Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Hands-On Preview - On the Hunt for Treasure
Written Monday, September 30, 2013 By Lee BradleyView author's profile
There was a section mid-way through our latest session with the next-gen Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag that had me chuckling with laughter.
It was nighttime and Edward Kenway was aboard on-off friend Blackbeard’s ship, on the trail of a nefarious foe. As you know by now, Assassin’s Creed IV adds a significant naval aspect to the by now-familiar gameplay, but it seems like somewhere along the line Ubisoft decided it was a good idea to add ship-based stealth to the mix.
Now, in the open seas this works well enough - though it’s less stealth than just keeping out of the way of dirty great big frigates capable of sinking you in minutes. But ship stealth along tight tributaries? It just doesn’t make any sense.
Trying to keep your distance in order to avoid detection while remaining near enough to strike when needed may make sense within the series’ gameplay themes, but in a ship it’s just laughable. Because no matter how skillfully you’re navigating the waterways, if you have a vessel big enough to house a small army of men and you’re only about 50 ft away from your enemy, you’re definitely gonna be seen. Unless they’ve all got glass eyes.
Now, this section of the assassination mission was brief. Before long Edward was sneaking through crocodile-filled swamps (you can wrestle with them, by the way), creeping around sentries and scampering across high beams on the hunt for his enemy, in a brilliant mishmash of everything Assassin’s Creed does best. It was great, enough to gloss over the slight silliness of what came before. But I still left with a piratical eyebrow raised.
Elsewhere however, it looks like Ubisoft is working along the right lines to really sell the naval aspect of the game as a worthwhile addition. Fans of the naval combat in AC III will be pleased no doubt, as that element has been greatly expanded upon (and discussed in Lee A’s previous preview). But I was more interested in seeing what adventures the rest of the vast - and utterly beautiful - ocean had to offer.
Thankfully, beyond just bobbing around and firing bowling ball sized lumps of metal at ships there’s a range of activities that attempt to liven up what could just be a whole load of empty space between islands. From rescuing new shipmates from the water, to looting destroyed ships, hunting whales and indulging all of your Captain Jack Sparrow-based fantasies (not those ones ladies), there’s a decent amount of stuff to do.
The biggest surprise of all these for me was treasure hunting, as I wasn’t quite prepared for the slickness with which it's delivered. Ubisoft could have chucked a few sunken wrecks on the bottom of the sea, sprinkled some chests around and let Edward get on with it. Collectibles are the easiest way to fill up empty space, after all. But the approach Ubi has taken is far more satisfying.
To earn the right to go treasure hunting you must first upgrade your ship, the Jackdaw, with a Diving Bell. One of many bits of kit you can purchase, the diving bell provides an underwater air pocket at a fixed point that Edward can then grab lungfuls of oxygen from, allowing him to hunt for longer without coming to the surface.
You’ll need as much time as you can get. These watery wrecks are pretty large, scattered around the ocean bed amongst the weeds, with shoals of fish zipping in and out, and light streaming through the azure waters. It looks gorgeous and amongst the destroyed beauty of the wrecks are little passageways framed by collapsed timber that will take you some time to navigate.
To enter the wreckage, Edward first had to rip off a hatch as a giant stingray drifted serenely overhead. Once inside he had to move some timber in order to reach a blocked off section, but it caused an avalanche of debris to come tumbling down and trap him in a tunnel, his oxygen rapidly running out as he made his way further into the twisted wreckage.
Suddenly, my leisurely dip in search of trinkets had turned into a race against time. Edward had to make it back to the diving bell or the surface, or else face a watery end. Thankfully, however, just as it looked like he’d end up as fish food, one of the tunnels led to an air pocket, providing a few precious breaths of air.
But the peril wasn’t over. Still trapped in the hull of the ship, Edward was swept along by a current that saw him swoosh through the last of the tunnels, having to dive left and right in order to avoid getting slammed against the structure of the ship. Once, finally, spat out of the wreckage, Edward emerged just in time to see a hulking great white shark swim past and snatch up another screaming swimmer before circling the area in search of its next meal.
Carefully avoiding its path, while stopping off along the way to pick up some hard-earned treasure, Edward barely made it back up to the diving bell where he was hauled back up to the surface.
Now, I’m not sure whether all treasure dives will be so dramatic. Indeed, Lee A went for a dip in the Gamecom 2013 demo and found the controls frustrating and the action rather dull in these sequences, so you may feel differently too. But for me the treasure hunting, as indebted to the Tomb Raider series as it is, was heartening.
When the first Assassin’s Creed launched it offered a gorgeous world but not much to do within it. Such is the size of the aquatic aspect of Black Flag that it could have been forgiven for suffering a similar fate. But with all the activities on offer - including the treasure hunting - there’s hints at some entertaining variety.
Just please Ubisoft, no more silly, close-up naval stealth.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag will be sailing onto current-gen consoles on October 29th in North America and November 1st in Europe. It'll be hitting next-gen consoles at launch.