Our eyes-on with the latest build of Black Flag took in the fifteen minutes or so of the E3 demo appearing on the show floor, plus change (extra sections showcasing more of the sailing and city exploring that'll make up the gameplay), as part of a special pre-E3 event less than 24 hours before the conferences kicked off.
The developers had to a lot to show, but what impressed the most was the seamlessness of the world. A promise made at the game's reveal earlier this year, and one we didn't think would be delivered.
Fact was, we watch a chase sequence in which Edward Kenway first hunts his target through a fishing village, before the chase transfers to ship as his mark makes for the docks and takes to the high seas to flee. Kenway doesn't break his step as he leaps aboard the anchored Jackdaw and sets sail in pursuit. A naval battle follows; the result is the escaping ship's sail is destroyed, and the Jackdaw's crew joins their captain in boarding the stricken vessel. With target killed, the choice then to assimilate the crew to replace those lost from Edward's, or absorb the ship into Kenway's growing fleet.
All this without the blink of the loading screen. The developers also make continued point to pull the overhead map out, and out again to show the scale of this world to show how much the game's juggling. It's vast. Three main cities, and between them vast oceans full of fleets, and multitudes of isles and hidden treasures to be discovered. It's Far Cry 3 with pirates. Taking the strongest element of ACIII and hooking the entire thrust of the gameplay and story around it? It sounded good in theory. It's looking great in execution.
The PS4 build's looking lovely. But while a trip to Havana shows a bustling city that evokes the memory of ACII's Italy, visually it's not as far flung from ACIII's port towns as you'd imagine it could be - think a high-end PC take of the series.
The real showcase of the extra power under the hood doesn't come from bustling city streets, but from foliage; a bush Edward ducks into to avoid detection while infiltrating a Aztec temple sees the individual branches and leaves shimmer in an almost life-like imitation. Like someone casually plopped a tech demo into Assassin's Creed. Equally an exploding fort, destroyed from a bombardment of the Jackdaw's cannons later in the demo, rips apart with mountains of rubble and smoke that looks far more detailed than before. Turbulent sea waves look - well, real. A thunderstorm the developers plunge through is stunning. The natural world, not the man-made one, is where the team seem to be digging the distinction between the now and next-gen capabilities.
Pushing the visual boundaries is one key area for next-gen, but not the only one. Connectivity is another. We get two samplings today; a companion App and in-game content sharing. The former lets you skim through a tablet version of the world map, letting you pinpoint waypoints, which will appear automatically on the big screen version. It seems a superfluous addition given what we're shown, but the promise of tinkering with the economy system built around your expanding fleet may give it relevance (and enough reason to play with the App and grind some extras rather than watching a movie on public transport on the way home).
The latter? More controversial. Areas and events discovered in game by you will be shared with friends in their game. In the demo, whales breaching the ocean's surface are marked permanently on the map, and an on-screen ping will tell you that the information's been shared - the find uploaded to the maps of your friends. It somewhat robs the mystery of the world, and given exploration and discovery is such a huge part of the game, we have to hope there's an option to turn this off for those who prefer to solo their piracy.
The world's unlocked from the start, so you're free to set sail for any corner of the globe. However, strategically-positioned forts will need to be downed to unlock free passage through the areas they protect. The extended demo sees the Jackdaw taking down one such heavily-armed fortress, the sequence finishing with Kenway and crew heading off ship and climbing the destroyed ruins to mop up the survivors. Again - no loading.
Freedom to explore's refreshing, and the unfulfilled hope of ACIII looks to be realised properly here; diversions and side-quests - anything that steps away from formula - making this an immersive open world game you can just forget the age-old Templar / Assassin war and just have fun.
We see galleons duelling on the horizon. Dolphins leap past us as we swim from small sand shoal (that contains one rum-riddled corpse and a hefty amount of loot) back to the ship. We ghost through a mountainous island, stealth-kill Spanish soldiers, rescue imprisoned sailors and find buried treasure. The developers make use of choke holds, dual cutlasses. Test out the new free aim for the pistols. We see them use a new weapon - the blow pipe - to punch a beszerker dart into an enemy's neck, the toxin turning the victim crazy for a short while and forcing his fellow comrades to deal with his attacks as Kenway slips by undetected. (While combat is as fluid as it is in ACIII, enemies will be tougher this time round we're told). There'll be sea shanties to discover and unlock for your crew to sing while attending the ship. Assassin Quests accepted and finished whenever you like as they interlock with the other multitude of missions and diversions that form to be the adventure that is Black Flag.
It's a big adventure. That encased in all this is the more traditional AC experience, with free-running, combat and stealth seemingly lifted wholesale from ACIII could be the weakest element of this brave new world. But in Black Flag, it could be a small enough part of a much bigger and diverse whole to not subtract from a very promising life at sea.
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