So Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag turned out pretty well this year. After the misstep that was Assassin's Creed III, Ubisoft righted the ship and came out with a truly great entry. The adventures of Edward Kenway look amazing on every platform I've played so far and the solid gameplay translates over to each system.
So where does Ubisoft go from here?
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag backs them into a corner a bit. The game is heavily focused around open-world sailing, but what other time period is that mechanic going to factor in? The Great Pirate Age in the Carribbean is the high point of that particular idea; Ubisoft climbed to the top of the mountain and now they have to find a way down that won't kill the franchise.
It's not just a story-based problem, it's a tech-based one as well. They're spent two games refining their technology to produce a satisfying sailing experience. Most publishers and developers would be reticent to throw that all away to do a title in another era. For example, and Egypt-bound Assassin's Creed would feature little sailing, instead focusing on survival in the desert.
Ubisoft may skip the issue by just continuing Edward's story in another game, like Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood and Revelations, but that's not a road I want to see the series go down. Assassin's Creed should be like a wonderful travelogue of murder: go to new eras, meet interesting people, assassinate half of them. I want to see more assassins in new eras, not necessarily continue down the Kenway family line. A Black Flag spinoff series is a possibility, but I'm not seeing much longevity in the idea.
Ubisoft has already done away with modern-day protagonist Desmond Miles and the new framing sequence gives the studio more room to play around in. The Templar-controlled Abstergo Entertainment that serves as the modern-day for ACIV seems to be metaphor for Ubisoft's development studios and there are emails you can find the modern sequences that point to where the series may go in the future.
Possible eras stemming from Desmond's DNA include 13th century Egypt, 14th century Japan, the French Revolution, 19th century Taiwan, and the Napoleonic Wars. The emails also mention that sticking to just Desmond's family history isn't the only option anymore. Some of these ideas mirror an Ubisoft marketing survey released in 2011, which adds to Imperial China, Victorian England, Ancient Rome, the Russian Revolution, and the invasion of America by Spanish conquistadors into the mix of possible settings.
Assassin's Creed III's creative director Alex Hutchinson already veto-ed three settings as too boring, because fans are overwhelmingly asking for them and Ubisoft wants to surprise people.
"People on the internet suggest the most boring settings," Hutchinson told OXM. "The three most wanted are [World War II], feudal Japan and Egypt. They're kind of the three worst settings for an AC game."
In contrast, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag creative director Ashraf Ismail mused that he'd like the series to move to Egypt in the future. Sadly, eras that lean towards modern times are probably a no-go, at least as far as Ubisoft-insert Abstergo Entertainment is concerned. Why?
"Let's avoid digging into any modern periods (i.e. 20th century) unless we find something incredibly compelling," reads one of the Abstergo emails found in ACIV. "Because, as fun as a World War II setting might sound, we'd do well to avoid any settings with vehicles: cars, motorcycles, helicopters, tanks, etc. Our research has shown that 'memory imprinting' in individuals is actually hampered by the semi-catatonic state most people enter when driving for medium and long periods of time... and this makes data retrieval somewhat more difficult. In short, we don't want to go through the effort of coding extra Animus features just for the sake of digging up memories of people driving around in cars."
The puts the cap point around 1908, which was when the Ford Model T hit and revolutionized the automotive industry. World War II as an era falls after that, but it's certainly possible to get around the widespread use of vehicles due to the wartime setting. Of course, do we really need a modern-day Assassin's Creed with Watch_Dogs on the horizon? That game takes place in the same world as Assassin's Creed, according to more Easter Eggs found in ACIV.
No matter where the series heads next, the core gameplay of Assassin's Creed is not changing anytime soon. In an interview with GameReactor, ACIV lead game designer Jean-Sebastien Decant said Ubisoft is sticking to what works in the series and improving upon that base.
"The core pillars are still social stealth being able to blend into the crowd and finding a way to reach your target without being seen," said Decant. "There is this idea of having the parkour - you can jump around - and then the notion of freedom that combines everything. These are the roots of Assassin's Creed. We will try and work and build upon them."
"We cannot tell you that we're happy and this is how we want the game to be and we're going to do ten more games with exactly that same gameplay," he added. "No, we are unhappy. We want to do more. There are lots of things we want to refine on the combat side, on the parkour, on the stealth. So on that we're very happy and I also think we kind of totally exploded the limits of the game by bringing the naval and the ship customization and the ship battles. So we made progress, thanks actually to the thematics that we chose. Next time we will have to find thematics that will help us also to expand the game once again."
Will this be like Naughty Dog's work with the Uncharted series? In each game, Naughty Dog tried to improve its effects in different directions, from Uncharted's water, to Uncharted 2's snow, and Uncharted 3's sand. Can the same be done for Assassin's Creed? Could the team at Ubisoft behind that impressive ocean in Black Flag outdo Naughty Dog with sand in Assassin's Creed: Pharoah's Reign?
Whatever Ubisoft decides to do in the future, I want the series to move forward, not backwards or into stagnation. That's not to say that established assassins like Edward, Connor, or Aveline can't be involved in some respect, but I want to go to new places. I was horrible at history in high school and college, but Assassin's Creed is an interesting glimpse into the past, or at the very least a more exciting one. So what do you want from Assassin's Creed after the excellent Black Flag?