PAX East 2013: Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag Trailer Impressions

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Ubisoft received a lot of attention this weekend at PAX East 2013.  Their booth was really more like four booths, so it was hard to miss.  In the middle of the expansive expo hall, their massive exhibit stood as a centerpiece, showing off a few large upcoming projects, as well as some lesser-known titles on the horizon.  Naturally, the spectacle was centered around Watchdogs and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, and those titles proved to draw the largest crowds.  Though playable demos were not available for either title, Ubisoft was unveiling some gameplay footage in their private theaters.  The Assassin’s Creed 4 video was of particular interest, because it featured a great deal of never before seen footage.  I wasn’t allowed to take pictures or video, but they did let me take notes.  Some of those notes are illegible chicken-scratch.  The rest are detailed below.

The video opened with an introduction from Creative Director Jean Guesdon, who takes home PAX honors for best trailer and best accent.  He shared his thoughts on the pirate theme and divulged some of the reasoning behind selecting this particular time period.  Apparently, the early 18th century Caribbean era was a captivating time when pirates ruled the seas, and charismatic characters like Blackbeard ruled the pirates themselves.  True to legend, Blackbeard continuously lit his hair on fire in the video, a habit that seems counterproductive, considering that his entire persona is based upon his hairstyle.  I’m no expert on sea cred, but somehow, Black Cheeks just doesn’t instill that same sense of fear.  Guesdon’s fascination with Blackbeard and with the time period as a whole was very pronounced, and that enthusiasm seems to be warranted.  Overall, the introduction did a good job of selling the lore.  Personally, I’m still rooting for feudal Japan, but the gameplay footage that followed made an excellent case for the potential of the pirate life in AC4.

Naval exploration returns in what appears to be a much more fleshed out version of the sailing system from Assassin’s Creed 3.  In the video, the development team made a concerted effort to emphasize the game’s focus on the allure of the pirate life.  Pirates could go anywhere they wanted and do anything they pleased, so players should be able to do the same, within reason.  The game seems intent to give players even more freedom than its predecessors in this regard.  Players can search the horizons to plunder uncharted islands, explore ancient ruins, take over ships on the high seas, or even start bar fights to gain followers and a reputation.  I am curious to see just how far they go with this idea of unchained larceny.  Considering that the series’ heroes have traditionally operated on a moral high ground, it will be interesting to see how lead man Edward Kenway tackles tough topics like stealing from families, breaking lovers’ hearts, and homicide Wednesdays.

 

Black Flag promises many uncharted islands for players to explore, and many tree branches on which to play “the floor is lava.”

 

The footage suggests that the world is enormous.  The island exploration is a particularly nice touch, as a sense of discovery is important to the series, and it was somewhat lacking from the last installment.  In the video, lead man Edward Kenway discovers Mayan ruins in the middle of an island jungle, which can be explored to find valuable treasure, hidden secrets, or possibly just a really long, really inaccurate calendar.  It looked like a lot of fun, and the presentation was stellar for an early build.  Having only seen one short video so far, we will have to hope that the exploration stays fresh, varying in theme and objective from island to island.

Naval combat was also featured in the video.  The combat system resembles the one from AC3, where players use horizontal indicators to line up with other ships for well-timed cannon blasts.  One major addition that was heavily featured is boarding.  As they charge into battle on the mighty Jackdaw, players will be able to launch grappling hooks to connect with other ships and send crew members across for battle.  Similar to the previous games, players can recruit new crew members and level them up through battle, though a permadeath feature has been added where pirate-mates who fall in battle will be lost forever.  The trailer also hinted at a stealth boarding option for players who wish to plunder ships more subtly, though I am not certain how that works.  The clips showed Kenway carefully sneaking onto the mast of the other vessel, but stealth-wise, it seems like the sound of his footsteps would be less of a consideration than the sound of the two ships crashing into each other.  “What was that?  Was that a guy?  Oh… it’s just a pirate ship lodged in the mess hall.  I’m going back to sleep.”  Regardless of the logistics, boarding should add a nice combat element to an already strong naval battle system, keeping Kenway’s antics at the game’s core, where they belong.

 

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Intense naval battles will require well-timed yo’ing and ho’ing, along with several bottles of rum.

 

Speaking of stealth, stealth is back.  Some fans have complained that the series got away from its sneaking roots in the last couple of installments, and it seems that their voices did not go unheard.  In Assassin’s Creed 3, Connor approached battle with the all grace of the Incredible Hulk on Popeye spinach, and Ezio’s final run was essentially Bomberman.  Don’t get me wrong.  There is nothing I like more than carrying a big axe around and blowing stuff up, but some level of stealth seems like a reasonable expectation for a legendary assassin.  The video shown at PAX promises that stealth will not take a backseat to action in Black Flag.  Along with mast sneaking, tree sneaking returns, and probably many other types of sneaking.  Unfortunately, the trailer did not confirm how they plan to incorporate carts full of hay onto the pirate ships.

That is not to say that action will not be prominent.  As an assassin, Kenway will be well-versed in killing, and as a pirate, he will not be squeamish about brutality.  There are more guns than ever in Black Flag, and Kenway can use multiple pistols and swords at the same time, so get ready for some cool combo animations.  Kenway is definitely a ruthless, dangerous man.  In one animation, he sheathed his swords to shoot two enemies at close range, and in another, he stabbed a shark in the stomach and rode it around underwater.  All in a day’s work.  He can also hunt whales, the display of which prompted cheers from the theater.  It is good to know other people are as enthusiastic about whaling as I am.  Call me Ahab.  I’m in.

 

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We’re gonna need a bigger boat.

 

Say what you will about Assassin’s Creed, but as a series, the new releases always at least try to make things fresh, and they often succeed.  This is particularly impressive, considering that the core gameplay structure was originally designed around repetition.  The title may say Assassin’s Creed 4, but this is really the sixth installment in the series, and I cannot think of another AAA series that still manages to keep the story and gameplay elements inventive that far into its lifespan.  Granted, there is not a lot of information out about the game, and the video shown at PAX East was only a short display of pre-alpha footage, but early indications seem to point toward Ubisoft pulling it off again.  Of course, using pirates in a video game is kind of like using bacon on Chopped… it will always be good.  Here’s hoping this doesn’t become the exception.

Thomas Shamburger
Thomas is one of the original creators of "What's Jump?" As a lifelong gamer, writer, and comedian, his goal is to provide readers with humorous, entertaining, and thought-provoking perspectives on current gaming news and culture. His early career successes in the business world helped to pave the way for the site's launch in 2012. As the Editor in Chief of "What's Jump?" he combines his passions for gaming, writing, entrepreneurship, and comedy.
Thomas Shamburger
Thomas Shamburger

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