Actual surprise: it's a proper open-world pirate sim set around a big explorable chunk of the Caribbean, one in which the transition from boat to shore is seamless and uninterrupted, you can explore underwater wrecks and jungle-bound Mayan ruins, harpoon whales and do swan dives off ship masts. You can harpoon whales. Look at the whale in that screenshot. Now imagine harpooning it. For blubber maybe.
In this one you play as Edward Kenway, grandfather of the previous game’s Connor and Royal Navy privateer turned pirate captain who’s somehow found time in his life to become a fully trained assassin along the way. Having trailblazed with a half Native American protagonist in Assassin’s Creed 3, and a full-blown lady in the Vita game, here Ubisoft return to less exotic pastures with AC4’s Kenway. He’s generic, white, heterosexual, half-Welsh, blonde, a ladies’ man, a rogue, but with a strong moral compass, a drinker, a brawler, a noble thief, a gentleman, a soldier, a charmer, a bluergh, de blooh, de hooh.
At least the focus on Kenway’s character traits during the presentation we were given suggests Ubisoft are taking a step away from the personality-vacuum of the previous game’s Connor and a step towards the wry Brit-wit of that game’s Haytham: a man who understands that his own charmingly apologetic nature and rapidly vacillating eyebrows are just as devastating a weapon as any snickety wristblade.
But that’s hardly important: Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is all about boats. The game offers up open ocean from the outset, with access to parts of the map limited only by your inability to take on the hundred-cannon military galleons that patrol certain routes. Otherwise you’re free to pootle about on your own boat, the Jackdaw, harassing smaller boats by first spying them with your telescope before pummeling them with cannonballs and then boarding and fighting them however you see fit.
That can be either by swinging across on a rope, cutlass in gob, or by monkeying across the masts to aerial assassinate the captain, or by diving into the ocean to stealthily clamber up the opposite side of the enemy ship. Ubisoft eagerly point out how everything from getting on your boat to spotting other ships to boarding and murdering rival captains will happen seamlessly and fluidly, in contrast to the menu-addled naval missions of the previous game. Your magic spyglass somehow also reveals the contents of other ships, telling you how much collectible rum, gold and clothes they're carrying on board, as well as if they’re carrying any special items. How does your spyglass do this? Probably something to do with an animus.
You’ve got a crew, who’ll get themselves killed during boardings and sea battles, as well as during storms. You’ll replenish them by strolling into towns and villages and offering a wage to out of work sailors in taverns, or by discovering them marooned on islands: which is similar enough to how Sid Meier’s Pirates! worked as to elicit a giddy yelp of hopeful familiarity.
The three main cities of Kingston, Havana and Nassau sit alongside “fifty unique locations” embedded around the coastlines of the West Indies. Fishing villages offer spots to dock and take on side-quests or upgrade your ship with better weapons and nicer ropes, while hidden coves, jungle ruins and sugar plantations offer spots to discover treasure, treasure and sugar, respectively. You can even explore beneath the waves using a diving belt to discover wrecked ships and chests full of even more treasure.
But this isn’t Pirates of the Caribbean, Ubisoft say defiantly, so “don’t expect sea monsters and ghost ships” you big dumb baby. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag will “shy away from cliché,” the game’s creative director Jean Guesdon announced to the barely muffled disappointment of those gathered. Instead it will depict the true nature of pirates in the early 18th century: not the rum-swilling, adventure-seeking fun-uncles we all thought they were, but rather the organised group of sailors who set up the first real democratic system of government in the Western world. Among these treaty-signing nerds Ubisoft have thankfully still managed to find room for the likes of the more eccentric Blackbeard, who struts around with his hair on fire in most of the trailers leaked so far, as well as famed piratesse Anne Bonny and Johnny Depp-alike Calico Jack.
This semi-rigid adhering to the history books does provide some interesting material around which Ubisoft are building their missions. Four specific and real historical events were touted for inclusion, three of which are all about boats smashing one another to bits, unsurprisingly. The first is an occasion on which a single pirate sank 42 Portuguese ships all by himself, another sees the Spanish Armada all done in by cannonballs, and yet another involves explosions stitching up the port town of Nassau. More interestingly, there’ll also be a less noisy mission centred around the marooning of Charles Vane on a tropical island, which should hopefully involve protracted comic scenes in which the protagonist and his marooned buddy sit on opposite sides of a palm tree refusing to talk to one another. Certainly not a pirate cliché, of course.
There’ll be multiplayer, naturally, which Ubisoft say will feature “new maps and characters“ (rather than what alternative, I wonder?). There’ll also be a novel approach taken to the present-day time travelling fiction, which Ubisoft described to the audience in a curious way. As the timeline of the series converged with the timeline of the real world at the end of the last game, the creative director patiently explained, we were all now part of the Assassin’s Creed universe. He pointed to the crowd. “You are all in the universe right now,” he intoned ominously, letting the words hang in the air, expecting a cheer, or maybe panic. I patted myself up and down to make sure I was still real, before peering around at all of these new Assassin’s Creed characters: the nice man who writes for the Guardian, my friend who I’d been to the zoo with early that week, somebody else who was wearing an Assassin’s Creed hoodie, which now that he’s an Assassin’s Creed character was even more inappropriate than usual. Would we all need our own Wikia entries?
“You are now the true protagonist in Assassin’s Creed 4,” he continued, revealing that, rather than playing as Desmond, you play as a nameless first person researcher at Abstergo Entertainment Industries, a subsidiary of Ubisoft or somesuch other made up silliness. The important takeaway here is that the dreary, whiny honking of present-day sulk-in-a-white-hood Desmond Miles has been scrubbed, hopefully for good, and that focus will turn to the piracy, where it probably belongs.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is tremendously exciting for anybody whose interest in the series waned following the relentless trudge of yearly releases and creeping, faltering feature-progress. The freedom of an open ocean is an appealing concept not explored enough in games, and Ubisoft are genuinely promising to go from the confined, fenced-off maps of old to a single cohesive and seamless map combining oceans and shores as one glorious whole. Assassin’s Creed 4 could be Wind Waker with stylish grit, Sid Meier’s Pirates! with blood-spunking jugulars. Tellingly, the developer stopped short of promising a game entirely bereft of loading screens, but they proudly point to how fort assaults now work as an example of how the new map engine benefits the game.
In the previous game’s naval battles, you’d bombard a fortress until the mission relented and faded to black, loading up the fort’s interior and chucking you into a cutscene. In Assassin’s Creed 4 however, you’ll smash that fort to bits with your cannon, dive into the frothing, debris-peppered ocean and scale the encampment’s walls in one uninterrupted, beautiful sequence. That’s a fantastic technical achievement, if anything, but if this continuity scales across the entire game — if I can smash my ship into a harbour to frighten an NPC dog — then this will promptly overtake Brotherhood as the greatest game in the series.
With Assassin’s Creed 4, Ubisoft might not only be on course to create the best Assassin’s Creed game yet — this could be the greatest pirate game ever made, assuming I'm not forgetting any obvious ones. Of course, that’s as long they don’t wreck it with a six hour long tutorial and a mission in which a sassy mermaid tells you how to reduce your notoriety by tearing down wanted posters and bribing, I don't know, talking clamshells or something.