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Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag 'pushing hard' for more assassinations, less hand-holding


It has become necessary to ask about the prevalence of assassination in a series called Assassin's Creed. Ubisoft's massive franchise has grown to encompass different developers, protagonists, historical contexts, and design ideals. The central thrust of the hidden blade has been obscured by an ever-growing stack of systems, plots and economies, some of which suit the business of killing – and some that allow you to manufacture and sell barrels.

"Yes, we are a pirate game, and we advertise ourselves as a pirate game. It's even in our title," says Ashraf Ismail, Game Director at Ubisoft Montreal for Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag. "But it's an Assassin's Creed game, and this is very important, because this is how we're able to build a pirate game. We have this really solid foundation that is the core and the heart of the experience. The story is about a guy who is an assassin and the conflict he goes through to become this guy. We actually have more assassinations than AC1 had."

Following a presentation at Ubi's offices in San Francisco, Ismail explains the "older philosophy" of Assassin's Creed as an important consideration for Black Flag, even if appearances suggest otherwise. "This is something we did learn, we do listen to our fans a lot," Ismail says. "We know that in AC3 there was a lot more handholding done, and we do want to go back to an older philosophy where we just present you with a simple objective and we let you choose the gameplay you want."

Ubisoft's intentions don't always come through: Assassin's Creed 3 was pitched as a fresh, focused sequel, but was criticized for its superfluous systems and obviously manufactured missions. There was a disconnect between the rich fiction and your presumed agency in the world, and it was clearly felt during the game's slow-burn opening. Assassin's Creed 4 addresses the issue of hand-holding in a few ways, Ismail says, starting with new anti-hero Edward Kenway – yes, the father of Haytham Kenway, the surly pre-protagonist in AC3's ambitious, barely elastic prologue.

"At some point, people were asking us – do pirates in Assassin's [Creed] make sense?" says Ismail. "They're very different fantasies. But, actually, the gameplay mechanics of being an assassin completely fit in line with being a pirate. For example, navigation: well, pirates were sailors, and they climbed masts, and they were actually really great climbers, so that makes sense. Fighting? Well, they were melee fighters and used guns, and this is why Edward has four pistols.

"And the stealth itself, they were outlaws, they needed to be hidden, even when they plundered certain ships."

Confident in a pirate's suitability as assassin, Ismail considers the entire context as the crux in making Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag a better, more dynamic action game. There are three major cities to infiltrate (Nassau, Havana and Kingston), augmented stealth mechanisms and stern encouragement to use them, and an emphasis on elevating Edward's abilities alongside his ship, the Jackdaw. And though naval combat is an important component (and more complex than it was in AC3), Ismail sees it as a scenario modifier. If it all works properly, the ocean, the storms, the ships and your ability to board them all will coalesce into the kind of player-controlled stories we've seen from the likes of Far Cry 3. Some Far Cry 3 folks at Ubisoft Montreal are in charge of how combat and optional tasks feed back into upgrading your ship, which sounds like bad news for sharks.

Though development of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag started in earnest during Summer 2011, Ubisoft Montreal claims there's been enough time to consider the critical and fan discussion around Assassin's Creed 3. "We don't tell you 'go here, touch this thing, interact with this thing, push this guy' to accomplish the goal. It's really just where you need to be, get there as you wish."

The process of eliminating major targets, Ismail says, will be more open to planning and improvisation; less reliant on scripted events and big battles. "This is a philosophy we're really pushing hard in the missions and the assassinations."

With that point made, look for more coverage of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag on Joystiq later today.

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