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Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag's systemic nature encourages stealth and surprises

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Assassin's Creed 4's system design

Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag will be much more systemic than its predecessors, which will give players more options in how they play and more variety in the situations they encounter, according to lead writer Darby McDevitt.

Black Flag will feature what McDevitt describes as a "seamless open world" where players will be able to transition from land to sea without load screens. The only exceptions that he noted were for big cities and jungle islands, which require loading screens because of the number of assets and AI entities involved. In a demo of the game shown to Polygon, McDevitt managed to chase a character from land onto a boat before starting a boat chase, which led to a naval battle. During this battle, he was able to leap from his ship into the enemy's and perform a series of swift assassinations. This was all completed seamlessly.

According to McDevitt, the developers wanted to make the game an open world experience where events are unscripted, which would then allow for opportunities like the scenario just described.

"The thing with making an open world game is you always want to make these systems link in such a way that surprising things happen," he said. "I was playing [the game] one time and I had an assassination contract on a small jungle island. I saw that a massive Man-Of-War was guarding it, and I knew that my ship wasn't upgraded enough to accomplish the mission.

McDevitt told Polygon that the game's main path is around 60-65 percent set on land with 35-40 percent of the time spent at sea.

"So I parked it around the corner and, even though it was a pain in the ass, I jumped off my ship and I swam all the way to the island. It probably took about two and a half minutes to get there because it was so far away. But, because of this, the Man-Of-War never saw me, I snuck onto the island, I killed my target, and then I took a rowboat back to my ship and sailed away.

"That's something that can happen when you have systems that are integrated in a very friendly way where they work together and not against each other."

McDevitt told Polygon that the game's main path is around 60-65 percent set on land with 35-40 percent of the time spent at sea. He said that there are no scripted scenarios in the game aside from within missions, and there won't be any scripted encounters at sea. One example he gave was of a completely unscripted ship chase that can happen. If a player engages in a battle with a much more powerful ship and finds that they have to flee, the attacking ship could feasibly chase them from the top of the Bahamas to Jamaica. Players can try to break their attacker's line of sight by using coastlines and islands, or they can lure their enemies into storms or even try to make the enemy ship cross paths with a different ship so that they will engage in their own battle.

The systemic design of Black Flag will also open up more opportunities for stealthy gameplay. According to McDevitt, Black Flag brings back the open-ended assassination missions of the original Assassin's Creed and the AI has been tweaked to be less aggressive. This means that when a player encounters enemy guards, rather than be relently chased into a confrontation that they can't get out of, the player will have opportunities to lose the guards and jump back into stealth mode.

"The key components to good stealth as the guard AI, the tools available to the player to be stealthy and, oddly enough, the tools not available to be stealthy."

"We tweaked it in such a way so if there's a huge sugarcane plantation and the guards are chasing you, you can run into the sugarcane field and the guards will follow you, but they will be confused because they don't know where you've gone, so you can double back on them and take them out and hide their bodies.

"The key components to good stealth as the guard AI, the tools available to the player to be stealthy and, oddly enough, the tools not available to be stealthy."

McDevitt said the development team removed the brotherhood so players can't sneak through an area and and call on the brotherhood to just kill everybody. The team has also added a sleep dart in place of the quick poison dart so that players don't feel too powerful.

"We want to give players to tools to feel like even if things do go crazy and they find themselves in a confronting situation, they can maybe kill a few guys and get back into stealth mode right away," he said. "We removed the tools that made stealth irrelevant."

More details about Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag will be revealed at E3 this week. You can read Polygon's earlier coverage of the game here.