Assassinís Creed seems to enjoy operating without limits. The franchise has always dreamed big and attempted to deliver even bigger, and if the series has one blatant weakness, itís that its annual ambitions exceed what consoles are realistically able to produce...
The question, then, becomes this: can the Assassinís Creed franchise balance its desire to move into yet another new era with its need to acknowledge its inherent strengths and weaknesses? After five installments, is ambition enough to keep this modern blockbuster relevant as we begin to move into a new generation of technology?
In the case of Assassinís Creed IV: Black Flag, those ambitious designs have moved prior to the American Revolution, to the earlier half of the 18th century, off the east coast of Northern America where piracy thrives. It is in this era that weíll meet Edward Kenway, father of Haytham and grandfather of Connor
, - clearly signifying the pursuit of what Ubisoft is calling the ďKenway sagaĒ of Assassinís Creed games. Where Haytham and Connor were present at the dawn of a new democracy, Edward will be tested by the failure of the old one.
Ismailís Montreal-based team, in conjunction with studios from Singapore, Sofia, Annecy, Kiev, Quebec City, Bucharest and Montpellier, is working towards building what he describes as the ďfirst true naval overworld.Ē Fans of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker might technically beg to disagree, but nonetheless the ambition is well-founded. Black Flag aims to blend between its land and aquatic experiences seamlessly, to the point where Edward can simply dive off of his ship, swim to the shore of one of 50 or so locations in the Carribbean, and explore. No loading. No segmented feeling.
Ubisoft also plans for a great deal of variety in these locales as well, ranging from plantations and jungles to Mayan ruins and exotic coconut islands. All of this joins content hosted in three major cities Ė Havana (described as analogous to ACIIís Venice in terms of vertical emphasis), Nassau (the home of the so-called Republic of Pirates) and Kingston (a very dangerous, British-run city). Collectively the land-based portions of the game will comprise about 60% of Black Flag's core missions...
With the bold claim that Assassinís Creed III was just testing the (forgive us) water in terms of naval combat, Ismailís team intends to make Black Flagís ocean-based warfare deeper and more complex than before, adding more weapon types, enemies, and challenges. These ideas stack onto an already fundamentally sound core, which for many was a highlight of ACIII. Calling back to Far Cry 3, Edward uses a spyglass to view ships and islands from a distance, which communicates valuable information on a destination or foe prior to any sort of engagement. Players will also be able to exploit weather patterns, luring the opposition into less than ideal conditions such as dynamic storms, to their advantage.
Of course, naval warfare doesnít just end on the high seas. Youíll board your enemyís ship, and Black Flag will offer a variety of options when it comes to this type of confrontation. Your goal with any ship-to-ship fight is to eliminate the other captain. How you do this is entirely up to you
That kind of flexibility lends itself to the entire mission philosophy for Black Flag. Ubisoft wants to remove some of the barriers that previous games created, leaning more on open-ended directives
, something that lends itself more towards the (comparatively) simple assassination orders from the first AC game. Ismail described his approach as being less about hand-holding and more about providing basic objectives with flexible conditions for satisfying said objectives
, which also includes refining game systems for things like detection and stealth, so players better understand how the game "reads" their actions.
The entirety of Black Flagís development could be characterized by that self-awareness and franchise-centric reflection
. When we asked if the team had taken a look at how it paces its story and mission structure, Ismail noted that his team has, from the start, been focused on building mechanics within the pirate theme that the story then supports Ė not the other way around. The same applies to the franchiseís tendency to rely on excessive mechanics that continue to stack year after year Ė some that seemingly exist just for the sake of having something new. Itís here that the Black Flag team is placing a discerning eye, because any system the game doesnít need is being discarded
Assassinís Creed has long had grand ambitions, but those same narrative and game design risks have sometimes proven the seriesí greatest weakness. Those bold desires, combined with the speed at which AC iterations are released, has resulted in a variety of flaws that have remained for years
Black Flag, if Ubisoftís intentions come to life, seems poised to address some of those problems. The team seems genuinely interested in not only providing a new, naval-based, open world experience, but finding a better lead character, and fixing some of the faulty missions and gameplay systems from the past.
There is plenty more to learn about the game, and plenty to play, but if nothing else, itís genuinely exciting to see Assassinís Creed head in this direction. Itís different. Itís unexpected. But the series must take risks and remain self-aware to remain fresh and relevant as an annual franchise.
All indications point to Ubisoft taking these exact steps, and much like the limitless horizon of the ocean, the result full of possibility and potential.