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Eyes-On With Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – A Hard Tack

Descending the main escalators at PAX East, you’ll notice pretty much three things: 1) there’s a whole lot of people crammed into an increasingly smaller and smaller-feeling exhibit hall, 2) how much you want to play everything you see, and 3) the Ubisoft booth. And that last one is no mean feat considering the glaringly purple TwitchTV stage is right next to it, but Edward Kenway gives a pretty mean stare from that billboard-sized sign hanging over you.

Once ushered into the theatre, it’s even harder to get past the Ubisoft-ness of it all. A very aggressive and friendly woman at the door gets you all hyped up to watch a very brief, gameplay-free video about Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and then another very aggressive and friendly Frag Doll instructs everyone on how to inflate your inflatable pirate sword and to yell out during the video presentation when you see something you like. There are also, inexplicably, two bouncer fellows at each end of the sweltering, crate-filled room.

Then the video starts, and it all makes sense. It is also hard to get over in the same overwhelming but slightly fuzzy way. It shows just about no real gameplay—only stuff we can optimistically assume is captured footage—and it is prefaced with a heavy deluge of producers and designers giving us press release talk.

But the things we actually see sound pretty interesting. Edward Kenway, the predecessor to Haytham Kenway of Assassin’s Creed III, is an Assassin-trained pirate and, along with the famed Black Beard, is one of the most feared captains of the high seas. The swashbuckling, however, is a ruse, and the game aims to reveal what his ulterior motives are for traveling the Caribbean.

As a pirate, Edward is decked out with a half dozen guns and two gigantic swords at all times, leaving him as one of the more well-armed protagonists of an Assassin’s Creed game yet. He is also the first one that can navigate underwater environments and not just hover below the surface for seconds at a time. And remember all the hunting you did in Assassin’s Creed III? Well now you can hunt both while aboard your ship the Jackdaw and underwater. We see a huge whale jumping out of the water as well as Edward stabbing a shark with his sword.

Naval battles, a nearly unanimous highlight of an otherwise divisive Assassin’s Creed III, are back, though we don’t see to what extent things have changed or remained the same, but there will be plenty of cannons being fired and hulls being breached from what I could tell. We’re promised, however, the ability to either battle from afar with our ship’s armaments or get in close and board if we so choose. A key word uttered was “seamless” as you will be able to roam the seas and land on islands and recruit new crew members (presumably taking over the assassin call button) in whatever manner you see fit.

Most importantly, though, is this little gem of a quote: “stealth is back.” During the video, it was noted that Ubisoft listened to fans and they’ve brought stealth aspects back. They don’t say specifically what this means in terms of gameplay (nor are we shown what it means), but I figure if they know, then they’re at least on the right track.

The video presents the game in a flattering light, no doubt, but once that gel is removed, what is left? If you recall, we saw the one burning ships sequence of Assassin’s Creed III last year that people loved and we ended up with a game that was rather mediocre. And that was real gameplay. This time we have nothing but the word of the developers and some circumstantial evidence.

I’m hopeful, though. This is a hard swing from past games. Edward is the first morally ambiguous character we’ve controlled (Connor and Altaïr being the more chivalrous of the bunch with Ezio more of a chaotic good sort of dude) seeing as how he’s a pirate who loots and kills to keep up his intimidation factor and a sizable chunk of the game seems to be not even based in the franchise-making freerunning mechanic. And this will be the first game where the plot moves backwards in time with the Animus, not the mention the first one without Desmond and a focus on the Assassins. These are interesting problems with hopefully interesting solutions, but we’ll have to wait and see if they prove to be solutions at all.

Look for it on October 29, 2013.

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