Shiver Me Timbers
Assassin Creed IV: Black Flag’s most recent gameplay demo certainly stresses that this is not simply an assassin game; it’s a pirate assassin game. Destroying a fort’s defenses with cannon fire and assaulting its port with a sword-wielding crew isn’t what one would call a stealthy way to get at a target. Captain Edward Kenway’s choice of profession sets him apart from previous Assassins, just as this game’s open-world structure signals that Ubisoft wants to take this flagship series to a new level.
The bulk of this demo focused on a sea battle between Edward’s ship, a fort, and a couple of enemy vessels. The main goal was to destroy two fortified towers that spat heavy cannon fire at the pirates. Wishing to test the level of freedom found in this game, I concentrated mainly on destroying the towers and simply dodging the pursuing ships. It was a risky gambit that “desynchronized” (killed) me a couple times as I figured out the ship’s controls, but was satisfying once I knew how to play.
Ship combat has changed a bit since Assassin’s Creed III . It’s now faster paced, deadlier, and gives players better control over the ship. Sails and anchors can be raised and lowered on a dime, and while there’s a reload time for the cannons, it’s not painfully long. There’s definitely been a bit of realism sacrificed in the name of fun, but that’s probably a good choice for a game in which the player will be spending so much time at sea.
After I made several aggressive passes in front of Port Demo, the towers were shattered and the port was ablaze. The player isn’t allowed to disengage from the ship’s helm while in combat, but I’d apparently gotten far enough ahead of my pursuers that I was allowed to drop anchor and swim to shore without dealing with the other two ships. Getting around on the ship was a bit fiddly, since the R2 button on my PlayStation 4 controller was used as a general “do something besides walk really slowly” button. My first attempt to jump over the railing resulted in Edward clambering out onto a cannon and perching on the end. I had to move to the lower deck to actually jump off the ship, where R2 also allowed me to swim freestyle instead of leisurely dog paddling.
I arrived at the port and faced a huge battle raging between my crew and the fort’s soldiers. Much of the port was on fire because somebody had just smashed it full of holes. An on-screen guide helped me unsheathe Edward’s dual cutlasses and enter the battle. Combat controls were simple, with situational prompts that allowed me to shoot from a distance and engage in swordplay close up. Edward feels like a sturdy fellow who does just fine in a straight-up brawl, making him the most versatile Assassin yet. While combat felt a bit floaty and lacking in impact, it was enjoyable enough.
In the smoke and chaos, it was a bit difficult to tell friend from foe, but thankfully, I seemed unable to slice up my allies by accident. With so many allies and enemies around, I decided to test the game again. With a reckless disregard for my own safety, I leaped onto a nearby wall and used Edward’s elite parkour skills to scale the walls of the fort towards my main target, a commander who was helpfully highlighted by the user interface. I was shot from below a couple times while trying to hoist myself over the top lip of the fort, though the lack of obvious impact made it a bit difficult to tell if I’d been shot or simply wasn’t supposed to be able to climb over the place I’d selected. I finally managed to sling myself onto the top of the fort (take that, gunners), and after slicing and dicing some soldiers and my commanding-officer target, I had access to the inside of the fort and the end of the demo.
Many of us who are fans of eighteenth-century pirate history and mythology have been skeptical of Edward Kenway’s character design. This particular demo did little to endear him to me. During the cutscenes that flanked the main action, I found myself most interested in one of Edward’s crewmembers, a Haitian man who was born a slave and for whom the freedom of the seas is far more than metaphorical. I simply didn’t see enough of Edward’s personality to get an idea of whether he can not only live up to the well-liked Ezio, but to player expectations of what a pirate hero should be like.
At least we know that Ubisoft hasn’t shrunk from portraying many of the historical realities of the time. This isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean , in which unpleasant issues like slavery and whaling have been whitewashed away. However, I have to hope that Ubisoft hasn’t scoured too much humor out of the game in attempts to be realistic. We don’t need parrots, peg legs, and men who say “arr” all the time, but it would be nice to see some footage of characters (especially Edward) being charming, flamboyant, or honestly anything besides deadly serious.
Will Black Flag’s open world and pirate theme be enough to stave off the franchise fatigue that many players felt while playing Revelations and Assassin’s Creed III ? We’ll have to get our hands on the full game to make a final judgment in that regard. Despite concerns over the game’s controls, my experience with the demo was entertaining enough to pique my curiosity. The lush Caribbean setting and the newfound freedom of the open world are a tempting prospect, and I was pleased that the game took my several attempts to do the unexpected in stride. At the very least, it will be nice not to be threatened with desynchronization while simply trying to be creative or go off the beaten path. Look out for our review in October for our final verdict on Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag .