01 March 2013

Assassin's Creed IV and What it Might Mean for the Series

Developers and publishers have a delicate balance to strike in the progression of a series. There are the competing needs of making money, which makes annualisation a highly tempting prospect, and the possibility that doing so will be the very thing that drives the franchise into the ground (in many cases to be rebooted in the following years as is the case with Crystal Dynamics’ Tomb Raider).

Ubisoft and the six studios it has working on yearly instalments of the Assassin’s Creed franchise walk this very narrow tightrope. For all the aspects of Assassin’s Creed III that worked there equally as many that did not. The game felt tired, the protagonist uninspiring and Anvil engine stuttered under the limitations of current generation technology. 

With the official announcement of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flags following a series of leaks it seems Ubisoft’s biggest title will once again hit PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii U (though don’t be surprised if Black Flags follows Watch_Dog’s lead and launches on PS4 and Xbox 720).

Connor’s gone and in his place is a new Assassin and a Caribbean setting. One of Assassin’s Creed 3’s most popular features was its naval battles (though I personally never warmed to them) and from that perspective a game which will likely heavily expand upon this feature makes sense. And with this step Ubisoft are moving further away from the template which made the series great.

Innovating and adding new ideas to a franchise is by no means a bad thing and I will quite happily defend Ninja Theory’s controversial DmC Devil May Cry reboot and the alterations within to anyone. Yet there is a difference DmC maintained the core combat mechanic of the previous entries in the franchise, wrapped up as it was in a new aesthetic and new backstory.

Naval battles, popular as they may have been, were a marked divergence from all other aspects of the series. There was no stealth element, social or otherwise, and instead of close contact ‘personal’ kills there was instead the clamour of cannons bombarding another vessel. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood’s Leonardo Da Vinci special weapons missions felt similarly unconnected which is presumably why they – or something like them - were not carried forward.
The concept of an open-world pirate’s game is an enticing one but should that game be an Assassin’s Creed title? That’s something that won’t be answered until the game is released but there’s little reason to suspect it is. While naming it Assassin’s Creed IV seems to follow too soon in the footsteps of Assassin’s Creed 3.

Granted this is likely due to the game’s hero being a new character yet it seems to suggest a radical step forward for the series when that may well not be the case, Assassin’s Creed 3 did not match the level of innovation and streamlining of Assassin’s Creed 2 which made that game the best in series to date (in my opinion at least).

It was the focusing of core elements in Assassin’s Creed 2 which made it such a fantastic title. These were namely the killing and cities. AC2 refined and expanded on the combat that had brought down the original while expanding on the vibrant and large cities that had always been a core attraction of the series.

While this will no doubt form a part of Black Flag one must wonder quite how much they’ll be present. Will stealth, social or otherwise, feature into the game in any meaningful capacity? We don’t know yet but frigates blasting each other across treacherous sea leaves little hope for features which made the series so compelling.
The trailer for the game launches on March 4th and we should know more then but as it stands Black Flags looks to be a marked departure for the series. Again the concept is solid, but that doesn’t mean it has a place in the Assassin’s Creed universe.
Will any of the towns or villages of the Caribbean match the scale and vibrancy of the cities of the Holy Land or Italy? It seems unlikely and it was the complex cities of past titles that proved one to be of the franchises’ most alluring prospects.  

There is another issue to consider with Black Flags if the game is exclusive to this generation of consoles and the Xbox 720 follows the PlayStation 4 in denying backwards compatibility. Presuming the title launches in November or there about – it has been reported that the game will launch on the 29th of October - there will likely be some gamers who cannot buy it having traded in their console to buy the 720 or PS4.

If the game is released across both generations of systems, which is likely, then there’s potentially another problem for Ubisoft; namely, that they prove to be their own biggest competitor. Watch_Dogs will likely capture the cash of those willing to try new IPs (which tend to perform better around the launch of a console). Gamers tight on cash will have to ask themselves whether they want fifth Assassin’s Creed game in as many years or a brand new and promising IP (not to mention the other launch titles for next gen systems).

Should either of these scenarios, or both of them, come true Assassin’s Creed may no longer be quite the force it is today. Annualisation has run many series into the ground, even Activision expects this year’s Call of Duty title to see reduced sales – likely a combination of series fatigue and the launch of new consoles - that fate may or may not befall Assassin’s Creed but if it does taking a few years to recapture the essence of what made the series great while simultaneously doing what needs to be done to progress the series in a meaningful manner would be no bad thing
Black Flags may go on to be a roaring success in terms of what it’s trying do and as one of my favourite franchises of this generation I wish it every success in the next but I also hope Ubisoft keep to the core of the series and don’t do anything too rash with their new seafaring Assassin. It seems unlikely.

Until then,

Vittoria Agli Assassini. 

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