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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Hands-On Preview | A Pirate's Life For Me

Matt Gardner
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Games previews, Gamescom 2013, Ubisoft, Ubisoft Montreal, Video Previews

Platforms: PC | PS4 (tested) | Xbox One | PS3 | Xbox 360

Developers: Ubisoft Montreal

Publishers: Ubisoft

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.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Hands-On Preview | A Pirate's Life For Me

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.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Hands-On Preview | A Pirate's Life For Me

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.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Hands-On Preview | A Pirate's Life For Me

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.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Hands-On Preview | A Pirate's Life For Me

Add a comment6 comments

We're told that the market is flexible enough to support trading as a viable route to wealth in this game.

You mean it is a maritime version of Elite .... sounds great. :D

Late  Sep. 2, 2013 at 15:17

Really looking forward to playing this - on whichever console I end up with. I get the impression it's better than AC3 - which was a great game - you're wrong!

Any indication of how the ps4 touchpad or the xb1 kinnect come into play?

Or whether either version looks/plays better than the other?

Oh just tell me which console to buy!

Late  Sep. 2, 2013 at 15:22

You mean it is a maritime version of Elite .... sounds great. :D

Don't know if it was a well known game at the time, but I used to love playing a game called "Master Mariner" on the zx speccy, way back in the day.
Was such a basic game - text only - and couldn't compete with the likes of Elite, but I loved it, just moving from port to port, buying and selling wares (legal, or illegal).

I think AC4 is a few steps above that ;)

Edit - actually, Master Mariner was a lot like "Dope Wars", which more people have probably played.

Last edited by Late, Sep. 2, 2013 at 15:25
stevenjameshyde  Sep. 2, 2013 at 16:31

Any indication of how the ps4 touchpad or the xb1 kinnect come into play?

As it's being developed alongside current-gen versions, I can't see either being integrated in any meaningful way. Maybe for menu navigation or something like that, but nothing that directly affects gameplay (see also: AC3's Wii U gamepad integration)

MattGardner  Sep. 2, 2013 at 18:30

The touchpad will basically control the map. Press to bring it up, pinch to zoom, tap to set waypoints etc. Other than that, not much info. Ubi said they were very keen to ensure that no-one feels left out, so both current and next gen versions will be feature complete. Pretty identical aside from superior graphics, wind simulation on the high seas etc.

gmdlogan  Sep. 2, 2013 at 19:37

I am a huge fan of the series. AC2 was my favourite game ever. Followed closely by Brotherhood. 3 was a a chore to play through. When i get an Creed, i tend to smash my way through, playing as often as i can. But i couldn't do it with 3. Had to force myself just to complete that section of the story.

3 just felt as though it was produced by the peeps who brought us AC1. Which in its time was great, but compared to 2, B'hood etc, it's a bore. As though completely different people made them.

Anyway, i'm so in the creed, just hope the protagonist isn't a bore this time. Long live King Ezio!!!

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