There were two games at E3 that absolutely blew me away when the new console announcements were made – Watch Dogs, and Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. Both stunning examples of what it means to be a next-generation title, both of them fully embraced the power of the new hardware, and promised to bring us adventures in worlds both familiar and new. Today I’m at what could possibly be the most appropriate location for a pirate-themed game event – The Winery in San Francisco. Surrounded by old and creaky wine barrels, our venue is located on the fog-covered and brisk Treasure Island – very appropriate. If it’s a pirate’s life for you, it’ll likely start with drinks, treasure, and marooned on an island (in this case, across the water from Alcatraz prison), so with that stage set it was time to get some extended hands-on time with both the single player and multiplayer aspects of this much-anticipated title.
If you read my Assassin’s Creed III review, you’ll recall that I heavily praised the naval combat aspects of the game while lamenting that they felt like they were a separate part not very connected with the narrative at large. I also wished there was more of them as they really were some of the best parts of that game. Well, I got my wish as Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag takes to the high seas in the year 1715 – the Golden Age of Pirates. Tall ships, fortune, infamy, women, rum – these are the clichés that defined a pirate. It was finally time to go beyond the familiar and see the world through the eyes of Captain Kenway and discover just how very different this title is from its predecessor.
My first four-hour session began with single player. We had two sequences to play today, both not very far into the narrative. Adéwalé, a former slave turned pirate, becomes the Quartermaster of our ship. I’m too am new to the position of authority and turn to his wise counsel regarding our crew and the condition of the Jackdaw before I set sail to Nassau. He suggests rest and repast on Abaco Island for the crew, and also confirms our suspicions that our stowage is in a dangerous state with our precious gunpowder stored near open flames. The gunpowder might as well burn as our cannons are also in a horrible state of disrepair. While the state of the Jackdaw trumps all, I also look down and see that I have but two gun holsters. If the measure of a pirate is measured by the quality and quantity of firearms he possesses, I’m little better than chum.
My crew sings sea shanties as they set about hoisting the mainsail. Moving from half to full and then to “Travel Speed”, I cut through the ocean at beyond flanking speed (fast travel also makes a return, though you’ll miss out on random encounters, world events, and precious booty this way) towards my destination. Weighing anchor at Abaco Island, I got try my hand at a bit of stealth and hunting.
Upon arrival to Abaco island I’m presented with two sub objectives that feed the hunting and crafting mechanic of the game – kill and skin an iguana and air assassinate an ocelot. Eagle vision allows me to spot my prey easily. Not unlike Far Cry 3, each upgrade has a pelt requirement, some of them locked behind story elements (i.e. Pistol Holster III requires a humpback whale skin). There are also four health upgrades, two ammo pouches for your pistol, two smoke bomb and dart pouches, two levels of berserk and sleep darts, a rope dart pouch pair, and four hunting outfits that considerably reduce the target animal’s range of detection when hunting. Since I have none of those, I had to do my sneaking the old fashioned way. Their pelts in my bag, I crafted my third holster – I was now slightly above a bucket of chum as a pirate.
As I mentioned, a pirate’s worth is measured by the quality and quantity of pistols he carries. When you do obtain multiple pistols you can fire more than one at once by pressing triangle multiple times. Chaining shots on highlighted targets lets you interrupt attacks, but it does a little bit less damage. They are not nearly as dangerous as they were in the previous title – you’ll have to upgrade and manage your shots accordingly.
Even at this stage of the game there are nearly 20 outfits, seven pistol types, and 14 sword types ranging from Persian Scimitars to named items like The Blades of Toledo that are rewarded on Uplay. There is even a pair of rare and exotic pistol swords gained by completing all Assassin contracts.
The Jackdaw is an incredible vessel, but she needs attention. With seven placements for broadside cannons, two additional chase cannons, hull improvements, a ramming Figurehead, adding a diving bell and upgrades to storage and your harpoon skiff, we were just scratching the surface. You can also apply upgrades to your chain, round, swivel, and heavy shot, as well as adding mortar cannons, and fire barrels, it’s clear that the naval portion of the game has gotten far more expansive.
My first mission complete, I had received 100% memory synch for “This Tyro Captain” with only two easy optional objectives. Giving the Dev Team some feedback via a star selection from one to five (which hopefully stays in for public use), I rated the memory sequence and headed back to the sea.
Leaving the island I found myself beset by pirates. The Jackdaw isn’t completely toothless, and I fancied myself an experienced Captain. I sank several of the small Schooners with our broadside guns and cannons. I’m not one for fishing my hard-earned booty from the bottom of the sea, I closed distance and threw boarding hooks onto the enemy boat. Cutting down several of the crew, I used the boat’s lumber to repair the Jackdaw. Looting 38 cloth, 15 rum, and a crew member to replace the soul I lost during our initial exchange, I scuttled the boat to Davey Jones’ Locker.
Snapping up an Abstergo fragment (we’ve not seen how these will interact with the real-world story as of yet), as well as a message in a bottle, I used a rowboat to head back to the Jackdaw. A short sail away I found Andres Island – a more populated shoal than the last.
On the island I found a pigeon coop, and subsequently my first assassination contract. My target is a known Templar financier, and I am to kill him before he finds an artifact lost nearby. If I can do it cleanly I’ll get an extra 500 Reale – the currency of the time.
Before I set off to find my contract, I stopped in at the local tavern. Handing out some chin music to some local thugs I gained access to the pub and her precious information. Bribing the barkeep he told me the location of a royal navy convoy in Gibara. I’d have to keep that in mind for later. I could also roll the bones, but this was no time for gambling – it was time to make a mess out of a Templar financier.
On a nearby island I used stealth to sneak around a full cadre of guards. Using my Eagle Vision (though I could have simply tracked him down by all the complaining he was doing), I found my target searching a little too close to a pile of palm tree fronds – his last mistake, and my first kill for the Order. It was time to make sail for Nassau.
The city of Nassau is a sprawling port. Pressing the touchpad on the PS4 controller, I used the touchscreen to give myself a full view of the island. Selling my haul from my time on the seas, I set out towards the main mission marked by a large yellow exclamation point. Reaching the Old Avery Tavern, I meet up with Ed Thatch, Ben Hornigold and James Kidd – all famous pirates in their own rights. I am are looking for crew members to fill out the remainder of our ship, but the Kingsguard roams the city, giving us as much trouble as they can. As before, I can hire dancers and the like to remain invisible, but careful planning and some double-assasinations later, and my decks were alive with sea shanties once again.
Talking with my pirate compatriots, I pull out a map to a place called The Observatory. As legendary as El Dorado and the 7 Cities of Gold, none of our mates believe it exists, but they’ll follow us just the same. With the wind at our backs, I set sail for Salt Key to upgrade the hull of the Jackdaw so she could stand up to the inevitable combat I was expecting in the immediate future. Our intention was to attract the Royal Navy.
Carefully avoiding ships flying the color of King Phillip, I started cutting down hunter ships. Flotsam filled the sea as I ripped down ship after ship until a Royal Navy ship crested the horizon. We aren’t fighting under Letters of Mark, but under our own power. Gunning down the far more powerful ship, Adéwalé and the crew were not sated, wanting to hit a plantation next.
Following an agent of Peter Beckford, a known plantation owner, I found where he berthed his ship and tail him back to the plantation proper. As I enter restricted waterways I got to see the new detection mechanic. Yellow ‘fields of view’ roam the seas under a red perimeter, and being spotted means instant attack. There are eight plantation types in the game, each of them different themes and stories. Finding the keyholder, we use stealth to take it and loot their storage locker of cash and jewels. Exiting the plantation I stumbled upon a Mayan Stone – another way to find buried treasures in the world. Aligning some objects with the Mayan stone I found exactly where to dig.
Harpooning and whaling were big parts of the economy and the culture of the time. Scrimshaw (bone carvings) and tattoos celebrating the practice persist even today. Trying my own hand at the activity revealed it to be far more difficult than the videos suggested. Sticking a bull shark with a harpoon, my boat was immediately yanked as the beast swam to break free. It took several more harpoons to take down the beast, and his ram of the boat damned near took me off my feet.
Emboldened by taking down an apex predator, I took back to the ocean sailing directly for the nearby Fort of Gibara. Approaching the Fort I was glad I had recently purchased long-range mortars, because they certainly had theirs aimed directly at our hull. After a brief and explosive exchange between the Jackdaw and the Fort of Gibara, I took down all three of their defenses – two cannon towers and a wall. Docking our ship, I made a rush for the captain of the fort, sneaking past his defenses and air assassinating him before anyone was the wiser. Ascending to the top of the fort I killed the Governor, taking it without further incident. This revealed a large chunk of the map, showing diving spots, harpooning opportunities, a cave to be explored, several islands, and much more.
As I sailed away from the smouldering Fort I ran across a rare event. The game informed me “You’ve discovered a whaling location and shared it with your friends.” You’ll likely see only one or two of these in a full playthrough of the game, but having more friends to share these events can increase that exponentially. These can be named ships, harpooning events, random excursions, and far more. Since they are timed, it’s best to take advantage of them when those rare opportunities arise.
Speaking of rare, not all of the world’s treasures exist where you can see them, and diving bells can unlock an entire world underneath the surface. I was surprised to see that they are more than just a distraction. Sharks, sunken treasures, and underwater caves complete with currents that are happy enough to dash you against the rocks and coral lie just waiting for us to explore them.
After a short time Captain Kenway gets the opportunity to build his fleet. Capturing ships lets you command your naval power from your Captain’s Quarters or from the second screen companion app. This app lets you dispatch your wide variety of ships in a similar fashion to your recruited assassins in previous games. In this instance however, you can also jump in and play out the battles as a bit of a minigame as well. These battles and the resultant loot can be traded in for gemstones that unlock additional items in the main game. My time with this app was brief, but when combined with the map functions we saw at E3 it makes it very worthwhile to keep a tablet nearby.
As my time with the single player aspects of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag came to a close I was surprised by what this game isn’t. This game isn’t Assassin’s Creed III, part 2. Sure, it has common elements, but there is so much that has changed – so much that is better. Visually it’s vastly improved, but if that’s all you see you’ve missed the real story. Where Assassin’s Creed III may have frustrated players with some clunky controls and linear checkbox-esque gameplay, Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag is literally improved in every way. Where Assassin’s Creed III’s protagonist may have been a step backwards from the fantastic presentation of Ezio Auditore, Captain Kenway and his mate Adéwalé give us a protagonist we can enjoy once again. Rebuilt controls, non-linear open world naval gameplay, an entire world to explore underwater, and a complete progression system for both Kenway and the Jackdaw just scratches the surface of Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag. If what I’ve seen is any indication, Black Flag may just be the best title of this console launch.