Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Story & Game Details – PAX Prime 2013 Developer Interview

While at PAX Prime, PSLS’ Lead Writer Dan Oravasaari got to sit down with Ashraf Ismail, the Game Director behind Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and ask him a few questions about Ubisoft’s upcoming flagship title.

[Warning: Some of the questions and responses might contain mild spoilers.]

With ACIV putting so much emphasis on the pirating aspect of the game, do you feel that it has taken away from the origins of the series? As an example, the usage of crowds to hide and the use of stealth.

In terms of social stuff, not at all actually. Because, we get a lot of questions about Pirate vs. Assassin, is that a huge conflict there? The thing is that the mechanics fit really well together. Pirates were outlaws, and they were guys who could climb real well because they were sailors, so the navigation of the Assassin still fit. The stealth aspect of being in a crowd and blending totally makes sense, and we have Havana, Kingston and Nassau – we have big cities that have lots of crowds and its a huge part of the stealth system. Again, Pirates were outlaws, so it made sense to us that Edward could do this stuff more out of being a Pirate than specifically being an assassin. So, from a mechanics point of view, I think everything works out pretty well, we have actually done some enhancements on those abilities as well. So, now we have brought back the concept of group initiations, this is like the Dancers and drunken Pirates, these are now two groups that you can use blend with and to help you fight, to help you steal stuff, and so on.

With Assassin’s Creed 3 ending the way it did, how are you approaching the story with Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag?

In the present day, the story progresses forward, so Desmond’s story has ended. We felt this was a really cool opportunity to bring something fresh, something kind of new and also new fans could come pick up this game without having picked up the previous games. So, effectively, what it means is that at the present day, you’re you, so its no longer another avatar, you are an employee of Abstergo Entertainment. You’ve been asked to use the Animus to research the life of this man named Edward Kenway and you don’t really know why, you’re just told he’s a cool Pirate and we want to make Pirate entertainment.

So, that is kind of the narrative wrapper we use to justify the move forward. For fans of the game, there is tons of them to find in this Abstergo land, so a lot of stuff you get to see what happened to Desmond after AC3 – so there’s a lot of content there. It’s not mandatory, it’s optional, so it’s really there for the people who really want to know what happened.

As a player, you start figuring out the darker corners of Abstergo, what they are really about and why they are researching Edward Kenway. Even though it is jumping back in time, it is because Edward does something in his lifetime that is extremely valuable for Templars in the present day, and so he found something and he did something that they need more information on. So, effectively, that is why you are researching him. That’s the narrative wrapper, so continuity wise, we do move forward, even though we do jump back in time, its because we have the Animus, it allows us flexibility in the story telling. So we do pick up from AC3, but again, like I said, because you are a new employee at a company, we give ourselves a bunch of room to explain a ton of stuff for new players.

How are you guys approaching the issue of needing to be a direct decedent to use the Animus to unlock memories? Which was why Desmond was chosen in the previous games.

This was teased a little bit in AC3, effectively what has happened is that technology allows anyone to jump into someone else’s ancestry as long as you have their blood. So, effectively, what it means is that Abstergo has Desmond’s blood and so they have progressed the Animus, so that as long as that through some testing, you can connect his bloodline – this is the way it is done. You are not alone in this, there are other people jumping into his bloodline to research Edward, and this plays into the story as well. So, that is explained, we don’t just ignore the fact that it’s jumping into Desmond’s ancestry. Even though his story is over, he is a really important character to the brand, to the series, so his legacy remains.

With Assassin’s Creed 3, there seemed to be a some fans who loved and some that didn’t care for the pirating segments of the game, were you worried at all about creating a sequel that featured so much of that aspect?

Actually, for us the response was, generally speaking, really positive. In a lot of cases it was highlighted as one of the best parts of AC3, so we were actually pretty thrilled. Having said that, we did start about a year or so before AC3 shipped and at that point we had done a lot of play testing and we had seen that the first results were getting really positive reviews from play testers. So, we knew there was something really solid there, our challenge was how to make it an open world and how do you make it with a progression system – how do you make it a core experience?

That was the challenges we took on, we never looked back on that, we were always very excited. Generally speaking, for me, the feedback we read was very positively received. I think people will be surprised with what we did with it, we added a lot more depth to it, the combat is much deeper, we have more weapons. There’s the progression system, you can upgrade all the weapons to fit your play style, there’s customization, so I am actually excited for the naval aspect of this world.

With this being the 4th numbered title in the franchise, and there being so many small nuances to grasp the mechanics, are you worried that new fans will feel overwhelmed?

I hope people are going to be open to it. At the end of the day, we set out – I am going to say something cliché – but we set out to make the best AC game we possibly could, and the best AC game ever made and the way we did that was to look at the different AC’s and pulled the elements we felt people loved. So, for example, the assassination setups from AC1 and AC2, the way the cities were built in AC2, we loved this kind of stuff. And, in AC3 it was actually the scope of what you were doing, it was incredible what was  happening.

Here what’s happening with Edward, we are telling the story of Edward but, the backdrop of it is the Pirate Republic, it’s people that tried to create a government and it failed miserably and we have fun with that. So, we really looked at, what was the best from every game and what can we pull in, and on top of that we wanted to also make the definitive Pirate game. So, for people who love Pirates, we feel this is kind of the place to play the game. Yes, there is a lot in this game, it’s a huge title, but we have been doing this for many years and the team is really talented, and we worked very hard to make sure that we paced things out properly.

The beginning of the game, the first hour or so, we kind of very quickly put you in the heat of the action, but, we pace things out well for you and when even doing play testing, we do a lot of play testing, to see fans receptions, to see how people who have never played AC before and see how they feel. Generally speaking, they get sucked into the universe and understand the mechanics, and understand the systems fairly quickly.

Some of the feedback we got here at PAX, people feel that the controls are intuitive with the naval, with Edward. They understand how to set up a boarding and go for it. You guys didn’t get any tutorials, you didn’t go through any learning curve, so I think it is a big game, but people will be able to absorb it fairly quickly.

With the PS4 and the Xbox One controllers having significantly different features, as the PS4 has the clickable touch pad, how are you going to convert functions across platforms?

The touch pad is a comfort feature, it is an added element, you can still manipulate the map with the sticks. One of the things we have for next-gen that we didn’t get a chance to show here, but is really cool is the companion app. The companion app is something that you can have on the side, with the world map live updating, so everything that happens in the world, happens on the companion and vice-versa. So, you don’t even need to go to the world map, if you don’t want to, if you have a companion app. So, for each platform there are unique features and unique peripherals, we take advantage of all of them. But we don’t take away from the game, we don’t ever take away from the game, we don’t make one version worse than another because of something. We try to use what is best that exists for us.

Can you go over the DLC that you have announced?

Yeah, for the PS3 and PS4, there is extra DLC that is Aveline missions. The Aveline missions are exclusive to Sony and PS3 and PS4, Aveline was the Assassin from AC: Liberation, so there is an extra hour of content with her, fleshing out her story. Five years have passed since Liberation, so we get to see what happened to her, how she matured since the ending of Liberation, and her story progresses as well. That is unique to PS3 and PS4.

For fans who didn’t have a Vita or didn’t have a chance to play through Liberation, will they be able to understand and appreciate this new content?

Yes, the story we have in Black Flag is a self contained story, for sure. Fans that did play Liberation, there will be connections to her past, but you don’t really need to know that stuff for the specific story we tell in Black Flag.

What would you say is the percentage between water and land mass in Black Flag?

Missions, or land mass?

Land mass.

It’s a massive world. The world is 16km by 16km, which is huge, for sure most it is water, but I don’t like talking about physical because it isn’t fair to compare. We have a lot of land, a lot of locations, we have 3 major cities and we have somewhere between 50 and 60 other locations that are small mini-open worlds like forts, and plantations, or sequences and caves. So, I don’t know what the actual metric is for land vs. water, we do have a lot of water.

It does make sense, the Earth is mostly water.


You guys definitely added a lot of new things with AC4 with the dynamic water and weather, not to mention the new ship features, but what would you say you are most proud of having added to the AC universe as a whole?

When we started, we knew we were going to ship on next-gen, so we wanted to create a world that was respective of the fact that its a new generation of consoles and the world we created, I am super proud of it. It’s this big sandbox, it’s this new hub-world, which is the naval. Then there’s these pockets of maps, and these maps are mini-open worlds, they are a lot of fun to play in, there’s diversity in them, there’s a lot of unique content to find in them and this style of making a world, I think people will be really surprised by it when they play it – it wont be like any world you have ever played in.

It’s really unique and fresh, especially as an AC game, where we are used to building more cities, so I am really proud of the world we built, it took a long time to figure out how to do this, we had a lot of R&D of just trying stuff, redoing it, reiterating, that didn’t work, try something new. So, we spent a lot of time on it, and now even when people play it, the reaction one of the guys was telling me was that ‘it feels like AC, but the way he consumes the environment, the way he reads the environment is just so different and so fresh for him’ and that was the goal we set out to do, so I am REALLY proud of the world itself and the way you touch this world, live in it and interact with it. I think it is a big success for us.

Is there one feature or small aspect of the game that you feel most people end up missing or that doesn’t seem to get the coverage you think it deserves?

I love Edward’s guns, we put a nice bit of effort into the upgrades for his guns. So, the number of guns he can carry and the guns themselves, he has a lot of really cool animations on the guns. Even now, when we see people playing him, I remind them, do a counter and use the gun and see what happens and I can see the smile on their faces when they see what he does. It’s really impressive stuff. So, we don’t talk about it too much but, I love what we did with his guns and the fact that you can free aim now. It feels natural, it feels really cool, its a nice progression of everything. So, yeah, the guns we don’t talk about too much, but I think they are fantastic. We are proud of them.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag will be releasing on October 29th for the PlayStation 3, Wii U and Xbox 360, and November 15th for the PS4 and November 22nd for the Xbox One.