The Golden Age of Piracy did not, as some denizens of the internet imagine, begin with Napster and the proliferation of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks. No, we’re talking about real pirates –and not the sort of cartoon, romanticised idealisation of pirates popularised by the likes of Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean and Treasure Island. What the latest Assassin’s Creed dives in to is a more historically accurate, gritty examination of the post-Spanish-Succession period of piracy.
So you’ll not see peg-legs, parrots and an overabundance of “Arrr,” but from what I’ve seen and played of the game so far, it captures the world it’s plunged into with aplomb. I got to go hands-on with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag last week, playing the game for a number of hours on a dev-version of the PlayStation 4 – and I left with an insatiable desire to play more, learn more about the history of the Buccaneer and develop a taste for rum.
As with all games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the whole thing is about the right balance of historical accuracy and entertaining fiction; broad strokes of history, painted over with daubs of fantasy.
Set in 1715, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag takes place in the islands of the West Indies, now mostly known as the Caribbean. And though you’re no longer playing – in the outside world of the universe’s fiction – as Desmond, you’ll be playing as one of his ancestors in the simulation within the animus. Edward Kenway was a British privateer working for the navy, but once the war was over, he – like many sailors of the time – found themselves out of work, needing to make a living.
This Kenway, a rowdy and ill-tempered rogue, who from the handful of hours I’ve played already possesses more personality than his stoic, wet blanket descendant, Connor. He’s a little more like the infinitely more loveable Ezio; only guided less by altruism and more for his own personal wealth; until, that is, he takes up The creed and becomes embroiled in that age-old, fictitious war betwixt the Templars and Assassins.
As is usual for Assassin’s Creed, our protagonist is aided and hindered by a number of historical characters. In Black Flag, Kenway will interface with a number of key characters from the period. Those include the infamous Edward Thatch (or Teach, depending on who you ask, otherwise known as Blackbeard. Known for having “fierce and wild eyes” and penchant for fear and intimidation rather than violence, he and his ship, the” Queen Anne’s Revenge” are some of Kenway’s biggest allies.
Another famous pirate joining in the Black Flag narrative is Benjamin Hornigold, who never quite embraced the anarchistic black flag; refusing to plunder and pillage English ships out of some misguided sense of loyalty to King George. There are more, like the bitter Charles Vane, and the outrageous Jack Ratham – but those are the ones the sections I played centred on.
One focused almost entirely on Kenway coming to grips with his new role as Captain of the Jackdaw; the pirate ship that, as Ubisoft keeps reminding us, is the second main character in the game. Aided by former Trinidadian slave and now first-mate Adewale, the first task is upgrade Kenway’s equipment; which I noticed was done in a manner rather reminiscent of Far Cry 3; you’ll hunt animals, skin them and use their hides to craft gear.
I’ll admit that it took me entirely too long to find and skin 3 Iguana (your Eagle vision helps finding animals a little easier) to fashion from them a weapon holster, but the Island I was searching was overpopulated with the ocelot necessary to craft other pirate gear. Thankfully, for those who are neither keen nor adept, the crafting materials are available to purchase from the stores that litter the area. The next actual mission I had to do involved assembling a pirate crew. It doesn’t veer into Mass Effect territory here though; instead, most of the crew are nameless, faceless random pirates that’ll join your cause when you free them from capture, or save them from the flotsam and jetsam floating in the sea.
Being a Captain
Once you have an adequate crew, it’s time to take to the open seas, where you crew will happily sing all manner of sea shanties as you navigate everything that Assassin’s Creed IV’s maritime universe has to offer. And it has got a lot to offer indeed. Assassin’s Creed III’s naval missions were well received, but they were both linear and optional. Here they’re very nearly the main focus of the game. You’ll be spending an awful lot of time upon the Jackdaw, so it’s a good thing that they’ve managed to make the aquatic adventures more engaging, more skilful, and more fun. There is a seamless transfer from land to sea with no loading or cinematics to get in the way, so you’ll often find yourself chasing some target on land, only having him escape to sea, making it necessary for you to make chase in your own sloop-of-war.
While captaining actual ships is largely unchanged from ACIII and far less realistic than fun will allow (ships can very nearly turn on a dime), there’s a genuine element of skill and an entire array of weapons that come in to play. And it’s actually really bloody difficult. Using your spyglass, you can get a quick gauge on ships you see in the distance; what class of ship, what valuable cargo they’re storing and choose to attack them.
While standard puny boats and even frigates are easy to take down with your swivel guns, chain-shot and canons, larger vessels like a Man-o-War will decimate you within seconds, requiring a little more strategy and commanding wherewithal than I possessed that day. Incapacitating a ship means you’re able to board it, and do some of that actual piracy. You’ll have to kill a number of crew members before you claim ownership though, which you can do with your on-board guns, or take a close-up approach by boarding an ill-fated frigate to do your slaying close-up.
When you do take them down, you can choose to send a ship to Kenway’s fleet (used in a minigame, similar to the deployable Assassin minigame in previous entries), recruit the survivors for your crew or use salvage to repair the Jackdaw, taking the ship’s cargo as your own, which you’re then free to sell at whichever port will give you the best price. The scope of it all really is incredible, with an entire open-world ocean as your oyster. And unlike spending hour upon hour on a boat in real life, there are a number of seaward diversions to keep you occupied; diving, whaling, and another carry-over from Far Cry 3 -punching sharks in their stupid shark faces.
The bits of the game that take place on land have a certain air of familiarity; it plays very much like the Assassin’s creed games that came before it, with iterative tweaks to make it feel fresher. One such area given an overhaul is the combat, which while still largely based on timed button presses is also just that tad harder, and I found myself dead after a number of skirmishes. The free-running parkour action is a still a simple matter of running at traversable structures.
As for those next-generation visuals and other accoutrements? Playing the game on a PS4 was quite a treat, with buttery smooth (though capped, and v-synched at 30fps) visuals, the textures, effects are very much what you’d expect from a pretty decent, high end PC.
You’ll use the PlayStation 4 controller’s touch pad to pinch in and out of maps, which makes looking at your objectives and destinations quite a bit more manageable. The game’s tablet-based companion app does much the same thing, functioning as an external map (which makes treasure hunting quite a bit more pleasant) and also gives you easy access to those fleet minigames.
I spent around 3 hours with the game’s single player and it just wasn’t enough. Not for a game with a 20 hour-long core experience. Not enough to gauge how good the game is going to be. Not enough to get lost in the narrative. Not enough to even quench my increasing thirst for the pirate lore.