Ah yes, the difficult fourth chapter. It seems almost quaint now to hear developers speak enthusiastically about their ambitions to turn a game into a trilogy, as if "three" is somehow the perfect number, a narrative equivalent to the golden ratio. Publishers seldom agree, of course, and so we get the prequel, the reboot, the offshoot.
Assassin's Creed is the latest game to come to this inevitable impasse. For better or worse, Desmond's story is finished - for better, as far as we're concerned, and by the way. But it does present Ubisoft with a quandary now that it wishes to press ahead with what has become its annual core gaming franchise: Desmond and the Animus were devices that allowed us to span centuries and tie disparate places and people together into a single, convenient meta-narrative. Without him, and without the world-ending fiction he was unravelling, there's no narrative hook.
No doubt it'd be tempting to do away with the Animus conceit altogether, but Ubisoft is doggedly persistent, and the solution its writers have come up with draws inspiration directly from the videogame industry.
"It's now you," says Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag senior producer Hughues Ricour, meaning the player.
"You work for Abstergo Entertainment, the official, public face of Abstergo. Behind, it's controlled by the Templars, and that opens a number of mysteries that you will uncover playing the game."
"The Animus still exists. Basically, you're collecting data and information through the DNA of different people throughout history to fill the massive data bank that Abstergo has."
The Assassin Abstergo is interested in Edward Kenway. He is the father of Haytham Kenway, and the grandfather of Assassin's Creed III protagonist Connor. Edward Kenway is a ruthless pirate who operates in the Caribbean early in the 18th century. Ostensibly the region is divided between the British and Spanish empires that feud with one another across the archipelago constantly. Kenway and his ilk represent a third faction of loosely organised libertarians who wish to be accountable to no laws or levees, and to have no masters above themselves.
The world of Assassin's Creed IV is vast and beautifully realised. The water is an impossible hue of azure, and it laps gently at impeccably white sand shaded by palm trees. Islands are covered in thick, tropical vegetation, in some places thick enough that the Sun only breaks through the jungle canopy in shafts. Ancient ruins, and imperial forts and ports all ask to be uncovered and conquered. In addition to inviting players back into the world of Assassin's Creed, Ubisoft is selling the ultimate Caribbean pirate fantasy, says Ricour, and to do so, the studio has built the largest game world seen in the series to date.
Having a navigable sea certainly helps, and the dynamic weather engine means conditions can sour quickly. The game even includes improbable meteorological conditions such as waterspouts that can destroy sturdy vessels in an instant and send their crews down into the crushing deep. Kenway can attack and loot enemy ships, and even engage in whaling.
Most importantly, the game world is largely seamless: Unlike Assassin's Creed III where naval gameplay was accessed by interacting with a harbour master, Edward can simply walk or swim to his ship, approach the wheel and begin sailing. He's also able to board enemy ships by initiating a sequence that only briefly takes the reigns from the player, and without exiting the game world. It's a remarkable feat, and it's unsurprising to learn that it pushes the engine's capabilities on current-generation consoles to their limit.
What remains to be seen is how Assassin's Creed IV deals with a number of the complaints levelled at its predecessor. The game's economy still needs much explaining. Ricour says that Kenway's ship, the Jackdaw, will be his most costly investment, and that it will be necessary to outfit both it and the armada (step aside, Assassin's guild), in order to tackle some of the more difficult challenges in the game.
More importantly, very little has also been seen of the game's "core" assassination and stealth gameplay. To what extent players will be able to approach assassination targets as they see fit has yet to be adequately addressed. Assassin's Creed III disappointed many by restricting creativity.
It's odd that Ubisoft hasn't yet spoken more plainly about how this upcoming instalment makes amends for faults found in the last - maybe it doesn't, or maybe it disagrees with the suggestion that the economy and the marginalisation of stealth in Assassin's Creed III were faults at all - there's no question that stealth executions lack a dramatic quality.
Or maybe Ubisoft is simply not prepared to speak on these subjects yet. There is plenty of time to address these concerns ahead of the game's release late in October. What Ubisoft has shown so far is deeply alluring, and more than enough to keep us interested in following the game's progress eagerly.
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag is coming to PlayStation 3, Wii U and Xbox 360 on October the 31st, and PC at a later date. It is also coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.