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.
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.