I love the Assassin’s Creed series. It is my favorite series from the current generation of consoles. Assassin’s Creed was a great proof-of-concept, and Assassin’s Creed II took some of those ideas forward into a more enjoyable experience. Brotherhood refined the ACII formula into an amazing game. Even Revelations was a solid entry despite narratively treading water and the addition of a forgettable tower defense mechanic.
Assassin’s Creed III was plagued by issues: game mechanics that felt like they came from several different titles, pass-fail stealth missions, rampant bugs, a stunted storyarc for Connor, and a pitiful end for series protagonist Desmond Miles. I still enjoyed the game and the addition of tree-running expanded the base gameplay of the series. I chalked up a number of the issues to rebuilding the game from the ground up with the new AnvilNext engine, so another outing was needed to see if Ubisoft still has what it takes to make a great Assassin’s Creed.
After seeing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag at E3 2013 last week, I want to be able to tell you that all is forgiven. I want to say they’ve fixed all the problems with ACIII. I want to assure you that ACIV will be the best series’ outing yet. I want to tell you all of these things, but I can’t, because I didn’t get to play the game.
My demonstration took place behind closed doors, with an Ubisoft employee walking me through the new world of pirate assassin Edward Kenway. The demo involved a big screen television, a PlayStation 4 controller, a pair of headphones, and PC specced to match the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. It was very much a controlled environment to show off the best Assassin’s Creed IV has to offer.
As I said yesterday, the next generation of graphics is all in the details. The demo began in seaside port town. A shining sun, vines curling around buildings, crystal clear ocean water below. It’s nothing short of shocking how good Assassin’s Creed IV looks.
The Ubisoft employee grabbed a new assassination contract from a pigeon coop, the return of a series staple and marking the death of Assassin’s Creed III’s contextless multiple-contract system. Since this is a demo, the target was close by, allowing Kenway to follow his target using benches and stalls to hide his presence. Ubisoft promises that stealth missions and assassination contracts won’t be pass-fail in ACIV, but the game still seems to lack additional stealth options like a crouch button.
Leaping from his chosen cover, Kenway kills his target’s companion, letting his target run free. The Ubisoft employee told me that the mission could end right there, but he chose to let him run to show off the game’s new open-world environment. The target hopped on his ship and sped away, forcing Kenway to do the same. Unlike Assassin’s Creed III, there’s no loading screens for your ship missions. In fact, there are no ship missions per se. Like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, you just get on your ship and go exploring on the open seas. “Seamless” was the buzz word for the demo and Ubisoft is aiming to make the open-world experience just that.
And it’s true, Kenway boarded his ship, the Jackdaw, and we were off on a merry chase. Ship combat and all things seafaring are more integrated this time around. The ocean is your map and it is huge, filled with cities, other ships, small islands, and even whaling. Fast travel still exists in Assassin’s Creed IV, but you have to find your destination first before you can just teleport there. Luckily, this means the plodding underground tunnel system of connecting fast travel points from Assassin’s Creed III is dead and buried. Requiescat in pace.
While onboard your ship, there's a new zoom feature allowing you to see the composition of other ships you may encounter, detailing ship-type, crew size, and what cargo the ship is carrying. You can either run from, destroy, or raid other ships. The Ubisoft employee running my demo decided to disable his target’s ship instead of sinking it. Ship combat remains largely the same as ACIII, but with added next-gen bells and whistles, like splintered wood, fire, and smoke indicating successful hits and disabled ships. Kenway took out his target without even boarding the other ship by firing a carefully aimed cannonball, thus ending the assassination contract.
Real-time boarding is also a new feature in the game, so no boarding cutscenes here! After leaping to the enemy ship with crew in tow, Kenway dispatched enough of the enemy crew to force the ship to surrender. Surrendered vessels are sent for repair and become a part of Kenway’s fleet. The surviving crew can be forced to walk to the plank, or hired to join your side. Your fleet can be handled via a companion app that was running during my demo, showing the game's map in real-time. The game still has its own map, but if you have the companion app and you're signed onto your Uplay account in the app and the game, the app will show your position. The app also lets you play a Brotherhood-style mini-game, allowing you to send your ships out on missions. Since it's on an app, you can handle this part of the game even while you're not at home. The game's encyclopedia and your multiplayer profile round out the rest of the companion app.
After taking out the assassination target and dealing with the crew, the ship rides out a storm that I felt was largely for my benefit. The Ubisoft employees said that weather is random within the game, but talking to others about the demo confirmed that the storm was experienced by others at around the same point. Sailing on to clear water, the demo turned towards showing off the exploration gameplay. Diving off the Jackdaw and swimming to a small island turned up a treasure map, which lead to another island.
Sailing to the new destination, Kenway sets anchor only to find that another crew occupies the site with the treasure. No self-respecting pirate is going to let someone else take his treasure right? Of course not! The demo showed off some classic Assassin’s Creed play, with Kenway scaling ruins, hiding in foliage, leaping through trees, and dispatching unsuspecting guards. The treasure turned out to be an upgrade to the Jackdaw, but the Ubisoft employee told me you can also find new outfits and weapons. I'm excited to see the possible return of outfits or anything resembling Ezio’s upgradeable armor, something I felt was sorely missed in Assassin’s Creed III.
I left the demo feeling great about what I had seen. It all looked amazing. Smooth. Everything I could possibly want from a pirate game. In the end, it was just that: a controlled demonstration. Something showing me exactly what Ubisoft wanted to show me and nothing more.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is about pirates who established “ideals of true freedom,” but the demo itself was locked on a single path. The primary maxim of the titular Assassin’s Creed is “nothing is true; everything is permitted.” I was allowed to do nothing in the demo, so I cannot tell you if what I saw was truly great. Looking back, the demo felt like an Abstergo-controlled look into the world of the Assassins; a Templar tale of something that could be calm sailing or rough waters. I hope Assassin’s Creed IV learns from the mistakes of its predecessors. It looks like it has on the surface, but until I get to play it with controller in hand, I can’t say that it has.