Platforms: PC | PS4 (tested) | Xbox One | PS3 | Xbox 360
Developers: Ubisoft Montreal
You could have been forgiven for forgetting that Assassin's Creed III had "assassin" in the title. There was one example, maybe two if you squinted, of some actual assassinating in Connor's adventure. For the most part, it was a bloated mess, punctuated by lengthy fetch quests, instafail linear sections, and walking lengthy distances as colonial luminaries delivered historical lectures in audio that kept fading in and out of earshot. To be honest, we've rather been lamenting the series' slow abandonment of freeform assassinations, but it appears that the decline of stealthy sandbox murder-plotting might be at an end.
Black Flag is bringing them back in a big way.
Ubisoft have expanded Edward's set of clandestine tools. The blowpipe is particularly fun, sending guards to sleep or, better yet, sending them into a berserk frenzy whereupon they promptly attack their chums. But by far the most welcome change, is that Edward won't prematurely reveal himself when he performs ranged attacks or attempts to skewer a nearby guard. Gone are the days of a professional security type coming over to investigate, lured into the perfect position for a sly and stealthy assassination, only for our murderous protagonist to stand up as if to shout surprise, wrecking the "Avoid Detection" objective, and completing his grisly business almost insultingly visible to all. Now Edward can grab people from the bushes, whistling from leafy cover and snatching guards unaware without tripping the detection meter. The same goes for darts and guns and knives.
Should fighting your way out r through be the only option ((or maybe you've had it with stealth for a bit and crave some mayhem --we've all been there), combat is smoother than before, closer to the finesse Rocksteady introduced with their Arkham games rather than the clunky madness that plagued Altair's attempts at swordplay. There are some truly crunchy, impactful new finishers, but Edward has also retained Connor's fluidity, and assassinating on the move is still incredibly satisfying. Hopefully, though, perennial open combat will be a thing of the past, stealth fans.
Eagle Vision will now tag guards if you focus on them for a split-second or two, meaning that keeping track of patrols can make for relatively non-violent progression. Emerging from a jungle packed with marksmen in treetop lookouts (the challenge has been increased to help facilitate an array of approaches to a situation -- sometimes open combat is seriously, mortally, inadvisable), we arrived at an expansive beach with our target located on the ship at the end of a jetty packed with guards. We lured a guard towards a hidden door and choked the life out of him before sneaking into a nearby patch of ferns, whistling to his mates, and introducing them to our wrist blades.
The snappily edited video Ubisoft have already made of this particular section shows Edward hurtling along the dock and killing two guards at the end of the pier simultaneously. We decided not to do that. taking out one of the more isolated guards towards the east end of the beach with a sleep dart, we plunged into the water, waiting for patrolling guards on the jetty to turn their backs so we could swim on, ducking underwater when they came too close. The ship was easily scaled, Edward hanging from the side, waiting for the target to draw near. A little scramble up the rigging to gain some height, and we leapt down upon our mark, nabbing the optional "Air Assassination" objective in the process.
Those short ten minutes of gameplay were more satisfying than anything I experienced in all thirty-six of the hours I sunk into Assassin's Creed III.
I say that only because that's what I want from an Assassin's Creed game. New technology and greater understanding should have led to more expansive mission designs, but as our protagonists' repertoire has expanded, so it seems that the actual missions have grown more linear. But no longer, cry Ubisoft.
Speaking to lead writer Darby McDevitt, it's apparent that one of his chief bugbears with Black Flag's predecessor was the disconnect between land and sea. Indeed, I felt that so much of what ACIII had to offer was rendered completely superfluous. The frontier was a grand technical marvel, but it was relatively pointless. The side missions, the Homestead, even the promising naval bits, all seemed disjointed and set apart from the main story. You could happily ignore them and you wouldn't really have missed much.
Black Flag is trying to centralise everything around its protagonist once more. The Brotherhood is no more, the focus is most certainly on Edward himself, his capabilities, and his ship -- the Jackdaw. Being that the Jackdaw is absolutely essential to traversing the enormous map that Black Flag brings to the table, upgrading it becomes much more of an appealling device. You're fuelled by the necessity of curiosity: "I'm not powerful enough to break that blockade of frigates yet to get to the treasure beyond, but soon...". The seamless shift between land and sea is what drives this game. You source, you locate, you sail, you plunder, you sing. There are no radio stations on the high seas, just the songs that you and your crew pick up in each port.
The Jackdaw handles a little slicker than its more cumbersome compatriots from the previous game. Aggression follows the right-stick-controlled camera, as you choose from an array of weaponry: the swivel guns and broadside cannons return, helped along by front-mounted guns and long-range mortars. You can board ships now, ramming the Jackdaw into oncoming sloops and choosing whether to take the fight to the enemy yourself, or deploying the crew in your stead. Neutralise ten of the opposing soldiers and you'll take the ship in question, whose bits and pieces can be appropriated for the Jackdaw's endless list of needs and repairs. Resources can be taken and traded, with prices fluctuating across the Caribbean. We're told that the market is flexible enough to support trading as a viable route to wealth in this game.
The voice of Sid Meier in my head is growing rather excited.
It gets better too. A jaunt through Havana -- a vibrant and exotic location that feels instantly more memorable, evocative, and interesting than the half-built templates for America's greatest cities -- is followed by a spot of harpooning, wherein a bull shark led us a merry dance in a rather linear, cinematic chase that saw us leap into a little boat and chase down the vicious creature with a shaking reticule. From there, we took to the ocean floor in a diving bell as the tables were turned, and a defenceless Edward had to pick a way through beautiful scenes of sea-life, looking out for barrels of air dropped by the men, and marauding barracudas wanting to exact some revenge. AnvilNext may have proven a shiny-yet-clunky beast for AC3, but here on PS4 the engine dazzled the senses.
This is, of course, all completely moot. Promises are only words, after all, and our three-piece vertical slice of Black Flag might well belie as-yet unseen mediocrity further down the line. Connor and co. have made a sceptic of me, to be sure. But I am far less cautious in my optimism for this game having had controller in hand and after speaking to McDevitt -- an incredibly affable, refreshingly honest fellow who told me exactly what I wanted to hear. I'd arrived in Cologne seeking answers to worrying questions created by AC3, and the answers I got were positive indeed.
There's every chance that Assassin's Creed IV will provide the ultimate piratical wish-fulfilment that this industry and its consumer audience have been clamouring after for so long. Fingers crossed.