Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag makes landfall in the UK and US tomorrow, 29th October, for Xbox 360 and PS3 - the next generation versions of the game will follow in November. Once upon a time, it might have faced a frosty reception, but Ubisoft appears to have won over those put off by Assassin's Creed 3. In the absence of stablemate Watch Dogs from the winter 2013 line-up, Black Flag looks very much like the multiplatform open worlder to beat.
Having sampled some near-final code, we spoke to lead designer Jean-Sebastien Decant about the role of Abstergo Entertainment, cliffhanger endings, assembling an armada and why this is the most colourful Assassin's Creed yet. You may also be interested in Log's mighty Assassin's Creed 4 preview from earlier in the year.
Have you sped up the pacing since Assassin's Creed 3?
Yes, I think from mission one you're already in the heart of the action, the heart of the plot. We really try to start very strongly, and continue in that way for the whole game. Because of the Assassins versus Templars versus Pirates theme, we set up every sequence of the game as a kind of different flavour - it's always moving the story forward, but it's moving you towards one or the other faction at different times.
Does the modern day Abstergo premise mainly apply to the multiplayer now?
I think we've changed the formula slightly. There are only a handful of missions in the present that are tied to the main story, but this time the Abstergo building in which it all happens is open all the time - you can disconnect from your Animus and go wherever you want in the building, and there are computers you can hack to discover secrets about Abstergo, the Templars and also the Assassin's Creed brand, because Abstergo is making entertainment products that are Assassin's Creed games. So we have some cool stuff around that.
Players can give feedback on story missions. What will you do with that information?
Firstly there's the context. You're now a researcher for Abstergo in the present day, so you're giving a rating to the research you've just performed. For the rest, getting closer to players, getting a feeling for how they react as you play, is more and more important. We spend a lot of time during development playtesting the game, with a lot of people from outside Ubisoft, and we also track a lot of data when the game is released. We thought it was nice to have something that is apparent, that is visible to everyone.
How will you use this info when developing future Assassin's Creed titles?
We're going to use it, we're going to analyse it, we're going to see if there are patterns we can understand from it, but we're not just going to use it like - they loved that mission, I want more of that mission, next game everybody makes that same mission! Because maybe nobody will appreciate something we really love. So it's more of a hint for us - OK, we should find a way to make that mission more appealing, because we think it's right, but they don't like it.
You seem to have broken down the barrier between Assassin's Creed and other Ubisoft releases - the crafting in this game reminds us a lot of Far Cry 3, for instance.
Yes. If there is a game that manages to do something right, and there are similar opportunities in another game, then yes, we're going to work on the same ideas. We're not the only ones - Rockstar does it, Capcom does it.