First Thoughts: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Last week Ubisoft pulled back the curtain from the latest iteration of the acclaimed historical parkour simulator, Assassin’s Creed. This year’s version is titled Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, and it looks pretty slick.
Before we start in on Black Flag, let’s travel back in time a little bit. The year is somewhere around 1990, and I am roughly seven years old. My family purchases their first home computer, an IBM 286, with both a 5.25” floppy drive, AND a brand new tech, smaller and better, the 3.5” floppy. Our computer came with three games originally: Airborne Ranger by Microprose, a helicopter sim called Gunship, and Sid Meir’s Pirates!, one of my very favorite games of all time. In a game that was incredible for the time (and looks incredibly primitive now), I could sail the Caribbean as a privateer, sink or capture ships, loot towns and cities, hunt for buried treasure, or even wed a fine young lady.
There was also a robust trading system, naval battles, and even swordfights. The game was re-released for many systems and updated at least a couple of times, but playing on that huge old 286 still holds a place in my heart. I’ve not experienced another game that captured the majesty and diversity of life in the Caribbean quite as well… save for perhaps the Monkey Island games, but that’s another tale for another time.
Enter Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. This game looks set to combine my two great gaming loves: the beautiful worlds of Assassin’s Creed, and the Pirate-y goodness of an adventure set in the Caribbean. ARR! As I read the first previews of this game, I started to get excited almost in spite of myself. The game is set in the early 18th century, and will tell the story of Edward Kenway, assassin Pirate-at-large and grandfather to ACIII hero Connor. Through the course of the game you will upgrade your pirate ship, search for treasure, and do all other sorts of pirate-y things.
While normally this would be incredibly exciting, I have some reservations. Assassin’s Creed III never did it for me – as a Canadian, I’ve only had a passing interest in the American Revolution. If the game had been done perfectly, I would have loved it; but unfortunately it was pondering, with a boring story, disconnected plot, broken animations, and a completely incomprehensible trading system. While I love the mythos and the intent behind Assassin’s Creed, ACIII has made me very skeptical going forward.
That being said, Black Flag could be amazing. If the developers are able to get past the hurdles which bogged down ACIII, and are able to deliver on even half of their promises, Black Flag will be the greatest game of all time. The developers are promising a ‘seamless’ experience (read: supposedly no loading times), jungles, pirate villas, Mayan tombs filled with treasure, naval combat (including the ability to board other ships in real time), the ability to dive down to sunken ships, a robust trading system, and, of course, sword fights and assassinations. No one has mentioned the connection to Pirates! yet, but I would be shocked if the developers weren’t drawing some ideas from that old classic.
Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that previews can mean very little when it comes to the finished product, however. I remember the first game that seriously let me down – Peter Molyneux’s Fable. When that game was first previewed for the original Xbox, it was supposed to be incredible. You would age throughout the game, growing from a young man into an old one. The game would remember your actions – if you cut someone as a young man, that person would be scarred and would remember the fight years later. If you killed a child’s pet while you were a kid, the child would hate you well into adulthood, and would fight you later on. Of course, none of this came to pass. What we got instead was a fairly decent action/roleplaying game – not bad, but not what had been hyped a year before it was released. I’m worried that Black Flag could be the same sort of situation.
Black Flag also seems to be an homage to another classic game: The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker. This is interesting, because Nintendo is re-releasing Wind Waker in HD for the Wii U this year as well. In that game, Link travels to various islands on his ship, encountering storms, monsters, and sunken treasure along the way. Wind Waker is often praised for the way it immerses the player in a world that feels alive. Weather systems change, there is a day/night cycle, and each island is unique and interesting. In the same way, Black Flag promises to provide a living world, with whales, sharks, islands, and dynamic weather systems. Combine the 3D open-world dynamics of Wind Waker with the trading, naval battles, and grit of Pirates! and you might just have a winner on your hands.
This is the problem with advanced previews such as what Ubisoft has released for Black Flag. The previews drive up hype, and encourage potential buyers to lock in their launch-day sale by pre-purchasing the game… something that seems to be happening earlier and earlier these days. Basically it goads players into paying for a dream which may or may not come to pass, and offers no protection if the developer is unable to deliver on the promises it made.
Of course, Ubisoft has a history of promising the moon and falling far short of that high mark. Assassin’s Creed III was anything but seamless, and with Black Flag using the same engine, I have my doubts on whether the technology will be able to handle the dynamics that the developer is promising. Very little of the game has been seen thus far, aside from pre-rendered trailers and a few snippets of gameplay shown only to some privileged journalists. Mostly the promises are all talk, and Ubisoft is very good at talking. Only time will tell whether Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the greatest pirate sim of all time or a horrible, bug-ridden mess shoveled out to meet a publisher’s deadline.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is scheduled for release on November 1st on Xbox 360, PS3, PC, and Wii U, with releases on Next Gen systems at a later date.