Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag marks – for many – a significant leap in quality over its predecessor. Now that it’s out, VG247′s Dave Cook has managed to dig deep into the game’s development, with insight from Ubisoft’s creative team.
It’s no secret that sequels are tricky, and in this age of blockbuster franchises they are surely getting trickier. If a new triple-a IP gains critical acclaim and makes a solid return on investment you can be assured that somewhere, at some time, the possibility of a sequel has been discussed. It’s that old mentality of having a good thing and rolling with it. As we’ve seen with the saturated Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero franchises, there comes a point where the sequels simply have to stop.
The original Assassin’s Creed launched in 2007 to mixed critical response, but its sequel knocked it out of the park and significantly improved the template. While the series is still going strong, staying relevant for all those years can’t have been easy for Ubisoft and its cluster of internal studios. Assassin’s Creed 3 proved to be a sore point for several critics and gamers alike, its open world frontier overshadowed by Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. I also wrote a blog explaining why I felt Assassin’s Creed 3 was a major let-down compared to previous instalments.
I truly feel Ubisoft pulled an ‘Assassin’s Creed 2′ when it released Black Flag, however. Once again, the company showed that it was happy to listen to its critical response and make amends where necessary, ultimately releasing a superior experience that pushed the template further. But why did the series jump from the third game to Black Flag when Assassin’s Creed 2 formed a trilogy? What happened between both games to create such a leap in quality? I went straight to Ubisoft for answers.
Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag creative director Jean Guesdon recalled the origins of the project, and revealed that the concept first started in 2011. “I’d been asked to have a first think about an AC pirate game using the amazing naval tech that was, back in the day, in development in Ubisoft Singapore for Assassin’s Creed 3. As usual we made our historical research and realized that the perfect setting for us would be the beginning of the 18th century in the Caribbean.
“That being said we decided to make our main protagonist the father of Haytham and grandfather of Connor in order to create that link between Assassin’s Creed 3 and 4. We knew from the beginning that we would deliver for six consoles and we made our plan accordingly. In the end we can say that we’re very proud because the end result is in fact quite close – if not superior on some aspects – to our initial thoughts.”
”We asked ourselves ‘What if a talented and shrewd pirate – a criminal who already had some of what he wanted in life – were to come into contact with the Assassins?’ Would he care? Would he shun or spurn them? Would they kill him? Would he find them silly?”
It’s quite refreshing that the team was asked for its thoughts on where to take Assassin’s Creed after colonial America, but for Guesdon, the decision to create a game around the Golden Age of Piracy was helped along by the third game’s naval combat; arguably its finest aspect. He added that the studio saw an opportunity to create the world’s first triple-a pirate game based on that sea-faring concept, and with the base tech already in-house the decision was helped along.
As something of a tease, Guesdon added, “Feudal Japan remains – like numerous other time periods and locations – a possible future setting for the franchise because thanks to the Animus. The entire human history is our playground.” To fully realise its free-roaming Caribbean environment, Ubisoft had to not only research the period for accuracy, but hone its own tech. The grand scale of Assassin’s Creed 3′s landscape proved to be a solid starting point, but in Black Flag the team was going bigger and bolder.
Guesdon explained that to achieve such a grand play-space without constant loading screens or interruption, Ubisoft’s technical directors had to optimise its assets – from characters and props, to the constantly shifting ocean itself – ensuring that ships built from hundreds of separate parts didn’t cause the world to stutter, and develop a two-tier loading system that streamed both the dry land settings and vast draw distances out at sea. In the end Black Flag’s 16km by 16km map is as dynamic and vibrant as they come.
Fast travel is always an option in Assassin’s Creed games, but in Black Flag there’s a thrill that comes with lazily steering the Jackdaw against calmly lapping waves, seeing a dolphin leap playfully our of the surf, while Spanish vessels bob on the distant tide. That such a vast space is rarely boring comes as something of a triumph in itself, but once naval battles kick off in the middle of a violent storm, you really do appreciate how that sense of calm can be dynamically elevated to chaos at the drop of a hat. It is, in short, a real technical achievement.