Will Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Put the Series Back on Course?

This year's Assassin's Creed hopes piracy will keep the series ticking along.

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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag
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Assassin's Creed has always been about exploring the rooftops and alleyways of the past, but Ubisoft's most lucrative annual franchise has seen itself lumbered with its own fair share of history in the last couple of years. From the final installment in Ezio's trilogy which didn't live up to its predecessors, the plodding pace and frenzied sprawl of the occasionally stunning Assassin's Creed III, and the web of confusion which surrounded the present-day hero Desmond Miles' apocalyptic storyline, Assassin's Creed has become a series more than a little bit tricky to keep up with.

While Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag might be the worst-kept secret since Bungie's Destiny, the sixth mainline Assassin's Creed game in six years arrives with all the bombast you'd expect from one of gaming's most lucrative franchises. But new hero Edward Kenway's first outing aims to simplify the cluttered world of Assassin's Creed and make itself an easier jumping-on point for both new and returning players. Also, it has pirates… lots of pirates.

No in-game footage was shown at the game's unveiling event in London, though there was a video of a brief in-engine demo designed to whet the appetite. This certainly looked impressive, but for all we know it could have been rendered on a computer powerful enough to actually travel through time. But alongside this, Ubisoft was also detailing the kind of antics new 18th century protagonist Edward Kenway would get up to when Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag launches in October. I'm going to run through all that information without making any laborious nautical puns (other than the one in the headline, sorry).

Black Flag wants to be a 'greatest hits' compilation of Assassin's Creed.

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As last week's barrage of leaks reported, Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is set across the Caribbean in 1715--almost 40 years before the start of Assassin's Creed III--and features Edward Kenway, grandfather of Assassin's Creed III protagonist Connor. Despite being themed around piracy, Ubisoft is quick to assert that the game won't fall into the same caricatures and tropes of the subject matter that most other forms of media can't resist, which means talking parrots are out, for better or worse.

But a pirate-skinned take on the regular Assassin's Creed format isn't going to be enough to rope in the series' detractors growing increasingly critical of the game's annual regularity. Black Flag aims to be a bigger, wider world that's also learnt its lessons from last year, promising a game that gets going straight from the off, as opposed to four hours of tutorial missions. It certainly doesn't hurt that Edward seems to have a bit more derring-do and panache than his Assassin's Creed III descendant, either.

According to creative director Jean Guesdon, the development team has plucked certain central themes out of every previous Assassin's Creed game and attempted to incorporate them into Black Flag. Guesdon cites the original's open-ended assassinations, the breadcrumb trail of unlocks in Assassin's Creed II, and the freedom Brotherhood offered you to play around with those open-world systems.

There are 50 locations to explore across 3 main cities.

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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag features 50 different Caribbean locations to explore, though only three of these are those typically big cityscapes the series trades so well in: Havana, Kingston and Nassau.

Following the best-of theme, Ubisoft has designed its take on Havana to recall the grand, towering architecture of Assassin's Creed II. Hopefully Black Flag will also be able to capture the sense of glee gained from scampering around these environments. Kingston, on the other hand, is modelled in a way more similar to Boston in Assassin's Creed III; wider, flatter, and peppered with the hustle and bustle of life.

Nassau, on the other hand, serves as the pirates' base of operations. Historically, pirates flocked to Nassau after the governor of Jamaica refused to let a group of English privateers spend their loot on his island, which means it should enjoy a central role in the events of Black Flag.

The rest of your time will be spent visiting smaller locations including plantations, hidden coves, jungles, forts, Mayan ruins, and coconut islands. For the first time in the series you'll also be able to go underwater to explore sunken galleons, and have fights with sharks.

You can sail around in your own pirate ship.

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Edward's pirate ship, the Jackdaw, is a central part of the game. Assassin's Creed III's naval battles were one of its most well-received aspects, and while Black Flag was developed concurrently alongside its predecessor--work on the game started in 2011--it's clear that Connor's Aquila has had a big impact here.

The game's 50 locations are linked by open ocean, too, and the Jackdaw can nip around this world as the player sees fit. The ship's main purpose is to hijack, board and plunder other ships, and by spending the loot from these efforts the player can add upgrades and hire more crewmates in a bid to take on bigger, badder ships with more sensational swag. And by setting all of the game's side-missions around improving the Jackdaw, Ubisoft is hoping to regain some of the focus lost in the sprawl of Assassin's Creed III.

Spectacular sights are promised when the time comes to board enemy vessels, with all of your crew charging onto the enemy ship as you attempt to take on its captain. It's in your best interests here to work as quickly as possible, apparently, as the longer you dither the more likely it is that you'll have to spend your ill-gotten gains on hiring new crewmembers to replace those killed in the assault.

There will also be more variety in the types of enemy ships the player will have to take on, according to Ubisoft, and apparently each vessel will now fit into one of five archetypes--some ships will charge you head-on, for instance. But to make life easier on the open seas, Edward will also be able to use a spyglass to scan the environment and assess the capabilities of his targets, as well as what goodies they'll be carrying.

Edward Kenway is Ezio Auditore Mark II.

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Ratohnhaké:ton didn't quite have the flair and panache of his father Haytham or series superstar Ezio. Edward Kenway, however, is a confident, charismatic British privateer who, at the start of the game, is motivated by wealth and booze. He's also clearly a fan of doubles, shown in a CG trailer carrying a pair of pistols, dual swords, and enjoying some bedroom antics with two ladies at once.

Ubisoft isn't prepared to say that Edward has been designed to emulate Ezio, but the character's attitude and propensity towards action--and his own narrative arc, where he begins cocksure and arrogant but learns responsibility and wisdom through the Order of the Assassins, clearly bears some similarities with a certain Signor Auditore. And that can only be a good thing.

Assassin's Creed IV is riddled with pirates.

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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is set in the closing chapter of the Golden Age of Piracy, after the end of the War of Spanish Succession in 1714 saw numerous unemployed privateers turn to piracy in the region. The area is a vital part of history, as it was the beating heart of the booming transatlantic shipping routes and was a key location in the slave trade; the halfway point in a round trip that proliferated the trade of armaments, slaves, and exotic goods like sugar and cocoa.

Famous pirates like Charles Vane, Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonny, and Calico Jack will all feature in Black Flag. The series' usual attempt to mix historical events with dramatic gameplay continues, and Ubisoft has already promised recreations of Bartholomew Roberts' raid of 42 Portuguese ships and Charles Vane's marooning--he'll be stuck on an island alongside Edward with only a bottle of rum and a loaded pistol, apparently. The most famous pirate of all, Blackbeard, features heavily in the game's CG trailer, too, so you can expect to see him around in much of the game.

The present-day storyline is still kicking around, too.

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Even with present-day hero Desmond Miles' story wrapped up, the animus-dipping frame narrative continues into Black Flag. This time now, though, the player takes the role of an Abstergo employee--the modern day name for the Assassin-hating Templar order, in case you've forgotten--who will dive into the Animus for a new company called Abstergo Entertainment.

Ubisoft is clearly hoping that a mix of pirates, sailing and the open seas will be enough to keep the Assassin's Creed franchise riding high, but what about you? Are you excited for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag? Do you think the new additions to Edward Kenway's adventure are enough to keep you interested, or do you think you're ready to give the annual series a rest?

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag will be released for PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and PC in October and is being produced by eight Ubisoft studios: Montreal, Singapore, Sofia, Annecy, Kiev, Quebec, Bucharest, and Montpellier.

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