After many trailers, theater presentations, and hands-off demos, the time for me to take a controller in my hands and actually play Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is here. Had everything Ubisoft shown me up until now been a clever ruse? Assassin's Creed III didn't come together as well as I'd hoped, but the core of a solid future for the franchise was there. So a great deal of my future hopes are riding on this hands-on.
An Ubisoft employee sits me down and quickly outlines where I can and can't go. Yeah, the game I'm playing is still just a slice of the full title, but it's a pretty big chunk to explore. I get access to a huge expanse of sea and the city of Havana, enough to get a feel for the game. The employee asks if I need any help; I give him a chuckle and tip my invisible top hat in his direction.
In addition to my hands-on demo, I get the chance to speak with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag game director Ashraf Ismail. I begin the on the Jackdaw, the personal ship of ACIV protagonist Edward Kenway. I take a moment to parkour around the ship, which is a mini-level in and of itself. Like the ships in ACIII, you can climb the rigging and jump from mast to mast. When you want to go, you just return to the aft of the ship and take the wheel. It's seamless and rather impressive. I ask Ismail how long it took to get to this point.
"We put a lot of effort into this game; the first year was pure R&D," he replies. "How do you build the Caribbean naval open-world? From building the locations that you can seamlessly enter: how big are they, how complicated are they, what can we have on them? How do we take ACIII's linear missions that were fairly scripted and disconnected from the main content, and make it so it's open-world. You can approach a problem from any angle. You have dynamic weather, dynamic day/night cycles. We spent a year just trying to get the more technical aspect of it to work."
How do you build the Caribbean naval open-world? Making all of this work was two years of effort, but we knew when we started that we were going to ship on next-gen.
"Making all of this work was two years of effort, but we knew when we started that we were going to ship on next-gen. Because we were shipping on next-gen, we knew we needed to come up with a world that was really fresh and unique. Something that people aren't used to seeing from us, something beyond our normal scope. We know how to build cities really well, but to do a true Caribbean sandbox? We had to push ourselves and now we're seeing the fruits of that labor. We have another month of pure debugging to do."
I run across a small island - the same one you first see in the video demo above - and decide to disembark. But I'm a pirate! Pirates are a representation of freedom! What freedom is there in a dock built by man? I choose instead to leap right off the side of the Jackdaw and swim to shore. On the island, I spy a tavern and decide to see if Edward can quench his thirst with a bit of ale.
Unfortunately (for them), a group of ruffians does not take kindly to Edward drinking at their favorite watering hole. I fight them for the right to the tavern, but I get a bit carried away and kill two of them. No one else on the island seems to care about the two dead men and their writhing companions; a pirate's life is rough. The kill has destroyed my desire for rum, so I run to the nearest synchronization point.
Synch points in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag not only reveal the world map in the area, but they also act as fast travel points. Once you've been there, going back is just the press of a button. And the Jackdaw will follow you to your new location; it breaks immersion a bit, but I'd rather have my ship available instead of having to backtrack. The synch point also shows off the technical mastery of the ACIV team: the small island is wonderfully detailed.
I also notice that there are animal hunting icons, like in Far Cry 3. I ask Ismail if ACIV's hunting system was taken straight from Far Cry 3.
"Especially at Ubisoft Montreal, we have a lot of big dev teams. Many people transition between teams and they'll bring their knowledge and experience across. We have a number of people from Far Cry 3 on our team," he explains. "And they've helped to develop the events that happen in the world and the progression system using hunting and harpooning to upgrade the character."
"So, naturally there's knowledge transfer that happens because it's the same people working on it. Beyond that, we have a healthy competition between all the teams. We have a lot of fun, and we don't mind that in Far Cry 3 they have the equivalent to a synch point with the towers. We saw that and we said, 'okay, we're going to take your hunting system.' With the hunting, we admit it was from Far Cry and we loved it. When it works and gamers love it, why not? Each game has its own core experience which is unique."
With the hunting, we admit it was from Far Cry and we loved it. When it works and gamers love it, why not? Each game has its own core experience which is unique.
But I'm not a hunter, I'm an assassin! The island also includes a pigeon coop; like previous games, Edward gets his assassination missions from these structures. (I prefer to think the assassins are led by the secretive Brotherhood of Pigeons.) My target is on the island, so I begin to slip into the familiar gameplay made famous by the series. Once I get to the predetermined area, the ship dock I ignored before, I use Eagle Vision to find my target. Focusing on enemy targets with Eagle Vision now also marks enemies on the map.
My target is on his ship, unaware of the swift, silent death I'm about to deliver. I use the game's new stealth swim to approach the ship; stealth swim isn't unlimited, as Edward still has to worry about his air supply. I climb up the side of the ship, prepared to deliver sweet assassination, only to be spotted by a cannoneer. After a pitched battle, I die.
Okay, that didn't work. I respawn back on the Jackdaw and decide to take another go at it. I return to the dock, but instead of sneaking up, I ram the Jackdaw directly into my target's ship and unload my cannons. His ship takes off, and we're on the open sea, still battling. It's amazing how the assassination missions can now be free-roaming affairs if you're not as stealthy as you think you are. I'm playing on a PlayStation 4 dev kit, and the battle looks amazing. Rolling waves and splintering wood should be a regular sight for next-gen console owners. I ask if the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One were the focuses for the development of Assassin's Creed IV.
"We knew when we started that we were shipping on next-gen, so we really wanted to hit a scope that was big so it felt proper being a next-gen title," replies Ismail. "So, very early on, even when we were a small core team of 15 to 20 people, we had the tech guys working on next-gen features. Pushing the visuals and engine."
"It's getting a bit technical, but even the mission system, having it function between two locations-- in previous ACs you have to be in the same world/city to do a mission. You don't know this as a player, but that was a technical problem. Now that we have multiple locations like Havana and Nassau, having the missions cross over these cities-- you can be in a naval fight that transitions right onto land because the guy is escaping from you. Huge technical challenge, but we pushed ourselves to do it. We knew the competition was going to be really tough. We needed to make our mark."
I do enough damage to my target's ship to leave them dead in the water and I swing around to board them. There's no cutscene for boarding this time, your ship just slides in alongside the enemy's and your crew anchors both ships together. I take to the ship's gun and lob a well-placed cannonball into the head of my target. Mission complete! Of course, his crew is still fighting, so I leap across and pacify them with some swordplay. I wonder out loud if naval combat was ever planned for multiplayer, which currently stands as an extension of the multiplayer introduced in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood.
"We did push for it and we had some early prototypes that were really fantastic," says Ismail. "After our first pass, we realized it was way bigger than what we could handle to ship it and have it be bug-free and polished. This is the first time that we're doing a naval open-world. In ACIII, it was side stuff, you could've ignored it. In our case, it's really core to the experience. So we want to see the reaction people have to it. If we see that people love it and want more, then we already have a base that we can start from."
Once the crew is under my control, I gain some of the spoils of piracy: rum, spices, and wood. I can use the ship to repair the Jackdaw if the battle left it too damaged, I can add the surviving crew to my own, or I can send the ship to my fleet. The fleet in ACIV replaces the Brotherhood missions in previous titles: I can send the fleet on actions in my name for gold, goods, and experience. ACIV also has a companion app, so you can do fleet actions on the go.
"You can actually access [the fleet] from the main game," Ismail clarifies. "It's not purely in the companion app. What you get extra in the app is that you can jump into those missions. Where before you pick your agents and you send them to a mission over here, now you can play it yourself and be more efficient about it."
I send the ship to my fleet and decide that I'm done with the open sea; it's time to see if Black Flag's cities can do the job. I use the fast travel system to teleport to Havana. The city reminds me of the cities of Ezio's day - I'm told the team tried to recreate the feel found in AC II's Florence - as opposed to the smaller Colonial shacks of Assassin's Creed III. The rooftops are my playground once again.
I run around Havana for a good 20 minutes: killing, hiding, attacking warehouses, and freeing pirates from death. Ubisoft has even added new twists, like alarm bells: sometimes when you alert a guard, they won't fight, they'll just run to warn their friends. Kill them before they reach the bell and you're in the clear. Music pages replace Ben Franklin's book from ACIII; collect all the pages, get a pirate song! Even in the cities, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag gives players a ton of things to do.
"To do a game with this much content in it, you need tons of content creators," says Ismail. "So we have a ton of studios working on this game. Yes, we have a massive team, but internally, we have a communications team that just handles making sure that the vision is shared across all studios. The AC beast is a juggernaut. It's massive and really impressive when it's in full gear. To see it working is really impressive; I've been working in games for 10 years and I've never seen anything like this."
One thing I notice that not being mentioned at all in my demo is the present day content. Who's our new Desmond? Do we even need a new Desmond?
"The present day is a mini open-world," Ismail tells me. "It's not huge, but it's an open-world. There's lots of things to do and lots of stuff to find. Most of its is optional. For the fans who really love that stuff, there's a lot for them to do. We have a studio that's dedicated to just working on that."
"The present day is the wrapper that justifies everything. It is important to the core of AC. The Animus technology justifies why we can go into the ancestry of different heroes," he adds. "In our game, to be honest with you, for the mandatory stuff you come back to the present around five times. Each time it's about five minutes. It's not that long, but there's tons of optional content that you can explore. Even Desmond as a character, he's no longer in the main story, but his presence is felt. For fans there's side content that shows what happened to Desmond after ACIII."
My demo comes to a sad end, with Edward defiantly getting an axe stuck in his chest after getting hit by a grenade. I put down the controller and ask Ismail if Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is showing a new way forward for the series. While Ezio got three games, ACIII's Connor only got a single title. We already know that Ubisoft Toronto is working on the next Assassin's Creed after Ubisoft Montreal's Black Flag. Can we expect to get a new assassin in each game?
When ACIII started, the goal wasn't to make a trilogy for Connor, it was actually to tell the Kenway family story.
"Not necessarily," says Ismail. "With Ezio, the objective was to tell the trilogy. The fans loved Ezio, so we wanted to give them more. We don't want to say that that's the only way we make games, that it's always a trilogy."
"When ACIII started, the goal wasn't to make a trilogy for Connor, it was actually to tell the Kenway family story. Having Haythem, Connor, and Edward. We started over two years ago - summer of 2011 - so it was a year before ACIII shipped and the goal was to tell Edward's story."
The goal is not to have family trilogies from now on either, as Ubisoft wants to always "have a surprise as to who the hero is" and how that hero or heroine connects to the larger conflict between the Assassins and the Templars.
"We always want it to be fresh and have a bit of fun with the narrative," Ismail says. "It's not true that we'll never have a sequel based on a character, but for this trilogy we wanted to tell a game with Connor and Haythem and tell a game with Edward. That was the goal from years ago."
The interesting thing about Ubisoft's annual push for Assassin's Creed is a different studio takes the lead for each title. Each studio gets a chance to bring something to the overall franchise. Ismail believes that the best thing his team came up with for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is the world's open structure.
I love the structure of having this meta world with pockets of maps in it. I think going forward, this is something that I would push other open world games to have. It's a fantastic way to do open world.
"Personally, I love hub worlds," he tells me. "In our case, it's the Caribbean Sea, where you have these pockets of maps. They're a bit independent of each other. You have a coconut island, you have caves, you have a fort. They're not huge, so you can put them together fairly fast, play them, have fun with them, and iterate on them. If something is not working, with a small team of people you can rehash it without impacting the global world."
"If you have a massive city, you can't just can't just say, 'this little part is not working, let's completely redo it.' The streets have to connect, the buildings have to connect. I love the structure of having this meta world with pockets of maps in it. I think going forward, this is something that I would push other open world games to have. It's a fantastic way to do open world."
Before I'm shoved out of the demo room, I ask about Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag's downloadable content. DLC for Ezio's game added new missions, while ACIII went in a different direction by telling the story of an alternate world where George Washington became a king and a tyrant. ACIV's DLC will focus on Edward's first male and former slave Adawale.
"The DLC is more story missions that are in the world; it's not like ACIII. Everything is coherent with what happens in Black Flag, but you're controlling Adewale," explains Ismail. "We chose Adewale because he's an interesting character. He's really important in the story for Edward. From the cinematics we've shown, you get a hint of his personality, where he's talking about race and his position in life. It was also an opportunity to try to tell a story that we don't normally tell in AC, and see how fans take to it. It's a more serious subject. We hope people love it."
So over the course of an hour, I went from cautiously hopeful, to wondering if I could afford to buy the game twice: once on PlayStation 3 at launch, and again on PlayStation 4. Tough calls here. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is coming to the US on October 29, for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii U. The PlayStation 4 version is coming November 15 and the Xbox One version is coming November 22.