Assassin’s Creed takes the next adventure of its ‘historical tourism’ series to the high seas with Black Flag.
Water water everywhere
When the last game in the hugely successful Assassin’s Creed series was released in 2012, among the new gaming elements that caused a stir was the sailing. Previously, these open-world adventures, set across differing historical periods going back to crusade-era Palestine, had been largely about scampering up ancient Middle Eastern towers, scuttling across Venetian rooftops and silently vanquishing your foes with a swift knife slice to the throat. All solid, clean, stealthy fun.
But suddenly, in Assassin’s Creed 3 (AC3, actually the fifth instalment), we also found ourselves out on the high seas, steering a warship and taking out British galleons with cannon fire in the midst of revolutionary America. Despite drastically expanding the franchise’s already well-established meat-and-potatoes gameplay, the move paid off and the new boat-based escapades were hailed as some of the most exciting bits of the game.
There must have been some relieved looking faces at the developers Ubisoft, because unbeknown to those getting giddy about AC3, they were already secretly working on a follow-up that was almost entirely based around adventures on the high seas.
“I think we announced AC3 in February 2012 and everyone was like ‘Ooh, naval, that’s an amazing trailer’,” says the creative scriptwriter Darby McDevitt. “And then, when the game came out, the naval got more and more good press. But of course, behind the scenes, nobody knew that we were working on AC4.”
AC4, or Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag to give it its full name, comes out on Friday and will see gamers take control of Edward Kenway, a British privateer-turned-pirate roaming the Caribbean in the early 18th century, plundering galleons and scuttling skiffs. Although there’s still a decent portion of the game set on land, with the cities of Havana, Kingston and Nassau laid out – as according to historically accurate maps – and ripe for exploring, it’s the vast, open oceans that are where much of the action takes places as you take on various missions on-board your upgradeable ship, Jackdaw.
“Right around the time that AC3 was announced, there were two gaming articles that came out, one called ‘Where have all the great pirates games gone?’ and another that said ‘Who’s going to make the Red Dead Redemption of pirates games?’,” says McDevitt, smiling. “And we said, we’re already doing it.”
Feeling vindicated by the decision, McDevitt – who previously scripted Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, set in Ottoman-era Constantinople – set to work to create the rich and historically informed storyline, or “historical tourism” as he calls it, that the series has become renowned for.
“We’ve worked really hard to make this a credible world full of the kind of historical realism and detail that we’ve always brought to our games,” he says, pointing out levels of details, much of which could easily be overlooked by gamers.
“We’ve got 35 sea shanties and 35 extra folk songs, they’re all real. You can also find messages in bottles. I wrote them all in 18th-century idioms, with all the spelling errors.”
Like previous titles, Black Flag will feature real-life historical events and characters. Along the way, you’ll encounter the likes of the noted buccaneers Edward “Blackbeard” Teach, Benjamin Hornigold, Anne Bonny and Calico Jack, along with several governors of the time. The game also avoids many of the swashbuckling clichés prevalent in popular culture.
“Walking the plank wasn’t really a pirate thing, that was Peter Pan,” says McDevitt, adding that parrots, peg legs and the “generic Bristolian brogue” were made famous by Treasure Island. “However, the buried treasure idea happened once. A guy named William Kidd buried his treasure.”
On whether such microscopic details such as having a submerged section of Kingston, which occurred following an earthquake in 1692, are important, McDevitt says it works whether the player notices or not. “If they don’t appreciate it outright, I think it leads to creative decisions on our part that leads to freshness in the game. So a player might not realise that they’re playing through a historical moment, but maybe it brings something to the game. Truth is often stranger than fiction. But our hard-core fans definitely love going back and researching everything.”
If the naval elements of AC3 delighted gamers, Black Flag is only going to put some serious wind power behind a series that is six years old and ensure several follow-ups. But where might we be headed next?
“We’ll never run out of time periods. I’ve personally got a master’s degree in Irish literature and would love to do one set in the Irish revolution and subsequent civil war, like Michael Collins and The Winds That Shakes the Barley,” says McDevitt. “But that’s getting into a time period where it might be a harder sell.”
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