Assassin's Creed IV Looks Good So Far, But Can It Save The Series?

Assassin's Creed IV Looks Good So Far. But Can It Save The Series?

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.

For more than 200 days, we've tried to be sceptical here at Kotaku.

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:

Assassin's Creed IV Looks Good So Far. But Can It Save The Series?

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.

Assassin's Creed IV Looks Good So Far. But Can It Save The Series?

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.

Whatever.

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.

Assassin's Creed IV Looks Good So Far. But Can It Save The Series?

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.

Assassin's Creed IV Looks Good So Far. But Can It Save The Series?

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.

Assassin's Creed IV Looks Good So Far. But Can It Save The Series?

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.


Comments

    it still sells like hotcakes though, so does it need 'saving'? If you told Michael Bay that his films need saving because they're universally planned, would he look at his pile of billions of dollars and think that maybe you're right? I'm not defending the series, personally I've felt that the premise was great, but quickly got repetitive and the less said about the 'story' the better. If you want a game where you're an assassin, go play Hitman and try not to be seen. But unless this fails miserably to shift units I don't think Ubisoft will be changing anything in the series any time soon

      I disagree. If that was the case, Assassin's Creed 2 would have simply been Assassin's Creed 1.5

      While other companies seem to play it safe while the games are flying off the shelves, Ubisoft has demonstrated that they are a company very much able to take criticism on board even when succeeding at retail. Assassin's Creed 2 is the perfect example of this in that AC1 sold really well, but they nonetheless went to great lengths to address the criticism it got when developing the sequel.

      I'm not saying this will be the case with AC4, it could be just another rushed out annualised title for all I know. I'm just saying that Ubisoft has done otherwise in the past.

    IMO They shouldn"t be trying to save it. It was originally suppose to be a trilogy it's been over milked. (although maybe it doesn't matter at this point). Assassins Creed 4 looks interesting but why didn't they just make this pirate game into a new franchise

      These days, everything is supposed to be a trilogy if you believe the marketing. Some make it that far, and some fail and never see the promised sequels.

      Do you really expect the developers to give up on a franchise if they've successfully managed to get customers to buy three games though?

        Haha, look at COD. It started as a world war 2 trilogy, then they began Modern Wafare, another trilogy within the trilogy, then the Black Ops trilogy also began running alongside the MW trilogy, so you have two trilogies unfolding at the same time, and now the trilogy of trilogies has wrapped up it looks like another trilogy, Ghosts is starting up in what will be a quadruply of trilogies and I've gone cross-eyed ...

    This series is dead to me. I loved the first 2, but once they started making it an annual series it's just shrivelled up and died. The last one I enjoyed was Brotherhood. Revelation I got sick of within a few hours. I got Assassin's Creed 3 free off PS+ but even for free I couldn't put myself through more than 3 or 4 hours of it.

    Ubisoft have done what Activision did to Guitar Hero - taken a perfectly good franchise and milked it completely and utterly dry as quickly as they possibly could.

      Agreed. The AC series started out with heaps of promise and the second game made some strong improvements. Sadly from then on it just got worse and worse. Their focus drifted from what actually made the game and the narrative interesting and down into the realms of lowest common denominator.

      Despite the fact that the stubbornly insist on keeping the 'Assassin's Creed' name it's been a long time since playing any of these games made me feel like an assassin. Perhaps 'Genocide Creed' or 'Period Era Sandbox Waffle' would be a better title?

      I couldn't agree more. however after skipping the last 4 (5 if you include vita?) I can safely say this one has piqued my interest beyond anything else offered at launch for the entire next gen. ( I'm picking up both consoles day 1, getting watchdogs knack and this AC (possibly 3-4 other depending on how they pan out)).

      Everything i have seen on it really seems like they are trying to breathe new life into the series, but at the same time it could be because i am a major pirate man. Those boat battles look absolutely SICK.

    I would love if the modern day stuff was just about to morally grey organisations fighting for control but the *other* stuff we have to deal with is silly even by animus soft scifi standards. At this point I'd be happy if the modern day stuff was never addressed again. A lot to answer for after the craptacular 2012 title.

    Still haven't played AC1, but i've given AC2 a few hours and was enjoying it. PSN+ has now given me AC3, which is rather generous of them.

    In my mind, the problem with the AC series is the amount of hours needed to progress through the story. I just don't have that time available.]

    The games are good, but too time demanding.

    Having said that, ACIV is one of the most attractive next gen games for me.

    I like the bright colours. It looks relaxed. You can do this, You can do that. It looks like you can relax in this game and do what you want, when you want - and if that is the case then it could be a lot of fun to sink a ton of hours into the game.

      I know what you mean about the amount of hours.

      I think the problem I had with AC3 is that I apparently never played to the point it gets good. I simply don't want to waste hours on a boring game hoping it gets good.

      I played the shit out of AC2 when it was out, but from the get go it got me in.

      AC3 was a case where they just assumed people will love the game and so didn't have the perspective of someone on the outside, stream lining it.

      You know why they are time consuming? because they are fucking single player only dick head. 20 - 30 hours is good. Imagine if AC lasted 6 hours?

    Ill be happy as long as im not pulled out of the 1700s to do some bullshit in the "modern world" ala the desmond crap. Seriously the one thing i hated in the most in this series was desmond and his poopie story

      Desmond is gone. Your playing some new guy who you don't see. Not sure but I think everything is in the Animus so no more future stuff. I'm guessing Desmond is going to be like Subject 16 and is inside the Animus.

        Apparently the modern day stuff is completely optional.

    I am a fan of the AC series but AC4 is basically AC 3.5. Either they should of never made AC3 or Revelations.

    Major problem after playing AC3 is that when you think back all you do is walk in the game. There was combat but most of the best action pieces was in the cutscenes.

    I've bought every AC game day one want but AC4 and Watchdogs come out the same day on PC so Watchdogs is higher on my priority.

    Its the first AC I'm considering buying since Brotherhood, so they must be doing something right.

    Look. I'm going to be honest. The fact that you need to go underwater (or have the option to) scares me to death. I'll happily watch my partner play through this one. As for the 'saving' it's one of those games that certain people will always buy. Like Call of Duty or Halo..Sort of.

    I loved all four games up until III, I still enjoyed III but it was so far below all previous iterations. It was too easy (in the first game as few as three men could easily kill you, now it would have to be 50), you now have regenerating health between fights, the stealth was mostly gone in favour of slaughter, Conner isn't very likeable, the intro is essentially one third of the game, the trading system was stupid and unnecessary.
    The only thing I really loved was the naval combat, and seeing as how it will be a huge part of IV I really hope that it's a better game than III because I don't want to give up on the series yet.

    Am I in the minority here that actually cares about Desmond? I want a better explenation of what the hell happened! I should probably read the wiki one day..

    I've bought all the series so far bar one (like a consumer whore) and can't play any of them. I love the time period of 3, but after trying 1, 2 and brotherhood (only for a short time) I got sick of the controls. IT's a great idea to climb everything, but IMO I don't believe the controls are intuitive enough and I get so frustrated when I jump in the wrong direction or to my death. I've tried to love the story, but I hate the jumping back and forth between past and present. I just want to be stuck in the past as an assassin, stabbing people in the neck. Is that too much to ask? :P

    For me, AC2 and Brotherhood were the pinnical of the series. They had a believable character that showed true change, and a storyline that was intriguing, but powerful - a good old fashioned, how-far-will-a-man-go-for-revenge storyline, that packed a wallop. It was smart, it was well-made and basically, perfect.

    Then Revelations came and delivered - far too much. We had minor strategy components, we had Uncharted-style dungeon-collapsing, and entire puzzle sequences that stretched plausibility a teeny bit too far. It was good to see Altair's life, but I don't feel it was worth the full ticket, and Ezio's contribution was, in my opinion, pretty low key. Desmond's memory sequence was basically what I played it for.

    I was excited for AC3, but man, I haven't played more than ten hours, and didn't get anywhere in the main quest. I am a passionate fan of The Elder Scrolls, so on the face of things, the open world exploration of AC3's world should have worked for me, but it was wrapped in a dumbed-down combat that didn't make me feel like a powerful killer - it made me feel like I was in a bar fight, just smashing away at the main button. The few neat tricks of the dart rope couldn't overshadow that feeling, and the hunting/foraging/crafting minigames just annoyed me more than I thought they would. I didn't even like the sailing all that much.
    Overall, for me, AC3 was basically a third person Empire:Total War.

    I had hoped that AC4 could save the series by going to an interesting time period, but they've only jumped back a few decades to the Age of Pirates. That might tickle some people's fancy, but it's about as boring as the American Revolution to me, so the setting won't be bringing me onboard. Yeah, the graphics are sexy, but so was AC3 - what's the drawcard, Ubi? More sailing, more stabbing? It's starting to feel stale, and I'm not the only person thinking that.

    I feel Ubisoft is running the risk of becoming Call of Duty - just pumping out new games, wrapping it up in 'new features', and hoping that the core market of diehard fans will buy it.

    Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go and play Brotherhood again.

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