Let’s not beat around the bush, Assassin’s Creed III wasn’t all that good – for the most part anyway. It tried to reach further than it’s grasp would allow, resulting in a pretty forgettable, (save for a few interesting plot turns) buggy experience. That is, except for the naval combat, which managed to capture the thrill of captaining a ship during large scale ocean encounters, refining the combat with excellent controls. With that in mind, it’s obvious as to why Ubisoft’s first public preview of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag dropped gamers back in the ocean.
The brief demo put players at the helm of a ship, aimed at taking down a coastal fort amidst a barrage of cannon fire with the help of your scurvy, slack jawed crew. Within seconds of taking command, you’ll notice a stark improvement in the already excellent naval controls, as everything that made the battles from AC:3 has been moved to Black Flag, and refined to near precision. Controls are much more responsive, the ships move with increased fluidity, and camera tracking appears to have been fixed. It still moves around with the ship, but you won’t be forced to stare straight into the ocean when cruising down the face of a particularly steep wave.
Aiming and firing with the cannons is similar, but again, the mechanisms have been fined tuned to slide seamlessly into the combat. While AC:3 required delicate accuracy when aiming at a target, Black Flag leaves room for a slight margin of error, without dumbing down the combat. If say only half of the aiming mechanism lands on the target, you’re still guaranteed to do some damage, as opposed to the paltry scratch you would leave on your enemies in AC:3 unless you landed a direct hit. Fortunately, lining up your target is much easier thanks to the inclusion of three dense, white lines on the trajectory arc, so you won’t find yourself overshooting as often.
Swivel cannons are still tricky to master, but each time you land a successful hit with your main guns, you can quickly fire off a swivel shot that auto-locks onto the target. The window to pull this off is tiny – almost like a quick time event – so it doesn’t feel like a cheap shot aimed at making things easier for the player. If anything, it’s a nice middle finger to the enemy that survived your last bombardment by the hair of their chests.
After taking a couple of passes at the fort, a few enemy ships cruise into the battle zone. Taking on moving targets utilises the same improved mechanics, while reducing the punishing effects of being hit by enemy fire without telling your crew to duck down. You will still cop a solid beating, but it’s not quite as heavy as the near death slaughter that happened in AC:3. Otherwise the one on one battles are still as tense as ever, as you line up next to your enemy, playing a game of cannonball chicken, desperately hoping that you fire first. Fortunately reload speed has increased this time around, so if you’re really good you can fire off a couple of rounds before passing some of the bigger targets.
With the enemy taken care of, you can turn your attention back towards the fort. The feeling of seeing the watchtowers crumble as a mighty ball of flames explodes towards the sky from your final critical hit, is still as poignant and satisfying as AC:3. That is until you dock your ship and get about slaughtering the enemies that managed to survive the bombardment. While blade combat is standard fare, guns are now a viable addition to your armoury, rather than a fun curiosity that you can use in combat if you feel like it. In Black Flag, they almost feel like a necessity.
As you slice and dice your way through a group of enemies, sliding between them with the flick of a joystick here and a counter attack there, you may find a couple of stray enemies outside the pack turning towards you. Fast acting guns make taking out these final foes simple and quite fun, as you quickly whip out your pistol (or whatever they called them in pirate times) and blow them into the water. Guns fit into your combat movements with a smooth fluidity that makes them feel like they’re part of your assassins arsenal – blade slides in, gun comes out, shoot the enemy and move on. All in the space of a few seconds.
New finishing move and counter attack animations add a nice cinematic touch to the combat, which is otherwise essentially the same as previous Assassin’s Creed games. If you want to simple charge through the pack, it looks like you can do that to some degree provided there’s enough space to dodge enemies to get to your objective.
When the demo was over, there were two key aspects that stood out. First, of course, was the naval combat, but not just because it’s been improved. It’s easy enough to say that Ubisoft overhauled this aspect simply because they wanted to make it better, but the improvements also slot nicely into the lore of the game. In AC:3 you were a Native America who happened to have a knack for captaining ships, but in Black Flag, you are a pirate – a scourge of the seas with an experienced crew by your side. It could be a long stretch, but the new setting feels like it justifies the improved naval combat mechanics, which makes the game feel that little bit more believable.
The second aspect was the pace of the game. AC:3 regularly became bogged down in its grand ambition, bringing some of the most exciting sequences to a halt. Granted, the Black Flag demo didn’t show off any of the slow moving, stealth sequences, but the fast paced action was reinforced by a sense of energy that flowed between every step you took in the battle, concentrating the excitement that comes from being an efficient, and elegant, combatant.
After a successful slaughter of the enemy, and some fine words shared with their leader, the demo was over. It was a small slice of what is set to be a massive game, and therefore not quite indicative of what the final product will be like. But in terms of combat, action and maritime adventure, Black Flag seems to be a swashbuckling return to the core elements that made these games so much fun to begin with.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag will be out on Xbox 360, Wii U and PlayStation 3 October 31, 2013. PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions will be available November 22nd, 2013.