Assassin’s Creed 4 Single Player Hands-On: Grand Theft ARRRto
Looking for a reason to play Assassin’s Creed 4? Why not try thinking of it as an open-world crime game, with boats instead of stolen cars. Having played a limited (20 minutes or so) demo off-site during PAX Prime this past weekend, I’m pleasantly pleased to report that you will, essentially, be able to enjoy the Golden Age of Piracy equivalent of Grand Theft Auto. At least when it comes to listening to the radio and evading the police.
As we know from the hours-long commutes Americans endure on a daily basis, driving long distances is hell itself without music. One can only assume that on the open seas, it’s even worse. Life on board a sailing ship was basically hours and hours and hours of punishing, back-breaking labor, followed by a meal consisting of stale beer and boiled meat, followed by a few hours lying in a dirty hammock before you had to get up and do it again.
Sea shanties – rhythmic work songs sang in unison or in rounds by the crew as they went about their duties – helped sailors cope with the drudgery. And with Assassin’s Creed 4 taking place on the Caribbean, shanties are an integral part of the experience.
Continuing Ubisoft’s broad-strokes approach to historical accuracy*, the shanties featured in the game are, so I was told by the Ubisoft developer present during my demo, period-accurate songs actually sang by sailors of the time. In fact, one of the most famous shanties of all time won’t be Assassin’s Creed 4 because it actually dates from the 19th century and not the 18th.
When piloting your ship around the Caribbean, you can at any time command your sailors to begin singing a shanty at the click of a button. In addition, you’ll be able to choose from a list of shanties, similar to changing radio stations on an open-world driving game. It’s a cool addition to the series. Even if “Hurrah for the Black Ball Line” doesn’t feel quite as hardcore as “Who Shot Ya?”, remember you’re listening to the Hard Core Rap of the 1700s and you’ll be fine.
New shanties can be found around the world in the same way you found almanac pages from Assassin’s Creed 3. As you explore, you’ll see paper flitting off in the distance, blown away by the wind. Chase after it, grab it, and presto: new tracks for your ocean-going playlist.
You’ll also be able to, essentially, speed while sailing. Unlike Assassin’s Creed 3, which had you sailing around relatively boxed-in oceanic regions, you’ll have a huge swath of the Caribbean to play around in. Bordered by South Florida in the north, the tip of the Yucatan peninsula in the west, and various British and Spanish imperial possessions throughout the Antilles, the bulk of the map is water. To make traversing it bearable, they’ve added a new level of acceleration – click to lower sails enough times and the camera will pull away from the helm-centered view to show the whole boat. This triggers a much faster sailing speed that makes zipping between islands a snap (albeit a very unrealistic one.)
Add to this the fact that the British Navy polices the Caribbean and will, if you cause enough trouble on the high seas, come after you with the Colonial-period equivalent of S.W.A.T. vans and you’re firmly in Grand Theft man ‘o war territory.
Meanwhile, those of you wondering how the game works overall can relax. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag will be an Assassin’s Creed game, with elements taken from the previous series, and a vast expansion of the cool sailing ships sections of Assassin’s Creed 3. You will experience convoluted and never fully-developed plot twists. You will spend hours finding the tallest points of every location you visit in order to unlock local maps. And yes, the controls will function exactly like previous games, with le parkour action a simple matter of running at climbable or, at least, traversable structures.
Even so, when the controller popped into my hand and I started roaming the landscape, it was a nice return to the familiar experience that, it is worth noting, managed to feel somewhat new. The game’s locations, like pirate villages on Caribbean islands, offer something somewhat different for longtime players, with the relatively underdeveloped shanty town and hilly tropical islands a nice change from deserts, North American colonies, and Renaissance locales of previous entries. Makeshift elevators, rickety wooden poles and grass huts at least give the impression of a more difficult-to-navigate landscape, similar in some respects to the Native American settlements of Assassin’s Creed 3, but with more variety than simply trying to figure out which trees you can actually climb.
But mainly, it’s the same, trusty play mechanics fans of historical murder have come to expect. If you love Assassin’s Creed, you’ll love this too, but if you still have any questions about how this thing will play and look, I’ll refer you to Phil Hornshaw’s coverage of the game from E3.
My hands-on lasted half an hour, barely enough time to do more than a couple of meaningless sidequests. It was hardly adequate time to get a sense of the game’s overall quality. Assassin’s Creed 4 may indeed end up being another frustrating entry in the long-running series, but at least you’ll finally have definitive proof that yes, damn it feels good to be a
gangsta pirate. Fine by me.
* Which is to say, just-enough accuracy to feel correct.
Don’t miss the rest of our PAX Prime 2013 coverage all this week!