Developer: Ubisoft / Publisher: Ubisoft / Release Date: October 29, 2013 / Platform: Xbox One, PS4, Xbox 360, PS3, PC / ESRB: Rating Pending
Long before Singapore was a modern, pulsing city of technological growth it was a hub of high seas piracy. European traders and military tracked down the haunts and hangouts of local seafarers who took to nefarious means when their traditional trading opportunities were yanked from under them by native deals with the incoming powers.
As a major port city of the developing south east Asian seas, Singapore was a significant hub for traders and pirates alike. Despite that history it’s not the reason to experience the country in anticipation of the latest Assassin’s Creed game, the pirate-themed Black Flag.
No, this is more to do with Singapore’s recent history as an emerging power base for technology companies. Ubisoft opened its studio here five years ago that has since shipped seven games, starting with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on (XBLA and PSN) and evolving to the currently-in-beta Ghost Recon Online, but also basking in the glow of appreciation for its work on the naval elements of Assassin’s Creed 3. It’s now sat at the big boy table for AC4: Black Flag.
From a start-up staffed with Ubi pros from around the world, and hiring talented, if inexperienced newcomers, in those few short years this team earned the right to build the naval gameplay in AC3. From there the pressure really elevated as water flow technology, ship design, mast-running, and underwater exploration emerged (or submerged) as core elements of AC4’s new setting. Black Flag gameplay is, at its core, piracy on the high seas, and though the land-lubber moments take advantage of a radically improved engine to showcase the impact of naval bombardments on a coastal port, your relationship with your ship, the Jackdaw, and your pal Blackbeard will likely be more lasting than any garnered wandering the islands that make up this pirate playground.
And the pay-off for this confidence could live and die with the team in Singapore.
We’ve seen how the pirate lifestyle reinforces Kenway’s persona and affords him the chance to command a ship, recruit a crew (though the details are still to be defined of how that works), and perform derring-do and hijinks on the high-sea. But many details on how these effects were achieved lie under the surface.
Art Director Mufizal Mokhtar described how this time around waves slosh onto your boat and the water itself has many more gradients of detail. And that the water displacement (conjuring their inner Archimedes) impacts your vision as whales may breach the surface and splash down, while the impact of enemy cannons pounding into the waves obscures your view and in the process crafts a sea battle effect we’ve not seen in this detail.
According to producer Arnaud Vaudour, this commitment to the sea and how it looks from all angles is due to the fact that it will always be visible, whether on land, on the deck or on the beach. The team also referenced the potential of the next-gen consoles for modeling a feature as complex as the ocean, suggesting that Assassin’s Creed 4 represents merely the beginning of the potential of the new systems.
But what that means in your time spent on the high seas is the opportunity to dive into the depths pretty much wherever you want, to go exploring, to cool off (if you’re really getting into character), but also to find loot.
That involves skulking through weeds to avoid sharks, utilizing diving bells to replenish air, and scavenging treasure from sunken galleons. From a gameplay standpoint, you shift from land-based situations where you’re the predator, to underwater where you’re the prey. So assessment of your environment and how you use it given your skills and the perceived threats is truly valuable. No doubt, you can’t dive wherever you can sail, but there appear to be significant areas to explore for treasure if you get the alert that, hey, the water is clear, look how pretty it is, now it’s time for a dip.
While you hide from jellyfish, eels, sea urchins, and sharks you can use bars on these sunken areas to provide a speed boost, then duck into bells to resupply your air. So don’t judge harshly on the realism factor, kids, remember games are fun.
But diving for treasure isn’t the only option for exploration on the high seas. No, you can get all Moby Dick if you want with the harpooning gameplay. Here, Edward sheds his shirt—to represent his weakness against the powerful beasts he’s about to slaughter—and gets in a small boat to throw a roped spear at a whale, shark, or any of the six slayable creatures (three sharks, three whale types), then tags them with spears while pulled along by the rope.
It’s a basic gameplay mechanic, but it does play into the crafting system that the team suggested was based on the one in Far Cry 3, and that can’t be a bad thing. It’s worth noting that while dolphins might be in the waters, you can’t spear the cute little smarter-than-humans. Good.
Investigating out on the high seas will also reveal hidden caves ripe for exploration and…dun, dun, durr… danger. A cool design angle on these locations is that while you might spot a gap in a rock formation, it’s not designed to catch your eye… But if you do spot and investigate the location, once inside you’re treated to a visual treat of coral, lighting, and ambient fauna. Oh, and treasure that adds to the coffers you use to add to enhance the crew of the Jackdaw, and purchase supplies for your black-flagging ways.
Speaking of the Jackdaw, while it’s where you will spend most time climbing the rigging and skulking along the beams, it’s not the biggest, not the fastest ship on the sea. Gunboats, schooners, brigs, frigates, and man-o-wars all provide a different feel in their control and offer varied firepower. So the mechanic is to take the one that’s best suited for your mission needs. You need speed, go gunboat, you need power, blast the land-lubbers from a man-o-war, which might be particularly handy when you need to bombard a naval port.
Designed with attention to the real world details of the time, the forts can be brutalized by your cannons, with visually devastating effect, letting you land and romp through the destroyed hallways like some Errol Flynn. Importantly, capturing any of the eleven ports then opens the waterways around them for further exploration and aquatic mammal slaughter.
Look at popular culture: who doesn’t want to find a pirate element to their role. But AC4 isn’t taking a comical Jack Sparrow route to its character soul. These pirates—from their visuals to their sound and their conversation—are grounded in the realities of their time. The idea is that you will embrace the exploration of islands and cultures just as these true-to-life characters did, while also spending a little time appreciating the break of the wave, the shimmer of the coral, and the undisputed beauty of underwater (and ideally lit) flora and fauna.
What it should prove, come late October, is that the studio expansion into new territories like Singapore are not only a welcome check-mark on a PR exercise, but a revelation that the talent to create compelling gameplay mechanics and visually astute locations can be mustered where opportunity lies.
Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag has already garnered huge attention for its promotion of the core story and stylized setting, so don’t ever think it’s just another in a series, and not taken seriously by the studios cramming to complete it.