With an official reveal already well and spoiled days ago, all that’s left to analyze are the finer details surrounding Ubisoft’s sixth mainline installment of Assassin’s Creed. Settle in, there’s a lot to sift through.
Black Flag rewinds the historical clock a couple of generations before Revolutionary Times, dropping us in the middle of the Golden Age of Piracy – a period modern writers have fictionalized into the ground, portraying a romanticized but irrevocably distorted version of the truth. Ubisoft wants to show us the era as it was; a gruff, bloody, self-enterprising corner of history in which armadas ruled the sea and pirates fought, killed, and plundered for nothing more than profit. Tonally, Ubisoft says Black Flag is less Pirates of the Caribbean and more Sons of Anarchy. How could I not love the sound of that?
Our hero this time is a brash privateer named Edward Kenway – Conner’s grandfather – a British military reject whose fate collides with the fabled Order of Assassins. Soon, Edward commands his own ship, the Jackdaw, across Caribbean waters in what Ubisoft boasts as the first “naval open-world game." To that pursuit, the sequel does away with flow breaking technical hurdles such as segregated levels and load times – transitioning from land to sea and back again is promised to be completely seamless. The naval warfare side missions from ACIII have been bumped up from mini-game to fundamental component as the game now revolves around the ocean, your vessel, and its crew.
The Jackdaw, as small as it is, becomes more fierce as the fruits of your pirating reward upgrades that even up the odds between you and the gigantic Spanish galleons roaming the waters. Like capturing forts in previous games, raiding these ocean mammoths and snuffing out their captains free up entire areas for you to explore, making enemy ships valuable targets.
The pirate’s life isn’t always about hilarious high seas murder, though. Managing your crew and keeping them alive during violent storms and enemy boarding is important in holding the Jackdaw together. If the cowards just won’t stop dying, however, new crew mates can always be recruited for your suicidal cause whenever you dock. Then there’s that other pirate-y staple: treasure hunting. Exploration not only takes you from island to island but also has you diving deep into the blue for hidden loot. The cruel bastards behind Far Cry 3 had a hand in Black Flag, though, so expect to fight off sharks all too often.
While nearly always owning the highest budgets and the most talent plugging away at them, annual releases can’t shake that dreaded "copy and paste” feel from game to game. Black Flag’s team seems painfully aware of this plight and are attempting to battle stagnation. One impressive course of action is reworking mission design. It is awful backwards that a massively open-world should be interrupted by rigidly linear story missions, and Ubisoft agrees. ACIV’s quests are thankfully more open-ended, allowing players to pursue an objective multiple ways, finally answering a long standing fan complaint.
Even legacy features are being addressed. If a conceit is considered outmoded or superfluous in the very least (such as the notoriety system which alerts guards to your suspicious presence after nefarious acts) Black Flag’s development team doesn’t hesitate to axe it. If not completely outed, expect some ideas to return entirely reworked. The maligned modern day sections present from the very first Assassin’s Creed and on are one such example.
Instead of controlling Desmond (whose stupid story came to an abrupt, stupid end), Ubisoft says the story told in 2013 will star…you. Hired by Abstergo to investigate Desmond’s storied lineage, you’ll get to explore the Templar owned facility you’re housed in while unearthing a grand conspiracy. Ubisoft wasn’t exactly clear how real life player personas are integrated into the story but the concept certainly puts some balls on “immersion.”
Assassin’s Creed is one of the very best franchises introduced this generation and I’ve followed its development closely for years now. So I’ll be the first to admit that the “Wow” factor has slowly diminished with each new sequel pumped out, stretching the concept thinner and thinner. Assassin’s Creed is actually pretty young as an IP, which should raise alarms given how familiar it’s all beginning to feel year after year.
But I doubt Ubisoft is unaware of this. Tapping a time that history has since gentrified beyond recognition, giving us the biggest open-world environment in the series yet, trapping me out at sea where scoundrels live as kings and the rest live with a knife to their throat…Black Flag seems eager to recapture the unfamiliar; happily plunging players into the unknown. And that’s exactly what this franchise needs.
Expect Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag on the PC, PS3, Wii U, Xbox 360, and the PS4 (along with graphical enhancements, Dualshock 4 implementation, and some unannounced surprises).