Walking the Plank

WARNING: Due to the nature of this preview, there will be spoilers regarding previous Assassin’s Creedgames, especially Assassin’s Creed III. Consider yourselves warned.

The present day setting of Assassin’s Creed always served as a means to explain what we were experiencing in the past. This was done, of course, with Desmond hopping into some form of the Animus to relive his ancestor’s lives to find pieces of the puzzle that would prevent the end of days. But with Desmond’s ultimate sacrifice at the end ofAssassin’s Creed III to save the world, the catalyst to trigger these memories we so enjoyed as gamers is now gone. And yet, the Templar-Assassin War still rages on behind the scenes.

So, before we get into the juicy story and gameplay bits of Edward Kenway and his pirating ways in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag (since it’s been leaked all over the internet anyway), we first wanted to look a bit at the new Animus user that would facilitate us experiencing early 18th century Caribbean life. You. That’s right, the player themselves are being directly inserted into the action. Looking to bring the players closer to the story, the unintentional barrier created by Desmond as a character is now completely removed by the narrative of previous games. Players will have a more personal say over their characters as they become one with the story to help immerse them in the Assassin’s Creed universe. And Game Director Ashraf Ismail was kind enough to explain to us how this works with the Assassin’s Creed canon.

“The Animus technology has progressed forward, so that it allows anybody to go into the ancestry of someone else as long as the DNA is in storage somewhere. And the way this is presented to the player is through Abstergo Entertainment. Abstergo Entertainment is a subdivision of Absertgo Industries, who are the present day Templars. So this is a company that does research on historical figures and historical events for entertainment purposes—or so they say. This is the façade. There’s obviously a darker, deeper intent behind all of this. And then you are hired as a research analyst. You’re told to use the Animus to research the life of this great pirate, Edward Kenway. You’re not told why, but as you progress through the story you will find out that Edward had a major impact on the Assassin-Templar conflict. The Templars of the present day need information about what Edward did in the past. And this is why you’re doing all of this.”

Abstergo Entertainment was introduced in the last game’s multiplayer under a similar premise. Therefore, it’s not a stretch to see this branch of the Templars expanded into another game. Just how the player will play through these modern day scenes, whether it’ll be a first-person experience like Desmond’s memories from Revelations, or something like a character customization suite that allows the game to maintain it’s more traditional third-person perspective, is yet to be seen, but something along these lines to help with the idea of being one with this new character was hinted at in our talks with Ashraf.

Because of this, we know now how we get into the world of Edward Kenway, but we should really look a bit more closely at the man himself. After all, it’s through his eyes most of the game really takes place. Edward’s backstory was explained with him being a charming and charismatic man of British decent who grew up very poor. This poverty led him to becoming very reckless and selfish. Upon adulthood, his only real career option was to join the British navy and once accepted, he was stationed in the West Indies (what we call the Caribbean today). The lure of gold, glory, and fame, however, leads him to quickly going AWOL from the navy and turning pirate. It is while being a pirate that Edward runs across the Assassin’s Order and becomes enamored with their struggle. And here is where we pick up with Edward, torn between the selfish pirate life he has cultivated for himself and the new selflessness of the Assassins and somehow, if he is to survive, he must strike a balance between them.

Edward is not just notable for his own exploits, however. He is also the father of Haytham and grandfather to Connor, two integral characters to Assassin’s Creed III. So even though the guys at Ubisoft weren’t looking to do another full trilogy like they did with Ezio, their focus on the Kenway bloodline was something they knew they wanted to do from the very beginning.

“Really early on, in conception and before this game really was started, the brand was headed toward telling the Kenway story. The Kenway saga. This is something that’s important—that we always try to surprise fans with the hero, with the setting. So at some point it was decided that we’re going to do the Ezio trilogy, and then we didn’t want people to just naturally assume that we’re going to do a trilogy with every hero going forward. So we decided for the next round we’re going to surprise people with the Kenway saga. So that’s what we’re telling now. We’re telling Edward’s side of this saga,” said Ashraf.

Like many Assassin’s Creed games though, the main protagonist can sometimes be lost against the backdrop of the recreated historical landscapes. Whether it was Connor in the American Revolution, Ezio in Renaissance Italy, or Altair in Crusades Era Middle East, the time period plays just as big a role in any game as whoever wields the hidden blade. And it looks like it won’t be any different with Black Flag.

The heart of Assasssin’s Creed IV: Black Flag takes place in the year 1715 in the Caribbean, as previously mentioned. Edward is captain of his own ship, the Jackdaw, and he has developed a reputation so that the likes of many other historical figures of the time, like Calico Jack and Blackbeard himself, know to beware of Edward as he is supposedly more ruthless or single minded than anyone else even these famed pirates have ever met.

And this untamed swathe of the globe is the perfect paradise for someone who finds himself clearly on the wrong side of the law as often as Edward does. Because of this, he will travel frequently on the Jackdaw to different islands to let things cool down when he kicks the hornet’s nest one too many times. Ashraf went into great detail about these unique locations Edward will travel to.

“Our map is centered with Cuba and Havana being one of the major cities. We have Nassau in the Bahamas, Kingston in Jamaica, and we’re bordered by Haiti and Yucatán. This is our game world, and it has 50 unique locations. So this is really the most different and freshest AC game that we’ve ever built. This is the most drastically different world. So three major cities, the first being Havana, is a Spanish-colonized city, which has a European flavor to it. For us, we really referenced Venice from ACII, because we love the rooftop running from ACII, and this city is inspired by that. Kingston, this is a British-colonized city, it’s a very dangerous, very threatening environment. It’s probably the most different AC city that we’ve ever had, because it merges natural environments with the city itself. The city actually had a lot of foliage and trees in it. It’s the first time we’ve had a city that’s dense in mixing houses and buildings plus trees and tree navigation stuff. And finally we have Nassau, which is a pirate haven. And this is a city that goes through a transformation in the game. It begins as the pirate haven, but then becomes besieged by the British. So the player really feels a different mood and atmosphere, and the gameplay actually changes as well here. So those are the three major cities, but we’ll also have tons of other locations, like hidden fisherman villages, plantations, tucked away coves where smugglers hide their goods and you can go in and steal it, really dense and claustrophobic jungles to do an opposite of the really open seas, we have naval forts, Mayan ruins, coconut islands— which are the picturesque image people have of the Caribbean—and a new location, a new setting for Assassin’s Creed, is the underwater.”

All these different locations will offer up many new and interesting gameplay challenges we’ve yet to see from the franchise. Just to accommodate the unique landscape of the Caribbean Sea, Ashraf told us to expect about a 60/40 balance between gameplay on land and at seas. And although Edward’s blonde locks may give him a passing resemblance to Aquaman, how exactly he is to navigate or survive in the underwater segments actually in game is still unclear. But no doubt there is a creative solution waiting for us once we experience those segments beyond Edward suddenly growing gills.

With the sea taking up such a large chunk of the game, it’s no surprise to find out that there has been a lot of focus on what you can now do with your ship. Taking a cue from the Far Cry 3 team, a new dynamic encounter system is being incorporated into the sailing portion of the game so that the Jackdaw never knows just when it may come across enemy British, French, or Spanish vessels patrolling a particular expanse of water. There are also several new mechanics now that will not only allow you to engage these ships, but whether or not you wish to board them and try to plunder their holdings or sink them outright.

And how you go about bringing a ship down or capturing it is completely up to you once you’re in the boarding process. You can have Edward lead the charge with sword in hand, use the Jackdaw’s swivel cannons to continue to wreak havoc on the deck, or even jump off the Jackdaw, swim around to the blind side of the enemy vessel, and clamber up the side to attack the enemy crew from behind. How you choose to do it is up to you. Just be careful, as too many failed encounters could lead to your own crew deciding to abandon ship…permanently.

There is a lot more to your sea faring adventures beyond just random encounters though. You can get goods from more than just enemy ships, as the Jackdaw is also outfitted with harpoons if you feel like going hunting for whale blubber or shark meat. There is also a random storm generator meaning Mother Nature is a foe Edward will have to spit in the face of as well. And a tool called the Spyglass will be to critical to scouting out naval blockades or unexplored islands before Edward actually attempts to interact with them, telling him what he might find there as well as what kind of an enemy force to expect.

Some of the new land gameplay elements we know about focus more on Edward’s signature weapons. Much like how Connor had the tomahawk, Edward wields a weapon unique to his character in dual cutlasses. These large swords make Edward even more of an intimidating persona as he strikes with them as easily as most men would with smaller blades. This isn’t to say he doesn’t also wield the traditional hidden blade, but depending on how much of a pirate you wish Edward to be, his swords are a staple that Assassin’s Creed fans should have a lot of fun wielding.

Another pirate weapon that Edward wields are throwaway pistols. Able to carry up to four at once, Edward can fire these pre-loaded pistols to keep his free flow combos going from a distance and it expands his range in the heat of combat, or allows him to take careful aim through a new third-person shooting system to surprise unsuspecting foes.

The most intriguing aspect of the weapons though may be the new upgrade system that allows you to strengthen whatever you wield. Pistols, blades, and even the Jackdaw itself, can be upgraded to make Edward an even more legendary scourge of the sea, and makes pillaging even more important as you look for key components to improve your items.

Much like the previous Assassin’s Creed games, Black Flag looks to be an adventure that brings its own special twist to an interesting period in world history. All while providing the high level of polish we’ve come to expect in game design and gameplay from the folks over at Ubisoft. If you are a fan of Assassin’s Creed, this latest chapter looks to continue the trend of one-upmanship from the franchise, while finally giving gamers the pirate game we’ve always dreamed of come October 29, 2013, for both current and next-gen consoles. Eye patches optional.