More so than eye patches or frilly shirts or a healthy dose of scurvy, the ocean is the main ingredient of any pirate lifestyle. Little wonder then that the sea plays such an integral part in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, the pirate-focused entry into Ubisoft's popular franchise. During a recent trip to Ubisoft's Singapore studios (who with lead studio Ubisoft Montreal are creating Black Flag), I was shown a few of the nautical activities that will be available in this next Assassin's Creed adventure. By now you've already seen ship-to-ship battles, and been given hints about harpooning and diving. As I was given more details on the action that will take place in and around the waters of the Caribbean, it became clear that Ubisoft desperately wants players to see its open world as alive with possibilities. But an overstuffed open world is nothing new for Assassin's Creed, and as some of the previous games in the franchise have shown, quantity has not always translated directly into quality. Will any of the new side activities in Black Flag be fun, or even integral enough to your experience to actually be worthwhile playing?
With no hands-on allowed during this studio tour, the "fun" question will have to be answered at a later time. As to how worthwhile these activities will be to pursue, the development team say they have tied side quests into the world's economy in an improved way in Black Flag (lead designer Sebastien Berton cites Far Cry 3's economy model as a key influence), as well as giving players important reasons to complete side quests, such as rewards that can be used for upgrading pirate main character Edward Kenway or his ship, the Jackdaw.
Take fort battles. Forts in Black Flag are akin to Borgia Towers in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood--"liberate" a fort, and it becomes yours to keep. It will be manned by your pirate hoard and become hostile to other ships that sail close enough for its armaments. Taking over any of the game's 11 forts--which are scattered throughout the Caribbean--will be a two-staged exercise that begins with you piloting the Jackdaw and ends with a direct land assault. You'll need to weaken the fort with your ship's cannons first, sailing back and forth to destroy walls, towers, and mortar placements, before jumping off your ship and finishing the job in the semi-ruined fort itself. The demo I was shown was an impressive sight, showcasing a good level of detail in the destructibility of the fort as the Jackdaw rained damage upon its walls.
One of the noisiest, most destructive activities in Black Flag--ship-versus-ship battles--will also play into the larger economic pursuit in Black Flag. Any ships you successfully manage to defeat (and not sink) will be added to your fleet. Similar to how you were able to send assassins on missions in the Mediterranean Defense side-game in Assassin's Creed: Revelations, you'll be able to send captured ships around the Caribbean to attack other vessels and take their cargo. Roaming the seas of the Caribbean will be 30 different types of ships, broken up into five different classes from the speedy gunboat to the massive, cannon laden Spanish Man-O-War. The Jackdaw--Kenway's Millennium Falcon for the game--is a razee, a modified brig class that you'll be able to customize as the game progresses.
Sea battles and fort attacks are Black Flag at its loudest and brashest, showcasing Kenway's control over the sea as he uses it as a platform to bring fire, explosions, and death to his enemies. But not all ocean activities will have Kenway as master and commander. Two new activities to the franchise--diving and harpooning--will strip the assassin of much of his power, while still giving him material rewards within the game.
Using a period-appropriate diving bell, you'll be able to reach dive sites to search for treasure in certain locations around the Caribbean. Each location will have several chests to loot, but you'll have to avoid dangerous urchins and jellyfish. Worse yet are sharks, who serve as the patrolling guards of underwater environments. And unlike guards on the land, sharks underwater cannot be killed. They must be avoided by hiding in stalking zones (like thick patches of kelp), in submerged barrels (which also act as a method of replenishing your oxygen supply), or within the wrecks themselves. But if a shark does spot you, it’s not necessarily the end. In the demo I saw, Kenway managed to punch off one of the toothy beasts, sustaining some injuries and leaving a cloud of blood in the water. And while that one shark swam away, Ubisoft reps told me that the blood would eventually attract more of the predators.
Kenway, however, is not completely without his Assassin talents under the sea. He retains some of his mobility, with his parkour abilities transformed into a type of free-swimming action where he uses the underwater environment to navigate through the depths. But despite this greater freedom of movement, Kenway is at a distinct disadvantage against the creatures of the sea when he’s underwater.
With harpooning, Kenway shifts back to the role of predator as he hunts some of the larger denizens of the sea. Harpooning will net players materials that can be used to upgrade Kenway, and there will be six different types of animals to hunt, including whales. These battles will be intimate--in the demo I was shown, it was Kenway, alone, shirtless on a small boat, against a great white shark. Kenway started the activity by throwing a harpoon with an attached rope to a shark. When it connected, the shark bolted, dragging the boat and Kenway along in its wake. The assassin/pirate continued to throw harpoons (you’ll only have a limited number in your arsenal) at the shark as it weaved in front, with the creature occasionally turning back and jumping out of the water in an attempt to take a chunk out of Kenway.
These activities –plus a few more such as finding hidden caves around the Caribbean--are all part of Ubisoft’s desire to make you feel the ocean is alive in Black Flag, that sailing won’t be a sedate activity. There certainly doesn't seem to be a shortage of things to do while in the open water, and I'm looking forward to roaming the Caribbean and seeing what adventures I can get Kenway into. And while the idea of taking on a shark solo or managing a fleet of pirate vessels sounds exciting initially, the test will be how often I'll want to take on a great white, or find dive sites, or capture new ships, once I'm immersed in the game’s main quest. How much will we want to play in Black Flag's living ocean? And will we even really need to?'