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Assassin's Creed 4 brings new life to a tired franchise

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag allows you to live the life of a pirate: if only for a little while. At, E3 Catherine Cai found out what it's like to walk the walk and sail the Caribbean under the tutelage of master pirate Ash Ismael.

I'll admit: the moment that Ubisoft announced Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, I was ready to write it off. I played the first Assassin's Creed with a lot of enthusiasm. Having the opportunity to explore the Damascus of years past was awe-inspiring, however historically inaccurate it may have been. I'll take your Damascus cake, Ubisoft! Pathetic excuses of Middle Eastern accents and all!

When Assassin's Creed 3 rolled around last year, I was immensely disappointed. The New World setting was something fresh, and I thought it had the potential to make the franchise grow into something new. And it did succeed in doing something new, though it delivered everything in a clumsy, jumbled mess. None of the gameplay elements felt like they meshed together. I thought Ubisoft's decision to move Assassin's Creed to a yearly release cycle was a mistake, and Assassin's Creed 3 is all I have to point an accusing finger at to back up my statement.

I went into the Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag demo a cynic, ready to be let down. What I saw left me almost a believer. (I say almost, because, as a cynical bastard, I'm never ready to ride any game's hype train.)

A pirate's life for me: being Edward Kenway

Edward Kenway swan dives off the top of a building and into clear blue waters below. A few elegant strokes later and he's back on land, heading for the island tavern.
Welcome to the West Indies, to the Grand Cayman. It's 1717, and the area's rife with pirate activity.

Kenway, though well-versed in the arts of looting, plundering, and general pirate shenanigans, is only an assassin-in-training in this game. In order to progress up the ladder in rank, Kenway must pick up contracts set out by the Assassin's. Unfortunately for a set of Templar twins today, Kenway's drawn their name.

The pirate casually strolls up to the tavern, where both twins are. The tavern serves as a central hub for many gameplay activities. Here, you can hire crew, play mini-games, and even virtually drink yourself into oblivion, if you so choose.

Kenway approaches one twin, who stands distracted at the bar. In a mere matter of seconds, one brother lies dead and the other one is fleeing. A din rises of out of the panic and chaos, as a crowd begins to gather around the dead brother. Taking advantage of the distraction, Kenway rushes through the crowd and after the other twin.

The twin heads for the docks, scrambling aboard his ship, shouting orders at his crew to take off. Kenway, rather than choosing to give chase by running onto the ship, heads for his own, taking the high velocity chase from land to sea.

Ash Ismael, Assassin's Creed 4 game director, brings a brief moment of respite from the chase to show off the game's map. It begins focused on Kenway and the Grand Cayman. As he zooms out, I get a sense of just how enormous the map actually is. "We've got over 50 locations, three of them being major cities," Ismael explained.

Back in the action, Kenway brings up a spyglass to his eyes, allowing the player a better, first person view of the enemy ship and an idea of what goods the ship has to offer. A window pops up giving a number-specific run down of what cargo the ship is holding. Cargo is very valuable, and can be used to upgrade both Kenway and his ship, the Jackdaw.

The Templar captain's ship holds plenty of valuables, and it's the factor that helps Kenway decide to plunder the ship instead of sending it careening to the bottom of the Caribbean Sea.
The Jackdaw rounds up the side of the enemy ship, which has already deployed its arsenal of cannon balls. The player is given the option to brace or to fire. Kenway, wanting of course, to be the aggressor in this situation, gives out the orders to fire back as he steers his ship in a predatory circle.

Sending schooners to Davy Jones's Locker

I was hoping for a "more realistic" experience of ship battles, so to speak, with Assassin's Creed 4, seeing as that makes up a huge portion of the game. Unfortunately, while the ship battles are fun, they're also undeniably very gamey. Rather than being concerned about accurate aiming and wearing an enemy down to surrender by destroying important parts of a ship, you're only firing to whittle down your enemy's ship's health bar. Once it's low enough, you'll have de-masted a ship.

A ship without its mass is highly vulnerable, and this is Kenway's cue to board. Another window pops up, signaling the player that in order to plunder the ship, the ship's captain and crew must be put to the slaughter.

As a neophyte assassin, Kenway is blessed with the talent to be a little more nimble of foot than most pirates, allowing him to climb masts and leap from rope to crow's nests in a matter of minutes. As his crew distracts the enemy crew with fighting, Kenway clambers to the top of a mast, carefully marking out his target. With hidden blade in hand, he leaps down and quickly finishes off his target.

With the crew battle section over, I was given a tour of the rest of the West Indies. In Black Flag, the development team set out to recreate the Caribbean's lush environment. The tropical weather, prone to bipolarity, will change from harsh storms, which can harm your ship and crew, to beach-going weather in a matter of minutes.

Ismael also took time to show me small random islands that dot the map that can be explored. "Those are called playas and sand banks," he said. "We have over 75 of those. So the world's got tons of content. It's the most unique and freshest world we've ever built."

Black Flag operates off of the same open world mechanics as its predecessors, but with the ability to travel the high seas, it feels organic. Islands will now be occupied by heavily armed Spanish conquistadors that you'll want to avoid, and you'll often find evidence of British-Spanish conflicts aboard the high seas in the form of naval battles that you can join, if you so choose.

"Everything that's in [the game]—all the collectibles—they have gameplay value," said Ismael. And it's true. While wandering and digging up treasure along random islands in the game, you'll sometimes pick up song sheets, which you can use to teach your crew to sing different songs to pass the monotony of sailing the seas.

This time around, it feels like Ubisoft has gotten it right. From what I've seen thus so far, Black Flag's gameplay meshes together in a way that Assassin's Creed 3's never did. I was dubious about Ubisoft's take on the high seas, but this time, it really does feel like they've come up with something new.

"Everything in this game is linked together," said Ismael. "We really tried to create a harmonious game that's fun and fluid and polished… and on top of that a kick ass pirate game."

Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is due on PC, PS3, Wii U and Xbox 360 in late October and early November. PS4 and Xbox One versions are due alongside the consoles, ye landlubbers.

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