACIV will be much fun.
- After Kenway took out all of the guards and reached the treasure (which was an upgrade for his ship, oddly), we hopped forward to another of the side activities that can be undertaken: A fort attack.
- Fort assaults will happen in a couple of stages. First, the Jackdaw will have to fire mortars at the walls and take out the fort's towers. After that's done, Kenway and his men will attack the fort on foot. In order to claim the fort, Kenway must reach and kill the fort's commander. The whole sequence was very cool, reminiscent of the big fort-attack side-misison in ACIII, but more fluid.
- The last thing McDevitt showed us was a bit of gameplay in Havana, which is one of the game's major metropolitan areas. (These are the few places that will require a loading break before accessing.) True to Ubisoft's promises, Havana looks for all the world like Florence from Assassin's Creed II, and brings a welcome, sun-dappled architectural variety to the drab colonial cities of ACIII.
- Kenway took on another assassination mission in Havana, and what followed was vintage Assassin's Creed, for better or for worse. He made his way across rooftops, crept up to an enemy area, killed a few guys with a blowgun, then managed to accidentally sound the alarm. Before long, his target had somehow wound up on the roof with him, and he killed him in a somewhat anticlimactic way.
- So, a cool beginning to the mission and a weird end, as the game's various AI patterns intersected and something unexpected happened. Sounds about right.
I walked out of the Assassin's Creed IV demo with two thoughts. The first one was: "I want to play this game." The second was: "So I can see if it sucks or not."
That's more or less where I'm at on the series, at this point. Despite all the criticism I've leveled at recent AC games, I still very much enjoy the series. I like that they're so willing to experiment, I love how obsessed they are with history, and I really dig the big-picture concept. Ubisoft knows how to put together an impressive hands-off demo, and everything they showed looked remarkably cool; more or less everything I'd ask for in a third-person pirate adventure game. But as we know all too well, these guys are able to show a game that looks incredible but significantly under-deliver.
It's June, and Black Flag comes out in the fall. McDevitt tells me that as of very recently, they can play through the whole game, but there's still a long way to go before it's ready. No one, not even the developers, can say at this point if the game will come together in time. I'm sure they'd very much like to believe that they will.
Their ideas are good, and the core concept of this game — you, your ship, and the open sea — is solid. But I'll have to spend a significant amount of time playing it before I can tell you whether it lives up to that concept, or whether it's yet another ambitious, maddening disappointment. We'll see.