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July 22, 2013

‘Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag’ takes ‘second screen’ seriously

Posted in: Comic-Con,Games

"Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag" is largely set at sea. (Ubisoft)

“Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” is largely set at sea. (Ubisoft)

Ubisoft stole some attention from many of the superhero-related films at San Diego’s Comic-Con with a replica pirate ship hyping its upcoming “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.”

Instead of pirate-inspired realism the ship hosted a dance floor and mini-sandwiches, but major celebrity-enticing gala aside, developers promised that “Black Flag” would take its marauders seriously — well, as seriously as any game can with a plot that follows a centuries-long conspiracy regarding a war between assassins and a secret order.

“From a historic perspective, when we did research on pirates what was really jumping out at us is that, for whatever reason, it’s Disney and ‘Treasure Island,'” said game director Ashraf Ismail recently in Los Angeles. “Pirates became a bit of a fantasy and a bit mythical.”

As any “Assassin’s Creed” veteran can attest, the franchise has its own increasingly complex and mythical time-jumping setting in which modern-day characters use a fantastical device to live out the adventures of their ancestors. Set primarily in the 18th century Caribbean,  “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag” will present a number of narrative and technological challenges for the franchise seeing as it’s arriving at a time when Ubisoft is emphasizing a second-screen gaming experience via mobile or hand-held devices.

What’s more, the game must balance fun — pirate looting, naval combat — with unsavory aspects of the period’s history, such as rampant slavery. One of the main characters in the game has been revealed to have been a former-slave-turned-buccaneer from Trinidad. Though questions surrounding the narrative won’t be completely answered until the Oct. 29 release date for the title, Ismail promised a “gritty” game that used history as more than a setting.

“We’re not doing ‘Pirates of the Caribbean,'” Ismail said. “We’re really doing pirates as they were. Of course, we give it a twist and that’s the assassins and [the Templar Order]. We delve into characters like Blackbeard, a man named Edward Teach. He created this Blackbeard persona to scare people because he didn’t want to kill them. It was fear to prevent violence. To be able to portray that is awesome.”

While the “Assassin’s Creed” series has long towed the line between historical accuracy and over-the-top conspiracy gaming — the previous edition of the core series was set during the Revolutionary War — new to “Assassin’s Creed IV” will be a heavy emphasis on playing away from the television screen. A companion mobile app will allow players to navigate the fleets of protagonist/pirate Edward Kenway.

Ismail said Ubisoft, which is also releasing a companion app for its upcoming Chicago-set “Watch Dogs,” is making the second screen an integral aspect of the company’s games going forward.

“At Ubisoft, we see this as where the console generation is heading,” said Ismail. “Even in a single-player game, there is this connected aspect. In our case, using the tablet app, we see it as an extension for the game. Do you need it to play? No, you don’t need it. The experience is not hampered by not having it. It’s definitely an enhancement. It acts as a second screen, but it’s not a pure second screen. The idea is that you could be on the bus and managing Kenway’s fleet.”

Battles will take place in the ocean in "Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag." (Ubisoft)

Battles will take place in the ocean in “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.” (Ubisoft)

In a brief demo of the game Ismail showed a player, as Kenway, raiding and capturing a ship. The ship was then immediately sent to Kenway’s fleet. From there, a player controlling the app could then send the fleet on missions around and even outside of the Caribbean, said Ismail. You can, for instance, trade cargo with other fleets around the globe, strategic tasks that one may be more likely to complete when divorced from the core aspect of the game.

“Even at home, this is a singular player game, but it would be awesome if you and your significant other could hold the tablet and act as your quartermaster,” Ismail said. “This is our first attempt at doing something like this, so we are learning and evolving. We’ll get better at it, but we’re happy with what we have. We feel like this is an extension for the game.”

Much of the actions that take place on the app will be simulated, but producer Martin Schelling said the action will be micromanaged, allowing characters to pinpoint their fleet’s plundering as well as what kind of force will be used.

The goal is to create a deeper, more rewarding and tougher experience for players. Yes, tougher. “Assassin’s Creed” has in the past had a reputation for dictating exactly where and how a player should venture for much of its games, but the missions and side-missions of “Assassin’s Creed IV” are largely designed to be completed in any order.

Even those who opt to play more stealthy will find new challenges, said Ismail. One example greeting “Black Flag” players is a change in philosophy toward long-range weapons. “You can have a silent weapon,” he said, “but it doesn’t kill a guy.”

A pirate will plunder in "Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag." (Ubisoft)

A pirate will plunder in “Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.” (Ubisoft)

An example shown was a sort of poison dart that caused an enemy to go momentarily insane but does not completely remove him from Kenway’s path. “All the range weapons have some type of disadvantage,” Ismail  said.

Schelling  says this will give players more options when approaching a target and navigating an island. He said objectives may be more simple than ever before — “We’ll say, ‘you have a target here. Go take out your target,'”  — but he added, “that’s all we’ll do.”

Ismail  and Schelling are promising that “Black Flag” will be the most open, expansive “Assassin’s Creed” yet.

“It was a strategy of making a linear story with an open world,” Schelling  said. “I think people will see a slight difference in terms of the missions. They’re more simple in terms of objectives. We learned that by letting the control go. The player will do what they want and it’s not always what we expect.”

– Todd Martens | @toddmartens

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