Is it too early for Assassin’s Creed 4?

Monday, 4 March 2013 13:02 GMT By Dave Cook

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag has now been officially announced, but is the yearly cycle model a good fit for the brand? VG247’s Dave Cook argues for and against the move.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag

You can see Sam’s video interview with Ubisoft here, in which they talk about Black Flag’s open world, upgrading Kenway’s ship and much, much more.

Stace saw Black Flags running last week and has written a huge and rather brilliant preview based on everything from combat to exploration. The game sounds massive.

We’ve got a big gallery of Black Flag screens right here, showing off dual-sword combat, free-running and whales.

There have been two Black Flag trailers released so far. You can watch the reveal trailer here, and a second clip that sets up Kenway’s character.

I really disliked Assassin’s Creed 3.

When I wrote my appraisal of Ubisoft Montreal’s open world romp, I struggled to find positive things to say about it. To me it embodied everything wrong with modern gaming today. The developer had somehow managed to take the dense geography of colonial America and make it feel like a dull corridor devoid of choice and features.

Personally, I think they dropped the ball. Combat was whittled down to contextual, singular button presses, the plot was a confused mess and the free-running mechanic had become too clever for its own good, frequently battling against the increasingly intricate terrain. Running in a straight line became a chore, the code was rife with glitches, and the sign-posting was overbearing to the point of annoyance.

You simply cannot take a huge open world, litter it with a stack of uninspired, rudimentary side-quests and call it worthwhile content. I completed the whole game without spending a single penny of in-game currency on new gear, or through hunting. Don’t get me started on the insulting micro-payment model either.

Ubisoft knows it fucked up hard, that’s why special attention is being drawn to Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag’s naval exploration, seeing as it is the one positive element of Assassin’s Creed 3 that most critics agreed on.

Can it atone for the sins of Assassin’s Creed 3? Well, if our first impressions are anything to go by, then yes it might. But I’m cautiously optimistic about the publisher’s ability to steer the ship around, despite claims that the team is fighting hard to combat previous short-comings.

The game follows Edward Kenway, a pirate rogue who sails the Caribbean in search of loot and adventure, as well as the odd drink or three. Ubisoft’s big pitch is the idea that Kenway will be able to sail a seamless open world full of islands, undersea treasure and port towns waiting to be explored. It sounds a lot like The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, but with interracial pirate three-ways.

There’s definitely a darker edge on show in the official reveal trailer, but a few things still aren’t sitting right. We see Kenway’s quad-revolver and dual-blade combat at work (expect ‘quad-revolver’ to become a mainstay of the game’s marketing-speak), but I’m still concerned that his combos will be executed simply by tapping one button. Assassin’s Creed 3’s combat didn’t feel like you were really in control of what was happening. It felt boring and uninvolved.

There’s also a feeling that Black Flag is simply a response to the positive reaction to naval sections scattered throughout Assassin’s Creed 3. Granted, development will have started over a year ago, but it’s as if Ubisoft knew that its ship gameplay would shine brightest. My worry here is that the whole game will place great emphasis on sea-faring and not enough on the elements that made the early games – Assassin’s Creed 2 in particular – so enjoyable.

Assassin’s Creed 2 delivered a dense world teeming with character, tangible side distractions, and an intriguing modern day story. With Desmond out of the frame and replaced by a faceless Abstergo employee trying to uncover Kenway’s mysteries, Ubisoft is missing out on giving us strong modern day lead. At least they won’t be another also-ran that receives immense scorn from gamers and critics alike.

Here’s a wild stretch: make the hero female Sure, a woman controlling a male ancestor like Kenway might be a stretch, but he seems like a total philandering bastard. The character clashes would make for intriguing plot points. You’d grow to hate and love Kenway in equal measure.

After all of this my key concern is that the open world will still feel sparse. Assassin’s Creed 3’s colonial hubs were often pretty to look at but offered little in the way of interaction or added value. Seeing as Ubisoft failed to create an involving play-space first time around, you can understand why I’m wary when approaching Black Flag’s increased scope.

Seamless open worlds aren’t easy to craft and to keep interesting. Far Cry 3 succeeded with gusto, as you actually felt compelled to wander off the beaten patch and explore every shack and cave you came across. Assassin’s Creed 3 didn’t have an inch of Far Cry 3’s intrigue. Ubisoft needs to capture that essence in Black Flag or it will stumble.

On paper the concept of an open world connected by Kenway’s ship is ambitious but rather incredible. I genuinely hope Ubisoft pulls it off as it could be epic in scope, and because I sunk many, many hours into the Ezio trilogy, I’d like a reason to come back after feeling burned by Assassin’s Creed 3.

This isn’t an impossible feat. It can be done, but I’m worried that this yearly cycle will stunt development. Call of Duty gets away with it, but that’s because it’s a linear corridor shooter. Open worlds take time, consideration and a strong attention to detail. That’s why Red Dead Redemption’s old west took some five years to develop.

Rushing Black Flag out the gate could be costly for Ubisoft, but I hope for their sake they know what they’re doing. I’ll follow this one with keen, but cautious interest from now on. How about you?