Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag may be the franchise's mid-life crisis.
Set in the hot waters and islands of the Caribbean during the 18th century, the player inhabits the role of a charismatic pirate named Edward Kenway – father of Assassin Creed 3's Haytham Kenway.
Edward Kenway's the ultimate dad, a bleach blond surfer-type that cares mostly about himself and his hot ride, a ship he can trick out however he'd like.
Kenway's adventure lasts over a decade, starting around 1715. In his swashbuckling shoes, the player will captain said ship, free to hunt whales, visit hidden coves, search for sunken treasure and do all sorts of things you'd expect from Jack Sparrow, but not Ezio Auditore.
Judging from the hour-long presentation of slides, trailers and gameplay we were shown in New York City last week, Black Flag looks like a spin-off game. It's an open-world pirate simulator, a marked departure from the more narratively linear Assassin's Creed games that came before it.
About those first five Assassin's Creed games: released within only six years, they were about the members of a secret guild of assassins who thwart the conservative powers that be throughout history by climbing up tall landmarks and parkouring through crowded cities. The controlling power (church, state) and location (Middle Ages Israel, Renaissance Italy) changed, but the basics held true: lots of climbing, familiar cities, and a damn-the-man attitude.
From what we've seen, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag will zig where its predecessors zagged. At first blush, there's no carefully crafted subtext or political intrigue. The game will feature Templars, we're told, but in what capacity is unknown.
The hero, Kenway, is a member of the Assassins, but his allegiance seems to lie mostly with himself. The enemy now is the collective of rival pirates — one of history's great anti-establishment groups that operated on the periphery of civilization. And the setting is the Caribbean, a collection of small island towns separated by hundreds of miles of azure ocean water and emerald jungle.
Where the earlier games exaggerated real history, the marketing materials for Black Flag attempt to legitimize legend. "Their true stories, rough and unvarnished," says the voiceover in one of the trailers. A publicist followed that up later, saying Ubisoft is giving pirates "the HBO treatment." That's marketing speak for serious and mature drama ensconced in violence and sex — the latter of which is hinted at in the trailer when Edward gets out of bed with a naked white woman and then a naked black woman appears from behind her.
(This is a particularly unusual moment. The reveal feels as though it's meant to be shocking — Two women! Two races! — but it just reads tawdry. This sort of on-the-nose sexuality has been pushed to the back of the franchise, so now it's disorienting seeing a God of War-style nude scene appear in promotional materials.)
Anywho, those pirates include Blackbeard, Charles Vane, Calico Jack, Anne Bonny and Ben Hornigold — all of whom were real people. The developers promise to drop these characters and our hero into notorious events like Bartholomew Roberts' assault on a fleet of 42 Portuguese ships and the wreck of the Spanish Armada.
By this point in the meeting, it hit me that we'd heard nothing about tall landmarks or crowded streets. No one had said the word stealth. In a later conversation with a Ubisoft publicist, I was told the developers were putting a lot of effort into improving stealth, which they believe is a pillar of the franchise. Stealth, he said, will be useful for the infiltration and the exploration of islands. He also said the open-ended assassinations, which felt all but stripped from AC3, will return.
What struck me as the most significant change was what developers called "systemic gameplay" in a "true open-world."
Or in layman's terms, the development team wants the player to freely collect treasure, start fights, sink boats, investigate temples, trek jungles, and uncover shipwrecks without being bothered by all the load screens and lengthy cut-scenes that concealed transitions in previous Assassin's Creed games.
And while the player is going about this voyaging, events will randomly occur within the game world. A developer gives an example in which the player, on the way to a mission, accidentally encounters an enemy ship the size of a small island. Out armed, he lures it into a tropical storm that just happens to be nearby, weakening the ship. He then boards and commandeers the superior vessel.
Edward Kenway will have new abilities fit for the larger, more aquatic world. He will be the first hero that can swim deep underwater, customize his ship and hunt whales. There is no clearer evidence the Assassin's Creed series has ballooned in scope than the words "hunt whales."
Buzz words: Black Flag features "systemic gameplay" in a "true open-world"
Is Black Flag the beginning of a new Assassin's Creed franchise?
A hunter of whales loosely tied to the assassins, Kenway sounds like quite the pirate. When I compared him to Han Solo, Lacoste nodded and one-upped me, "He's like Bodhi from Point Break."
After being lavished with praise in Assassin's Creed 3, sailing moves into the foreground in Black Flag. A developer compares its many types of enemy ships. Some are fast and ram their steel bows into the flank of your ship. Others are slow and packed with heavy weaponry.
The player can use a telescope, or a "spyglass" in piratical terms, to spot ships or islands, and an icon-based overlay explains what weapons, treasure, animals or secrets await. The sun's place in the sky and stars also can be used to guide the ship — a touch seemingly plucked from the Peter Molyneux playbook.
The Caribbean setting is gargantuan, including Cuba, the Bahamas, Nassau and the southern tip of Florida.
With that much space to cover, Raphael Lacoste, Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag's Art Director, says it was important there be plenty to do on the seas.
He says the game will include varied locales, including jungles, temples, fishing villages, plantations, Mayan ruins, the Coconut Islands, hidden coves, underwater shipwrecks, pirate-controlled ports, British colonial towns and of course beaches.
Sylvain Trottier, an Associate Producer on Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, says the player will be free to go anywhere they like, but during the presentation he hinted at the idea of bigger and bigger ships gating portions of the game, motivating the player to explore, collect and upgrade so that they can progress.
Let's read into one other change: the subtitle.
Knowing the conventions of video game titling it feels as in Black Flag, Ubisoft has created a secondary world for the franchises' expanding mythos. Sort of like what Activision did when it split its Call of Duty franchise in half with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Black Flag seems to be much less interested in the confining story and missions of its predecessors and more in the open world and freedom of the seas. It's a departure from the traditional Assassin's Creed experience — free running up, under and through giant, crowded cities. Considering we saw five Assassin's Creed games in six years, this departure is more than welcome.
And for a mid-life crisis, the series could do much worse. (See: Assassin's Creed: Orlando Nights.)
I have just two colossal asterisks to append to my impressions.
First, we don't know if perhaps the staples of the Assassin's Creed universe are buried within the ports and jungles of the Caribbean. Ubisoft focused on the mystery and intrigue of pirates, but being an Assassin's Creed game, there may be more to what's happening beneath the surface.
And second, nearly everything presented was conjecture. The developer said what the player could do and made considerable promises. But the gameplay we were shown was a series of animations spliced together. We saw some sword fighting and shark stabbing, but we didn't see a game played in any way a player would experience it. The "big picture" presentation is becoming an increasingly popular way of introducing games to the press and subsequently gamers.
A major asterisk: We didn't see real gameplay
Ubisoft plans to release Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag for PlayStation 4, Wii U, PS3, Xbox 360, PC and "other next generation consoles." We were told a brief montage of gameplay was pulled from current generation hardware, and that the next-generation version of the game will look noticeably better.
If there's one thing Black Flag and Assassin's Creed 3 have in common, it's their developer promising the moon. Now, we'll wait a few months to see if they deliver it.