We've been here before. It's time to tell you about a new Assassin's Creed.
This part went oh-so-well a year ago. Many of you were enthusiastic back then about a new character, a new continent and a new era. Many of you were not as enthusiastic in the fall, when you played the resulting game, Assassin's Creed III.
Can you be excited this time?
It's late winter. For the third time in four years the images of the next Assassin's Creed have leaked early. If you're paying enough attention, you know what the deal is: Assassin's Creed IV, a new numbered AC game, but, oddly, with a subtitle affixed: Black Flag.
Edward Kenway. Father of ACIII's prologue protagonist Haytham Kenway, grandfather of its main assassin, Connor.
Open-world naval exploration/combat, mixed with jungle and city adventures. Three major cities: Havana, Cuba; Nassau, The Bahamas; Kingston, Jamaica.
You can attack other pirates. You can harpoon whales from your ship. You can dive and explore underwater. You can assassinate bad guys in cities.
I saw the game a week ago, and, no, it's not all been leaked. There's a bunch of things even big-time Assassin's Creed news-watchers don't know yet. There are reasons to be intrigued, reasons to be skeptical and reasons to be excited.
I'm the kind of person who plays through every side-quest in an Assassin's Creed game. Odds are, you're not. In fact, you might be one of the people who has recently been swearing off the AC series, due to disappointment that Assassin's Creed III didn't match its trailers—or due to the fear that this annualized series is maybe already performing a Tony Hawk/Guitar Hero franchise-killing leap into a too small stack of hay.
Last year, I met with ACIII's top creative team in the exact same office building in Manhattan where I met two top ACIV for an hour a week ago. The ACIII crew who were behind the adventures of a then-new Native American assassin had the advantage of following three straight years of Assassin's Creed games that starred the same character. Those three straight years brought the series its two most acclaimed entries—ACII and AC: Brotherhood—but led to the weird, beautiful, trying-too-hard (bombs and flamethrowers and did you guys forget what your subtitle promised?) Assassin's Creed: Revelations.
This year, the AC IV guys get to follow the most hyped Assassin's Creed since the first one. They get to follow the one whose trailers suggested we've been running through Revolutionary War battlefields to assassinate Templar agents (ok, we got to do that once in the game. Sort of.). They get to follow a game I'd tell you was wonderful, but, um… you really have to play all the sidequests and learn to love the frontier and not mind that the game's two main cities look sorta alike and be okay with the stealth controls being janky and the lead voice actor sounding bored and… hey!... did you like how they improved the combat? You did the Homestead missions? And we can agree that the tree-climbing was cool and… yes, yes, the so-called end of the Desmond saga was weird.
Assassin's Creed IV is not a one-year rush job. None of them are. This one began development in the summer of 2011. It's written by the scriptwriter of Revelations, Darby McDevitt. Its art director is the talented Raphael Lacoste, who is the main reason Revelations is the most gorgeous game in the series.
The game's creative director is Jean Guesdon, a veteran of the first two entries in the series who went on to be Assassin's Creed's "brand" and "content manager." I haven't met him. He was described to me as a guy who made sure that everything in the books and games all made sense together, which sadly tells me as little as it tells you about whether ACIV is in great hands. Of the six console/PC Assassin's Creed games, he's the fourth creative director (the first guy—Patrice Désilets—the guy who cooked this series up, quit the company a few years ago; the Revelations guy left for a job in marketing).
ACIV was made mostly by a different team in Ubisoft Montreal than ACIII. The two games overlapped development, each getting more than two years of attention, which is even more time than the alternating teams behind the Call of Duty games get. As is series tradition, they're roping in a lot of Ubisoft's satellite studios: Singapore, Sofia, Annecy, Kiev, Quebec, Bucharest, and Montpellier. They even brought over people from the Far Cry 3 team, which may or may not explain why Edward Kenway can fight sharks.
As I clearly established above (actually, I know I didn't), Assassin's Creed III was a very good game. Can we at least agree that a lot of people liked it? And can we agree that some people didn't?
Well, you're in luck. I present the following:
Things the Black Flag Developers Say About Their Game That Is Code For "Don't Worry, We Won't Make Some of ACIII's Mistakes
- "The Caribbean Sea is big. We wanted to make sure that it never feels lonely and empty, so, to support the main gameplay loop, we also added a lot of secondary systems that make the pirate life even more cool. " – Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer
How that sounded to my ears: We know you might have felt ACIII's frontier was a bit spartan or boring or not fun enough. We are filling our vast expanses with more gameplay: like tropical storms that might rock your boat, whales you can harpoon, islands you'll discover, ships that will attack you or that you can raid, and so on.
- "We think we have a very strong gameplay loop, with all the systems helping each other to make sure that our players are constantly progressing in the game." – Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer
How that sounded to my ears: Sure, ACIII had tons of things to do, but you could avoid most of them and, hey, what was that trading system for anyway?
- "We have this super-cool setting people don't know a lot about." – Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer
How that sounded to my ears: You won't be distracted by weird stuff like riding a horse with Paul Revere during Revere's famous ride, because you didn't grow up hearing the stories of our historical figures such as Calico Jack and Charles Vane.
- "The goal is: when you get to a city, you'll know where you are. -Sylvain Trottier, ACIV producer
How that sounded to my ears: Boston and New York may have had some fun quests in them, but they looked like the same nondescript, bland towns (except that cool burned-out part in New York). ACIV's cities will look different from each other. The game's art director did say that Havana would feel a bit like ACII's Florence, but with Spanish influence, that Kingston is lush, British and dangerous and that Nassau is a pirate haven where "you can have your debauchery" and "build your city."
- "We don't just have one path; we try to have systemic paths." –Raphael Lacoste, ACIV art director
How that sounded to my ears: He was answering my question about the criticism that ACIII's campaign missions were too rigid and either didn't comfortably support the actions they called for or simply didn't allow for much leeway in how they were played. You can be stealthy or like Rambo in these missions, he was saying to me, in about as many words.
Maybe these guys are just great talkers. Or maybe their spiel was practiced (of course it was!). Or maybe their game is going to be amazing. It's at least amazing in concept, as most games probably are.
Here's what they're promising/teasing/writing-checks-for, based on the footage they showed me, a whole bunch of slides they flipped through and a 20-minute interview following their presentation:
We're looking at a massive open-world game. You're Edward Kenway, a young, brash pirate in the early 18th century, born in Cardiff, Wales but relocated to the West Indies (the Caribbean) where you become a pirate and are later trained to be an assassin.
You have a ship called the Jackdaw, which you can upgrade as the game progresses. You have a crew, who you recruit and who help you take down other ships.
On the sea, the game is open. If I had taken a drink every time the game's associate producer, Sylvain Trottier, had told me the game would be "seamless" or "flowing" I'd be hospitalized. He promises, even on current-gen systems, that there will be no load times. "Seamless boarding," he said to me, barely a few sentences after he said "hello." He was referring to seamless boarding from Kenway's ship to the one he's attacking, no cutscene to hide the transition, as had been the case during the few boarding opportunities in the naval missions of ACIII.
No loads anywhere: seamless from land to sea, from sea to land, from above water to below. He said: "At any moment, you're going to be able to get close to the coast of an island you never saw before, dock your boat, dive in the water, walk on the beach and start discovering, all of this without any loading. This is true from sea to ground but it's also going to be true from ship to ship."
Seamless, systemic naval adventuring. Meaning that you can sail your Jackdaw up to an enemy ship at a 90-degree angle, or sidle up to it. No matter. Whatever you want. Raid at will.
You can take out your spyglass and spot a ship or island in the distance. You'll see a display of the enemy ship's toughness and what it has on board, so you can decide whether to attack or retreat. You can see if an island you come upon still has animals on it to hunt, treasure to dig up and high points to climb. I was told this; I was shown concept art of this; I was not shown this in the minute or so of gameplay footage I was shown.
When you're on foot in cities in AC games, you can cause a ruckus and then watch as tougher and tougher enemy guards and soldiers come after you. It's the series' version of Grand Theft Auto's heat system, which escalates the police response to your mayhem from squad cars to trucks to helicopters. Imagine this on the sea of Assassin's Creed IV, where mayhem on the ocean will trigger, the developers promise, the arrival of tougher and tougher enemy ships. A piece of concept art I was shown displayed a massive Man-of-war ship next to a nine-notch meter that was maxed at full alert. Trottier also mentioned the possible arrival of other classes of boats, for example the "Charger", a little ship with a strong bow that will be sent to ram you to splinters.
In the short gameplay montage I was shown, I saw Edward use a diving bell to go the sea floor. I saw manta rays. I saw him tussle with a shark. But they're not elaborating about underwater gameplay much right now.
From your ship, you can harpoon a whale.
Oh, Ubisoft, your screenshots always look a bit better than the real game. Please don't be lying to our eyes too much!
There will be the three cities and the full shoreline of Cuba. There will be 50 land locations to visit, surely those from this image that leaked last week:
The developers mention fishing villages, plantations, hidden coves with smugglers in them, naval forts and dense, claustrophobic jungles that might sometimes contain ruins (hardcore ACIII fans might be wondering if the Mayan ruins DLC map in that game was a test for the jungle stuff; I'm now wondering that, too.)
There's no campaign co-op (phew!). And what of the brotherhood, the band of assassins you've been able to recruit in train in some fashion in each of the last three main games? Trottier: "We have something cool [like that], but it's not the brotherhood."
There's action in the cities, similar to what was in the previous games' cities, it sounds like. Guards. Sneaking spots. People to kill or run from. Civilians. But they're not talking about that yet, other than to keep reassuring us that the cities will all look lovely and distinct.
They're promising revised naval gameplay controls and some tweaks to land combat. You'll be fighting with four guns (one shot each) and two swords much of the time; you'll be able to control the direction of your dodges as you battle in a crowd.
It sounds, for now, like the game tilts more to the naval than to the land stuff but that there's a lot of both. They estimate a game similar in size to the recent ones in terms of play time, but presumably vaster. "It's pretty huge, it's a very big scale," Lacoste said, "but I would say we focused more on the diversity. In ACIII we had this British colonial style. And the forest. Here we have many, many different flavors and locations. It's going to be extremely refreshing, but it's also very, very big in terms of scale."
They're ripping pages from history, saying we'll experience the 1715 wreck of the Spanish Armada, the assault of 42 Portuguese ships and that we will be marooned on a desert island with the real pirate Charles Vane. We'll also meet other real pirates, including Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack.
Here's a line I bet the devs have used on most of the reporters seeing their game: "We're not making Pirates of the Caribbean. We're not making a Disney, family entertainment version. It's really the HBO version of pirates."
Yeah, yeah. Gritty. Violent. Some semblance of sex.
But the gameplay's the draw and here's the money quote, as Trottier describes how playing the game should go:
"So you want to explore an island, but the island is protected by a Man-of-war. It's too big. It's too strong for you. So you go back and you do some plantations or some other ground activities or sea activities, get more money, and upgrade your ship. Once you feel you're strong enough, go beat the crap out of him and then get onto this new island."
Also, you can supposedly trick that Man-of-war into chasing you. Sail toward a terrible storm and get him to follow. Let the waves wreck him.
Sounds great. And sounds like the very good naval stuff in ACIII significantly upgraded.
What else, what else…
Multiplayer: They're not really talking about it. It's land-based. No ship vs. ship stuff. New era, new settings, new game modes. More details to come.
Modern times: It's back, set in 2013. No Desmond Miles, descendant of the main games' protagonists. He's done for. Trottier: "The present day in ACIV is basically the logical continuation of the ACIII present day. But this time, instead of making you play through a character of the past through a character in the present, we wanted to make it even more immersive for the player, make it more fun. So, you are now a full-time employee of Abstergo Entertainment, and you've been hired there as a researcher. You are the one in the Animus doing the research on an important character from the past, Edward Kenway."
(ACIII spoilers: For those of you who have no idea what that means: Desmond Miles was the Assassin-in-training who died (or something) at the end of ACIII but had been using a device called the Animus to relive the lives of his ancestors, his relivings constituting most of the gameplay in the older games. Abstergo is the front company for the Assassins' rivals, the Templars. For some reason, their Entertainment division sometimes makes games, including, according to the fiction, last year's PlayStation Vita game, Assassin's Creed: Liberation.End of spoiler)
Patrick Swayze: I asked what Edward Kenway was like, if he was more suave and outgoing like ACII's Ezio. "I like the funny comparison of Bodhi from Point Break," Lacoste said, referring to Patrick Swayze's character from the 1991 action movie. "He's kind of a surfer, this kind of reckless guy, kind of a bandit." But about Kenway, he adds: "When he meets the Assassins, he will learn to be more focused and less selfish."
Please understand that so much can go wrong. The game might not come together. The voice-acting might stink. The shark AI could be terrible. The game may ship infested with bugs.
You are reading a preview written in March for a game coming out in late October. Even the developers don't actually know how good their game will be, and no one is volunteering prophesies of doom. Of course they make it all sound awesome. Even in their minds, it probably will be.
Today's preview is going up the same day retailers will begin taking pre-orders. That's how this stuff works. Ubisoft lets the press see the game, asks the press to not publish a preview until a certain day, the day that pre-orders are available. They hope you'll pre-order now, which they believe will impress retailers to order the game in large quantities. But, really, you can't know if a game is worth your money this far in advance.
There could be problems. There always can be.
What raised my eyebrows the most when I was given a presentation about the game last week was the lead character. The developers refer to him as a "badass pirate." The debut trailer shows him bedding two women at a time and strutting across the deck of his ship like a handsome Hollywood lead. The trailer shows some stealth, but the overall feel I get is that, unlike Connor of ACIII, Edward reeks of presumed aspirational fantasy. He reeks of action-game action-hero, which brings back memories of the suave Ezio of Assassin's Creed II and Brotherhood manning that flamethrower and tossing those bombs in Revelations. It has me wondering if the series, which generally assumes its players are intelligent and interested in other cultures and some range of human experience broader than what we see is most action-genre schlock, is risking dumbing itself down.
Also, all this talk of pirates doesn't leave much room for talk of assassinations and the game's roots as an adventure that rewarded stealth. Pirates ain't subtle and a cannon broadside isn't exactly as low-key as a hidden blade. Perhaps Kenway's training as an Assassin changes both him and the way the game plays. Hard to say how much of a sneaking, creeping, skulking, roof-running adventure this game can feel like—or if there really is a way to translate that onto the sea.
And then there are the controls and the way these games feel.
As much as I liked the fiction, the setting and the side-questing in Assassin's Creed III I understood how imperfect its controls were. Since the first game Assassin's Creeds have invited us to climb beautiful buildings but have done so with controls so finicky that some not insignificant percentage of the time, we accidentally make our hero jump the wrong way—spoiling a mission or just dying or both. Combat's been improved. But stealth is still a struggle.
I talked about the series' stealth woes with Trottier and Lacoste. They seemed familiar with the complaints but didn't have a reassuring way to explain or show that it's been addressed.
Me: Stealth has been really twitchy in the last couple of games, not in a good way, whereas in something like Far Cry 3 stealth felt like it was more under the player's control. It was much more clear when it was active and when it was not. ACIII did contextual stealth [meaning Connor crouched if you walked him into bushes, for example]. What do you guys have in this one?
Lacoste: I don't know how much detail I can go, but we … push stealth opportunities into the design of the layouts.
Trottier: We want to make sure it's there. If you look at all the images, plantations are super-good places for stealth. Jungles are super-good places for stealth. Cities are good. There are lots of spots where you can do good stealth, and we're making sure that, for the users that like this kind of play style, they can [do it].
Me: Does that mean you are giving the player more direct control of when they are in stealth and when they are not?
Me: Is there a crouch button? Can you crouch?
Lacoste: It's more like the context of where you're in.
Me: So like ACIII.
Lacoste: But we have a lot more diversity for this context.
They promise me they are aware of the concerns about this stealth stuff. But without seeing a stealth sequence in action or, better yet, controlling it, the jury's out and the series hasn't earned the benefit of this doubt.
One more bit of skepticism: It's hard to assess how well the scope of this game is going to fit into the machines it is being made for. ACIV: Black Flag is coming to the PC, PS4, PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360 (presumably the next Xbox, too, though they're not saying that, of course).
The PC and PS4 can handle a whole lot more than those other existing machines can, but how well the game's big Caribbean Sea and seamless boarding will play on an Xbox 360, PS3 or Wii U is an open question.
All the developers are saying about tech right now is that they're working with a modified version of Assassin's Creed III's graphics engine, but as long as they have to program for 2005 hardware (that's the 360), surely some ambition will be curtailed.
To people like me, an Assassin's Creed per year is fine. With no portable game in sight, ACIV will actually represent a slowdown in the series' output this year, following the dual releases of AC: III and Liberation in 2012.
One hopes Black Flag can meet the hype, but this far out you never know. Could be great. Could be a mess. (Could write that line for any preview.) But at least Ubisoft's developer armies spend a couple of years on each of these Assassin's Creed games. At least they never skimp on content. At least they typically go somewhere new and succeed or struggle spectacularly.
Pirates? It's an odd fit for this series.
An open-word naval adventure done by the kind of international mega-team that makes Assassin's Creed games? Sure. That's exciting enough.