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Assassin’s Creed 4: can Ubisoft turn this sinking ship around?

Tuesday, 8th October 2013 08:14 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Assassin’s Creed 3 sold like hotcakes but left a bad taste in fans’ mouths; can the adventures of Edward Kenway restore faith in the series, or has Ubisoft lost control of its premiere franchise?

I really like the Assassin’s Creed franchise; I’ve played, read and otherwise consumed almost everything related to it. If we’re going to dickwave about commitment to fandoms, I’m typing this clothed in an Assassin’s Creed dressing gown. What? The hood is fantastic after washing my hair in winter.

Assassin’s Creed 3 though – gosh, it’s a bit of a stinker, isn’t it. It’s got some transcendent moments, and many of its frustrations boil down to bugs, (which may or may not make you feel more forgiving of them), but the bigger picture problem is that it packs in so much stuff that it lost the heart and soul of the series – the satisfaction of perfect stealth and agile escapes – and strongly favours a not particularly satisfying combat system. It stepped away from the beautifully crowded, non-linear and textured maps of earlier games in favour of sprawling, obstacle-filled environments with few truly viable pathways. It takes hours and hours even to get started and once you do finally get out into the open world with all features unlocked the endless checklists boil down to dull little chores. I tell you, I nearly sent my Abstergo hoodie back, and I haven’t even put up my special edition art cards. What if my friends saw them and thought I enjoyed it? I’d be drummed out of the cool kid club.

With such a recent and disappointing critical failure following enormous hype, and the knowledge that there are at least three more games in the works, it’s become entirely unfashionable to have any faith in the Assassin’s Creed series, writing it off as an annualised cashgrab. Perhaps that’s why Ubisoft has been so generous about showing off Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag, with loads of gameplay footage coming out of trade shows and plenty of developer-cut video in the interim: it knows it’s got something to prove.

Director Ashraf Ismail isn’t shy about talking about it, either, nor is he reluctant to acknowledge that the third numbered entry wasn’t well-received, noting that stealth in particular will get an overhaul. And a much needed one. Assassin’s Creed 3 employed a slightly more analog stealth system rather than the simple on-off states of past games, in that Connor didn’t just vanish instantly into certain kinds of cover the way he does with wells, haystacks and stalls. Unfortunately the game did a piss-poor job of communicating this; after Assassin’s Creed 2 and its successors build the crowd blending system up so well, Assassin’s Creed 3 puzzlingly ruined it, removing the instantly recognisable animus “wipe” effect in favour of a far more subtle one involving a tiny circle and some almost invisible lines. It’s difficult both to see at all and to interpret, and is never fully explained in-game. The same indicator also showed when Connor is in stealth in low bushes, something nobody understood; the soft edges of the camouflage spots made it difficult to see where it was safe to move to, and Connor’s habit of vanishing by kneeling in ankle-high grass was counter-intuitive to say the least.

If you just want the promise that this will be corrected in Black Flag, the gamescom stealth trailer is quite inspiring, but the developer diary in the box on the right goes into much greater detail.

Although there’s a bit of faffing about first, what you’ll see in the walkthrough above is enough to suggest that Assassin’s Creed may be back on track to becoming the kind of assassination sandbox I enjoyed so much. The maps seem far more traditional than Assassin’s Creed 3′s slope-roofed cities (argh) or frustratingly split-level wilderness maps (double argh). Any series fan is familiar with the desperate search for a free-run start point, and the pain of having a run terminate in a dead end with a long climb to get back to the parkour which is one of the franchise’s pillars – but has been increasingly neglected. Ismail promised that rooftop access will be easy in Black Flag, and that this, along with “strong stealth rules”, will give us what we want.

Pat went hands on with Assassin’s Creed 4′s multiplayer recently. He’s been disenchanted with the franchise since before Revelations released, but came away more than a little interested in Black Flag.

Unfortunately, these rules have not been detailed. But the fact that Ubisoft acknowledge they need to exist at all goes a long way towards giving me confidence it can deliver on Ismail’s promise. Stealth isn’t the be all and end all of Assassin’s Creed, of course, but there’s much to like in recent footage showing open world gameplay elements like naval forts which seem to offer a quality level on par with missions in earlier games, rather than the rather hollow offerings of Assassin’s Creed 3. Sam spoke to Ubisoft at gamescom and captured the game in action, confirming that the whole map will be open once you have your ship, too – no more slogging about from place to place waiting for the arbitrary animus walls to fall.

You know as well as I do that the proof is in the playing – and not of carefully-curated preview builds. The massive hype for Assassin’s Creed 3 ended in disappointment for many series fans, but I feel a cautious optimism about the next entry, and especially the one to follow, which will have had more time to steer in a different direction if necessary. I do trust in Ubi’s business savvy, and another stinker would be about as unsavvy as it gets. I think the publisher was spooked by how badly the latest entry in its juggernaut, flagship franchise went down with critics and fans, despite its incredible sales performance, and is working to correct course before the ship it has trusted with its fortunes takes a nosedive. This time, though? I’m waiting for the reviews.

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is due on PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360 at the end of October and early November. PC, PS4 and Xbox One versions have not been dated.

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22 Comments

  1. mistermogul

    Strangely this is probably my most wanted next gen game.

    I have a feeling that Ubi will make amends for AC3…

    #1 12 months ago
  2. YoungZer0

    I remember saying that AC3′s setting would be it’s worst enemy. I still feel bad that I was not proven wrong. Everything that made AC AC was lost in the game. AC4 sounds really promising, though I have to say that I’m not a fan of the whole pirate theme. Well, at least the naval warfare fits much better into it than AC3.

    #2 12 months ago
  3. Llewelyn_MT

    @1: Why would you prefer this to Watchdogs or the new Batman?

    #3 12 months ago
  4. stx

    What??… AC3 a stinker??

    Surely not. Ok, AC3 was unpolished in a few areas (improved mostly by a day 1 patch) and Connor a bit of a twat, but the game is generally really good and fun to play with some nice additions to the franchise.

    Far from a stinker!

    I really look forward to AC4, maybe my most wanted game for the rest of this year.

    #4 12 months ago
  5. YoungZer0

    It was a stinker, everybody knows that.

    #5 12 months ago
  6. Hcw87

    AC3 was far better than the previous AC games in my eyes, because finally it had a new setting. I was so tired of running around the middle east in every fucking game. Also there was far more to do than the previous games, where you had the main story and collectables, and that was pretty much it.

    AC4 looks even better.

    If i’m ever hearing another NPC with a middle east accent in an Assassins Creed game again i’m going to slowly strangle someone.

    #6 12 months ago
  7. YoungZer0

    There was only one AC set in the middle east, excluding the mobile and handheld games.

    #7 12 months ago
  8. Hcw87

    @7
    The setting was the same in every single game. Buildings looked the same, the environments and the people looked the same.

    Sure, the latter games was set in Italy in the renaissance, but even then it did not feel different from the previous games. The same voice actors just changed their accent.

    #8 12 months ago
  9. YoungZer0

    Wrong on all accounts.

    #9 12 months ago
  10. SplatteredHouse

    Barring a “reboot” or the return of Prince of Persia, I’ve little interest in what Ubisoft do, and especially so with this franchise – and BGE2 would apply to the exception list as well, be in no doubt, but it’s no more tangible today, than it was following “The Pig”; so, I just can’t earnestly include it.

    It looks like they’re toying with people who looked forward to Rainbow6. There continues to be no conclusive news on that front (other than some vague assurance that it remains in development); and then, out of thin air pops this “Division” thing! (which I first believed when i saw it on the debut presentation stream, accompanied with the developer’s commentary, to be a relabeled, recycled R6:P.)

    If you would ask why I am opposed to playing AC, it is because in the whole of II (it, and its offshoots) they didn’t change. The games differed little, they were content to start churning, and the series started to split at the seams. AC and its sequel, I have plenty of time for those.

    Brotherhood did not offer much over II, and the “saga” fiction seemed to take a backseat. What then am I to invest in after the stripping away, to motivate me to play a game where my character has no purpose? All the events have happened, by Desmond’s time. Without the glue of the animus mystery remaining present, even at the farthest horizon yet having its light remain to be felt, there’s nothing guiding any of it. I couldn’t entertain buying another one of these games until such time as I am convinced that they once again, have their “ship” together.

    #10 12 months ago
  11. mistermogul

    @3 – I’m not sure. I think I like the look of the setting and naval mechanic. Also I’ve not played an AC since Brotherhood and am now ready to jump back into the series…

    Watch Dogs def looks good also but I want to see review scores first before I get too excited.

    Batman will be sweet but current gen only…

    #11 12 months ago
  12. Ekona

    My biggest problem with AC3 was the ships. They felt unwieldy and compromised, and if you didn’t need to do a couple of missions in them to complete the game, I’d have avoided them altogether. Given that AC4 is mostly ships, then I’ve no desire to play it.

    For me that’s a real shame, as the AC series was the one triple-A series that I still looked forward to, having left CoD long behind after I realised that 90% of the dev costs went on the MP side. Now there is no yearly franchise that I am desperate to get my hands on, and that’s quite sad.

    #12 12 months ago
  13. bradk825

    My problem with AC3 was that they intentionally downplayed Desmond’s story and then sort of casually disgarded him. They later said it was all intentional, because some players were “tired of him.”

    The main reason I wanted to play AC3 was to see Desmond’s story play out, and they totally fucked it up. That was a big disappointment for me as a fiction lover.

    I will wait for the reviews before I pick up AC4. It looks great, but so did AC3… The series got better and better and better, then they hit us with watered down gameplay and watered down story.

    #13 12 months ago
  14. YoungZer0

    @12: What are you talking about? The Naval Missions are the best part about this rotten shitfest.

    #14 12 months ago
  15. FatalTee

    Rotten shitfest is far from my experience. But it was boring. AC3 was not wrong or shitty, it was just uniteresting and lacked much of an atmosphere after leaving the reservation.

    I liked two things about the game – Young Connor, with stunning soundtractk climbing the trees. (I hated coming back to cities (if what US cities were back then can someone called cities)).
    - naval games.

    I realized that if AC3 had only naval game, it would have been cool game. Not AC, but still, cool game. And they are doing that, but it is still attached to AC, for which I lack understanding.

    Nonetheless, for their wave and windsailing mechanics, I will gladly revist it. But either I would follow the theme of the AC4, or wait for sale. Or both, come to think of it.

    #15 12 months ago
  16. Cobra951

    What I like about the AC franchise is exploring and discovering large cities full of people–eventually owning all 3 of their dimensions. I want to work for and achieve full freedom in huge populated environments. The setting of AC3 completely scared me away even before stories like Brenna’s. I will wait to see where 4 goes, but so far I’m not encouraged.

    #16 12 months ago
  17. deathm00n

    To me the problem with AC3 was that all games before were mainly focused in the Templars X Assassin’s plot wich involved a little of local history. AC3 did the inverse, it’s focused on the american war and involved a little of Templars X Assassin’s.

    #17 12 months ago
  18. sebastien rivas

    The issue does not seem constraint to location setting but rather gameplay itself which have seen a dramatic change between ac2 and ac3. This as well as difficult level may be the main cause

    #18 12 months ago
  19. ChandlerL

    I really enjoyed AC3. I also really didn’t like Connor. What I can’t put my finger on is why. Connor was stoic and humorless. Thing is, wasn’t Altair the same? I liked Altair but not Connor. Perhaps it’s because Connor came after Ezio who was charming and witty. Perhaps it was my enjoyment of Ezio’s personality that colored my ability to like Connor? Anyone want to take a shot at why we liked Altair, liked Ezio, but not Connor? I can’t put my finger on it. Still liked AC3 though.

    #19 12 months ago
  20. Davschall

    @#12 Wow really have you ever steered a SHIP a 1700′s SHIP its not a fucking boat with an I/O motor, It is unwieldy. Aside from that I actually like assassins creed 3, I still play it. Its strange because usually Im the one who dislikes video games that everyone loves, I ussually have great taste, and find stupid games boring and good games fun. Who knows I enjoyed it. I guess wanting to throw my controller every five seconds because of the fucking stupid 100% syncs in the other ones. Maybe it was just the checkpoints that made the game for me idk. Anyway I’m a little wary of AC 4 but ill still buy it at some point. I mean my favorite part of AC 3 was the naval warfare, and I love pirates so double whammy.

    #20 12 months ago
  21. scrapps898

    I find it incredible that people who “have no desire to play” or “won’t be playing at all”, dislike the games (or some of them), or have lost “faith” in the series take the time to post about it. Wouldn’t your time be better spent playing games you DO enjoy? Your time being so precious and all…..

    #21 10 months ago
  22. Bomba Luigi

    I find it incredible that you lament about People that don’t like the Game, wouldn’t your time be better spent playing Games you enjoy? Your Time being so precious and all.

    #22 10 months ago

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