Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag preview: refreshing a franchise

By Kat Bailey, Mar 04, 2013 6:00am PST

It's fair to say that the last couple years have brought with it a wave of Assassin's Creed fatigue. Assassin's Creed 2 was well-received back in 2009; but the formula has felt a little more tired with each passing year. Even a shift to the American Revolution hasn't been enough for the series to shake that faint sense of exhaustion.

So for Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag--the fourth since 2009--Ubisoft is appealing to the very soul of the internet, and making their latest assassin a pirate. Not only that, he'll be running with a formidable cast of real-life buccaneers, including the likes of Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, Charles Vane, and Anne Bonny. It's not quite Pirates of the Caribbean, but it should be enough to tap into the same fascination that made Johnny Depp's star vehicle into a megabucks franchise.

More importantly though, this latest entry represents an opportunity to refresh the franchise at large. Building upon the excellent ship-to-ship action of Assassin's Creed 3, almost the entirety of AC4 is set on the high seas. It's deeper too. Think of it as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, but with assassins, boarding actions, customizable crews, and underwater exploration.

If Ubisoft is successful, Black Flag figures to offer a degree of freedom surpassing even that of Assassin's Creed 3, which itself offered a sprawling world to explore. There will be 50 locations to visit, from Kingston, Jamaica, to Havana, with plenty of jungle havens in-between. Ubisoft is planning plenty of scripted events, but some will also be generated by the game itself, such as large storms that can appear unexpectedly.

The move to the ocean ought to be a refreshing one for a franchise that can occasionally feel set in its ways. The signature climbing mechanics will still be there, whether swinging from trees or masts, but a lot more time will be spent plying the Caribbean. It has the potential to feel like a very different game, should Ubisoft pull it off.

Of course, that's the real trick, isn't it? There were points when Assassin's Creed 3 felt ill-considered or even downright unfinished, particularly during the final battle. And it was loaded with bugs, too, until a December patch fixed many of its most crippling problems,. Let's just say that execution hasn't always been one of Assassin's Creed's strong points.

Still, Black Flag has potential. Thus far, Ubisoft is only really willing to speak in generalities, but they have dropped a few tantalizing tidbits here and there. For instance, there will be both key characters and generic crew members, the latter of whom can be recruited from a pool of available pirates. It will also be possible to customize your ship's loadout, overall look, and other elements. This is all good; the more control you get over the look and feel of your ship, the better.

Actual ship-to-ship battles will be fought with a variety of weapons; and when you get close enough, boarding actions will become possible as well. This is where picking the right crew member figures to come in handy. Large-scale fights will break out once you're aboard, and it will be up to you to properly direct your fighters by issuing general orders. Of course, being an assassin, you will be able to deal some major damage yourself with the help of your dual sabers and your pistol. Supposedly, Black Flag will feature brand new multiplayer elements; let's hope that ship-to-ship combat is one of them.

One more interesting twist involves ACIV's place in the overall lore of the series. The story stars Edward Kenway, captain of the Jackdaw, and grandfather of Assassin's Creed 3 star Connor (as well as father to Templar Haytham Kenway). Set more roughly 100 years before the events of the American Revolution, Black Flag actually moves the timeline backward a bit, which suggests that it was originally meant to be more of a Brotherhood-style spinoff than a full-blown numbered sequel.

The Templar-controlled Abstergo Industries likewise makes a return, so there will once again be a modern component. This time around though, the contemporary story will be told from the perspective of the player. At a guess, this is Ubisoft's way of hinting that the Templar conspiracy is "real." This would make for one nightmarish re-interpretation of history, mainly because it would ask us to believe that Henry Ford gave fellow Templar Adolf Hitler ancient technology from Eden, which he then used to hypnotize the population of Germany into following him into World War II.

In any case, all the pieces are in place for what should be a fun twist on the traditional Assassin's Creed formula. Pirates may be a somewhat predictable twist for a series that has done its best to leverage unique settings through history; but outside of Sid Meier's Pirates and Monkey Island, games set during that colorful bit of nautical history are rarer than they seem. With that in mind, a full-blown pirate simulator is more than welcome in this day and age, especially one with the size and scope of an Assassin's Creed game.

Admittedly, that lingering sense of fatigue remains. It's probably inevitable given the degree to which Ubisoft has saturated the market with Assassin's Creed games. But the overall premise is sound. We'll just have to see about the execution.

The game is scheduled to arrive on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii U on October 29, and PC, PlayStation 4 and Microsoft's next-gen Durango console sometime later.

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