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Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag Gamescom 2013 Preview

Mostly preview, part personal blog. Ewok's time with Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag was an experience that was different from that encountered by the rest of the gaming press. Largely due to his own incompetence.

There was no brotherhood for Connor Kenway. He had no revelation. In a break from the interim instalments that appeared between the second and third game in the Assassin's Creed series, Ubisoft have moved straight to a brand new numbered game, featuring a brand new protagonist: Edward Kenway.

While at gamescom 2013, I had the opportunity to go hands on with this upcoming swashbuckling adventure and was treated to my own individual experience, a little different from that offered to the rest of the gaming press.

My time with the game opened fairly typically. I had been handed the PlayStation 4 controller and my overseer asked me if I had experience with the previous Assassin's Creed games.

"Of course," I said, "I've played them all. I reviewed the last one."

"Fair enough" said my guide, "I guess I don't need to run you through the controls".

It was around this moment I realised I couldn't remember the controls...

The demo began on Edward's ship, the Jackdaw. I only had the short time to try and get to grips with the controls before a group of enemy ships emerged from the mist and began making their way towards me.

I was warned to be mindful of the larger vessels, but that the smaller gunboats did not constitute too much of a threat. Unfortunately, by the time this advice had been imparted I'd taken a massive broadside and beached myself on a small island.

The controls were pretty intuitive to be honest and I started to remember them almost immediately, but I was still struggling and by this point was panicking under the additional pressure of the five observers who gathered around my station.

30 seconds later I was dead.

This is when my Assassin's Creed IV experience truly started. When Edward respawned I found myself quite some distance from the area in which the demo was supposed to take place. My demo overseer (with a roll of the eyes) told me that he couldn't restart the demo without resetting the whole thing, and that maybe I'd just like to mess around in the games unrestricted open world.

Faced with an open sea and with the pressure of an immediate threat removed, I shook myself off, recovered my confidence and took the opportunity to experiment with the controls.

Soon I was sailing like a professional and set my sights on a nearby shore. My helpful guide demonstrated the implementation of tablet technology with the game by using his iPad to set a waypoint on the map to assist in my navigation.

Sailing will be a big part of Assassin's Creed IV, as the world is completely open in this latest iteration and all destinations can be reached by jumping into the ship and setting sail. Fast travel is available, but taking advantage of this option means you'll miss valuable opportunities to plunder and the chance to take part in various side activities.

On my way to the island I encountered a couple of random ships and decided to put my recently rediscovered skills to the test by engaging them. First-thing-first though, using the D-pad, I activated 'pirate radio' - that is, I instructed my crew to sing me a hearty sea-shanty. With mood music in place, I approached the nearest vessel and unleashed a broadside.

Your ship is equipped with several ammunition types. Standard roundshot deals heavy damage to enemy vessels, chain shot is good for damaging sails and masts, and explosive barrels help to deal with pesky pursuers. The Jackdaw is upgradable in various aspects, so these guns may not be available at the start but will certainly be there for those who invest in the ships armaments.

The angle at which you are aiming at the enemy and the position of your ship dictates which type of ammunition is fired, based on the way the guns are placed around the vessel. It's a clever system that encourages careful and considered control over simple button presses and sub-menus.

After sinking one of the ships with constant bombardment, I decided to try something new on the second. Demonstrative of a new latest feature, which allows you to seamlessly move from steering the ship and moving on foot, is the ability to board an enemy vessel. Grappling hooks are thrown, the vessels are pulled closer together, and captain and crew can leap to the opposing ship and engage the enemy in direct hand-to-hand combat.

This gave me the first chance to go hands-on with the combat mechanics in AC4, and I found controls to be as intuitive as ever and functionally identical to previous series iterations. Focus is still on counters, dodging and chaining kill moves and there are still the usual variety of enemy types that require slightly varying tactics; such as agile enemies or heavies.

Little can be said to have been improved upon in combat, but the system remains an accomplished and enjoyable one. It may be that gadgets unlocked further down the line can deepen this somewhat, but even if not, fans of the franchise are unlikely to be disappointed.

When boarding an enemy ship, in order to be victorious you must eliminate a specific number of combatants, at which point the rest will surrender. Upon capturing the ship, significant rewards can be obtained in terms of money and materials. The vessel itself can then either be stripped and used to repair the Jackdaw, or can be captured and send to join your trading fleet.

At this point, the Ubisoft demonstrator directed me back to the iPad and showed me how trading fleets can be managed using the tablet. Similar to the land-based trading networks in Assassin's Creed III, Edward can utilise his own sea-based network to trade and earn money. Ships can be loaded with goods to sell and dispatched to far off destinations, making them unavailable until their task is complete. However, this trading network can be managed from a tablet or smartphone device outside of the main game as a separate entity.

After my adventure on the high seas I stopped off at the previously marked port, which turned out to be a rough pirate haven. The locals didn't take too kindly to my presence and I ended up in fisticuffs with a couple of rowdy drunks. Again, the brawling plays out almost identically to the previous games so there is little to report here.

The port itself was suitably salty in style, with rough-looking locals, wooden shanty-like structures, and makeshift furniture. It definitely captured the 'pirate' theme and is a positive sign that the art direction is suitably themed.

There were also a number of side-missions available in this area, and I headed straight to the closest assassination mission. This pointed me back to sea, so back I went to the ship and headed back into the blue briney.

The target was quickly located, aboard his vessel and protected by a number of friendly ships. Conscious of the remaining time and wanting to see more of the game, I was in no mood to mess around and decided excessive force was the way to go, violently sinking each and every enemy vessel, including that on which my target was based. Although this meant the sacrifice of valuable loot and prizes, it did save time and give me further opportunity to explore.

My next stop was a sea-based side mission, and on the way there I picked up some stranded seamen who joined my crew and found a few floating cargo crates to add to my booty. This was all just on the way to the main event, which was a spot of eco-friendly whaling.

It wasn't a whale I ended up catching though, but rather a big-ass, ferocious shark. The 'whaling' consisted of Edward standing on a boat, throwing roped-javelins at the shark to wear it down.

It's worth noting at this stage that although I had finally put the majority of my control issues to rest, the menus were locked down so that no fine tuning could take place. Given that I usually invert my Y axis and the demo was defaulted to 'normal', the aiming element of shark baiting caused me some problems. Things got a bit hairy and it looked like the beast was going to fight back, but thankfully I managed to (messily) subdue it before any problems arose and netted myself a valuable haul.

After this my demo overseer decided I'd messed around a little too much and got things back on track by transporting me to a city location - although to my shame I do not recall the city in question. The transfer to a more civilised urban setting was in distinct contrast to the privateer port and hopefully this level of variation will extend across the multitude of locations within the game.

It was suggested that I try a nearby assassination mission to test out the stealth elements of the gameplay and I was designated a target within a town square. I was starting to feel like I had redeemed myself against my initial poor showing and was confident and ready to go.

Sneaking across the rooftops, I was briefly spotted by a nearby guard. Thinking on my feet, I pulled a poison blowpipe from my available arsenal and took aim on the guard. My instincts took over, and I completely forgot about the lack of inverted controls. As my missile sailed harmlessly over the guard's head (by about 12 feet) he began to call for help. Panicking, I drew my sword and charged... straight by him, off the edge of the rooftop and into the square where my heavily-defended target awaited.

"Well," said the Ubisoft rep, "I guess we aren't going to see any stealth today."

A short and messy bloodbath later and my target was dead. Along with about 10 guardsman. It wasn't how it was meant to be done, but it worked.

My time with Black Flag revealed the game to be very much Assassin's Creed by the numbers. The new open world and the expanded ship combat is very much welcomed by me, as the naval sections were extremely well accomplished in its predecessor and ended before I was ready to say goodbye to them. On foot though, little appears to have changed in terms of gameplay and mechanics. If you enjoyed the previous Assassin's Creed games and are happy with more of the same, plus a little bit extra, then Black Flag is for you. If you are expecting sweeping changes then you will likely come away wanting.

Oh, and apparently the 'tutorial' aspect of the game won't last five hours this time. I asked.

Ewok | 8th September, 2013

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