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Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag aims to refresh the formula

Chris Plante co-founded Polygon in 2012 and is now editor-in-chief. He co-hosts The Besties, is a board member of the Frida Cinema, and created NYU’s first games journalism course.

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.)

The Ships

By Emily Gera

Edward Kenway might be taking the lead as Black Flag's assassin, but his ship is being described as the secondary character of Assassin's Creed 4.

While Assassin's Creed 3 was the first in the franchise to initially introduce ship mechanics, Black Flag pushes ocean combat and exploration into the center of the series and turns it into an even more significant feature in this game. This vessel is Kenway's primary means of travel and his only means of survival against enemy galleons throughout this meditation on naval warfare.

Like its predecessor, Assassin's Creed 4 will allow players to customize and upgrade their ship with additional cannon and improved defenses to take on foes of increasing difficulty; however, ship customization becomes all the more important in Black Flag.

The open-world design of Assassin's Creed 4 offers players the chance to explore their way across the Caribbean without the traditional barriers of loading screens. Instead, Ubisoft has adopted a Metroid-like design philosophy that will make accessing certain areas extremely difficult without first beefing up Kenway's vessel with upgrades found using Black Flag's ship customization system in order to prepare it for the battles to come.

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"

Addressing the Problems in AC3

By Arthur Gies

Assassin's Creed 3 had three primary problems:

1. The move away from tall architecture and free-climbing toward free-running introduced various traversal problems (stupid feet, as I think I called them).

2. Constant loads and menu bloat also conspired against the game, wrecking immersion and pacing.

3. And finally, Assassin's Creed 3's lack of a meaningful economy made most of the side missions feel like filler content, even if they were well-integrated otherwise.

Black Flag is addressing these issues, according to the team, though they denied that these guiding principles and concepts were in response to AC3's critical response.

First, they're bringing back tall buildings and stealth via rooftops. Second, the team's emphasis on seamless movement from each gameplay element to the next, and from one environment to another, addresses how compartmentalized Assassin's Creed 3 often felt. And finally, Edward's ship and crew require money to improve, as does his arsenal — you aren't starting with four guns on your chest — which makes side quests an important, vital part of the game.

Of course, we've seen little of this in action. It's all talk until we have the final game in our hands. But the new team within Ubisoft Montreal commissioned to continue the series this fall is saying all the right things.

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.)


Abstergo and Modern Day

Black Flag will be the first game in which the players won't control the series' overarching protagonist Desmond Miles in the present day. Instead, the player will be an employee of Abstergo Entertainment, a subsidiary of Abstergo Industries, the monolithic Templar corporation that's served as an antagonist throughout the series.

At Abstergo Entertainment, you are using an Animus — like the one pictured here, from Assassin's Creed 2 — to research the life of Edward Kenway, the game's lead, for an entertainment product.

The other non-Desmond characters from modern day will return. How? Ubisoft won't say. An obvious guess is that one of them is undercover as the Abstergo employee.

Also, while we're speculating, a number of team members on Black Flag worked on Assassin's Creed: Revelations, the first in the series to incorporate first-person levels. With Ubisoft's developer's emphasis on you working at Abstergo, a first-person section of the game wouldn't be a surprise.

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.Babykayak

Alice: Ubisoft's Plan to Change Storytelling in Video Games

By Chris Plante

Production talent — the sort you'd find in a Hollywood film studio — has accumulated over the past couple of years in the top corner of a cold office building in Montreal. Sound engineers, location scouts, writers and tinkerers have remodeled the window-lit rectangle of desks and rooms into a one-stop shop for storytelling. But they're not making movies or television; they're making video games.

For the next generation of video games, Ubisoft, the publisher responsible for franchises like Assassin's Creed, Splinter Cell and Far Cry, wants to change the way we experience story in games. It believes this small chunk of space, dubbed Alice, will be the catalyst.

The space is as unusual as it is ambitious.

On one side of the rectangle is a fully-operable motion capture room. Though diminutive compared to the warehouses used in Los Angeles, the room is good enough to capture a one-man performance. The room is currently a bit messy because, we're told, the research and development team is working on some technology that's "hush hush." On the opposite side of Alice is a handful of rooms for sound. One room — a plastic capsule that appears to have been shipped in one piece from Mars — is a sound proof chamber for testing new sounds. Another, which looks like a very small lecture space, is equipped for Hollywood-style final mixing.

Continue reading …