Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Shines at PAX Prime

From massive sharks, epic ship battles, and rich environments, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is proving to be the game that can revitalize the whole AC series and then some.

I will be the first to admit that I was apprehensive when I sat down to play the demo for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag at this year's PAX Prime. As a long time fan of the series I had a slight sense of nepotism going into Assassin's Creed III, a game that, in the end, left me with much to be desired. ACIII promised to be different; it paraded its distinctive theme set in the Revolutionary War, a profound historical event not often explored in the world of gaming. While traversing the open world of 18th century America was indeed a novelty in the series, the overall gameplay was not as fresh, featuring much of the same combat and tactics found within its five predecessors. Repetition was becoming a reoccurring problem within the series. At this point it was not a narrative makeover Assassin's Creed needed to revitalize itself… it was gameplay. 

Enter Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, which provided a hands-on demo that I began with slight trepidation and ended with sheer anticipation. My adventure as the rugged Edward Kenway begins on his ship, the Jackdaw, which is coasting elegantly over the emerald waters of the Caribbean Sea. Using the right stick to pull up the map I can see the enormity of the world director Ashraf Ismail and the Ubisoft team created. The map, which seems to span for miles, displays areas of sea and land that are littered in icons, each one representing a unique escapade that varies from harpooning missions and asssination contracts to ships, cities, and diving locations. Ubisoft was spot on in claiming that this is a sandbox title—and it appears to be one in which the player will never be bereft of things to do. Yes, previous titles within the series had extra missions and markers scartted across the game, but nothing to the extent or variety of what is seen on this map. There is so much more to this game than just generic "FedEx" feather or flag collecting.

Placing a marker on the map and shifting to full sail, I decide to try out Edward's hands at a harpooning mission. For those who are accustomed to the controls of the ship missions in ACIII, the overall dynamics of Jackdaw will be familiar enough to pick up with ease. However, those who disliked the ship missions will be happy to know that controls are massively upgraded from their predecessor, providing a more organic and responsive experience that allows for open world travel.   

As I pick up speed it becomes easy to see that the Caribbean is a living and breathing environment. The waves of the ocean crash into the side of the Jackdaw, bobbing the boat up and down in their unrelenting wake and providing a glimpse of just how detailed the physics engine of this game truly is. Along the way I encounter some stragglers who can be rescued to join the Jackdaw's hefty crew, small islands that can be searched for treasure, and a variety of ships sailing to and from different ports, indicating the richness of the economy within the game. 

Using spyglass, Edward is able to analyze each nearby ship for their level and cargo.  Eventually the Jackdaw stumbles upon a small and rather unfortunate level 4 Schooner. We decide to use it for practice; after all, pirates. To enter combat, I slow down by lowering the main sails and fire upon the Schooner. Using the cannons on the Jackdaw is dependent upon the direction you look, providing a much more straightforward feel for the player. Turning to the left or right of the Jackdaw will allow us to fire the broadside cannons, facing the front allows us to use trajectory based front cannons, and facing the back allows us to drop fire barrels, which explode when fired upon. In attempt to run, the Schooner begins to drop fire barrels, but it is to no avail. With the upgraded Jackdaw I am able to catch up and hit the Schooner with a burst of the powerful broadside cannons, leading the small ship to sail back over its own barrel, which explodes with a single shot of the front cannon. As my heart-rate slowed I felt some semblance of a moral pinch as I watched the Schooner sink into the depths of the ocean, but once I heard the cheers of my crew and snatched the cargo from the ship's remains I was awash with satisfaction. Achievement aside, it is important to note that sometimes sinking a ship in ACIV may not be the most practical option, as many of the ship's supplies are then wasted. Ismail explained that when you successfully board and commandeer a ship you can add the ship to your fleet, take its lumber to repair the Jackdaw, or recruit their crew as your own. Lucky for us, boarding is just as rewarding as sinking in terms of entertainment.

After passing a massive Man-O-War (which I decided to pass on given its high level) the Jackdaw approaches two more ships. Here I decided to try our hand at boarding. Each ship, when fired upon, has a health indicator that appears over their mast. Once that indicator turns red the ship is then fair game for boarding from the Jackdaw, though it is also important to note that Edward can even jump off the ship, stealth swim over to the neighboring vessel, and annihilate everyone on board before his crew even arrives.