Cities are a thing of the past. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, the next annual entry in Ubisoft's stealth-heavy series, will switch firm ground for the rumble of the ocean, as the franchise embraces pirate lore with a stumble and a swig of rum. Evolving the naval mechanics from last year's Assassin's Creed III, the sequel aims to offer a seamless archipelago which you’re free to explore at your own pace. It looks a lot like the divisive Nintendo GameCube exclusive The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker – just with more blood and better beards.
As part of a presentation in a fittingly periodic destination in London last week, the French publisher explained that it’s eager to redefine the lore behind the planet's most brutal seafaring race. “There'll be no ghost ships,” joked Ubisoft’s cheery Carsten Myhill in a backhanded stab at Disney's splashy Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. “We realised that when we looked at the lives of the pirates themselves, we didn't really need to rely on sea monsters and other set-pieces.”
Just as with previous Assassin's Creed games, the narrative will be woven around real figures from history. The likes of Ben Hornigold, Anne Bonny, Calico Jack, and Charles Vane will all play a part in the plot – the latter of which you'll be forced to share a bottle of rum with when you're marooned on a desert island midway into the campaign. Unsurprisingly, Blackbeard, the most famous pirate of them all, will also play a key part in the plot.
In order to drive the story, Ubisoft is ditching Assassin's Creed III's dreary lead character Connor, and swapping him for his more interesting ancestor Edward Kenway, the father of Haytham Kenway from the previous game. The character is introduced as a dashing British privateer, who once worked for the navy. However, when the battle for the New World between the English, French, and Spanish calms down, he finds himself out of work, and ushered into the dangerous but lucrative pirate order. He also happens to be an assassin, an attribute evidenced by his familiar hooded garb and hidden blades.
Outside of the new character and time period, though, the biggest new addition to Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is its seamless setting. During the presentation, creative director Jean Guesdon frequently referred to choice and freedom, setting the expectation for an almost The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim-esque open world. You'll be able to freely sail wherever you want to go, switching between traditional third-person gameplay and naval action at will. You'll also be able to dive underwater, where you'll unlock the opportunity to loot shipwrecks and interact with the wildlife lurking on the seabed.
Rather than focus on a single city, the sequel will feature over 50 unique locations, each promising different secrets and side-missions. Coves, plantations, coconut islands, jungles, and fishing villages will all present unique gameplay opportunities – and house secrets for you to uncover. In addition, three main hub worlds – Havana, Kingston, and Nassau – will provide the bulk of the ground-based gameplay, each offering a slightly different architectural feel.
It's from these locations that you'll be able to repair and upgrade your ship, the Jackdaw, which unsurprisingly plays a pivotal part in the campaign. While you'll be free to explore the full world at any given time, Guesdon did stress that you won't be able to reach everywhere at first. Galleons will protect specific strongholds, and until you've upgraded your vessel appropriately, you won't stand a chance in battle against these colossal warships. As such, you'll need to loot gold and materials, which will allow you to strengthen your ship as you see fit. Combat, defences, and speed were all listed as possible upgrades.
Of course, you'll not be able to operate the Jackdaw alone, and thus you'll need to build a crew in order to excel on the ocean. The publisher didn't detail exactly how this mechanic will function, but it's not hard to imagine a similar recruitment system to previous games in the series. Interestingly, if you're reckless in your seaward endeavours, you will lose key members during battle, so you'll need to carefully plan your course of action in order to minimise casualties.
Thankfully, you'll have access to a new tool known as the Spyglass to make this as easy as glugging a goblet full of grog. Similar to a traditional telescope, this retractable optical-enhancing device will provide more information about the vessels on the horizon. You'll be able to see how much health they've got, what loot they've got on board, and how strong their weaponry is, allowing you to make informed decisions about whether to engage in battle.
Should you decide to challenge a fellow ship, the combat has been overhauled since Assassin's Creed III. The biggest new change is that the boarding mechanics will now take place in real-time, giving you some authority over how you choose to incapacitate your opposite numbers. For example, you'll be able to approach from overhead or behind, with the publisher eager to emphasise player agency. “It's up to you,” Guesdon reiterated on multiple occasions.
Combat is not the only activity that you'll be able to engage in on the water, however. The hunting mechanics from the series' previous release will return, however this time you'll be looking for enormous sea life in order to sell for gold and materials. A gameplay video showed a gigantic whale jumping out of the water, as crew members attempted to harpoon the beast and capture it. Weather effects will also make an appearance, with storms potentially causing casualties to your crew.
And it wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without a present day component. The publisher is still keeping the specifics of this section under wraps, but it did reveal some interesting tidbits. With former front man Desmond Miles’ narrative brought to a conclusion at the end of the previous release, you will now take his place. A screenshot appeared to indicate that these sections will play out from a first-person perspective, as you trawl Abstergo’s offices for information about Edward Kenway. Sadly, the company failed to provide any more information about how this aspect will be structured.
It was similarly coy about multiplayer, merely insisting that new playable characters and environments will help to expand the existing experience. There was no mention of any new playlists, with the publisher merely promising that we’ll learn more in due course.
We were initially sceptical of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s premise, but what the developer has promised is bolder than Blackbeard’s facial hair. The ability to travel anywhere at any time is certainly compelling, but the developer needs to ensure that the world is filled with interesting things to find. Outside of the confirmation of multiple locations, we didn’t really get a feel for what the smaller territories will contain – and that has worried that this may turn out to be a gorgeous chest without any treasure. Still, there’s plenty of time for Ubisoft to communicate the full extent of the game’s activities – let’s hope that it polishes up prize plunder this time, as opposed to last year’s slightly buggy booty.