During an extensive talk with the game's director Ashraf Ismail the day before E3 officially kicked off, we gleaned several new details about the project, one that sees the franchise go open world as ACIII's naval combat sections become the backbone of the newest title's exploration.
"We knew there was something special here," explains Ismail of the reasoning behind taking a side-quest and making it focus for a new title. "It's been about two years we've been in development. We saw the early stages for the naval stages of ACIII; there was a lot of play testing, focus group testing...very early on we split off; they needed to finish their game. So we picked it up - for us it was "how do we make this Carbibbean world fresh and unique and seamless". Because the seamlessness, we wanted the exploration aspect to be really powerful. So it was important on a technological perspective to go deep and move forward."
Reading between the lines, it seems not a lot of the fifteen to twenty hour main campaign of ACIV will be stuck with the multi-hour-spanning tutorial that made ACIII's opening arc so boring. Ismail explains that the team "open the game world very early on - about an hour into the game, you have full access to the full Caribbean. You can go to any location, any part of the world." The team's also come up with a more natural way of cutting off exploration though. Rather than Animus loading issues, you'll simply be outclassed by some of the patrols governing certain areas of the map.
"Some of the locations will have massive ships blocking them, an army of guards defending them...it's new for us in AC, to use the content to - I don't want to say block the player - but create a high enough challenge that they won't be able to defeat it early on."
Harder difficulty is something mentioned during the presentation preceding our talk, and it's partly to enforce the need to invest in the upgrade systems for both Jackdaw and its captain. "Seeing this Man O War with a hundred cannons on each side - you won't be able to take it on when you first begin the game. The Jackdaw's going to be fairly bare-bones," outlines Ash. "You're going to need to upgrade it."
"You have enemies that can kick your ass. On the ground, to help push stealth, to help push the upgrading of Edward, we've made it so the enemies are slightly tougher. Gunners will kill you in two shots. So you need to gain armour, you need to stealth against these type of enemies, or avoid them. All of this is to get the player to play with the tools and allows us to give a simple objective - like 'here's your target, go after him' - and really let the level design, the ingredients of the world, and the player choice, be what drives the fun of the game."
While sinking time into the companion App can help with the Jackdaw, upgrading Edward means tackling the hunting system, built upon the same setup as ACIII, will better your odds in battle. "[Edward] starts out with dual cutlasses, and he has one gun." States Ash. "As you pick up the story, you meet the assassins, they give you weapons. Some weapons are linked to side activities... we've done a lot to make sure everything you do in this game has a valuable reward, something that introduces new gameplay."
"There's a lot of wildlife in the game - there's a lot of ambient wildlife, there are predators - new predators. All this is used in the new hunting and harpooning system, and this system is what you need to use to upgrade Edward himself. So as an example with the upgrades - you start with [that] one pistol, and to have more pockets to hold more guns, you need to hunt and create that leather pouch."
Bigger exploration means more options as well, as the team have sunk a lot more into the naval aspect, building different threats, and no longer ending a clash with the sinking of the enemy vessel; now you can absorb the ship into your growing fleet. "You can plunder virtually any ship in the world, do what you want with it. One of those options is to send it to Kenway's fleet - a fleet Edward amasses [during the course of the game]; he can send it outside the Caribbean world to pirate and plunder and play the economy system." That feature plays into the companion App the team are launching alongside the game come day one, which will be available for iOS and Android. "It's a free App that allows you to go deeper into this experience; for those fans that love the economy aspect of pirating, or who want more cargo and resources to upgrade the Jackdaw - you can take this on the bus, play with it that way."
One of the biggest, newer aspects of the title - not to mention one of the most controversial - factors into one of the key buzz words for next-gen tech: social connectivity. With the entire ocean to explore - with three main cities and over fifty other locations that dabble with hidden ruins, caves, plantations, shipwrecks and islands - coming across points of interest can be pot luck. The team are folding the idea of a real-time guide to the uncharted waters through your friends list: as they (and you) discover new places, that find will be shared on others' maps.
"Even in single player, we want you to feel you are part of a bigger system," explains Ash when queried about the inclusion. "You're working for a company called Abstergo Entertainment and you're doing research for them. You're not sure why, but it's your job. We wanted you to feel like your friends are also playing this game, are also part [of the company]. So their research can help you, and vice-versa. So when you have a unique event, you can share that with your friends, and you get a boost for that. A lot of content is very rare, unique - if you're completely disconnected and alone it'd be hard to find that content, but the more friends you have, the more chance you get to see this content...when it's shared, an icon shows up on your map."
We propose that the team's been looking over the office divide to see how the Far Cry 3 developers have done it. We get a laugh in response - and a complete agreement.
"For sure. It's beyond chit-chat. I'm comfortable in saying that we look at many games for reference, even internally - Far Cry 3 was fantastic, they created a really awesome systemic open world and a really cool progression system which was easy to understand but fun to interact with. So we took a page from their book - the hunting, the harpooning is linked to how you upgrade Edward. We took a lot of the developers from FC3 into our team. And there are people that have been working on the open world stuff and the progression of Edward and the Jackdaw."
The game does seem to be a larger mix of more 'classic' Assassin's Creed titles as well as brand new ideas. While Ashraf admits they've pushed the envelope ("we really went out of our comfort zone to create this world"), he's equally quick to point out that there's elements that'll be familiar ("we're very comfortable saying it's going to feel like AC"), most notably a shout-out to ACII and Brotherhood in the form of Havana. "[It] was kind of a homage to ACII and Brotherhood, because we felt the verticality of the roof-running was really strong in that game. And Havana made sense; it was a very European city at that time.
"We put a lot of effort to make sure each city feels like it's its own beast... we have a lot of expertise in putting these environments together - both nature environments and man-made buildings. So we've combined them in a lot of locations, and beyond that we've created new ingredients."
The "new" so far seems to be the additional visual fidelity that next-gen brings. Extra detail and animation on foliage, waves - and more we're yet to see - are being handled by a small team within the main studio, as they try and bleed as much added heft to the AvilNext engine as possible.
"We're able to pick up from that engine and push it further - push the technology," Ash explains as we ask him about tackling the new generation of consoles. "AnvilNext is really powerful. It's a next-gen engine that's also able to build a current gen version. Internally on the team, the general populace is working on the core ACIV, - which is the missions, the story of Edward, the pirates and the Assassins and Templars. But then we have a dedicated crew of programmers and technical artists and effects artists that are pushing the next-gen. It's really beautiful the work they're coming up with - really stunning. The ocean looks incredible, the effects look phenomenal. We have the comfort of a huge team and being able to spread the work out across this many people and many studios."
And many games. While franchise burnout could be an issue, Ash doesn't see it as a problem, as long as multiple studios working on the series continues to innovate. "Every year we push out a game - that doesn't mean we work on one game a year. We have multiple teams working on [the franchise]. So we always want to surprise our fans, always want to bring something new."