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Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag multiplayer - heavy cargo

Assassin's Creed's online play has a huge amount to offer would-be pirates this autumn. Patrick Garratt got to grips with the franchise's first next-gen multiplayer in Annecy earlier this month.

Ubisoft Annecy is fuller than Mr Creosote. One of Ubi’s oldest French studios, the Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag multiplayer developer looks as though it’s about to start vomiting staff. Wafer thin coders and artists are packed into every corner of its guts, screens crammed onto every spare half-a-desk. Teams are constantly taking the opportunity to escape to the balcony for meetings, smoking in the sun under the French Alps' lower peaks. The closeness appears to suit the staff. No one’s complaining (that we see), and the concept of packing in as much as possible appears to be infectious: it’s certainly carried over into AC4’s multiplayer.

There’s a lot to it. Online play in the latest Assassin’s Creed - a piratical jaunt around the Carribean, yoho – adds a new dimension to co-op, a system for creating your own multiplayer modes called Gamelab and a revamped interface to better allow in-game comms, among plenty more. This is not a half-arsed effort. Assassin’s Creed 4 will release on six platforms, including PS4 and Xbox One. More than 100 people are working on the multiplayer stuff alone across at least four studios: Annecy, Bucharest, Shanghai and Kiev are all involved, and there are probably more. People don’t seem to be sure of the final count.

What Annecy is certain of, however, is that the Wolfpack co-op upgrade is a “big step”. Director Damien Kieken walks us through Discovery mode, an addition to the inaugural inclusion of Wolfpack into Assassin’s Creed in the third game last year. Kieken describes Discovery as a “linear experience” with a “story wrapper” to ease people into co-op, as opposed to a straight training mode. Annecy wanted to include a tutorial system as they saw Wolfpack was attracting people over to online play who weren’t interested in versus modes, but the introductory elements were somewhat lacking. Never more.

I play Discovery in two-player - four’s the maximum – and am guided through the palaces and islands of AC4’s co-op levels. The idea is to work as a team to complete increasingly difficult missions in order to accrue more time, bonuses and whatever else. Once you’ve worked through Discovery, you move onto Unleashed, where the idea is to attain as high a sequence as possible by lining up multi-kills and synched kills, defending chests, eliminating disguised enemies, beating infected opponents and more. It gets hard. Wolfpacks plays well into the theory of Assassin Creed’s Animus and packs Annecy’s trademark of heady variety. I have fun with random journalist dude sitting next to me in the demo area. Watch the video below to get a better idea of what's going on in AC4's Wolfpack.

Gamelab is Kieken’s other major talking point for the day. This is completely new. Gamelab allows players to configure multiplayer as they please, offering more than 200 customisable elements.

“We really wanted to give more power to our community this year,” says Kieken. “This is the fourth multiplayer instalment, and we really asked ourselves, ‘What can we do this year to please the community, to make them happy? Where can we go?’

“One of the answers was just to give them the content, to let them do what they want.”

Players will start with a template based on existing modes before altering whatever they like. Kieken gives a “Pistolier” mode as an example. This set-up allows you to kill only with pistol shots, and all melee murdering has been switched off. It alters deathmatch-style play completely. Assassin’s Creed is normally based around getting close to the target and dispatching him or her with elaborate slicing. In the Pistolier mode you need to target from afar.

You can, of course, share Gamelab modes with friends, favourite them, upload them to the community at large and, if they’re good enough, get them promoted by Ubisoft in-game. It reminded me of LittleBigPlanet.

The maps we see are pirate hideout Saba Island, a Santa Lucian fishing village and Portobello, a “really nice place occupied by pirates.” All the assets are next-gen, the camera flying through interiors with chandeliers, courtyards and palms trees, fishing shacks and moored schooners. It looked lovely.

We play through two Gamelab-made modes and both Wolfpack modes on a DualShock 4 plugged into a PC via USB. The first Gamelab mode, Frantic, had all scoring turned off, awarding a single point for each kill. Just as we start to get to grips with the various stuns and targeting systems, we switch to Pistolier, which requires an entirely new set of tactics. They can't stop showing us stuff.

We then play Discovery, a gentle stroll through Caribbean team assassination. Unleashed follows, the hectic, full Wolfpack experience where you’re against the clock to accrue points fast enough to level up. I quit to interview Kieken and lead game designer Tim Browne, but I could sit there all day.

I haven’t been especially interested in Assassin’s Creed since II, but it seems foolish to ignore something so polished, varied and, yes, next-generational. Ubisoft Annecy is going to have to move office soon, before people are forced to work out on that glorious balcony full-time, but let’s hope the drive to pack as much as possible into the studio’s future work isn't affected by the change.

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