Franchise fatigue. That's the general reaction coming from players when they're faced with the fifth Assassin's Creed game in five years. A series that started out with such innovation and excitement is now greeted with groans and cries of, "What, another one? Already?"
Perhaps it's a sad indictment of the games industry in general, with sales figures and a yearly release schedule strangling the creativity that was once so synonymous with the Assassin's Creed name. Or perhaps it's just a case of Ubisoft giving fans what they want to see. The publisher insists that as different studios handle the games each one has a two-year development cycle, which is more than enough time to bring new advances to the core mechanic.
That's also the thinking of Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag lead writer Darby McDevitt, who believes that the team is adding a whole new layer of gameplay to the franchise so that players will get their moneys worth.
"There's always a danger, if you come out with a game series annually, that people could get overburdened with what we're offering people," Darby told us before our hands-on. "The goal that we've set for ourselves, especially with this game, we were always going to take the Assassin/Templar conflict that we have, the kind of core pillars of hardcore stealth/combat, but we really want to add a fresh layer, a fresh reason to play every single time."
That fresh layer this year is the focus on pirates and taking the fight to the sea. Naval battles made their debut in Assassin's Creed 3 and were generally thought to be the high point, but unfortunately they were mostly just a side offering. Ubisoft has changed all that for Black Flag and now customisable ships and crew management is a key part of the game.
"The goal is to bring a layer of gameplay that justifies this release schedule. With Black Flag that was our main goal two years ago when we started conceptualising the game. We said, 'Let's take the golden age of piracy, let's make a complete pirate layer and not only bring the time period to life but the activities to life'."
Bringing the golden age of piracy to life could well be a tricky task but it's one that Ubisoft is tackling head on. Black Flag will feature a much more open world than last year's game, reflecting the freedom that pirates have to travel the seas in search of treasure. Havana, Kingston and Nassau are the three main cities but there are also 50 other unique locations to discover, including forts, ruins and jungles.
Black Flag also features real life pirates that are well known from books and films to add to the authenticity. McDevitt said getting the story right was a tricky task but one which the team put a lot of hours into. "The research we did, it's true that if you read any Wikipedia article that we have on any of these pirates in our game - Blackbeard, Benjamin Hornigold, Charles Vane, Calico Jack - these Wikipedia articles tend to begin with, 'Not much is known about their early life'," he added.
"But it's actually not the case that nothing is known about these guys. As soon as they got into piracy a tremendous amount of detail would come from pirates that sailed with them. Say they were being escorted to the gallows, they would spill their guts about what they were doing and they would typically try to come up with some excuse about why they weren't actually a pirate. They were sailing with Blackbeard for a year, yes, but they weren't actually a pirate because they were forced there. It's definitely not as well recorded as the American Revolution, but there was definitely enough material to go on to make this a very historically accurate game."
The setting in Assassin's Creed games is integral, but as is the character that players take control of. This time it's a man called Edward Kenway, a fearsome pirate and father of Haytham Kenway from Assassin's Creed 3. Later in Edward's life he becomes a member of the Assassin Order, which gives him a few new tricks and moves to pull off against enemies.
Perhaps Edward's biggest talent is his ability to search the ocean floor and hunt for loot. Coming across a destroyed ship in the ocean gives players the chance to go underwater and see exactly what lies beneath. When Edward is searching down below players will have to be careful of his oxygen meter and get him to air pockets to replenish his supply. It then becomes a race against time as Edward searches through shipwrecks, avoids man-eating fish and attempts to return to an air pocket before he suffocates. Your reward is a handsome amount of treasure which can then be used to add more upgrades to your ship.
Black Flag definitely looks like the most innovative Assassin's Creed in years, but only time will tell if it manages to ignite some passion back into a large following that hasn't been truly satisfied since 2009's Assassin's Creed 2. The pirate setting is a completely different change of direction for the series and one that we're very excited about seeing.
As for where the series can go next, McDevitt believes anything is possible. "All the creative minds on the team all have their own eras they'd like to go to. We know there're enough eras to sustain dozens and dozens of more games, it's all about timing. Different people on the team have different time periods that they'd like to see happen and it's kind of just arguing about it to see where it goes next."