You’ll have to forgive us, but we’re getting déjà vu. A year ago, we were presented with a new Assassin’s Creed, one that moved the series to the New World, changed its systems and promised wholesale franchise reinvention. And now here we are being presented with a newer Assassin’s Creed, a game that moves the series to an even newer New World, changes its systems and promises wholesale franchise reinvention. We’ve made a note to keep our schedule free this time next year, but in the meantime we can’t help – despite our cynicism – being intrigued by the promises made by the fourth numbered game in the series, subtitled Black Flag.
Assassin’s Creed III’s naval sections, fantastic as they were at conveying wave-tossed, wind-lashed atmosphere alongside accessible navigation and combat mechanics, seemed a curious addition to a series with its origins in stealth, subtlety and intrigue. Connor the naval captain and Connor the Assassin didn’t quite gel. One was a seditious rebel who skulked behind enemy lines, sliding hidden blades into historical figures’ rib cages; the other was a brazen commander, bellowing orders over the thunder of cannon fire.
Edward Kenway, Connor’s grandfather, seems an altogether more unified personality. He’s a selfish, dashing rogue with Assassin training who favours twin cutlasses over hidden knives and is more interested in enriching himself as a result of his maritime scrapes than he is in helping to achieve the political self-determination of an oppressed colonial class. He’s a pirate, in other words, captain of the Jackdaw and Black Flag’s star.
Of course, does Edward even matter when he’s destined to spend so much time behind a ship’s wheel? When the Assassin’s series first appeared, it offered the freeing fantasy of unrestricted movement through urban spaces, but it’s freedom of a different sort that Black Flag wishes to provide. Ubisoft Montreal has taken the traditional Assassin’s Creed world map and splintered it, offering players a fictionalised West Indian archipelago to explore. Traditional cities such as Nassau and Kingston will feature, as will fishing villages, slave plantations and tropical paradises untouched by man. None of these places will be focus of the Black Flag, however – that would be the ocean waves.
Assassin Creed III’s naval combat was weighty and spectacular, but it wasn’t enough to sustain a full adventure, as game director Ashraf Ismail admits. “Naval combat was in ACIII, it was something we started there, but what was shown was a tease,” he says. “We’ve really put a lot more depth and a lot more gameplay into this system. One of the areas we push it is the new enemies.”
So a typical naval encounter might see the player spot – with the aid of Edward’s spyglass – a ship in the distance, its hull filled with loot ripe for the plunder. You’ll also notice it’s a charger, a ship type that, in Ismail’s words, “lines up a path towards your ship, builds up speed and rams you as hard as [it] can.” Having assessed the situation, you’re able to figure out a counterstrategy. Last year’s game had different ammo types and other, changeable ship upgrades, but we suspect outfitting the Jackdaw for the task at hand will be more important still in Black Flag. And unlike Assassin Creed III, if you cripple an opponent and wish to board their ship, you won’t have to face an obvious transition.
“This is one world, and it’ll be seamless and fluid,” promises creative director Jean Guesdon. “So the ability to go from ship to land, from ship to ship and from land to ship will be one fluid loop. We really want to make one naval open-world game. We don’t want to make one game on the ground and one on the sea.”
There’s a lot more to Black Flag, however: diving to the bottom of the sea to scavenge from the ocean floor, plenty of traditional Assassin’s Creed combat and stealth sections, and the exploration of crumbling Mayan ruins. And, of course, there’s a brand new present-day frame narrative, too. But nothing thrills quite so much as ACIV’s central promise, a design idea that harkens all the way back to Elite: Ubisoft is going to give you a ship and a world to explore.