In 22 days' time, we'll know what's really up with the next Assassin's Creed. We'll know if all of those trailers and videos Ubisoft has been pumping out for AC IV: Black Flag — 13 of them! — have been the oozing confidence of a team that knows they've made a great game or have been the sprayed misdirection of a marketing team that doesn't mind once again raising expectations too high.
In 22 days we'll know.
It's been hard for me, since I like the Assassin's Creed games so much.
I relish the freedom of open-world games. I appreciate the Creed series' use of historical fiction into regions and eras most every other game ignores.
I tolerate the bugs and push through the badly designed quest here or there in every game of the series to make the pleasant discoveries of the Secret Locations or Da Vinci War Machines or Bomb Crafting or Underground or Homestead or other quirky sidequest-sequence that defies the status quo of the very game its in.
I get over disliking Connor the more I discover his character and the more I realise his game would be the poorer if he was simply another Altair or another Ezio.
I take note that the creators of these games do chuck some of the worst things. The bad tower defence mini-game never came back, after all.
And I resign myself to being perpetually dissatisfied by the games' slow advancement of its modern storyline, of its creators' refusal to provide satisfying answers at the ends of these games. The only thing they keep getting worse than their endings is the in-game horse controls.
For me, each Assassin's Creed has been a net-positive, but while I'm a glass-five-eighths-full person, I have recognised for the past 200 days that many Assassin's Creed fans, especially those for whom Assassin's Creed III made them $US60 lighter, see a series that's running five-eighths-empty.
ACIV, I keep hearing people say — I keep seeing commenters write — is it for them. Their last one. Or their first one they're skipping. They're out or they're almost out.
I get it.
Let's remember the conventional wisdom scorecard for the series:
- Assassin's Creed: Underachiever, hyped beyond its delivered quality
- Assassin's Creed II: Overachiever, spectacular construction upon the blueprint of its predecessor
- Assassin's Creed Brotherhood: Overachiever, defying the low expectations of an apparent one-year development cycle
- Assassin's Creed Revelations: Underachiever, beautiful but hardly delivering the promise of its subtitle
- Assassin's Creed III: Underachiever, hyped beyond its delivered quality (though — ahem — some people were pretty happy with what they got)
- Assassin's Creed III Liberation: Overachiever, small and smart
Which way will ACIV: Black Flag turn that tide?
The best I can do for you is tell you about the last time I saw Assassin's Creed IV. Together, we can speculate about how good this game will actually be.
I saw the game in a duplex hotel suite in New York City that mega-publisher Ubisoft rented to show ACIV and their other autumn open world game, Watch Dogs. Both games ran on PCs with PS4 controllers attached. Watch Dogs was cool, but ACIV looked far better. Was I seeing a genuine PS4 build? A PC build of sorts? Probably closer to the former, and, yes, the game looks great.
Let's be real, though. The game doesn't look like the official bullshots:
No game does.
But it looks very, very good, likely due to a combination of technical and artistic excellence. This game has the same art director as Assassin's Creed Revelations, after all, previously the game with the best-looking cities and skylines in the series.
The hype video that Ubisoft put out for the game's next-gen graphics is legit. The water and the foliage does look as good in action as what they showed here:
How good will the game look for those of us — myself included — who will likely play through it on PS3, Xbox 360 or Wii U rather than PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC? I don't know. That's certainly one of the things to be wary about 22 days from now when checking if the finished game you can buy matches what you've seen prior to release.
Ubisoft's pitch for last year's Assassin's Creed III was very good and very much what those of us who enjoy the series wanted: new character, new era, new setting. After three Ezio games, we were all ready for something very different. We'd climbed buildings; now we'd climb trees. We'd assassinated bad men in alleys and on rooftops; now we'd slay them in the middle of the active battlefields of the American Revolution.
In retrospect, the promise and the delivered game didn't quite match up. We actually got two new playable protagonists, though the one we spent less time playing was arguably the more interesting character. We sure did get a lot of rural gameplay, but for those who only played the game's story missions, the game's forest felt barren. AC III's cities, despite hiding many secrets, were drab. The surprisingly-superb naval aspect of the game felt oddly disconnected from the rest of the game.
We'd been promised a great new engine. No one warned us we'd get a game full of glitches and bugs that needed several big patches to fix.
And how often did we actually get to slay our enemies in the middle of the active battlefields of the American Revolution? Barely at all.
While much of what was delivered with ACIII was good, it wasn't exactly what was promised. In contrast, it's hard to imagine that, 22 days from now, we'll experience a similar switcheroo with ACIV. Ubisoft's shown so much of the game already, making it hard for me to imagine that much of AC IV will catch preview-readers by surprise, for good or ill. If anything, I'm concerned that I'll miss being surprised by AC IV to the extent that AC III pleasantly surprised me the more I dug into it.
As if worried that gamers are worried about being baited and switched, it seems that, this time, Ubisoft is just tossing all their tackle, all their hooks, into the sea at once. Whatever we'll bite on is fine with them so long as they re-establish the trust that what they're dangling in front of us is real. Thus, they've shown so much: They've shown naval combat, seamless boarding, whale-hunting, and treasure-hunting. They've shown assassinations, climbs, and dives. They've shown hand-to-hand combat and ship-to-ship warfare. They've shown ground. They've shown sea.
One telltale sign that a game is a fragile disaster in the making is a game publisher's refusal to let a critic play in the months right before release. Until last week, I'd only been able to cover the game when Ubisoft people were at its controls. But last week, I not only took the controls in hand, I played even as the game's lead gameplay designer, Jean-Sebastien Decant, stepped away to do an interview. A Ubisoft PR person hung around, but I'd otherwise never been given so little supervision with a major unreleased game.
Checking the game map. I realised that nearly the entirety of AC IV's vast Caribbean playing field had been unfogged and opened for me to play. In this new game, any of the lookout points marked on the map with eagle icons can be used as fast-travel warp points once you've climbed to the top of them. There appeared to be dozens of them on the map all waiting for me to load them. I'd just seen Decant jump to one and show some combat.
With little supervision, I decided to stick to the sea and see how far I could test the game. I noticed an angry red icon in the top corner of the map. It marked one of the "legendary ships" that Decant had told me are meant to be engaged only by players who have more or less finished the game. We'd only want to engage them with a fully-upgraded pirate ship, one built up from a playthrough's worth of crew recruitment, cannon and hull improvements and general increasing prowess and skills.
I set sail toward the ship. I thought I was close to it, but it still took a couple of minutes to get to even at high speeds. I passed other ships I could fight, other islands I could explore. Bring on the legendary ship! And then... there it was, loading in as a massive multi-masted multi-decked pirate-era death star. I think I saw more than 30 cannons fire at my meagre vessel, one fusillade cutting my craft's health bar to its barest stump. I evasively manoeuvred for maybe 30 seconds and then was sent to the sea floor.
Unsupervised, I could warp anywhere in the game map and try hunting collectibles and assassinating people. I wanted to spear a whale. I found an icon for some aquatic prey and traveled to it. My quarry was a bull shark. You sail up alongside the animal and hold a button to trigger a harpooning sequence. Suddenly you're at the prow of a rowboat throwing spears at a massive fish.
It bleeds. It flees. It tries to turn around and ram your boat. Its your boat's health bar vs. the creature's.
I won, and I can't say this was the greatest glorified target-shooting mini-game I've ever played, but I liked getting the chance to do it. Really, it's not that different than throwing darts in a Grand Theft Auto, just, you know, with the potential to be tossing your next dart at a whale.
What impressed me about that is that I was allowed to do it, allowed to pick it at random from the build I was playing. Ubisoft was letting me play anything and go anywhere. I don't know if I could have tried story missions or jumped to AC IV's modern sequence without some Ubisoft official intervening, but I do know I was being given access I'd never had with III or any other game in the series for that matter.
When Decant returned from his interview, I had the previous game in mind and asked him about its bugs. There's a different development team, this time, but, I asked, is there going to be better quality assurance?
His answer was indirect. It wasn't so much that there would be better QA, he said, but that the ACIII team had tried to do a lot of things, he said. His team on ACIV, he noted, had had to make a lot of painful cuts.
This was a strange explanation given that ACIV's map and every presentation I've seen of the game has emphasised how huge ACIV is. It doesn't strike me as less ambitious or less complex than ACIII. It's surely benefited from having another year of tech development. ACIII's graphics engine was brand-new and IV has built on it. That's for sure. ACIII was adding naval combat that had never existed, and IV, I guess, is simply expanding on it. The only major cut, so to speak, that I've heard about ACIV is that multiplayer naval combat, according to Decant, was considered by the dev team but was "too immense" of an undertaking to put in a game that'd ship before Christmas 2013. Other than that, I'm not sure what the IV team is leaving out. But I also didn't see IV glitch on me when I played it. III mostly glitched for me in story missions, and I didn't played IV's story missions. Ultimately I'm not sure how to read this, but the fact that I was able to play so much of the map, leads me to think that IV will be more technically stable than III.
While Decant was watching, I decided to try some diving. I sailed out to a shipwreck, activated my ship's diving bell and transitioned into a discrete underwater sequence that left my character stripped of all his weapons, items and even his shoes and shirt.
You have limited oxygen when you dive. Your goal is to find treasure. Your problem is that shipwrecks seem to attract sharks and jellyfish. You can't fight the sharks, because you're unarmed. Decant told me to think of these shipwreck dives as stealth missions. I could hide in underwater plants or in the broken bones of these sunk ships. I could swim freely in any direction, snatch treasure, and suck some air from submerged barrels, all the while dodging sharks.
None of this shark-hunting and treasure-diving is what I'd have expected to play in an Assassin's Creed if you'd asked me a few years ago. Again I don't mind. Perhaps, for some, it is too much of a deviation from the idea of being an assassin. Perhaps, for some, it's the wrong kind of scene for re-emphasising stealth. For me, it's a delivery of the promise of virtual historical tourism that the series has kept each time out, even when other aspects of the game are weak. I get to pretend I'm a treasure-hunting, sea-diving, shark-hunting pirate? Sure. Yeah. I'm happy to play that.
Decant said that about 80% of the game will take place on land. As much as there is to do on the sea, there seems to be even more to do on firm ground. There are jungles to explore, a trio of cities and a map so full of quests and collectible nodes that it is not so much dotted with things to do but freckled. Hopefully there will be few equivalents of AC Revelations' tower defence and more of AC Brotherhood's creative side-assassinations. (The game's world map is enormous; you can get a decent sense of it from this and this.)
Last week, I didn't try much of AC IV's land-based gameplay. I watched others do it. One fellow reporter ran through a plantation assassinating guards. Another climbed to a lookout point. I did chase a musical note over some rooftops in a chase that was similar to AC III's race for fluttering Ben Franklin notebook pages. I couldn't catch the note. I can't really judge this ground stuff. The combat and climbing doesn't seem to function all that differently than before, but the setting is gorgeous. Is an aesthetic improvement enough, if the controls and basic mechanics haven't gotten much of a tweak?
I mentioned to Decant that it had become tiresome to play these games and be foiled by twitchy controls that triggered 90-degree wrong turns during high speed chases. Maybe they'd improved that? He verbally shrugged and said they'd done the best they could but that some things, much as they try to address them, can be challenging to perfect. To his credit, he brought up the cousin of the game's wrong-way-turn problem, the I-meant-to-run-past-that-wall-but-my-guy-stuck-to-it-and-is-now-trying-to-climb-it problem. They're doing the best they can dealing with that one, too.
The makers and marketers of AC IV are so eager to show as much of their game this time out that I've even already seen some of the modern-day gameplay this time. That's another line I can't recall ever seeing crossed before. This time, when I asked if he'd show it, Decant said he would. He loaded it up, saying it'll be accessible at most times of the game and mostly optional, an acknowledgement that some AC players hate the modern stuff.
In IV, the modern gameplay is a first-person adventure set in the offices of the fictional Montreal-based game development studio Abstergo Entertainment. Your primary interaction is hacking. You're not Desmond Miles this time. You work at Abstergo, making games based on assassins. In the lore, this company is both backed by the anti-Assassin Templars and are the fictional development team of last year's Assassin's Creed III: Liberation.
As you explore the game studio's offices in first-person, you can hack co-workers' computers. The hacking sequence I saw was a mini-game involving a maze etched around a sphere. As you hack and explore, you'll learn a lot about what's going on in the modern era of the series and the story will move ahead from where III left off, Decant said. All well and good, but the modern setting for IV looked to me like a potential pit of fan service and bad game development jokes. You're getting paid bonuses in statues, for example, letting you build the kind of collection of geek tchochkes that seem to cover the desks of many a cubicle in many a game design studio. Opening things up to meta commentary, Decant said you'll even encounter some debate about whether an assassin game should be set in feudal Japan (a common request from AC fans) or in the era of the vikings.
In the modern part of the game, there are puzzles to solve, new rooms to unlock access to and, Decant promised, an explanation as to why we're even able to experience the main part of AC IV, given that the old rules of the series dictated that only an ancestor of an assassin could enter an animus device and witness/let-us-play the life of an assassin. We'll see how this comes together, but I must say it's the weakest and least aesthetically pleasing part of the game they've shown.
What in the world does this all add up to?
It's safe to expect that AC IV is going to be a visual stunner on better machines.
It's looking like the new game will be less buggy than its predecessor, but let's wait and see on that once we can dive into the main missions for a review.
It's looking like it is full of things to do. It's fun to explore, to the extent I explored it.
It still deserves scepticism until we've played it on our own for a while. It's a complete unknown how good a lead character we've got in Edward Kenway or if we've got a satisfying story in either the old or modern era.
There are lots of questions, but with 22 days to go, there are some answers.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag certainly doesn't feel like a lazy production or a rushed one. It doesn't feel like a game they're hiding to mask its flaws.
We've tracked this one as skeptically as possible and the fact is, with 22 days out, it's looking to be one of the better Assassin's Creeds. In 22 days we'll know if that's right or wrong. If the former, this series is still on track. If the latter, the Assassin's Creed series is going to be too many underachievers in the last few years to win anyone's benefit of the doubt when we do this dance again, as expected, next year.
No pressure, AC IV developers, but you just might hold the series' future in your hands.
This preview was based, in part, on 15 minutes of hands-on time with a playable, largely-unlocked build of the game running on a development PC with a PS4 controller attached; supervision while we played was shockingly minimal.