At E3 in June I was lucky enough to have an advance viewing of AC4 in the Ubisoft booth. As a rabid fan of the franchise, this was the title I was most looking forward to getting a look at while I was E3, and I wasn’t disappointed. As I wrote in my feature, I was very impressed with how it looked (beautiful!), the size of the map (massive!), and the gameplay demo I saw (fun!), but I was curious to see whether the tightly guarded story was really going to be strong enough to be worthy of a new AC chapter, rather than a subchapter, like AC2: Brotherhood.
I won’t give away too many details, as discovering the story is a lot of the fun of the AC series, but Edward Kenway is the hero of this tale. He takes on the dangerous life of a privateer (Well, that’s what he told his nervous wife to placate her . . . but we all know he’s really a pirate!), in order to make some quick money, and find a better life than the drudgery and poverty that seem to be their destiny. Then he stumbles by accident into the path of a desperate member of the secret order of Assassins, and learns of the centuries old battle waged against mortal enemies the Templars. Whether Edward is really interested in choosing a side is to be discovered as the story progresses.
There is a vast array of gameplay within AC4. As in previous titles, the player can move through story mode, and choose how many of the multitude of side quests he or she wants to dip into. There are assassination missions, ships to battle and plunder of their riches, recruitment and rescue of potential shipmates, and treasure hunts. There are also skill and equipment tree upgrades, including to Edward’s ship, the Jackdaw. Edward’s arsenal of swords, guns and knives can be expanded and improved, as can his outfits, and headquarters. And yes, his art collection. (As well as being cold blooded killers, Assassins throughout the ages have a proud legacy as generous patrons and investors in the visual arts, don't ya know?)
While in previous titles, you could mostly choose to ignore side missions if you wanted to power through and get to the freaky ending that you never really had a hope of understanding, in AC4, in order to keep advancing on through the story, you must make at least a few necessary upgrades to the Jackdaw. For this you’ll need to make some serious money. This can be achieved by looting chests, selling items you’ve found, (or stolen, or hunted), or taking on contract assassin jobs to make quick cash.
At first, I found this a little confusing, as there wasn’t a lot of instruction on what I needed to upgrade, and there’s a dazzling array of options to choose from. I must confess that when I was instructed to ‘upgrade the Jackdaw’ before I could progress further, the first thing I did was add a natty set of crimson sails to zhoosh it up a little, and whack a new figurehead on the front, but apparently I needed to increase my firepower and cannon range, and hull strength as well. Oh well, each to their own...
As upgrades are performed throughout the game, the Jackdaw goes from "average little ship that could", through to "genuinely terrifying threat to all it encounters."
For a platform supposedly on its last legs, AC4 looks sweet as a nut on the 360. The water effects in particular are staggeringly good at times. But of course, at this point in a console’s life, developers know how to get the very best out of the technology, and this shows. Sailing away to the next point on the map becomes a real pleasure. Whales breech out of the water alongside your boat, as you drift past idyllic tropical locations bathed in golden sunsets. Storms are also a highlight, with waves and winds that can be terrifying in their intensity but breathtaking in their beauty, and are thankfully gone as quickly as they appeared.
AC4 is a lot of fun to play simply because of the breadth of things you can do. From diving expeditions down to sunken wrecks (although the huge circling sharks are horrifyingly real and hard to avoid in their own environment) to sailing, naval battles, exploring desert islands, following treasure maps, and hunting animals on both land and sea. There’s crafting, too, making yourself equipment out of skins and bones that you collect from the exotic animals you kill. Furthermore, there’s a multiplayer mode as well as the ability to interact with your friends who are also playing the game. If you see a whale, you can send the location to your friend, who can come and view it in the same place.
As mentioned at E3, strategic sneaking makes a welcome return, and is a very important feature of AC4. Often you’ll have to skulk around in the shrubbery for while, before you’ve worked out their pattern enough to sneak around guards, rather than just taking them out with brute force. The blowpipe is very useful to this end, and a great way to silently remove an enemy, or create a diversion with the berserker dart.
Naval battles are much more sophisticated than in AC3, and even more fun than they were before. There is also the addition of naval forts. Not only do you have to contend with the galleons of the Spanish and the English, but there are fixed guns on shore to deal with as well.
There's lots of variety across the board, and the game seems smoother and a lot less prone to annoying bugs than the last iteration was, which is a very welcome improvement.
But, no, the story is not as strong. It almost seems unfair to compare it to the tour de force that was Ezio’s tale in AC2 - definitely the best in the series so far in my humble opinion - but AC4 still has enough to keep you playing through, and wanting to learn more. Like all the assassins that have come before him, Edward is an individual, with his own motivations for doing what he does. He’s motivated not by a noble goal of trying to change the world like Connor, or heartbroken revenge, like Ezio.
Edward starts off striving to make a better life for himself, for mostly selfish reasons, using his natural talents to perfection . . . smooth talking, quick witted and with enough physical power to fight his way out of trouble. This doesn’t mean he is unaffected by the events that take place around him and things get interesting for him quickly. The story is rather more subtle, but similar to what the developers did with AC3, you’re thrown straight into it quicker than you could say “Wait, who is this guy, and why am I clambering around in a theater?”.
And it should be noted that on the “other side of the Animus” game, it’s not about Desmond. I can’t say much more without giving away spoilers, but just who you are playing as, and why, isn’t clear at the beginning, and will definitely keep you guessing.
AC4 looks beautiful, and just feels more polished, cohesive, and comprehensive than the last title did. I cannot wait to see what it’s going to look like on the next gen consoles in the next few months. Highly recommended for fans of the series.