Tag Archives: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

A Challenge to Pleasure

A Challenge to Pleasure

The old adage “you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone” is pretty dead-on. (Okay, fine, it’s also a song lyric.) The idea of contrast is important in making what matters stand out. Happiness emerging out of sadness; sated hunger after starvation; you get the idea. After all, a roller coaster has to go up to go back down, right?

In that, there is actually more to say. What if a roller coaster was just the best bits? What if a roller coaster only ever went down? Or, if you’d prefer, it can go only in loops. All that time you spend going up, waiting, listening to the dull clink of the chains rattling your train higher and higher, is eliminated and the rush of falling faster and faster towards the ground is your immediate reward.

One of the early trailers for Assassin’s Creed III featured a major run of gameplay that showed off Connor’s new and expanded list of abilities. One of them included a running assassination. We’re not talking about a hearty dive blades-first or an airborne death from above but a one-and-done moment of advantageous fighting. And then he does it again.

Just moments before, however, we see Connor sneak up on a fort and clamber up around some trees. It ends with him engaging a small group of guards, fighting and counterattacking and dodging his way to victory. It looks exciting, but we are reminded—somewhere in the back of our minds where rationality persists—that fighting in Assassin’s Creed games are never that fun.

Granted, it has improved with each game, and by improved I mean they make each fight take less and less time. Edward Kenway in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag is the most capable fighter of them all, his kill combos and counterattacks the most potent of all the robed predecessors. Two swords and two guns and a lust for blood will make anyone deadly, I guess.

And yet the running assassinations still stand out. Enemies seem even more open to the efficient attack in this iteration. We have a whole franchise dedicated to teaching us that you should sneak around instead of getting into blade-addled scraps (though the sneaking mechanics never quite supported that invitation), so see an opportunity to blend the rush of a quick and brutal kill with the entropy of battle is welcome.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Imagine, however, if we could just do that with every enemy. Picture if every enemy you came across was defenseless against your galloping death stride. That isn’t very much fun. Killing the citizens of Athens in God of War gets tiring after, what, 10 seconds? The civilians of Infamous in a minute? Consider, then, how much time you spend actually fighting capable enemies. Is it necessarily constantly more fun experience? Probably not.

But it is more rewarding, much like the running kills are in Black Flag. You understand and have gone through the struggles of hacking and slashing and shooting your way to not do it anymore, so the moment you get a leg up on the hordes before you, it feels earned. It feels special. It feels like all that time spent going up the coaster was well worth it just to go back down.

It’s strange and counterintuitive. Spending time purposefully impeding the joy of the player doesn’t make a lot of sense when you’re trying to give them a good time. But the key to it is proper design, which I would argue the times you get to dive from a crow’s nest onto someone’s neck or drive a guard into the ground with your hidden blades or pull off a double counterattack are well designed. They make that ride back to the bottom exciting.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The ups and down have to pace themselves. A slow descent into a free fall imbues both turns with drama and excitement and anticipation. But a single drop or an hour long ride to the bottom just doesn’t work. And in Black Flag, if you can work your way to the top, the game will make it worth your while on the way down, blades-first.

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A Black Flag in the Wind

A Black Flag in the Wind

Playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag caused me to ruminate on the franchise quite a bit over the course of the 50 hours I put into it. A lot of the meditations concerned themselves with objective quality, namely the series’ story arc and various character growths. It’s easy to see where all the missteps occurred in the first game and the seemingly aggressive indifference with which Assassin’s Creed III was approached, but it goes much deeper.

I can recall the single question I would meaningfully ask myself at the beginning of each game because it strangely carries massive import for me: what is the new interface going to look like? It’s so strange that something that only serves to provide a path from one metaphysical layer to another—a necessary roadblock to provide intermediate actions—when there’s so much to climb, stab, and discover.

It makes me happy, though, seeing discrete differences crop up within each franchise iteration, even when the interfaces themselves are somewhat lackluster. (While serviceable, the menus in Black Flag are missing any sort of visual movement and excitement.) Slices of DNA-based memories floating in the ether, beautifully minimalist red blocks over gray clouds, and all that sort give the impression of progress in the series.

Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood

It then makes me wonder, however, if it is nothing more than an impression, a facade. It’s all fine and dandy to put a new coat of paint and some wax on your old beat-up Chevy, but it doesn’t make the engine more powerful or the steering any tighter.

As we go through each game in the series, it’s obvious the changes made to the game’s core. Ezio’s climbing animations became more varied and the highly repetitive mission structure became slightly less repetitive. Connor finally learned how to strafe ever-so slightly while sprinting and assassinate dudes on the run. Edward then made combat the fastest it’s ever been and figured out how to aim cannons on a ship.

Save for the naval stuff starting in Assassin’s Creed III and the use of other assassins with Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, the improvements are, well, less than substantial. Many of the complaints you can level against the first and extremely divisive game still hold true with Black Flag. Eight games later and they still haven’t figured out that no one likes eavesdropping on guards, tailing noblemen, or spending egregious amounts of time fighting. But guess what: that’s all still there.

Assassin's Creed: Revelations

To the high point of the franchise (which I consider Brotherhood to be), Ubisoft simply added more layers to the cake until all those problems eventually become peas under the mattress. Improving the villa, recruiting assassins, and buying landmarks were all distractions from the still too-often-annoying combat and sometimes frustrating parkour, the two biggest parts of the games.

Sometimes they were obvious mistakes like the tower defense stuff in Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, but they were quickly excised. And then other times they were iterated on until everyone realized the problems the first time around are inherent to the framework like ship battles. But whether a step forward or a step back or a step in a new direction, none of them directly address the problems that still exist even in Black Flag.

Case in point: the ultimate culmination in things that are horrible with Assassin’s Creed in tailing another ship with your own ship that turns at a glacial pace, like a record player attempting to rotate running, half-frozen maple syrup. Ubisoft wondered if attaching one of the more popular parts of Assassin’s Creed III could fix one of the most hated parts of every other game would create an exciting new amalgam. Instead they created a monster.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

Kirk Hamilton’s review of Black Flag opens with a sort of thesis-rumination hybrid. You spend an interminable amount of time running nowhere in each Assassin’s Creed game as new levels and missions load. Running and running and running forever, getting nowhere and seeing nothing. He views it as a question of whether the series has a destination, much like you don’t have one running in those Animus clouds of digital nonsense.

But it seems to me more like it’s running away instead. It’s trying to avoid all the problems the series has cultivated since 2007, closing doors and pulling down merchant stands as you try to catch it to enumerate the issues you’ve had logged in an ever growing notebook. But it can’t run away. It ends up exactly where it began: mired in a pool of its own struggles, festering and unattended.

I still think Black Flag is a good game, just as is Brotherhood and certain parts of, well, all the rest of them. But the series as a whole is lost, a buoy floating in the middle of an endless sea. It bobs up and down with a depressing yet somewhat charming futility, clamoring with increasing frequency and amplitude as the shore becomes an impossible dream. And the ripples quickly die out mere inches from its base. No one sees its desires for a land-side salvation. We only see a buoy floating, bobbing. Heading nowhere.

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Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Review: Fun in the Sun

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The Assassin’s Creed series has become something like a Highlights for Kids magazine. It’s mostly a franchise of spot-the-differences at this point but it also tells some fun little stories of Goofus and Gallant. And strangely enough, those small little changes can completely make or break the iteration they go towards. In this case, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag has taken a turn for the better.

Black Flag is the first game in the freerunning wannabe stealth franchise to actually take a step back in the flow of time by putting you in the shoes and pegleg-adjacent life of Edward Kenway, the grandfather to the protagonist Ratanhnhaké:ton of Assassin’s Creed III. Unlike stoic and honor-bound Connor, Edward is a pirate and simply falls into the Assassin-Templar feud like a found lotto ticket that wins you a bunch of stabbing.

And unlike Connor, Edward is actually a fun character. He is way more Ezio than Connor, and that’s a good thing. He’s brash, loud, and a jaunty sea fellow who loves drinking and looting. He, as a person, embodies the entire philosophical change of Black Flag by being someone we like (he’s still an affable fellow, despite his swashbuckling ways, a brush applied in broad strokes across all the pirates for some reason) and someone we want to be around.

Black Flag begins with a bang. Well, a very loud clap, let’s say, but it’s a bang in contrast to Assassin’s Creed III. Its predecessor began with a painfully slow introduction that led to a semi-worthwhile plot development (if predictable) and took hours and hours to reach anything resembling fun and the more often broken chase sequences. Within a couple of hours, you are stealing brigs, recruiting pirates, and sailing across the open Caribbean. It’s a much improved jump off the starting blocks.

However, you do still have to grind through the ever-present Assassin’s Creed mission-based tutorial structure. The game will continue to teach you new things all the way until the ninth or tenth hour, which is fair considering there are a lot of systems going on, but boy howdy does it get tiring. Half of the activities and abilities they teach you by putting objective markers over dummies to shoot and ship and character upgrades to buy will be things you’ve already done multiple times by the time they decide you’re ready for them.

Most of them are fun, though. A standout, actually, is when you first sail a ship and escape other angry ships in the midst of a storm. It’s exhilarating to say the least as you break rogue waves and dodge water spouts. But then there are the necessary ones that include hunting iguanas and eavesdropping on conversations and (ugh) tailing targets. If you were hoping those had gone the way of Altäir, then you’ll be severely disappointed, especially when you have to stealthily tail another ship with your ship. Just awful.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The majority of the missions, though, are effective at conveying both plot and pleasure to you as a player. Stealth actually works this time around with stalking zones and tagging patrolling guards, so the ones that demand you to sneak around are far less frustrating than before. Fighting, when you must do it, moves faster than before, a concession to the realization that the less of it you do, the better the game flows. Enemies seem to sometimes go down in a single hit and it’s fantastic.

And the reasons behind doing both the sneaking and the stabbing actually feel interesting. Once you involve Blackbeard and Anne Bonny, you get deep into the swarthy yet charming life of plundering booty blended together with a reluctant assassin and you just might find joy somewhere under the iterative layers of still annoying freerunning mechanics and mapping collectibles and wondering if guards can see you.

The story, though, does get a bit too big for its britches. (Or pantaloons or whatever it is pirates wear.) Even though we don’t have the Desmond half to contend with where the majority of the mishandled complications and clumsy gameplay lay in past games, we do still have to consolidate a lighthearted tale of pirates and mistaken identity in the beautiful blue sea with the sci-fi mess of the First Civilization and the forever-fight between Templars and Assassins. The seams really begin to come loose towards the end, as Assassin’s Creed games are wont to do.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

If I hadn’t been keeping notes for this review, I probably would have lost the thread somewhere around the twentieth hour or so and not bothered to find it again. All I really l liked were the characters as the madcap ending comes barreling towards them and you as the curtains begin to close. And once you involve the strange Desmond replacement in the real world, feelings become a lot more mixed.

You are really a new designer hired at Abstergo Entertainment, an obvious mirror to Ubisoft in Montreal. In a first-person view, you go through the onboarding process of reading about employee benefits (which don’t seem that great) and getting an employee communicator which stores files and acts as a compass to mark objectives and interact with networked devices.

It feels a whole lot like walking through a museum, or a tribute to the studio that made Assassin’s Creed. There is concept art everywhere and little statues of past franchise characters on display in cubicles, but no one talks to you outside of the ones necessary to the real world part of the plot. They mill around the coffee stand and stare at screens and sit silently at the break areas staring off into nothing. All you do is read cryptic notes and hack computers. It feels so incredibly dead in there with an eerie sheen like a one-percenter mortician got his hands on it or something.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

It’s a bit on-the-nose for me and generally feels like it’s all trying to be too cute. (Oh, an ad for Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation! How playful!) It’s all a bit lackluster as well considering how expansive and ambitious—however sloppy—Desmond’s story was. As a non-speaking character, it seems painfully obvious that the structure is still built for a speaking part, though the voice memos you unlock and find make it similarly clear that the budget for voice acting is quite ample. They are pretty great either way, though.

Perhaps more time was spent in designing the levels because this time around, the world feels much more cohesive. It was part of the problem of setting itself in a wide open city like colonial Boston, but Assassin’s Creed III was a pain to navigate, often running in the streets more than doing fun things like climbing and jumping. Black Flag actually has tiny islands that are altogether more interesting than Connor’s world.

Pirate hovels on split-level islands with tons of tropical foliage to hide in and clamber up make the largely unchanged parkour mechanics feel like they’ve evolved at least a little bit. It doesn’t quite explain how a pirate can climb as well as a lifelong Assassin despite the unconvincing explanation given in the game.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

The naval combat, however, has changed into something much more robust while the navigation across an open tropical setting with the ability to stop on any number of islands gins up a great The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker feel. Now you just aim forward to fire off slowing chain shot and aim backwards to drop fire barrels before you hold and release a single button to automatically hit ship weak points or detonate said barrels. And then being able to even just manually aim and tweak cannon fire is a godsend.

As is the entire boarding process. Your crew will grapple the burning opposition and pull you two together before you grab a rope and swing across. Midair assassinations and deck blade-crossing is just the tops as you scramble to subdue the ship before you lose any of your crew. I’d often fire off a few swivel gun rounds before I’d swing across, knock down the biggest dude, and fire off all my pistols just for fun before I stab everyone and everything. (BRB, gonna go board more ships.)

The refinements do show the inherent weaknesses of the combat system, though, as you begin to dread the moment you miss a single shot and are forced to painfully and slowly come around again for another chance. And attempting to navigate the shallows around islands is an exercise in frustrating blind faith and guessing.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

At least it all looks utterly fantastic. This is perhaps the best representation of the Caribbean since The Secret to Monkey Island where the idyllic and stunning blue waters wash up into turquoise shades against ports and shores. The night falls into an indigo-black across the lush green set amidst the shimmering sands is enough to make anyone long for the seafaring life.

Taking the helm boosts up the appeal as your crew welcomes you back with a jolly growl before they break out into a catchy set of sea shanties as you break out into the deep. It reminds me that despite the problems, this is the best part of the game. Sailing, discovering the unknown, and generally being a salty bastard is delectable, while wading through the murky swamps of convoluted plot developments and hereditary gameplay roughness is only marginally positive.

If that sounds familiar, then it’s because it describes both the best and worst parts of all past Assassin’s Creed titles. They are intrinsically composed of bad parts being covered up by good parts—the best gaming as to offer standing alongside the worst conventions of the medium—dressed up in varying period garb. The dressing, however, makes a world of difference as pointed out by a saucy Italian running across Renaissance rooftops and a dower stick in the mud getting lost in the endless basements of the American Revolution. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag may not be the best of them all, but it tends to get a lot more right than it does wrong.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

+ Sounds fantastic and looks even better
+ The characters are salty and charming and lends import to the story
+ Ship and land combat, sneaking, and climbing is all improved across the board
– The plot in the past and in the present is mostly middling
– Tailing and eavesdropping missions still exist

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Release: October 29, 2013
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://assassinscreed.ubi.com/‎

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That Good Old Caribbean Flavor

That Good Old Caribbean Flavor

What I love about digital entertainment mediums is that they are malleable. Through post-processing, creators can make movies, television shows, and video games look like anything they want them to look like. It’s how so many film makers can get away with shooting nighttime scenes during the day and vice versa. With careful manipulation, you can get the exact feel you want without physically achieving it.

It’s hard, though, to get it exactly right. When you don’t get it right, you end up with a sheep in wolves clothing, someone throwing a sheet over their head and calling themselves a ghost. It makes you stop, point at that thing, and say, “Whoa, hold on, that’s not right,” before you run off to get drunk and wait for the Ghost Hunters to show up and clear things up.

Of course, missing requires ambition, which many times these endeavors lack. Consider the Assassin’s Creed series. From head to toe, they’ve all had a monotone veneer. They all look a little washed out in a digital haze. Nothing stands out in an exceptional way except for the scale of the cities you’d run amok in, though they also do have fantastical graphical fidelity.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

From the Third Crusade to the Renaissance to the American Revolution, the sheen on this historical multitude of freerunning sci-fi is all just about the same. That is until Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the franchise. Set in the Golden Age of Piracy, the temporal differentiation between it and Assassin’s Creed III is just a couple of generations (playing as the grandfather of the protagonist of ACIII), but the setting could not be more different.

Black Flag takes place all over the Caribbean and leans full-on into the pirate theme. You are surrounded by the open sea and endless swashbuckling, but it all takes a backseat to the deliciously vibrant setting of tropical foliage and rich, glowing blue-green waters. This is, without a doubt, the brightest Assassin’s Creed game so far, and it makes such an incredible difference.

Even against the gorgeous vistas of the American Colonial Frontier, the green underbrush of the Caribbean is ridiculously eye-grabbing. It looks like the source of all green Crayola crayons, trying its best to topple the jungle facade of Donkey Kong Country. And then you throw in the shimmering, deep waters, blending just right into a thick green against the shore. They threw buckets of indigo, teal, and turquoise all into a blender and tossed it onto the screen, and it looks spectacular. (It only gets better once you go underwater, too.)

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

But what truly stands out is the night. I don’t know what art director Raphael Lacoste studied up on to get it right, but this is such an unforgiving, upfront fantastical interpretation of the West Indies. The piercing blue of the day gives way to a slightly azure dusk before it falls away into a purple-black night.

As Kirk Hamilton points out in his review, it best captures that indescribable visual magic of The Secret of Monkey Island, which had a fairly loose grip on reality to begin with. The Assassin’s Creed series, however, has stuck pretty hard to its guns in terms of historical accuracy, but Black Flag seems to have the widest interpretation of truth so far. (Yes, that includes the absurdity of Connor essentially carrying every major American Revolution event on his back.)

This kind of inspires you to think of what would happen with an Assassin’s Creed game that gave up on history and perhaps jumped into the future. What cyber world could they conjure up? The visual veracity of the past games eventually became a droll hum you came to ignore as the years went on, but the colorful Caribbean came to match the excitement of the privateering life. It is undoubtedly a highlight of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

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Concept Art Roundup: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, StarCraft II, Game of Thrones, and More

Concept Art Roundup: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, StarCraft II, Game of Thrones, and More

Hey, we’re back! Or I’m back. But you’re back too, so whatever. We’re back and we’re together again, just like old times. Really old times, actually. Sorry it’s taken so long to get another Concept Art Roundup going, but these are actually quite time-consuming and I’ve had a lot of thoughts about video games I’ve wanted to get out there. But enough about me, let’s get to the art.

First up is Hugo Deschamps, a 2D-3D generalist artist for Ubisoft Montreal. He goes by Chillyo, which 1) I’m not sure if is pronounced like “chill, yo” or “chilly oh”, 2) is kind of a cool pseudonym either way, and 3) is really hard to search for on the Internet. I can tell you, however, that he does have great taste in movies (The Goonies, Batman, Robocop, and The Terminator, coincidentally some of my favorites as well) and he does fantastic art for Assassin’s Creed. He started on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and has worked on all of the ones after that. The one non-video game piece of art he’s done that I could find, though, looks pretty cool. I’d love to see him stretch his wings on something new, too.

Next is Joe Peterson. Formerly of Red 5 Games for Firefall, he now works as a concept artist for the recently indie Activision Blizzard and has done work on StarCraft II, Diablo III, and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. He has a tutorial up on The Gnomon Workshop about designing mechanical characters, but he also seems like a pretty chill dude if his totally effing metal website has anything to say about it. Also, he did one of the early concept pieces for Kerrigan way back in 2006, long before StarCraft II came out, and the original concept art for the marine. Pretty cool.

Karakter is actually a studio whose work you’ve probably seen before. They’ve had their hands in Killzone 3, designed the cover art for Anno 1404, did some covers for Popular Mechanics, and won an Emmy for their work on HBO’s Game of Thrones. That’s quite the impressive list of stuff. Tobias Mannewitz, in particular, is the guy who got the 2012 Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects as the visual effects concept artist—which means he does a lot of matte painting over photographs and it looks crazy—so pretty much all the visual effects you love from Game of Thrones were originally just ideas in that dude’s head.

For a dude with an architecture degree, Andreas Rocha sure does a lot of matte painting, and he does it quite well. I mean, Wizards of the Coast doesn’t just hire anyone to do their card art, nor does Psdtuts+ interview just anyone off the streets with a drawing tablet in hand. He does have a lot going for him, like his excellent taste in classic movies (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Blade Runner, Willow, and Evil Dead, so maybe he and Deschamps should hang out some time) and his ability to make fantasy seem…endless. His Magic: the Gathering land cards are fantastic, but even his Grid 2 trailer concepts have a boundless quality to them.

And that’s it for now! Hopefully it won’t be another two months before the next Concept Art Roundup, but you never know. Actually, I should probably know, but just think of it as a little mystery in your day-to-day life, perhaps one that you don’t really care to think about until it starts unraveling and suddenly you have a face full of art. Or something.

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What to Expect from E3 2013

What to Expect from E3 2013

I’m filled with dread. And excitement. I’m anxious and paranoid. I’m filled with a glut of emotions that I reserve for times when I’m under prolonged duress, and in this case, it’s because I’ll be in Los Angeles for a week for E3. I feel like a hot little turnip of feelings because for six solid days, I’ll be surrounded by tens of thousands of other people in downtown LA (probably more due to the Kings playoff series once again looks to ravage the bustling, hotel-filled area) and set to meet dozens and dozens of them as I talk about and play almost as many games. And for some reason I do this voluntarily.

And that’s because there will be just so much to see. Outside of the tremendous networking opportunities, there’s just a lot of games to get my hands on and share with all of you. If there’s something in particular you want me to investigate or check out, just let me know in the comments or tweet at me and I’ll do my best. Last year, I tracked down Tokyo Jungle for some folks, an adventure that led me to faking a British accent and landed me square in a room full of European press I didn’t recognize. This year, well, who knows.

But here is what I’m looking forward to most.

Xbox One/PlayStation 4 Drama

PlayStation 4 vs. Xbox One

Word on the street is that the Microsoft press event is going to be…aggressive, which makes sense; they were the last next-gen console to be revealed and now they’re going to be the first out of the gate at E3. By all counts, the initial announcement seemed more aimed to appease partners and shareholders, so let’s so what happens when they have the opportunity to set the tone for an entire week of video game coverage. I’m expecting more games (probably some actual gameplay from Call of Duty: Ghosts this time) and “surprises,” as Geoff Keighley put it. Microsoft did, however, cancel the post-conference press Q&A, so who knows what that means.

As for Sony, well, a lot has happened since the Xbox One announcement. They’ve since been able to cultivate a strategic response to the kerfuffle surrounding used games, always-online requirements, and all that goodness, but they will also have to follow Microsoft (and everyone else seeing as how they’re the last presser to take place) next week. How well will they be able to execute a proper PR message turnaround if something unexpected happens? We’ll probably even see the actual hardware this time, too. This will, undoubtedly, be the most exciting pre-E3 press conferences in recent memory.

Saints Row IV

Deep Silver will be there repping Volition’s Saints Row IV and I have two hours set aside to bask in its glory. I don’t know if I need to say anymore. Just look at that trailer!

Nintendo’s Unusual Tact

Nintendo E3 2012 press conference

Nintendo won’t have their usual press event and is instead opting for a Nintendo Direct streaming thing. This isn’t unusual (big news dropped last year in the following online videos while their event skimped on the goods), but it does beg a lot of questions. Has Nintendo given up on mainstream marketing for the Wii U? Do they have latent plans for taking up the E3 news cycle that no one knows about? Last year they had one of the biggest booths with an entire second floor dedicated to appointments and private demos. The Nintendo Direct is also at the same time as a Square Enix Final Fantasy thing, so, um, yeah.

Plus they’ll have all those games demoed at 100 Best Buy stores across the country, saying they’re “making an E3 for the people.” That’s a smart ploy to put games in more gamers’ hands that won’t be at E3 (which is to say the vast majority of people), but it also feels like a concession in the console battle at a pivotal point where giving an inch anywhere is costly.

Franchises, Franchises

We’ll see more of Call of Duty: Ghosts, for sure, along with Battlefield 4 and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. There won’t be any sign of Grand Theft Auto V at the show, but there will be Super Smash Bros. Wii U, which obviously has a lot of people excited. Rumors have hit an all-time high for Mirror’s Edge 2 and Rare has been teasing a revival of a “historic” franchise (I’m hoping Viva Piñata, but I’m expecting Perfect Dark or Killer Instinct). We’ll see how Batman: Arkham Origins is shaping up and if Bayonetta 2 is just as ridiculous as the first.

Fresh-Baked Games

And then there’s the new IPs that we hopefully get to learn more about. Watch Dogs will be Ubisoft’s ace, probably, as it will likely take over its mantle for new annual franchise. Harmonix recently dropped the news that they are working on Fantasia and Double Fine will be talking about its latest Kickstarter endeavor Massive Chalice (and might show off Broken Age). Sony will also be showing off Puppeteer, one of the most exciting things I’ve seen in a long time, and we’ll finally see some of Bungie’s Destiny. Of course, there’s much more to E3 than that, but you’ll read about it all next week.

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

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

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.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

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.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

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.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

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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