E3 Preview: Assassins Creed: Black Flag

Jo Wylie16 / Emertainment Monthly Writer

“Come on, let’s be honest, we’ve always wanted to be a pirate,” Ubisoft host Aisha Tyler opens, as the Assassins Creed: Black Flag logo shows up on the big screen behind her. It’s a true statement – pirates have long captured the hearts of storytellers and story consumers alike, whether they’re dastardly antagonists or swashbuckling heroes. It’s no surprise that that idea of amalgamating this common obsession with the already hugely popular Assassins Creed franchise has gotten gamers frothing with kiddish joy ever since its teaser earlier this year.

The main job of Ubisoft now is to milk this setting of the things that have the fans excited. The Assassin’s Creed franchise has a mixed history of its immersion with its settings. The first game treated its setting more as a backdrop, and  although Connor Kenway, from the third game, interacted with the historical events around him, players didn’t necessarily feel a strong connection to the day-to-day life of revolutionary America. In contrast, with its crafty gizmos and gadgets and bright, creative aesthetic, Italian assassin, Ezio’s, phase of the franchise really played in its renaissance sandbox. It’s that level of connection fans are hoping for with Black Flag, and from the sound of creative director Jean Guesoon’s speech, the pirate setting isn’t about to fall flat. “We looked into why pirates make everyone so excited,” Guesoon explained, “and it’s because they’re the perfect symbol of freedom, rebellion, and adventure.” If Ubisoft successfully manages to balance these themes within Black Flag, it could really live up to that excitement that fans experience when they see the assassin’s symbol on a flapping pirate flag.

The trailer showcased at the conference certainly has a lot to promise for the upcoming game. As well as continuing the theme that the modern assassin, Desmond, doesn’t have a single ugly gene in his entire family tree, the trailer hinted at a cast of characters worth caring about. These games never have, and never will be, ensemble games, but at least with the first few we were granted side characters we could connect to. In the form of characters like Malik, Da Vinci, and Yusuf, there was some release from what would otherwise have been a limited selection of relatable cast members. Connor Kenway’s stoic and almost aggressively lone-wolf manner robbed players of that in the last game, however. Hopefully, the crew surrounding Black Flag’s protagonist, Edward Kenway(Connor’s grandfather), will allow players once again to become invested in characters outside of the hero. An earlier teaser trailer showed Edward purposefully waiting for his crew between each fight, and the trailer revealed at the Ubisoft conference showed a recurring side character that could be a first mate or, at least, someone with a name and personality. It would certainly be nice to have an assassin who is the captain of an actual, named crew.

As far as quests are concerned, there wasn’t a great deal more revealed that we haven’t seen in previous games, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Guesoon announced we would be “boarding ships, finding treasure, raiding smuggler caves, hunting, attacking forts, and so much more,” but there doesn’t seem a great deal there that’s going to blow players out of the water. The two areas that seemed to be focused on as new and exciting in the E3 trailer were the underwater sections and the naval battles. Although these both aren’t exactly surprising revelations, considering Edward’s profession, there are reasons to be wary of both. The underwater engine and graphics look exciting, but we haven’t seen any gameplay of these missions yet, so we don’t know if the cinematic experience shown in the trailer is representative of what gamers will be doing. As for the naval missions, the trailer showed off a number of scenes that implied that the system might be cleaned up a bit since last we played, but the repetitive actions and clunky game engine of naval missions in Assassins Creed 3 certainly cause worry.  If these missions are too integral or too many, some players might be turned off from the game no matter the promises of a full crew and buxom wenches.

Much like the selection of quests the Ubisoft conference promised, the trailers didn’t seem to showcase much new content with regards to combat or navigation. Even the gameplay trailer was bereft of any new or exciting developments. Almost all of the trailers for previous games have involved at least one new ‘counter’ attack even more bloody and exciting than the last, showing off some new weapon and the improved fighting system. However, this trailer was lacking those usual Assassins Creed staples, and that perhaps shows us that there is nothing new and exciting. Though this may not be a terrible thing. There is already a great deal of love for Assassins Creed, and, after five games of refinement, there are a lot of fans who wouldn’t mind number six being a similar game without cast and setting being changed up too drastically. That isn’t to say that there wasn’t a good amount of the violence we love in the trailer. We were shown the iconic double-knife-to-the-face-from-above trick, and it looks like Edward and his crew have a “start bar fight” command very similar to the “star riot” ones we’ve seen in previous games. The only new features to the fighting were double swords and, in a surprisingly historically accurate twist, an array of one-shot pistols strapped to Edward’s chest. Once again, these really show that the game is immersing Edward in his setting, giving him weapons that suit him, like Ezio’s bombs and Connor’s rope darts, instead of just loading him with every weapon we’ve seen in the last five games and more.

One thing that seems to have been hinted at during the fight scenes in the trailer is an increased immersion into the world around Edward. The cinematic trailer showcased the pirate repeatedly interacting with his surroundings while fighting, to a degree that players have never seen before. Although this wasn’t the gameplay trailer and we can’t take all of Edward’s flashy moves as given, the constant focus on him fighting integrated into his environment could imply an improved engine for that. If the game were able to move past throwing men at crates in surprisingly fatal moves and picking up brooms because we like that they sound like swords, it could really improve the whole fighting engine. Although it’s doubtful players will be catching wine bottles out of the air in dramatic slow-motion kill moves like Edward does in the trailer, perhaps the repeated use of his surroundings was implying an improved engine.

In short, this Assassins Creed: Black Flag reveal has kept fans invested in the setting, and shown that the immersion with that setting might be better than we’ve ever seen yet, but hasn’t revealed much new and exciting about the combat or quests. Nonetheless, fans already trust Ubisoft a great deal with this franchise, and they certainly don’t need a rousing speech by Captain Jack Sparrow about what piracy is about to get us to line up or pre-order Black Flag. If this reveal is at all indicative of the thing gamers will be receiving in October, we don’t need any more convincing.

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