We've been teased with Black Flag hands-on - the game's chewed up plenty of column inches in presentation-only form already - at Gamescom. But that was a brief, representative-led flick through some of the missions and side-quests. The open sea beckoned invitingly, but for a game built around free-roaming, our time with the latest Assassin's Creed was frustratingly linear.
A month later and, as then, we're sitting with a PS4 controller in our hands. This time however the only limitation imposed is time: the two hours that our designated slot with the game lasts. Other than that, it's free-sailing on the high seas to any frontier we see fit.
Our 120 minutes is divided almost equally between two sequences set some way through the game (the developers admit post-play they had trouble choosing which sequences to combine for this preview session, not wanting to give away the opening but not wanting to drop people in the deep end). Sequence 3 has heavier emphasis on sailing and exploration; 6 focuses on a few story threads in and around Nassau, where we exchange ship deck for sandy beaches and swamps. The balance between the two is our own; members of the development team step in with an hour to go to flag the ticking clock, but otherwise stay back to let those gathered choose how they want to spend their time.
Between both Sequences (three years apart in the game's timeline, 1715 and 1718) we try out what will be the headlines of the game; ship combat, shipwreck diving, target tracking, assassinations. Gameplay (diving aside) already familiar to us from previous games, but reordered in Black Flag and built into a grander sense of exploration.
What's apparent from both sequences is how immediately we take to the new cast and crew of Assassin's Creed. Connor and the stick that was permanently wedged up his arse are thankfully cast aside for his roguish and confident grandfather Edward. His peers too, shine from the off; Benjamin Hornigold who trains Kenaway in a few piracy tricks in Sequence 3, and the brutish Blackbeard who knows all about the importance of theatrics on the high seas in Sequence 6. Exaggerated personalities they may be, but both pop off the TV screen in ways past "historically-accurate" characters rarely have. Entertainment, rather than education, seems the mantra this time. We haven't been this engaged since Ezio and his ilk.
3's opening acquaints us with the upgrading system that'll offered to both Edward and his ship, the Jackdaw. We cast off towards Abaco Island, a tiny isle that can be crossed at a run in thirty seconds yet is festooned with hidden chests, a synchronisation point and wildlife. It's the latter that we're here for.
The mission objective's flagged on screen. We're to kill a few iguanas and ocelots (the prowling felines will get a laugh from any fans of animated spy series Archer), using their remains to upgrade our holster to carry dual pistols. But what's also flagged is optional objectives within the mission perimeters - such as carrying out an aerial assassination on a ocelot. All missions will come with these to offer some variety and extra rewards for their completion.
A surprising newer addition is a five-star rating system after each's completion. This is, in part, an extension of your present-day character working for Abstergo Entertainment as you access past memories through the Animus system; the developers explain the ratings as the massively streamlined end result of what was originally a multi-paged survey document for players to fill in. But the system's truer purpose is a way for the developers to pool feedback directly from players. While not offering a detailed or specific account as to what didn't work within a mission, it'll allow the creators to see which mission types are working and those that don't, which will impact future content, or even allow them to go back in and try and patch missions that are scraping a one star rating.
Pulled up on the island's beach - and in fact located at every island we visit - is a small boat that offers a quick travel option back onto the Jackdaw. Given the ship's anchored at near-spitting distance from the shore, its inclusion seems odd. The time saved is minimal, and negates that illusion that's a main selling point of the experience; dropping anchor anywhere and diving overboard, and swimming back and clambering back onto the ship and casting off towards another adventure. But then, one colleague admits to wanting fast-travel options opened from the off, as they find sailing a grind - not everyone then may be sold on a good chunk of Black Flag's gameplay.
For us, it's the biggest draw, but we can see how it may become a bore. Assassin's Creed III's sailing was bite-sized, an optional pursuit that dropped you were the action was. Scaling the scope up from costal America to the entire Caribbean could thin out the action beats. This isn't Sailing Simulator though, and over the course of our session we see how the team's trying to extract the tedium out of long haul sailing.
Firstly it's rare not to have some shadow of an island looming on the horizon, nor the sail of potential prey (or predator) in the distance. Sometimes it's both: we happen across a fleet of navy ships that curve round a small island, protecting one of their number which has run aground. Even on the seas there's restricted areas, with brigs eager to pursue you to push you back into uncontested waters. The presence of underwater denizens are noted however briefly; we spot air bubbles floating to the surface in a straight line past us, some giant of the deep below that doesn't reveal itself. Elsewhere we spot the flick of a dolphin's fin as a pair swim near one small isle.
Lined erratically between all these like breadcrumbs are prizes to be looted from the sea; lost cargo to increase your goods, castaways to rescue and restock your crew. You've only got to tap a contextual button when you sail nearby either. The corners of the game's mini-map are thick with question mark icons, suggesting points of interest. Sail past islands and the camera will automatically pan and focus in for a few seconds (hopefully something that happens only the first time you enter an area).
On the PS4, the ocean water is gorgeous, rippling and churning as different weather conditions take hold. Storms roll in quickly, some dropping line of sight massively with sudden mists, and all negating your ship's usual top speed and forcing you to twist and turn into the waves to cleave through them. Within these storms we encounter two dangers. Cyclones that spin randomly across the ocean that need swift changes in course to avoid; we panned the camera round as one passed us to see another ship chewed apart by the whirling monster. We spot several before our time's up with the game: of the rogue waves however, we encounter but one.
These leviathans curve over the horizon and loom high into the sky, big enough at a distance and huge when upon you. We're ordered to steer directly into them to crest the top and avoid damage. As the storm dissipates into the distance we find our toes have been curled and our muscles bunched instinctively.
We're taught how to use the spyglass, with its uncanny ability to list the manifest of whatever ship we point at it has. You learn to spot ship designs (frigate, battleship) quickly by sight, but their hold goods are a puzzle otherwise. Alongside wood, barrels and the like, it also bullet points the Level of said ship; a single numeral dictating whether it'll be an easy fight to win or a tough cannon-clad man 'o war.
Multiple Level 17 Brigs patrol the ocean, and they're never sailing far from help. Multiple scraps see us turn tail and run as we're rapidly outnumbered. Gaining ship upgrades, bulking up the hull, the weapons, is the only solution to survival in these battles.
Combat is as good as it was in the predecessor; a case of circling each other, giving chase or letting the enemy give chase. Weapon sets built for each side of the ship to cater for any situation. Most we've used in ACIII, but we enjoy dropping fire barrels behind us, pursuers slamming into them (or us exploding the barrels with weapon fire as the ships sail past). The held breath as a ship's ram misses our hull by a matter of feet. Using a rail gun to take out enemy sailors in the moments before our ships come together in readiness for boarding to lessen resistance. Thrilling stuff.
But we question how much more to it is there, how much have we left to see. Tackling bigger convoys (marked on your map by a tavern owner in the know for the right price) becomes a matter of upgrading your ship enough to withstand the damage; the tactics deployed however seemingly remain unchanged. If naval battle is a much larger part of ACIV, then greater variation must be applied.
Less successful is the shipwreck dives. Flagged on the map and accessible with the purchase of a diving bell, you can duck down into the waters below and investigate sunken ships for treasure. There's a timed element here as you've only as long as their air in your lungs,
and undersea predators need to be avoided as well. Control over Edward is awkward, steering him a pain and the resultant lack of confidence making trips to air pockets rife with desperation rather than precision cockiness. Convenient seaweed used to avoid detection by sharks is too obviously developer placement and gameplay conceit as opposed to the carefully-cultivated illusion of natural world (something we've learnt to appreciate in this year's Tomb Raider reboot, and an issue that can be aimed at ACIV's island bushes and shrubberies).
The time we spend on traditional Assassin's Creed pursuits is when most of the worry arises. There's no doubting the beauty of the world built here, nor its variety. But ultimately at the game's core are mechanics that have went through little change in five years. Maybe it's just us unable to settle into the gameplay techniques, but stealth pursuits of targets feel cumbersome and massively prone to failure. Whether we're in an elevated position or attempting to dart between bushes, we know the inevitable is going to happen, to the extent we stop pretending we'll be able to do anything other than be discovered and plunge straight into combat.
That at least is still solid; chaining through multiple foes something that's only really seen bettered in the Arkham franchise. We'd wished for a better indication of enemy guns when they're readying to fire, but we're aware we are being dropped in the deep end of gameplay here. And even with ACIV's predecessor not even a year old, our techniques are rusty.
Outside of combat, you tend to notice the pull of the current gen limitations even in this PS4 version. NPCs aren't carved with the same quality as the figureheads of the ensemble cast, locations are an uneven mix between fantastically-realised forests and rougher-round-the-edges towns. Maybe because it's so fresh in our minds right now, but you can't help but think of (whisper it) GTAV and feel there's something slightly lacking in the life of the Caribbean.
Black Flag's got a likeable cast, a great premise, and has extracted exactly what's needed to make sailing the open seas as pleasurable as possible (one thing Wind Waker didn't get quite right). We already know we're going to enjoy it more than Assassin's Creed III. Whether we'll lose the wind in our sails with the naval aspects as our gameplay time clocks into the double digits is one slight concern. A bigger one is whether the foundations this brave new world is built upon are still sea-worthy, as we come to the close of one generation and the start of a new one.