After a couple of hours with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, it appears that it’s best to think of the latest installment in Ubisoft’s annual franchise as a pirate adventure game with some stealth gameplay elements or options, than to think of it as a stealth game in a pirate setting. It’s no bad thing, it’s simply worth setting expectations at the outset.
Edward Kenway is a pirate trained by assassins, who darkens the waters of the Caribbean in the early 1700s. He, along with many famous pirates from the pages of history, intends to set up a lawless republic in the midst of a New World archipelago being hurriedly carved up by two Old World superpowers, Britain and Spain.
From the helm the Jackdaw, Kenway sails the Carribean in search of wealth and freedom, pursuits that put him at odds with series antagonists the Templars. As much of the moment-to-moment gameplay occurs at sea as ashore, and its centrality to Black Flag elevates it far above the meaningless spectacle and money-sink that it was in Assassin’s Creed III.
Most obviously, it’s the primary means of transport around the world of Black Flag, and Kenway must also upgrade his ship if he hopes to compete against the hulking galleons of the Spanish and English flotillas. But far more importantly, transitioning between land and sea is totally seamless.
At any time, Edward can drop anchor and dive into the sea. Or, most compellingly, he can swing aboard a crippled enemy ship and – with swashbuckling panache – force a surrender for greater reward in rum, spices, and coin.
The naval combat that precedes this daring-do is far more entertaining than it was in Assassin's Creed III. The direction of the wind is almost meaningless, and Edward’s crew now reloads with an alacrity that makes Connor’s lads look downright lazy.
Most importantly, a trajectory has been added to broadsides meaning Edward can fire over the crest of a wave rather than having to wait for a level shot. Finally, cannons expose weaknesses that can be shot at with smaller arms for spectacular damage. It’s altogether more brutal and far more enjoyable.
Back on land, Black Flag looks and plays as if it were built on the bones of Assassin’s Creed III’s gameplay, with some lessons from Far Cry 3 judiciously applied. It’s a strong combination, and as enjoyable as it sounds.
“We’ve really tried to focus on a return to stealth,” senior designer Michael Hampden tells Gameplanet. “In the missions you’ve done today and in the future missions you do later in the game, you’ve got a lot of tools to do the missions stealthily.
“You can go in guns-blazing and tear everybody up with your cutlasses if that’s how you like to play the game, but if you want to use things like sleep darts, or berserk darts, or to stalk and air assassinate, that’s perfectly available to you.”
True enough, although while stealth options almost always existed, they appeared to be limited in number, and as the so-called “guns-blazing” approach didn’t appear to have any drawbacks, pondering how to achieve any mission stealthily sometimes seemed less important.
In addition, the sometimes-frustrating chase sequences from Assassin’s Creed III make a return, and while they were hard-fail plot events, they didn’t appear to be key assassinations.
“Far Cry took a lot of influence from Assassin’s Creed in making their games, and as a company we see what other teams are doing and some of those things inspire us,” said Hampden. “Crafting was one of the big pieces that we thought was awesome in Far Cry 3, so Edward can craft new upgrades from himself, he can get new armour, he can get things like those sleeping and berserk darts, he can craft new outfits."
"It’s a big part of the game it allows you to do all sorts of things. You start with one pistol, and you can craft new holsters to carry up to four pistols at a time.”
The natural world in Black Flag is where the influence is felt strongest, whether Edward is hunting for pelts and leather, braced at the bow of a longboat with harpoon in hand, or underneath with a dive bell while sharks slowly circle above.
Running on PlayStation 4, the game is significantly denser and richer than its predecessors. "Both next-gen and current-gen are getting the same gameplay, you're getting the same features, but the next-gen is delivering a visual quality you're never going to get on current-gen," continues Hampden.
"You're getting next-gen physics: on the ocean you're getting ocean foam, plant physics, new lighting and fog effects. Just when we were sailing and you saw the sun coming through the sails and casting shadows on the deck, the deck wash from the ocean spray – these details add so much to the quality of the visuals."
“The other thing that we really focused on was that we had a flawless product at release,” explains Hampden. “We doubled the time we spent on quality control testing, we actually had a full studio devoted to doing nothing but testing Assassin’s Creed, we also did a lot of playtesting. So we have a very fun, fresh and fluid experience in Assassin’s Creed IV.”
Black Flag is shaping up to be a superlative release. It may not be the preeminent stealth game of the year, but it will almost certainly be the finest pirate-themed adventure game released in a generation or more, and that's something we don't intend to miss.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 at the end of this month. It is arriving on next-gen console and PC later this year.