Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Open Seas, Open World

If you’ve been worrying about whether Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is being rushed out the door – don’t. The game will have been in development for over two years when it releases – about the same amount of time that Assassin’s Creed II received – with production kicking off in summer of 2011, and is being put together not only by a core team at Ubisoft Montreal, but teams from Annecy, Bucharest, Kiev, Quebec, Singapore, and Sofia as well. There are even some carryovers from the Far Cry team.

Because the game’s open sea setting will have players moving back-and-forth from their ships to the various islands of the Caribbean frequently throughout the story, Ubisoft had one major goal this time around: a truly open, seamless world, with no awkward transitional or loading screens between areas. While it seems pretty obvious that that’ll be great for the franchise’s sandbox characteristics, it’s got a ton of other implications as well.

Building an Open Sea

aciv-screenshot-leak-1The open world will serve as the heart of the experience, greatly assisted by the many enhancements Ubisoft has made to nautical travel. No more artificial “synchronization” barriers blocking your progress; instead, it’s difficulty that will hold you back, as you come across enemy ships that your own might not be equipped to contend with. Unlockable and purchasable upgrades for your ship, the Jackdaw, will give you the firepower you need to hammer through, but will also require you to explore outside of the main story objectives.

Over 50 visitable locations will dot the map, from the three main hubs – the European-modeled Cuban capital of Havana, the Jamaican plantation town of Kingston, and Nassau, the heart of the pirate underworld – to smaller, often optional isles with treasure to sniff out and side missions to undertake. Some are themed after ancient Mayan ruins; others have small plantations or fortified bases; still others are covered in lush jungles, or totally deserted save for a stranded lad or two to add to the ranks of your crew.

It’s all sounding very The Wind Waker on paper, though I imagine on a more appropriate scale and with more emergent opportunities in-between stops.

Those emergent activities will include random encounters with unfriendly ships, which players can approach in multiple meaningfully different ways. There’ll be several classes of ships to encounter, and you’ll be able to use a spyglass to scope them out and decide whether they have loot that’s worth going after or whether they pose too large a threat to take on with your current strength.

aciv-screenshot-leak-3You aren’t just limited to blasting away at another ship’s hull, though this element has been enhanced as well with a free-aim system as well as the ability to increase your firepower from six cannons to 40 or 50 or more. This time, you can make use of boarding hooks to hop aboard an enemy vessel, or slip more stealthily on board by swimming quietly in from the opposite side. Or if the weather favors you, you can lead your enemies into a storm to throw them off-balance.

Though the game emphasizes naval travel much more than Assassin’s Creed III, it’s not abandoning the series’ more traditional city-based exploration and assassination missions. You’ll still climb buildings and run along rooftops, and it appears that the ability to traverse the wilds in interesting ways will be carried over in some form as well. There will be stealth. There will be subtlety. And, at the same time, there will be action. If you attract too much notoriety, the enemies that come after you will gradually move up the difficulty tier rankings.

You’ll also reportedly have more choice in terms of your method of death-dealing for your core assassinations, one of the trademark mechanics of the first game. That means fewer scripted scenarios like the ones from Assassin’s Creed III, and more open-ended objectives that offer a lot more freedom and a lot less hand-holding.

aciv-divingOpen travel isn’t just limited to moving between islands; at times, the game will also call for underwater exploration, pushing you to the sea floor in a diving bell and unleashing you to probe through a wreckage for loot. You’ll have to survive against the ocean wildlife, including sharks and other similarly unsavory beasts. Many of these undersea troves are based on real-world wrecks – some of which, of course, you’ll be instrumental in bringing about.

The Story of Edward Kenway

Here’s where we start to step into spoiler territory. As numerous leaks have confirmed, yes, the main character this time around is Edward Kenway, the father of Haytham Kenway and grandfather of Connor from Assassin’s Creed III.

As the game’s debut trailer suggests, Edward is a cunning and often ruthless pirate renowned for his skills and bravado. Though his trade is far from the noblest of professions, he’ll wind up becoming a member of the Assassin brotherhood, and much of the story focuses on the delicate balance between these two contradictory sides of his life. He seems at first glance to combine many of the best characteristics of previous Assassins: Altair’s rebellious confidence, Ezio’s charm and charisma, and Connor’s… ancestry.

In terms of the setting: the year is 1713. The wars between various European empires have finally ceased with the Treaty of Utrecht, leaving all the seamen who had been in the employ of the various powers that be out of a job. Edward is among them: he began as a captain in the employ of the British Navy, but when peacetime came he found himself sinking to piracy to earn his living.

aciv-blackbeardPirates may be a big part of modern mythology, but this time the Assassin’s Creed team aims to shed light on the historical realities of the trade by revealing the rarely-taught history of the Golden Age of Pirates. No hook-hands in this game, just a focus on real-world pirate great like Blackbeard, Calico Jack, and Charles Vane, among others.

As far as the Assassin’s Creed lore goes, one of the mysteries the game will uncover is how the Kenway family got involved in the Templar vs. Assassin struggle in the first place. It seems Edward’s involvement was a key influence in keeping the conflict going into the present day.

And speaking of the present, there’s no more Desmond this time around. Instead, you’ll play as a recently-recruited Abstergo Entertainment researcher, meant to represent not so much an in-game character but rather you the player as you probe into a history the world has never seen.

Will Ubisoft’s Ambition Deliver the Gold?

The big question on many people’s minds I’m sure is whether all this promise will be delivered in the final product. A number of people – myself included – were rather disappointed with Assassin’s Creed III, which offered a lot in terms of new features and a larger scale but didn’t really feel like the series revolution it was meant to be.

If Ubisoft can nail the potential of an open-world in Assassin’s Creed IV, that could do wonders for repairing the series’ image going forward. If not, perhaps Black Flag‘s going to have to retire the Jolly Roger for a whiter banner.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag will launch for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U on October 29. PC, PlayStation 4, and other “next-gen” versions will be released at a later date.

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