“There it is!” came the first enthusiastic words from one of Edward’s crewmembers as a giant Blue Whale emerged beside their boat, breaching the water in a spectacular dance only this majestic creature is capable of. The pirate’s enthusiasm is carried across the deck and the rest of the crew join in with woos and whistles at the sight. It’s in this moment Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag really presents itself -- here’s a game built around the ideas of killing, looting and pillaging, yet you have a murderous lot like this reacting infectiously to one of nature’s most incredible sights.
It’s not that the game is actually about making puppies out of your rottweiler-like companions, but there’s an angle here yet to be fully explored -- an angle about camaraderie and friendship, about loyalty and respect.
That last part is probably the most poignant here, because on the Black Flag high seas, respecting your station, environment and buddies is about the only thing that’s going to get you through alive.
I’ll avoid talking too much about why Ubisoft thought it would be a good idea to release another game, removed almost entirely from Assassin’s Creed III barring a patriarchal connection and naval combat, because it’s a topic broached in our forthcoming interview with Creative Director, Jean Guesdon, because what we have here is an Assassin’s Creed game unlike any we’ve ever played before, it’s a game that bolsters adventure and exploration alongside combat and stealth, and hey, it even bolsters that in ways we’re not used to with the franchise.
Ahead of showfloor access, AusGamers was given a chance to check out Black Flag, where we were shown a live demo running off a PS4 dev kit, showing off glimpses of the series’ foray into the next-gen space. It’s stunning to look at, and offers up the biggest playspace the franchise has ever seen, with a literal sea of potential as far as traversal and discovery go.
So obviously the game is about pirates and naval combat, but beyond the obvious, it also has much buried underneath its familiar-looking hood, like so much pirate treasure. For one, you have myriad islands to explore, as opposed to a continent or series of cities (though there are three cities represented in the game), and these offer various emergent opportunities as far as player-engagement goes with things like treasure maps (lifted almost entirely from those found in Red Dead Redemption), caves and temples to explore, as well as enemies to engage.
As pirates, you and your crew obviously aren’t aligned to anyone but your own desire for all the phat lewts, but the game does offer up factions by way of the warring Spanish and British, both of whom you can engage as you see fit, but you can also just leave them alone to sort out their own issues. This allows you to simply come in and pick off the limping winner, or enjoy the leftover spoils of battle -- either way, being a somewhat neutral party in the series does present itself with exciting opportunities. For example, you can engage in taking over island forts, manned by either of the aforementioned factions.
These are basically mini-games, or “meta-games”, which have become a staple distraction in the series in the past few entries. And, like another recently-released Ubisoft title, taking over these strongholds will reward with bonuses to your growing armada, where you can even attempt to lure the enemy into each fort’s comfort zone so they attack on your behalf. In fact, there’s a seminal third faction working against you and others in the game, by way of treacherous weather, which you can also use to your advantage and lure the enemy into.
The game’s environment, actually, is probably one of its more stand-out characters, and is easily the most robust and interesting of any Assassin’s Creed entry. It ranges from lush tropical islands, to rough and deadly seascapes, along with the cities mentioned earlier (Havana is apparently an ode to Assassin’s Creed II). Ecology and level-design, as a result, look to be among the best we’ve ever seen, and you’ll be engaging with it on an almost RPG-like leve. It’s still Assassin’s Creed though, just not quite like you remember it.
Notable changes come in the form of using your tablet as an extension to the game, so having an interactive and persistent map next to you, without having to jump into a menu is an impressive new feature (or potentially a friend or partner could man this for you, making for a lite co-op element). Deep Sea diving via a dive-bell (which we know nothing more about apart from the fact that it exists) opens up ideas about expanded exploration not on terra firma, while a more varied approach to taking on contracts where they can just as easily set out on the water for you to make chase should switch things up in new and interesting ways. Crafting is now tied more closely to an overhauled economy system, and the treasure-hunting mentioned earlier offers a lot in the way of simply getting out into this lush, new world.
Synchronisation points are now also Fast Travel points, giving them more purpose, and it was lightly brushed over that Edward’s journey will include him being recruited into the Assassin’s Guild life, which should potentially open up varying differences to how combat is approached -- and how it evolves -- over the experience, but in this space, we definitely need more time with the game.
Finally, the game is obviously focusing quite heavily on the pirate/naval combat side of things, and we were told you’ll be given options like wholly destroying enemy ships, or taking them over to continue to build your own fleet (leaving me to believe there’s likely a very large battle on the seas as one of the game’s major points). The ship-to-ship combat is still very much in line with what you played in AC3, but there are expansions in commanding your crew, what weapons you can use and upgrading (via found blueprints about the world). Oh, and perhaps the most exciting addition is that of the shanty -- players can actually collect sea shanties and then command their crew to sing them. If the next-gen was built for anything, it was built for this.
After just 30-odd minutes of being introduced to this new world, I wanted in. The water effects and visuals are stunning, and the game-world just looks so much more inviting than any other AC I’ve played that I can’t wait. We go into more depth in our interview with Jean, and will be checking out more as E3 rolls on, so stay tuned, but for now, it’s looking pretty Milhouse for Black Flag.