Gamescom 2013: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Hands-On Preview - Shiver Yer Timbers
Written Sunday, September 01, 2013 By Lee AbrahamsView author's profile
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is probably the only game that lets you assassinate a drunken pirate while he’s having a piss, and if that’s not an instant selling point then we don’t know what is. Whether or not pirates are still in vogue is debatable, as the goodwill generated after the first Pirates of the Caribbean seems to have been brutally stabbed and left for dead by the three sequels. Still, Ubisoft clearly thought the marriage of piracy and assassins was a logical step, and who are we to argue? Certainly on the basis of this hands-on there is cause to be optimistic about the next step in the series, and the nautical angle it embraces.
As you would expect from a game featuring a range of scurvy sea dogs, your ship is the main focus of you attentions and gives you free reign to plunder the Caribbean seas as well as visit the three main cities and countless other explorable points in the area. You take on the role of Edward Kenway, the father and grandfather of the last games two leading protagonists, and his motley crew aboard The Jackdaw. Thankfully, because you’ll be spending a lot of time on it, The Jackdaw handles pretty well and you can upgrade your main conveyance as you progress so that it can survive the rigours of the seven seas. Quite clearly the emphasis is on ship bound exploration and combat, and our hands-on demonstrated all the facets of the new system.
First of all it’s worth mentioning the handy new map interface, that handily highlights points of interest and lets you know if there are any outstanding missions, hunts or objects of interest in the vicinity. It will certainly make life easier for the completionists out there. On board your ship you can use your spyglass to spot distant ships and places to explore, with the strength and cargo of your foes being displayed. If you feel like a bit of piracy then you can steer your ship into the fray and let loose your crew.
Combat is fairly simple, the ship to ship cannon fire feels satisfyingly robust, you can select from a variety of ammunition and the aiming reticule helps you pinpoint your fire. You can also drop mines into the sea to slow down would-be pursuers as well, which is a neat touch. Take down a vessel and you can then board her to wipe out any remaining resistance. Succeed and the haul is yours, plus you can choose to scavenge the ship to repair your own, send it to join your ever growing fleet or even let it go on its merry way in a bid to improve your standing (and reduce your bounty). Looting ships for fun and profit is the pirate way and the system plays out perfectly, with a nice balance of risk versus reward that ensures you may just spend a bit of time cruising the trading lines to ply your devilish trade.
Of course, you don’t have things all your own way and you can expect a hefty naval presence to be on the look out for privateers. Thankfully the Jackdaw is pretty nimble so you can make good your escape should you need to, but at certain points you will have to take on both land and sea based foes to get where you want to go. In truth blasting away at forts is a lot less fun, as you seem to end up sailing in a perpetual loop, dropping cannon shells from afar whilst avoiding incoming fire. Stationary targets, while robust, are a lot less entertaining and don't make for a particularly engaging battle. Hopefully, these sections will be few and far between, though it is nice that once you have successfully neutralised a fort you can then sail up and take matters into your own hands, dispatching ground forces in the traditional stealthy way.
The other, more tiresome aspect of a life at sea is the chance to explore sunken wrecks for potential treasure. Sure, it means that that our hero gets down to his skivvies in order to take a dip in the ocean (form an orderly queue people), but as with swimming sections in pretty much every game ever, it handles like a dog. Your goal is basically to swim around, snagging objects, while holding your breath and avoiding what seems to be an endless array of sharks. Get too low on oxygen or take a few too many hits and you’ll have to retreat to the sanctity of some suspiciously well-placed barrels. It plays as well as it sounds, and the section felt frustratingly out of place with the rest of the game. Sharks have a nasty habit of biting you in the ass from nowhere and the controls don’t really mesh that well with the camera. It all feels decidedly annoying, and and along with the fort attacking section, were pretty much the only aspects of the game that felt poorly paced.
Thankfully we also got to take part in a few missions on dry land and, when the game is back in familiar territory, it plays beautifully. As you would expect from the notoriously tough ports of yesteryear there are guards liberally scattered in your path and it's up to you to take them out, or merely slip by them unseen. The radar is a bit more helpful in this regard, highlighting the attributes of your foes (whether they are swordsmen, snipers etc) and the direction they are facing to make planning your approach a bit easier. As ever you can get the locals on your side too, so rescuing a bullied sailor gives you the chance to gain a new crew member or you can bribe local courtesans to distract guards and help you make a daring escape.
A neat touch is the fact Edward’s assassin's cowl is now contextual, and he’ll pull it over his flowing locks when he enters a dangerous area, with a suitable blast of anticipatory music to tell you it’s about to get messy. This time around the developers have also actively decided to reward players for being stealthy, rather than the blatant combat that could be so successful in previous games. One of the missions we took on required the assassination of a local pirate (who was the drunken, urinating mess we alluded to earlier) and we managed to sneak in close to check out the lay of the land.
You can use Eagle vision to highlight potential threats as well as narrow down who your target is on any particular mission. Edward has a handy blow pipe that he can use to drug enemies with a variety of amusing effects, the most obvious of which are sleep darts, but the most fun of which are rage inducing chemicals. A couple of those fired into the drunken cronies led to an epic brawl amongst his henchmen, allowing us to sneak in close and assassinate our target with impunity. Our reward was all the heftier for not getting spotted and we could then beat a swift retreat before the guards knew what had happened.
In truth our hands-on with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag showed off a lush tropical paradise that seems full of adventure, though there were certainly a few hiccups along the way. The sense of exploration is to be applauded, and piloting your way around the Caribbean seas is unlikely to ever get old, nor is picking on hapless (and not so hapless) vessels for booty. The game is certainly going to see you spend nearly as much time on your boat as off it, and mercifully the combat and handling here seems to be spot on. The only downside are the woeful swimming sections and the tiresome bombarding combat against land based foes, though it remains to be seen how prevalent each of these areas will actually be in the final game.
When Assassin's Creed IV sticks to the traditional formula, there is still plenty of fun to be had, as free-running your way across rooftops, taking out guards and then snagging your next assignment from a pigeon coop (no, really) is still breathtaking fun. The shipbound and land based arsenal at Edward’s disposal will ensure you can approach missions in a variety of ways, and there is certainly a sizable area to explore to your hearts' content. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is looking like being another solid entry in the series, though perhaps not a spectacular one. Still you can expect to be swashing plenty of buckle when it lands across all current and next-gen formats in October and November 2013.