Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag preview - ship battles, piracy and exploration on the high seas

"The emphasis is still very much on quick kills in crowd-control scenarios"

It's when you get close that the technological enhancements from ACIII become clearer, however. And when I say close, I mean very close indeed: “Boarding is one of our breakthroughs,” Ashraf says. “In ACIII it was a cinematic, now it's completely seamless. Imagine a scenario where you see a ship, you like its loot, you attack it, weaken it, and you order your crew to throw the grapples to bring the ship in, and this can happen from any angle for orientation. As soon as the hooks are in, Edward lets go of the wheel, and as a player you can do whatever you want to accomplish your goals.”

So if you're a lily-livered coward, for instance, you could use the free aim to shoot enemies on the ship from the safety of your own vessel. Braver souls can use a swing rope to board their victim, while cannier sorts can climb the Jackdaw's mast and parkour their way across to the neighbouring vessel. “You can even jump in the water and swim around and sneak on from the other side,” adds Ashraf. “You know, we take a lot of pride in this, we want to make it this perfect blend between piracy and Assassin's Creed's core gameplay.”

A noble aim, but I can't help feeling that the piracy mechanics are considerably more exciting than any further iterations on Assassin's Creed's core systems. From the glimpses I get to see of Edward boarding enemy vessels and duelling colonial soldiers, the emphasis is still very much on quick kills in crowd-control scenarios, rather than the one-on-one swordfights a dedicated piracy game might have inspired. Edward also seems to enjoy wielding dual cutlasses: a very literal interpretation of his assassin/pirate heritage that just looks a bit silly.

"Events such as the marooning of Charles Vane will be woven into the narrative, as will a cast of historical pirates"

Combat isn't the only piece of Assassin's Creed heritage likely to get in the way of the rumdrinking, shipplundering fun, either. A fourth-wall-breaking frame narrative is still very much a part of the series, although you won't be playing the muchmaligned modern 'star' of previous Assassin's Creeds, Desmond. Instead, you're a nameless tester for Abstergo Industries' new Entertainment division. This is the setup that last year's multiplayer mode introduced, and it hopefully means less obstructive present-day sections than in previous games, with 100% less Nolan North. That said, the sci-fi yarn is still a core part of the game: “It won't be less important,” Jean insists, “because the present day is the main link between every time period we visit, but we're putting [the player] directly within the AC universe for the first time.” It's been clear for some time that AC doesn't really need this hokey crutch, but at least this time they aren't using it to tell some dullard's tiresome story.

As ever, it's the setting that intrigues. Ubisoft claim they want to capture 'real piracy', clearly hoping to ensure there's no muddling of Black Flag with Johnny Depp's more family-friendly adventures. Historical events such as the marooning of Charles Vane will be woven into the narrative, as will a cast of historical pirates. The desire to reveal the reality behind the myths seems a little lost in the pitch however: the first thing I'm shown is a trailer in which Blackbeard yarrs his West Country-accented way over a pint of what looks suspiciously like grog.

Still, this is a brave move for a series that has always been focused on the physical abilities of its protagonist. Edward Kenway will still have plenty of things to clamber across and opponents to stab, not to mention the ability to dive and explore the ocean depths, but it's telling that Ubisoft spent more time during their presentation discussing the Jackdaw than the chap captaining it.


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