We’re not sure at what point Ubisoft finalised the script to Assassin’s Creed IV, but Edward Kenway couldn’t be a better antidote to his grandson if he tried. Connor’s dour attitude and whining tone have been replaced by the cocksure swagger and confidence of a man who just can’t wait to rip his vest off and start harpooning sharks. Connor’s irritating habit of taking orders from people he didn’t even trust, in support of cause he didn’t fully believe, meanwhile, has been swapped out for a story propelled by its star, chronicling Kenway and his allies’ attempts to establish a piratical republic in the Caribbean. Edward’s everything Ezio di Autidore was, and everything his own grandson wasn’t, in short, and should make an excellent protagonist for what seems to be a swashbuckling yarn.
Still, the best stuff from Assassin’s Creed III, namely, its more organic, tree-based parkour and naval gameplay, has been retained, with the latter, of course, increased massively in importance. We start our hands-on behind the ship’s wheel, and it’s the same arcadey yet just weighty enough experience as before. The chief difference, of course, is that we have a whole archipelago to explore: with a gorgeously sparkling ocean inviting us to head off course. We will, later, but for now we’re obliged to kill lizards on a tiny island as in introduction to Assassin’s Creed IV’s crafting mechanics. We already know them, however, since they’re also Far Cry 3’s crafting mechanics – three dead lizards later we’ve got ourselves a brand new holster for Kenway’s guns.
On foot, then, this is a familiar game to anyone who’s ever played an Assassin’s Creed. The Caribbean setting does allow for tighter level construction than a city’s urban sprawl – or at least, it allows for islands clearly themed around whatever aspect of Assassin’s Creed’s broad social stealth mechanics you’re supposed to employ during them. A slave plantation provides patches of sugar cane to flit between while eavesdropping on conversations and snatching the owner’s keys, for instance, while a small town filled with soldiers and a oppressed populace provides perches to drop from and violently liberate more crew for the Jackdaw, your vessel. It’s interesting to note the way the resources flow here, and its implications for Black Flag’s priorities: your actions on land feed into you escapades on the sea.
You need crew to board other vessels – boarding being the culmination of Black’s core naval loop of identifying vessels rich in booty, chasing them down, peppering their hull with cannon fire and then either destroying or leaping aboard the ruined the ship. It’s the latter option that offers a thrilling blend of Assassin’s Creed IV’s naval mechanics and the series traditional combat, as you leave the ship’s wheel behind to either swing aboard the stricken vessel or, more stealthily, to dive in the water to swim around behind the defending soldiers. Still, we imagine it may get tiresome in time – the option to take a reduced haul of loot in return for simply blowing the vessel to smithereens is welcome. Of course, if you do that you won’t be able to use said smithereens to repair the hull of the Jackdaw.
There’s countless other diversions when you’re at sea, of course, starting from the trivially incidental: the Caribbean Sea is rife with flotsam that you can pick up simply by sailing past, and that means you rarely point the Jackdaw in a dull straight line, but instead weave between pick ups. There’s hazards, too, such as storms and shockingly large tidal wives that you must sail into head on lest they engulf your vessel. Finally, there’s the more complex distractions, such as underwater wrecks to explore and sea creatures to harpoon. If the attraction of the rather dashing Kenway stripping down to his waist when doing the latter two activities isn’t quite enough to persuade you, then perhaps we should point out the harpooning minigame is reminiscent of nothing quite so much as the lake boss fight from Resident Evil 4. It requires you to keep a straight aim with the weapon from your tiny raft as a bull shark hurtles towards you like a toothy torpedo.
“It’s a coincidence,” says Jean-Sebastien Decant, laughing, when we try to confirm the source of the team’s inspiration. “We just saw the opportunity with the naval sections.” It’s a theme that comes up a lot when the team talks about Assassin’s Creed IV – the ocean setting giving rise to opportunities they simply didn’t have before.
The underwater sections are a perfect example. Our initial disappointment that Ubisoft Montreal hasn’t provided a complete Caribbean Sea seabed to explore was probably inevitable, but it gives away to genuine appreciation of the craft to be found in these coral-reef embedded shipwrecks (Kenway can only dive at predetermined points, usually indicated by evidence of a wrecked ship floating on the surface), that combine alien, undersea beauty with interesting navigation challenges. One mission, located within the campaign, sees Kenway forced to rush through a claustrophobic tunnel before emerging in a school of sharks. We couldn’t fight them directly, and that gives a hint of stealth to the undersea sections, as you hide within fronds or wrecked hulls to escape the creatures you’d happily harppon on the surface.
“It’s a vast world, we created,” explains Decant, “so we decided to have pockets of underwater gameplay where we could focus, rather than having it everywhere”, he says, arguing that dedicated diving spots helped them craft underwater vistas from the coral reefs, and ensured that each dive was unique: “There’s one with lots of shipwrecks, there’s one with a like, a Mayan city underwater.”
They’re beautiful places to explore, and Kenway moves just as fluidly under the water as he does upon the rooftops, weaving between pockets of air and hiding in the reeds from deep sea creatures. It’s telling though, that the most exciting part of our hands-on is also the least typical moment for the series. Black Flag bolts plenty of excitingly piratical systems onto Assassin’s Creed, and it’ll be fascinating to discover whether they feel as fresh in the finished game, with the counter-based combat, simple stealth mechanics and parkour-themed navigation we’ve seen many times before.