We were going to introduce you to Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag with a "proper", joined-up preview, written in coherent sentences with many an allusion to classical literature - but then helpful old Uncle Internet leaked a release date, trailer and screenshots ahead of schedule, which caused helpful old Ubisoft to move the embargo forward by seven whole hours. The "proper" preview is on its way - in the meantime, here are the key things that separate this game from its predecessors.
1. New hero
Black Flag takes place in and around the Caribbean, during the halcyon years of the early 18th century. The elapsing of war between the major colonial powers has left hundreds of privateers (read: government sponsored raiders) floating around in the balmy tropics without anything to do, thus bringing about an explosion in naval piracy. The game's hero, Edward Kenway, is one such pirate. As you may have deduced, he's the father of Assassin's Creed 3's Haytham Kenway, father of grumpy old Connor. When first we bump into him, Kenway's leading an appropriately irresponsible and slapdash life, but at some point in the proceedings he'll make contact with the Assassin brotherhood, and discover that there's more to existence than rum, gold and prostitutes. Also, he's blond and is a little bit phwoar, if you catch my drift.
2. New setting
Care of Kenway's ship, the Jackdaw, you'll get to explore a brand new, heavily oceanic map which extends from Havana, the Spanish capital of the Caribbean, through Kingston, seat of English colonial interests in the area, to Nassau, a pirate haven and one of the world's oldest democracies. Black Flag's world is the "most varied world that we've ever created", according to creative director Jean Guesdon, and encompasses the usual huge array of minor distractions.
There are fishing villages, where you'll be able to repair or upgrade your ship and complete side missions, hidden coves which contain rare trading opportunities, coastal forts which appear to serve a similar function to Borgia Towers in Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, plantations and warehouses to infiltrate, coconut islands where you may be able to find new crew members, and jungles which proffer "a fresh take on nature with new challenges". You'll also be able to explore underwater, once you've outfitted the Jackdaw with a diving bell, investigating shipwrecks for, you guessed it, treasure chests. Oh, and you can go whaling.
3. The ship is the focus
The Jackdaw is basically Assassin's Creed 3's naval mini-game writ very, very large - Guesdon describes the ship as effectively "the second main character of the game". It handles similarly to the Aquila: you steer from the bridge while your crew scurry about the deck, issuing orders with the face buttons and tilting the camera to line up cannon shots. However, where our escapades aboard the Aquila occurred in broken-off sections of the game ring-fenced by loading breaks, here you'll be able to move "seamlessly" (the word "seamless" came up a fair bit in the presentation) between on-foot exploration and naval high jinks.
Want to enter a hostile township without calling attention to yourself? Simply park the Jackdaw round the head of the bay, leap over the side and stroll innocently out of the surf. You can also let go of the wheel while on-board and walk around the deck, either to soak up some of that Free-Bootin' Incidental Chatter or to mount a boarding action on a nearby vessel. Abandoning the helm can be crucial during melee battles, as the longer you let your men slug it out the more of them will be killed, potentially leaving you without the manpower to operate your ship once the fighting's done. It's also possible to lose crewmates during nasty weather, but fortunately, many ports are home to a suicidally willing supply of fresh meat.