Feature Article

Returning to Eden in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Kevin VanOrd dons Edward Kenway's pirate garb to discover how much the newest Assassin's Creed hero has in common with his ancestors.

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I have an obsession. A synchronization obsession.

I love many things about the Assassin's Creed series: the free-flow parkour, the historical fantasy, and the gorgeous audiovisual presentation among them. But my favorite part of the Assassin's Creed gameplay loop is map synchronization. When entering Venice or Acre, my first order of business was always to seek out the towers and steeples that offered proper vantage points. For me, the reward isn't the lifting of the fog of war from that area of the map, but the moment you survey the landscape. The camera swivels around you so that you might see a sun-drenched Constantinople or the Roman countryside before you, and a subtle melody underscores the drama. Then, you make that thrilling leap of faith into a haystack or cartload of leaves hundreds of feet below.

That moment of synchronization embodies Assassin's Creed for me. The joyous climb, the breathless survey, and the stimulating dive to the ground are a key component of the experience. They encapsulate the sheer freedom of the Assassins. After all, the name Altair comes from an Arabic phrase meaning "flying eagle."

Assassin's Creed III had synchronization of course, but while I loved that game, the actual act of syncing had lost its joy. The musical cues had lost their character, and the New World architecture didn't have the grandness of the Middle-Eastern and European architecture that had captured my imagination in games past. When I played Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag a few weeks ago, I was surprised and relieved to discover that synchronization had regained its sense of wonder. Most importantly, the music had color--and the musical cue changed when I synchronized in different locales. It was like Ubisoft had rediscovered the spirit of the Assassins.

It came as no surprise, then, when mission director Ashraf Ismail told me that their main inspiration for Assassin's Creed IV was… Assassin's Creed II. I saw the connection Ismail was establishing, but also wondered if he felt AC IV might build on III in ways similar to how the second game in the series built on the first. He told me the team had never thought of Assassin's Creed IV in exactly that way, but I think the analogy is appropriate. Assassin's Creed II took the raw ideas of the original game and formed a grand adventure around them. And based on my time with the game's single-player sequences, Assassin's Creed IV has taken the best ideas of its predecessor and molded them into a cohesive whole.

It isn't just the renewed drama of the synchronizations that make me think that, but a new sense of meaning given to mechanics that meant too little in Assassin's Creed III. Remember chasing those almanac pages? It was nice to speed across the Boston rooftops, but the reward--unlocked excerpts from Poor Richard's Almanack--never felt like a proper reward for the effort. In Assassin's Creed IV, you chase after musical manuscripts that unlock sea shanties for your crew to sing as you sail across the sea. These tunes are a vital part of the game's seafaring atmosphere, and thus a better return on your time investment. Where I eventually ignored Ben Franklin's flying sheets, I chased every shanty I stumbled upon. My glee rose when I heard my crew lustily chant recognizable tunes like Loch Lomond. (Well, recognizable to me, at least.)

In fact, I chased almost everything I stumbled upon. I followed the story for a while, joining protagonist Edward Kenway as he learned the ropes from famed pirate Ben Hornigold and exchanged salty pleasantries with a swashbuckler called Kidd, a young pirate who clearly has a few secrets to hide. The story missions had me tailing a target on both land and sea, shooting cannons at sloops from behind the wheel of the Jackdaw, and activating eagle vision so that I could identify wild animals and hunt them down for their hides. But I was constantly sidetracked by optional activities, which is a good sign for an open-world sandbox.

Take, for example, my time at sea. When glimpsing a ship in the distance, I used my spyglass to discover what kinds of booty the sloop was transporting. Inspired by the promise of riches, I sailed towards it only to pass a lone sailor hanging on to a crate for dear life floating among the waves. With a press of a button, I snatched up the survivor and made him part of my crew, which is an important resource if you hope to be a formidable oceanic foe. When I reached my target, I slowed it down by slinging chain-shot at its sails before firing my cannons. Then, when the enemy ship was weak enough, I closed in to board. While my crew initiated boarding procedure, I took control of a swivel gun and brought down some pesky pirates before I ever needed to board their vessel. And once aboard, I slashed up the enemy crew until it surrendered and I could make off with the bounty and a few more crew members to assist me on the Jackdaw.

Every element of this experience was built upon ideas introduced in Assassin's Creed III, but the game delivered them in a seamless fashion, with mechanics that felt complete rather than prototypical. The game smartly chooses what weapons you fire by how you turn the camera; you can even throw explosive barrels overboard in this manner, and then shoot at them to cause fiery mayhem. The boarding process then follows naturally, letting you board however you like, whether that means swinging in via mast rope, or eschewing the melodrama in favor of just jumping on. The swordplay that follows has that rhythmic Assassin's Creed feel, with you slashing, countering, and yanking weapons from the hands of your combatants.

There are some important distinctions, however, that make Edward Kenway feel like a dirtier cousin to the assassins we've previously come to know. Kenway has a sinful swagger while he fights, rather than the muscular grace of Altair and Ezio. He's more concerned with efficiently dispatching his foes, and the brutal animations confidently communicate as much. Even Kenway's method of opening a treasure chest betrays his impatience; where Ezio and Connor would manipulate the chest with their hands, Kenway just kicks it with his boot. And where Ezio and Altair somehow managed to keep their flowing robes immaculately clean, Kenway's clothing and face are smeared with the signs of recent scuffles.

Newly invigorated mechanics aside, it's how the game recalls my many hours with Assassin's Creed II that has me most excited. As I navigated the ramshackle paths and lush lots of Nassau, I visited pigeon coops (or were they doves?) to take on assassination missions that reminded me of my days in Florence. I recruited new crew members by rescuing scoundrels from the menacing local authorities, just as I recruited assassins as Ezio. I even solved puzzles by activating eagle vision near Mayan artifacts and aligning images to discover buried treasure locations. These moments reminded me of the glyph puzzles of Assassin's Creed II, though I have no idea if these puzzles somehow impact the present-day story that frames the series. In fact, I have no idea how that story is intertwined with Kenway's adventures, though I suspect that I might be in the minority by actually being invested in this aspect of the ongoing Assassin's Creed narrative.

I tried to coax some information on this subject from game director Ashraf Ismail by telling him of my theories regarding the modern-day conspiracy story, but he remained poker-faced, at least until I asked him if the ending would live up to series standards of mind-melting revelations.

"You won't be disappointed," he told me, before once again going mum when I told him the details of my "Desmond is alive" theory.

My theory that Assassin's Creed IV will make good on the promise of Assassin's Creed III, on the other hand, doesn't seem so far-fetched. Not only does it deepen the mechanics of its predecessor, it recalled the emotions I had while playing Assassin's Creed II, the game I consider to be the best in the series.

If anything else, it seems that the uplift of a good synchronization will be making a return. Altair "Flying Eagle" Ibn-La'Ahad would be pleased.

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Discussion

197 comments
pr56
pr56

Kevin, please do an article (or blog post) on your ideas about the overarching assassin creed's story (the Desmond part)

dadkwashere
dadkwashere

Wonder if Haytham will appear in the game...

Trev786
Trev786

So how many people are going to bide their time and hold out for the next gen version?

daabulls23
daabulls23

Some of the best moments out of AC was not he combat or story, but rather the sense of mystery out there and exploring you had to do. 

Draconifus
Draconifus

this article was very well written. in fact, all of kevin vanord's articles stand out. I really hope he reviews this game . can't wait.

violent2be
violent2be

sarcasm and negativity are the trend this days, and optimism seems to be an outdated thing

pboontap
pboontap

the one thing i loved about the first two games was their interesting take on history, and times and places not normally seen in video games, or anywhere else for that matter. now they're doing pirates and that whole period has been done to death lately, which is kind of killing my enthusiasm for this game.  

well that and it shouldn't be a yearly franchise, if they  would go to a bi-annual setup and polish the missions a wee bit i think it would be great.

NonLinearMemory
NonLinearMemory

"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,

And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the white sail's shaking,

And a grey mist on the sea's face, and a grey dawn breaking.


I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide

Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;

And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,

And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.


I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,

To the gull's way and the whale's way, where the wind's like a whetted knife;

And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,

And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick's over."

Varun Verma
Varun Verma

AC II brought something new to the table since then it's more like a visual upgrade than anything else with each AC game. When I look at this game I laugh at how the assassin climbs up a canvas tent like its solid structure, walks over it with no effect and then fights a bunch of enemies who r dumb enough to wait for their turns to get slaughtered. I think ubi needs to sit and think over the future of the series rather than employing multiple team to produce more AC games faster than they produce big Macs at McDs

isrq
isrq

Looks like we're getting a great AC game after a long time.It's got almost all elements a AC fan wants.Besides,Kenway looks cool :D

Djwolfram
Djwolfram

AC 2 rocked,hopefully UBi learned someting useful from Revelations and AC 3(both were weeeeaaaakkkk),game looks better then expected....might grab it if gets good reviews

Riddick123
Riddick123

Still waiting for gamer reviews.

gamer_rahul
gamer_rahul

After reading this, i feel like re-playing AC III :). just to keep my mind Synchronized :D

Metamania
Metamania

You know, after reading this story, I'm inclined to check it out on my PS4 when it comes out. If it is that inspired by Assassin's Creed II (which I feel was the best AC game in the series so far), then it could revive the passion I had for the series.

nick-nikol
nick-nikol

I am going to put miself a few Rum on the rocks and play the game I am looking forward to it. Common ! Release it sooner.Mi Rum is watering down,and will not make the cut with those DARN PIRATES.

chieflion
chieflion

Desmond lives

i believe to brahj

awesome article, i trust you the most probably

SmallSatsuma
SmallSatsuma

Assassin's Creed will never be a great series while they release annual installments.  The individual games just don't get enough development time.

VjekoV88
VjekoV88

Didn't Altair's name mean "the flying one"  and Ezio was the "flying eagle of Florence"

Lawto13
Lawto13

Great article! Couldn't agree more with your thoughts on the series(vantage points etc), I also make these a number 1 priority in every game. Can't wait to get lost in this world and at sea/undersea

robchiang1990
robchiang1990

Hi, Kevin, which verison did you play? Current-gen, next-gen or PC?

KeviNOlighT
KeviNOlighT

Wow, great changes and great article. I just wish there was some kind of hardcore mode that made the combat more difficult, a deadly experience where you had to be cautious and mindful about what you do and not a cinematic piece of cake experience (kind of like Dark Souls-deadly, but, of course, with the fighting style/movements/everything of AC). An example is how the enemies wait so long to hit you, like they're asking for permission. I'd still like the game a lot, if done right like AC2, but that's my wish.

gamer-clemm
gamer-clemm

I agree with you Mr. VanOrd, Assassin's Creed II was the best in the series.  I can't wait to play Assassin's Creed IV!

forcefactor13
forcefactor13

I agree that AC II stands out as my favorite in the series so far, and it's comforting to hear that AC IV reminds the player most of AC II. Great article. (not just for that reason - it was well-written and went deeper into the relationship between gameplay and narrative than your average article)

ads182
ads182

Great article. I also loved the map synchronization in AC 2. That moment when the camera shows you the horizon was just awesome. Hope Black Flag lives up to the hype. 

amdreallyfast
amdreallyfast

This article makes me very happy.  Music is very important to me, so if the game's music regained its "color", then I am looking forward to this game as more than just a "jumping the shark".

I am a bit concerned though with how the Assassin's Creed comes into the picture.  The Creed was central to ACI, and it played an important role in Ezio's development.  It was almost entirely absent though in ACIII.  The idea of ancient wisdom is really cool, conveying the idea that the feelings of people now have happened before and that there are better ways to do things.  At least, I think it's cool.

BLaverock
BLaverock

Pirates and AC... I still can't get over it -- what an awesome combo!

Riddick123
Riddick123

@Fachero Very interesting life experience.  I look forward to more of your stories.  The Life of Fachero.

69
69

@Fachero i think you thought you clicked on your reddit bookmark when in fact you clicked on gamespot...sure got that good ol random reddit feel, anyways :)

shreddyz
shreddyz

@Fachero Take that story to your publisher and get in print. Now! Please write a book of short stories. :D

tonet666
tonet666

@Fachero what the hell is this story man?? :)

korvus
korvus

@LADIES_MAN_2013 Don't do that...we finally get an article where it doesn't seem like a "the worst of society tea party" and you want to ruin it? =/ Shame on you =p

Simplythebest12
Simplythebest12

@Lykanthropie And what about the Call of Duty series ? Isn't COD casual crap ??

korvus
korvus

@Lykanthropie Just to understand your point. Is it crap because it's casual or are there some good casual games and this just isn't one, in your opinion?

KeviNOlighT
KeviNOlighT

Just to clarify, I like the cinematic feel of the combat, I think that's the most rewarding part of it (followed by executing counters, but it's just too easy to perform chain-kills and kill in general). The movements, animations, how the last dead is remarked in slow motion, I really like those, I think they are the most rewarding part of combat, since overcoming your enemies is very easy.

Kollskegg
Kollskegg

@gamer-clemm beauty of gaming, i think first was the best didnt get into any after that, so hope this is good, bu knowing Ubi ruining lots of their franchises will wait for some player reviews, note i dont read commercial reviews, they can be biased 

spideyj08
spideyj08

@forcefactor13 true that, this had me hooked till the end, partly due to the amazing series but majorly due to the way it covered all the relevant aspects that would concern any AC fan. now i am getting more impatient for the IVth

Fachero
Fachero

@gamer_rahul @Fachero

Sometimes when I poop, I use the shaping attachment from my old Play Doh fun set. I place it on my anus, and make poops in different shapes. There's nothing strange about that at all. I'm an American, living in America, and if I want to have poops shaped like stars, I have every right to. The founding fathers would have wanted it that way.

Fachero
Fachero

@tonet666It is not a dream m8. You went to shredded sikk kunt overload, your guns became so enourmous that their sheer gravity grew so great that they became into blackholes that swallowed up the universe. You are now in another dimension. 

emiliano222
emiliano222

 @jonmar  @Kollskegg  I don't think that those are ruined franchises. Rainbow six still is  a great franchise whith the next title R6: Patriots looking great, I don't know if you played SC: Blacklist but in my opinion is the best game in the series and that was a great franchise too.