Pirate ships? Check. Bottles of rum? Check. Sword fights atop burning masts? Check. The only things Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – the pirate-themed next chapter in Ubisoft Montreal’s flagship game franchise – is missing at this point are parrots and Johnny Depp.
It’s an unusual new direction for the series, but not entirely unexpected. Last year’s Assassin’s Creed 3, which shifted the action from Renaissance Europe to Colonial America, hinted at the possibilities of Caribbean swashbuckling through its optional naval battles.
The sequences weren’t a core function of the game, but they did turn out to be a big hit with players and critics alike, which gave the developers at Ubisoft the idea for this game. About two years ago – or halfway through the development of AC3 – a secondary team split off to work on deepening the naval aspect into its own standalone adventure.
“We knew we had something special on our hands,” says game director Ashraf Ismail. “As soon as we saw that success, we knew we could do a pirate game.”
Black Flag will hit current-generation consoles and the upcoming PlayStation 4 and Xbox One on Oct. 29. Ismail gave a small group of journalists a 30-minute teaser on Sunday of what to expect, ahead of the official kick-off of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles on Monday.
The next instalment stars Edward Kenway, father of Haytham and grandfather to Connor, the two central characters in AC3. Edward starts out as a self-centred teenager trying to make ends meet during the golden age of Caribbean piracy. The story begins in 1715, with Edward ultimately coming into contact with and joining the secret Assassin society that is central to the series.
While AC3 was set during the American Revolution, Black Flag looks at the considerably less successful attempt to form Caribbean republics.
“It was a bunch of people who decided, ‘We want our liberation, we want to take things into our own hands,’ but then the kings of Europe said, ‘Nope,’ ” says Mr. Ismail. “It failed miserably because these were pirates. They drank too much to be able to be able to create any governance.”
The gameplay itself – the demo shown was the PS4 version playing on a high-end PC – looks stunning. The seas toss and toil with a realistic fierceness while the blue skies and green island flora almost seem alive in their lushness. Giant gecko lizards scurry about Mayan ruins as Edward approaches, as do crabs on the beach.
The tropical beauty is no happy accident – the team behind Black Flag includes a number of programmers who worked on Far Cry 3, one of last year’s best releases. That game too starred a living, breathing tropical paradise as a sort of unofficial character.
Black Flag considerably deepens the naval battles of AC3, with Edward having fine-grained control over his ship, the Jackdaw. The sloop can now fire from any direction, has numerous weapons at its disposal and can be heavily upgraded through the treasure maps hidden around the Caribbean.
Edward can also initiate ship boardings this time around. Once an enemy vessel has been disabled, he can sidle up next to it and jump aboard to plunder its cargo. Similarly, he can also direct his crew to attack land-borne forts which, once captured, unlock nearby side missions, treasures and objectives. Maintaining that crew, meanwhile, is also key to the game – Edward can raise their morale by having them sing, or recruit new followers by rescuing them from villainous Spanish troops.
It’s not all high-seas adventure, though, Black Flag also contains enough Assassin’s Creed roots to please long-time fans. Havana, Kingston and Nassau continue the sort of urban action and roof-running the series has become known for. The cities and large open ocean world – all of which is unlocked early into the game – translate into a new accomplishment for Ubisoft Montreal.
“It’s the most fresh and fluid world we’ve ever built,” Mr. Ismail says. “It was a challenge and outside our comfort zone but we’re starting to see the fruits of our labour.”
Ubisoft’s strategy of releasing an Assassin’s Creed game every year has its share of doubters – it is easy, after all, to kill a franchise by overexposing it. Yet this is the second release in a row that, at least at this point, looks entirely different from what has come before. While Black Flag uses the same basic story backdrop and game fundamentals – climbing, sneaking and assassinating – the naval elements and tropical setting may be enough to set it apart and keep it feeling fresh.
Black Flag also introduces a new story-within-a-story. While each previous game in the series has essentially been a simulation experienced by modern-day assassin Desmond Miles through a virtual reality device known as the Animus, his story wrapped up in AC3. The new game will put the actual player into the role of the VR test pilot, who has been hired by Abstergo Entertainment to research Edward Kenway for mysterious reasons.
Abstergo is, of course, the shell corporation controlled by the Templars, the villainous age-old enemies of the Asssassins. Black Flag thus kicks off the next chapter of that saga.
“We have a pre-defined plan of where this feud is going, probably,” Mr. Ismail says.