Next-gen haystacks look awesome

Before E3 officially got underway, a select few of us in the game-journalism community were able to go behind closed doors and get a peek at Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Not only did we get a taste of what our colleagues in the industry would see during the show, but we also saw exclusive content that won’t be available on the floor or shown during any of the E3 press briefings. For those of you keeping track, the demonstration featured a PS4 build of the game.

We’ve been told since the game was announced several months ago that, more than ever before, players will be given a variety of choices in Assassin’s Creed IV. An emphasis on stealth will return, but it won’t be forced down players’ throats if they prefer a more forward approach. Each mark has a multitude of ways they can be eliminated, and the open seas will be chock-full of uncharted beaches and islands—and exploration is up to the player.

In our demo, we finally got to see these ideas implemented in actual gameplay and into mission types we’ve come to expect from Assassin’s Creed. The first mission we saw was a sidequest from the always-friendly carrier pigeons, who never know that each flight they make promises the death of a Templar when their messages are read. In this mission, Edward needed to eliminate twin Templar brothers operating on the island of Grand Cayman.

Before we get any further, let me just talk about how stunning the game looked. This first section in Grand Cayman was a small fishing village that gave a great sense of how the foliage and water will look in-game. The water was so blue and crystal clear that you’d think it stepped right out of a travel brochure; the trees were also far smoother and more varied than in Assassin’s Creed III and were adorned with brightly colored fruit, with each branch moving independently of its brethren. This level of detail continued throughout our demo: Ever-present haystacks, underbrush players can even duck into, and the buildings of Havana’s unique colonial architecture came to life with spectacular visuals.

Anyway, back to the task at hand. After working his way through the small fishing village, Edward came upon the twins, who he marked with his Eagle Vision. One was sitting at a bar, the other bartering with a local salesman. Edward approached the bar, and quietly stabbed the first brother with his hidden blade, and let his carcass slump unceremoniously to the floor. The second brother had noticed and a chase familiar to previous games had begun.

It was here that we began to see some of the new gameplay implementations of Assassin’s Creed IV. The first was free-aiming with your guns. Instead of automatically locking on with his flintlock pistol, a traditional aiming reticule came on the screen and Edward unceremoniously missed, the shot sailing past the still surviving twin’s right leg, as our demo player promised us it would be alright.

Continuing the chase, the twin made it to the docks where his ship was held and he promptly began trying to make his escape. Unluckily for the twin, Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw, was parked right next to him and suddenly this chase through a crowded market turned into a chase on the high seas as we boarded our ship with a rousing “huzzah!” from the crew.

This led to our first naval battle in the demo. The first new addition that caught my eye is that enemy ships now have lifebars above them, giving you a much better sense of how much damage you’ve done to a ship. It’s also a necessary indicator for what came next. After substantially weakening the fleeing twin’s ship with familiar buckshot from the Jackdaw’s cannons, the demo gave us the option to pull up close to it in order to board it. Grappling hooks launches from the hands of our crew and pulled the crippled vessel towards the Jackdaw. It was pointed out that we could have just sunk the ship and still completed the mission, but this would also be our first chance to see the benefits of boarding ships when prompted.

In typical Assassin fashion, Edward dispatched much of the crew and the final twin to complete the mission. But we still had this ship drifting, now captainless, across the Caribbean Sea. It was here the game offered us an interesting array of rewards for successfully boarding and dispatching the crew. We could cannibalize the ship to help fix the Jackdaw, recruit the crew of the ship to add to the Jackdaw’s, or promote a crew member to captain the ship and send it off to be part of Edward’s private fleet. The demo driver chose this final option and we were introduced to a new mechanic in the form of “Kenway’s Fleet”.

Similar to how in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation you had a ship to trade goods for throughout the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, in Black Flag Edward can build up his own personal fleet to harass unsuspecting vessels. There won’t be any loss of goods here, however. If your fleet should find success on their own individual adventures, all the bounty will find its way to Edward’s pockets.

We were then introduced to one of the ways to command the Fleet and that was through a new, free Assassin’s Creed IV companion app for iPad and Android devices. Not only would this app serve as a way to command our fleet, but it could serve as a permanent world map that you could use to set waypoints live in game with. This is to help keep the action constantly moving so you don’t have to hit the pause button as much. In that same vein, the Animus entries for real world locations, people, and items you may come across on your adventure can also be read through the app, whether you are playing or not. No better way to destroy pacing than reading a few thousand words on game lore, so why not do it when not playing the game?

The next instance of gameplay we saw was one of those uncharted locations I mentioned earlier. A shipwreck caught our eye, washed up against a small sand dune. After jumping off the ship and exploring a little, we came across a recently deceased pirate being gnawed on by a bushel of crabs. After searching his body, we found a treasure map that pointed us to a Spanish controlled island. After sailing through a randomly generated storm, we reached the island and we had the options again of running in and hoping our fighting skills were up to the challenge, or going a stealthier route.

Looking to show off the stealth mechanics, our demo driver took us up a longer, but quieter path along the side of the island, where we only had to dispatch a single soldier before coming across a scene where two unfortunate souls had been a little less stealthy and were caught by some of the Spanish soldiers.

In this scene, we got another taste of the improved HUD, as soldiers now had big white circles above their heads to indicate if they had seen us or not. With a quick whistle, we got the soldiers to come investigate an area where we wouldn’t be anymore by the time they got there, and their circles had turned yellow.  Then we engaged them in combat, where we saw the circles turn red, and we ran them through to rescue the slaves and offer them jobs upon the Jackdaw. We then dug up the buried treasure, synchronized a nearby viewpoint as it was explained they now serve as fast travel points due to the massive size of Black Flag’s world, and headed back to the Jackdaw.

Where most folks at E3 would see this as the end of their demo, we had the chance to continue onward and we’d have been fools to not agree to press on. So, after boarding the Jackdaw again, we came across a heavily defended fort. In order to quell some of the enemy naval activity in the area, we began bombarding the fort’s walls with cannon fire, and sailed out of harm’s way expertly by the demo driver.

After toppling over all six of the forts main towers and walls, Edward and his crew leapt from the Jackdaw and stormed the fort. Once inside, again there were multiple pathways for Edward to take as he began his search to kill the fort’s Governor. Some had more enemies, while others required more free-running sequences, but either way, once you struck down the Governor, the fort belonged to Edward.

Forts aren’t just important for bringing enemy influence down either. We were told a contingent of crew is left behind so that if you are ever in trouble, you can lure enemy ships near your fort and the fort will pummel the enemy ships with cannon fire as well, giving you a permanent ally out on the ocean.

The final bit of gameplay we saw took place in Havana. If anyone had worried that the team behind AC IV would focus too much on the water aspects of the game, you don’t need to worry anymore. Seeing Havana actually triggered flashbacks in my mind to AC II and the team admitted Florence was a heavy influence when it came to its layout and design. Running along rooftops and stealth assassinating posted sentries never looked as good. And the city is absolutely a sprawling urban area full of the life and detail you would expect from any Assassin’s Creed city.

But we were here with a purpose. A local trader had gotten too big for his britches and he needed to be put down. He had grown paranoid, however, and had soldiers stationed around his villa at all times. Here more so than any other gameplay segment we saw was where many options were laid out before us. We could sneak in and do the dirty deed up close and personal in the shadows. Wait until he approached a powder keg just asking to be blown up and fire a bullet at it. Use our berserker blowdarts and have one of his precious bodyguards do the deed for us. Or run in swinging our swords like a madman and hope for the best. I voted for the powder keg option, and that’s what we did. I like explosions.

In order to escape our loud assassination however, we saw a bit more of Edward in direct combat. Much like Connor with his Tomahawk, Edward is an expert with his dual cutlasses and he would often use them both to really drive the point home on his foes, slicing open necks, stabbing both of them through a ribcage, or a flurry of seemingly mad slashes that would cut foes into ribbons.

Even though our demo was only 40-minutes long, we got a sense of the countless acts Edward could do to help the Assassin’s cause as well as forward his own standing in the world. The options given to us cater to gamers of all kinds and the fact that no one style trumps any other will help Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag possibly resonate with fans and newcomers to the series alike. And the sheer scope of the Caribbean Sea looks to hopefully assure gamers that this is the model of what a pirate game should be from here on out.