You’ve likely read the rumours and scrutinised the imagery, but now the truth is finally out. Ubisoft has lifted the lid in a big way on the next title in their progressively more ambitious franchise, and the whisperings of piracy appear to have been entirely grounded in fact.
This autumn, gamers for every platform (including the imminent PlayStation 4, it’s been confirmed) will be able to hoist the titular black flag in search of adventures in assassination. Journalists and bloggers were invited en masse to London to a secretive Ubisoft press event, and PopBucket was in attendance as the curtain was finally lifted and the speculation was ultimately laid to rest.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was unveiled by a swarthy and poetic series recap, which swiftly launched into a moody trailer of the infamous pirate Blackbeard telling his men about our new protagonist. This time around, Assassin’s Creed is coming home as we take control of the English Edward Kenway, who after the historically factual mass layoffs enacted by the British Navy in 1715 has elected to become a buccanneer in the 18th Century Caribbean.
We were invited to ‘weigh anchor and chart a new course as gentlemen of fortune’, and as Blackbeard waxed lyrical to his men about Kenway’s exploits, a skull and crossbones flag neatly framed by the Assassins logo flew high on the mast.
You’ve probably surmised that Edward Kenway’s surname is a dead giveaway to his lineage. He is indeed the father of the deadpan badass that was Haytham Kenway in Assassin’s Creed III, and therefore Connor’s grandfather. However, you’ll be pleased to know Edward’s got much more charisma than our arguably stoic protagonist from last year’s Colonial American title.
A master of combat, Kenway’s also an abject womaniser, seen leaving the boudoir of barely-clad wenches and casually stabbing a man with his hidden blades before sauntering off with his courtesan on the arm. He’s a rogue, he’s a vagabond, he’s a brash and sardonic glory-seeker; in other words, Edward Kenway is a pirate.
All impressive stuff, but it wasn’t long before the true scope of the game was shown off. As Ubisoft explained that Black Flag, secretly in development since 2011, contains the same ‘historical reverence’ as previous titles, we were assured that there’d be no ghost ships, voodoo or rubber chickens with a pulley in the middle. The tumultuous age of piracy as a historical period was more than rich enough for the game to paint a canvas upon, and it seems the strokes of said canvas are broader than ever.
As Europe squabbles over the New World, disenchanted British sailors are turning to piracy in increasing numbers. True legends of the age were revealed to be in attendance within the game’s narrative, such as ‘gentleman pirate’ Benjamin Hornigold, the dapper and psychopathic Calico Jack, the ruthless Charles Vane, the saucy Anne Bonny and of course the ferocious Blackbeard himself.
Ubisoft promise the final game to contain over 50 unique locations, but the franchise’s Creative Director Jean Guesdon took the stage to emphasise that this did not mean ’50 maps’. A huge portion of the Caribbean is represented in the game, and thrillingly the entire thing is promised to be a seamless experience. It’s not that the player would leave the city of Havana in Cuba (said to be of a similar design ethos to AC II‘s Florence), then traverse the sea in an overworld map. The process of going from land to sea and back again is one fluidic process as you explore the verdant Caribbean in Kenway’s ship, the Jackdaw.
Ubisoft are aiming to make this game the most varied in locations ever in the series. There’ll be hidden coves, plantations, port towns and fishing villages, alongside underwater expeditions using a diving bell to score plunder from the seabed. At one point, Kenway was even shown freely swimming under the sea having a swordfight with a shark!
The three main cities of the game are promised to be vastly varied. Cuba’s aforementioned Havana is stated to be the ‘Capital of the Caribbean’, with the expected Spanish colonial architecture. Jamaica’s British colony of Kingston, meanwhile, is more evocative of the frontier cities of Assassin’s Creed III, as well as a centre of industry. Meanwhile, history tells us that pirates effectively formed their own lawless republic long before America’s foray into democracy, and this villainous alliance is evident in the pirate city of Nassau.
Whilst sailing the Caribbean aboard the Jackdaw, Edward Kenway and his crew will find forts to raid (seamlessly from initial ocean cannon attack to storming it by land), Mayan ruins to explore, desert islands to visit and jungles to traverse. Ubisoft were coy to provide the full details, but Guesdon hinted that because Kenway doesn’t have the benefit of AC III‘s Connor’s ancestry and upbringing, he might not be as adept at freerunning in a forest as his Native American grandson.
It’s insisted that the age of Carribean piracy represented the ‘perfect world’ for Ubisoft to expand the game for its official fourth instalment. With the naval combat of the third game now transformed into a means of overworld navigation, it goes without saying that there’s been plenty of additions made to this gameplay mechanic. Upgrades aplenty are promised for your ship, whilst Kenway carries a spyglass allowing him to zoom in on locations as well as vessels, at which point the game clues you in on what secrets and treasures they hold. Ships are dynamically sailing the Caribbean going about their business and the player is free to engage them at will, though bear in mind that Ubisoft’s staunch new commitment to progressive gameplay means that some vessels will be simply too powerful to take on too early in the game.
So… don’t take on that hundred-gun galleon when you first get your hands on the Jackdaw, then.
Boarding parties are now fully represented. Whereas the third game slung Connor on an enemy ship via the power of cutscenes, this time Edward Kenway will actively give the order at the player’s command to release the grappling hooks. As the ships become entangled, the player is free to lead the assault as he or she sees fit.
Kenway could swing from the Jackdaw to the enemy vessel on a rope in true swashbuckling style, or could use his innate Assassin training to freerun across the rigging and masts to get from one vessel to the other, then striking from above. You could even, it was explained, dive into the sea, swim around the far end of the enemy ship and clamber aboard for a stealth attack while your crew creates a diversion.
Or you could charge headlong into battle with your crew by your side, naturally. Guesdon advised players to look after their crew and keep lost crewmen replenished, however. A hale and hearty crew means a greater strikeforce when engaging the enemy. Diverse areas to upgrade are also promised for the Jackdaw itself, which will prove crucial as you aim to take down ever more powerful enemies and thereby land ever more epic hauls of lucre, or find locations powerful vessels have blockaded from your reach.
Enemy ships are said to belong to one of five archetypes, but Ubisoft were only content to showcase one for now; the Charger. This small, speedy ship makes a nuisance of itself by ramming the Jackdaw with its prow, meaning you’ll need to be nimble yourself to incapacitate the vessel and score the booty. Weapons at your disposal include the classic cannon, the mortar, the swivel gun and aquatic mines to slow down pursuers.
It’s not just ships you’ll be up against either, as sailing the Caribbean can throw all sorts of happenstances your way. You might decide to hunt down a whale with your harpoon, or explore a shipwreck, and the Jackdaw and her crew could be beset by a storm en route to any number of adventures. The storyline, too, continues the Creed tradition of twisting historical events through its own viewpoint. Ubisoft rattled off a series of historic events we could expect to see, including the marooning of Charles Vane (apparently with Kenway in attendance), or the epic sea battle that saw a lone pirate ship take on forty-two Portuguese vessels solo and emerge triumphant. How about 1715, when the Spanish armada was wiped out by a hurricane, washing treasure ashore that goaded so many disillusioned, unemployed sailors into going on the account in the first place? How about Ubisoft’s teasing of the British Navy’s assault on Nassau’s pirate havens and the ‘explosive escape’ promised to players?
It’s been a long time since anyone has tackled the pirate genre in a videogame with such dedication to accuracy, yet with such a big budget and multinational team at their disposal. Multiplayer is confirmed to be returning in much the same way as before, but with some new modes. Of course the maps and characters on offer are suitably piratical this time around.
One particularly big surprise explained to us, after AC III‘s tidying up of Desmond’s storyline, is the ‘modern’ aspect of the game. As previously hinted with former titles, the in-universe corporation of Abstergo Entertainment has been leveraging Animus technology to create recreational products and videogames. Monsieur Guesdon smiled wryly as he told us that on December 21st 2012, the date foretold throughout each game in the series thus far, the world of Assassin’s Creed ‘merged’ with our own. Because Desmond’s tale is done and because we’re beyond the franchise’s 2012 modern-story focus, we were told that ‘Ubisoft has been working with Abstergo Entertainment’ to incorporate us as Animus players. In other words? We are now the modern heroes of Assassin’s Creed by playing the game itself! In essence, this is now the storyline direction of the series, though all we’ve seen before also remains canon.
Is anyone else unsettled that this implies Ubisoft are actually Templars?
As the onslaught of information drew to a close, Ubisoft ended their presentation with some sumptuous gameplay footage. Graphically, the game retains the style of its forebears, with the same visual punch as Assassin’s Creed III. However, the Caribbean setting lends it a rich and lush vibrancy as the ships roll and tumble over the ocean with a grand and rollicking grace. Architecture throughout the various cities and fishing villages is as varied as you’d expect when the great powers of Europe get thrown together in the New World, and the foliage is colourful and inviting.
Kenway himself retains the classic shoulder-rolling Assassin swagger of Ezio, Connor and more in his smoothly animated stride. He wears two pistols on a bandolier and the classic white hood, though his full ensemble combines the ruffled sleeves of Auditore’s Renaissance style with the cool sweeping coats of Connor’s era. He’s no hook-handed parody of a pirate, but has the confident stride and grand attire of the series’ finest, embellished by that splendid black coat and a blood-red cummerbund.
As the show ended and countless journalists staggered, minds racing, from the screening room, we had the chance to catch up with some of Ubisoft’s PR team. Naturally they’re excited that knowledge of Black Flag is finally in the open after years of secrecy, but admitted that it was unfortunate some information leaked out early. Having said that, the posters, imagery and box art some of us have already seen is only scratching the surface of what appears to be a deep, multifaceted game. With the Caribbean at players’ disposal and such varied ways of exploring it, it seems Ubisoft have a very clear view of what it is they want to achieve with this title.
Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag hoists its colours across the globe this autumn, on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Wii U and PC. We’re sure even this explosion of information is just a taste of what Ubisoft have to come as time goes on, and rest assured we’ll be keeping our spyglasses trained on the horizon for further news as it emerges.
Check out the world premiere trailer below: