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Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag preview: Charting new waters

Live the life of a ruthless buccaneer in this seafaring sequel, but leave your peg leg at the door

Forget talking parrots and hooks for hands; this is the golden age of piracy as written by history, not Hollywood. Ubisoft promise Black Flag isn't just another Assassin's Creed game with pantaloons on, but a bold reinvention of a series that has increasingly sacrificed player freedom for scripted missions and linearity. If there's one thing that defines the romantic image of a pirate it's freedom, and freedom underpins everything in Assassin's Creed 4.

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There are eight studios working on the game. Ubisoft Montreal is leading the project, with assistance from teams in Singapore, Sofia, Annecy, Kiev, Quebec, Bucharest, and Montpellier. That might seem excessive, but it makes sense when you realise just how massive the game is, and that it's being released so soon after the last one. Assassin's Creed has, like Call of Duty, become a yearly series, which seems like madness when you consider the size and scope of the games, but they haven't let it dampen their ambition.

Assassin's Creed 4 Screenshot
Set in the West Indies in 1715, the world is totally seamless. That means you can sail from, say, Cuba to Jamaica in real-time, with no loading breaks. There are 50 unique locations including cities, jungles, ruins, coves, and caves, all stuffed with treasure and adventure. In the ocean you can harpoon whales, go diving, and loot ships. Far Cry 3, also developed by Ubisoft Montreal, is a clear influence, and we wouldn't be surprised if both games share some of the same technology.

But as impressive as all this seems, it doesn't really sound like Assassin's Creed, does it? Well, the good news is that, alongside all this open world swashbuckling, there will be actual, proper assassinations. Not the lame interactive cut-scenes of the last game, but targets that you choose how to approach and take out. Ubisoft says it's returning to, and expanding on, the open-ended missions of the early games and, as lapsing fans, that excites us more than anything else.

As ever, history informs the game's characters, locations, and events. We love the idea of a more realistic, grounded take on 18th Century piracy, and their vision of the time period reminds us a lot of Red Dead Redemption's mature take on the Wild West. Even the name, Black Flag, is a statement of its intent; real pirates flew plain black flags, not the fabled skull and crossbones.

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Throughout the story you'll fight against, and alongside, infamous brigands like Edward 'Blackbeard' Teach, Benjamin Hornigold, Calico Jack, and Anne Bonny. The never-ending fictional war between the Assassins and the Templars will be woven into real events, including Hornigold's attempts to establish a pirate-controlled republic in Bahamas, the sinking of the Spanish Armada, and the story of Charles Vane, who was famously marooned on a desert island.

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Major cities include Kingston and Havana, and there'll be dozens of smaller settlements and port towns scattered around the world to explore and pick up missions from. Surrounding the cities you'll find sugar plantations and thick jungle dotted with crumbling Mayan ruins. On the coast you'll see stone forts and caves used by smugglers. Under the sea you'll use diving bells to scour the ocean floor for sunken treasure and shipwrecks. It's the most varied AC world yet.

The new hero is Edward Kenway - father of AC3's Haytham - who Ubisoft describes as selfish, cocky, and charismatic. Hardly the most original traits for a modern video game character, but we'll reserve judgement until we've actually heard him speak. For now, all we really know about him is that, like his ancestors, he's really good at parkour and quietly murdering people.

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He also has his own ship, the Jackdaw. She can be upgraded, repaired, and customised, and you can manage her crew; the idea being that you grow attached to her and feel a sense of ownership. When you start out you'll only be able to take on small schooners, but as your booty chest fills and you equip stronger armour and weapons, you'll be able to take on tougher ships, including mighty Spanish galleons.

As you sail the high seas you can climb the crow's nest and use a spyglass to search for ships on the horizon. This tells you how strong they are and what cargo they're hauling, giving you the chance to attack or avoid them.

One of the most surprising things about Assassin's Creed 3 is how fun the naval combat is, but this was, in their words, 'only a tease' for what's to come in Black Flag. Weather and physics will play a larger role than before, and there are different classes of enemy ship, including 'chargers' who'll try and ram you and shatter your hull.

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The transition between naval combat and boarding won't be interrupted by cut-scenes as they were in AC3: you can approach ships from any angle, weaken them with your cannons, then attach grapples to pull them towards you and storm the deck. Or, for a stealthier approach, swim around the back unnoticed and slit the captain's throat.

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