I’m plodding my way through AC3 right now, and having played Revelations not long ago, I can honestly say there’s been a downward trend to the series, quality wise. Assassin’s Creed 4 is on the horizon, however, and I believe it will restore the franchise to its former glories, for more than just the obvious reasons.
Bringing back the AAA team
I’m of the mind that the team behind AC4 is the same one that put together AC2. Looking at the art, gameplay “innovations”, dialogue, and setting, I can confidently opine that Ubisoft divided up development teams to create the Ezio saga after the original Assassin’s Creed. Ezio’s first appearance in AC2 was by far his strongest showing, and gameplay-wise there were a ton of improvements that made it by far the best in the series.
In the years that followed, I believe two other teams were tasked with finishing Ezio’s story, and a third put together Connor’s. To bring Assassin’s Creed into the future, it seems Ubisoft gave the reigns back to the original team, said “Go make a pirates game” and let those creative minds get to work. The depth of gameplay, interesting characters, Edward included, the grandness of the setting; all of these things point towards a group of developers who know precisely what they’re doing, having begun the series themselves.
The final piece of evidence I have is time. The original Assassin’s Creed released in November of 2007, and AC2 came out the same month of 2009. That’s a little under two years in development time, likely by a team that grew as demand for a new Creed game increased. It’s been almost four years since 2 released. While I’m sure there’s been some cross-pollination between game designers in that time, something as grand as a full, pirate-themed open world takes serious muscle to create. My guess is, Black Flag’s been in development for at least three years, or from around the time Brotherhood released. If this is the case, the size of the game world will be enormous, on a level we’d never conceive of without the power of a next generation engine.
All of this is to the good. More development time means more time for ideas and fine tuning mechanics. It means more polish, more content, more story. It means, ultimatley, a better overall experience. And since Ubisoft’s been pushing the “Edward Kenway is way cool. He is so not Connor. We swear!” bit, I don’t think we’ll have to worry about a monotone bore of a character this time around.
What’s under the hood matters
I mentioned next generation engines, but I’d be remiss to say Ubisoft went and built a new one from the ground up. That said, I do think what we’re getting a heavily updated and added-to engine. Stronger hardware, both on console and PC means games can push more boundaries as far as scale and graphics are concerned. Like I said above, we’re likely to see a map larger than GTA V’s Los Santos, itself almost 50 miles square. Every inch will probably be filled with random stuff to do, and I think there’ll be at least two hundred hours of content if you do absolutely everything there is to do.
A new engine also means better AI, and better battle mechanics in general. Hopefully gone are the days of “Press Counter to win,” and in is the time of free-flow combat the pirate way. I’ll hand it to Rocksteady, the Batman Arkham games have the best combat system in a third person game, hands down. And I think the team behind AC4 took a good long look at what they had and what else was out there. A few of them might have played Arkham City as well, and took some cues directly from it.
Most importantly, though, a new engine might mean more fluidity to the gameplay and fewer graphical and mechanical hiccups. There are enough videos out there about glitches in AC3 that I’d wager much of the visual world renders at such a far distance that it’s impossible to see pop-in. Enemy spawn points will be numerous enough that finding them only servers to spawn foes elsewhere. Rounding a corner no longer means watching the inhabitants just appear out of thin air. All in all, it means the game becomes less a game and more an experience, one where we lose ourselves without being shoved out at every turn.
Timing is everything
Assassin’s Creed 4 is a release title for the next-gen consoles, and while I said I wouldn’t give obvious reasons, this one must be mentioned. Black Flag will help define the gaming experience for Xbox One and Playstation 4, and hopefully will set the bar high. For a lot of gamers, this might be their first console generation, having grown up without one or who are coming from PC just to see what’s out there. They might be coming without time in Call of Duty, shocking though that might be. They might have history in the Assassin’s Creed series itself, and thus are free of predispositions and other veteran expectations.
That AC3 ended Desmond’s story (so I hear) and that Edward Kenway has a new base character tells me Ubisoft is well aware of this new blood to the series. Both the developers and the publishers look keen to open the series to a whole swath of new eyes, grab them by the ears, and drag them into blissful submission. Unwarranted violence aside, I don’t have any doubts that Black Flag will surprise and delight, if only because it’s going back to what made the series work without too much baggage from the past.