Assassin’s Creed 4: Naval Combat And Assassinations Gameplay Report
To read about the story behind Assassin’s Creed 4’s development, lead writer Darby McDevitt spills the secrets about rejected ideas, how Ubisoft settled on the pirate setting and the reaction to Assassin’s Creed 3.
Assassin’s Creed 3 was a glitchy, clumsy, awkward mess.
It was supposed to be the triumphant comeback moment for the series, which had its first dip in quality following the release of Revelations.
Assassin’s Creed 3 had been in the works for three years, had a brand new hero in Connor, brought Desmond’s story to a close and introduced lots of new elements like hunting, naval battles and even riding canoes. It was billed as the first ‘proper’ sequel in the series since Assassin’s Creed 2.
And yet despite Ubisoft having the team the size of a small country working on it – or perhaps because of that – Assassin’s Creed 3 never lived up to expectations.
The pacing was uneven. Glitches were frequent. Canoe-riding disappeared without a trace. Connor was dull. It was both too big and too small, a game that seemed to have ambitions that stretched beyond the timescale afforded to the project and yet revealed more and more of its limitations as you put time into it.
Given that, we were apprehensive about what to expect from Assassin’s Creed 4. But Assassin’s Creed 4 is good. Really good.
In fact, it was the best thing we played at Gamescom this year, which is something we never thought we’d say after playing Assassin’s Creed 3.
Assassin’s Creed 4 – What’s The Naval Combat Stuff About?
Naval combat was the one bit of Assassin’s Creed 3 that everyone can agree on was good. Ubisoft managed to get this right with its first attempt – there was an impressive sense of fighting the sea as well as the other ships as you bounced and crashed around the ocean, taking cover as waves broke over the deck and so on.
Seeing ships crumble during combat was also weirdly pleasing, wooden hulls cracking and splintering under sustained cannon fire.
Even more impressive is how Ubisoft managed to squeeze variety out of a simple ship-and-sea set-up. There were the calm sunny waters that made up the initial missions, which gave way to stormy seas, winds blowing you off course, attacking forts perched on cliffs and a ship graveyard of sorts.
“It could almost be a separate game!” most people pretend said in their head, particularly as the naval combat didn’t suffer the glitchiness or padding that ran rampant elsewhere in Assassin’s Creed 3.
In Assassin’s Creed 4, the naval element really could be a separate game. It was the bulk of what we played at Gamescom and there’s a lot of info to sift through so grab a cup of tea, some biscuits and sit down.
This will be a pretty long read.
Assassin’s Creed 4 – Naval Combat Analysis
You got your tea? Good.
Ubisoft has built on the core mechanics that made naval combat successful in Assassin’s Creed 3. There are still three speeds to cycle through when sailing and the context sensitive attacks, where you aim the camera to aim your shots, have returned. You can also shoot at the enemy ship’s hull with guns using Triangle when the cursor zooms into the exposed area.
So far, so usual. But almost everything has been tweaked or changed in some way.
You can scan the horizon with your telescope and looking at an object – the tip of a shipwreck, a distant Man O’ War, birds circling over the ocean, anything – will give you info on that target. It’s useful for scouting ships you’re considering attacking, particularly if you haven’t upgraded your ship and you’re aimlessly and helplessly drifting around the ocean with all the threat and menance of an empty crisp packet fluttering in the breeze.
One significant change is that you don’t have to line up the side of your ship with your target to do damage. You can now attack from the front of the ship or drop explosive barrels behind you, so you’re no longer restricted to working angles as intently as Assassin’s Creed 3. Attacking from the side is still the best option (the front lacks damage, the back lacks range) but at least it saves on the endless circling 1-vs-1 encounters could sometimes become.
There are other options too such as the new mortar shots, which paint a red circle across the ocean surface to show where the mortar will land and allow you to rain down carnage from the sky. These shots are devastating when they land but limited in ammunition.
If you want to capture rather than sink enemy ships, you can board them and eliminate their crew and captain. What helps with this is that you can leave the ship’s wheel at any time and use the guns to thin the ranks of enemy officers before leaping across. One nice touch is getting from one ship to the other isn’t a pre-canned animation – you actually leap off your deck to the other ship and if you miss (like we did, ahem) then you clamber up the side instead.
An interesting difference between Assassin’s Creed 3 and Assassin’s Creed 4 is that the transition from land to sea and back again is seamless, rather than sectioned off with a loading screen that sees you suddenly reappear on your ship. What this means is that you can open fire from your ship and attack enemies on land. This wasn’t part of what we played but something we discovered through our own morbid curiousity while playing. Hopefully, it will play a part in some of the missions – the transition from land to sea does in assassinations, as we’ll explain later.
Some elements have been lost in the transition from Assassin’s Creed 3 – for example the grapeshot has been removed, deemed superfluous in light of the new naval combat options – but the brand new Most Important Button In Gaming makes up for this. Press right on the d-pad and everyone on the ship starts singing a sea-shanty. Yes! There are 36 in total and you can make bloody pirates sing.
Assassin’s Creed 4 – Exploring Shipwrecks, Avoiding Sharks
It’s not just ship combat that will occupy your time at sea. Away from landmass, the map (accessed by pushing in the PS4 touchpad) is far busier with icons to investigate. There are hunting opportunities that let you track and harpoon bull sharks, waterspouts that flare up and need to be avoided by both your ships and others in the area plus submerged shipwrecks that guard treasure. It’s the latter that we had a chance to investigate.
Drifting alongside the shipwreck poking up through the sea surface lets Kenway use a diving bell to submerge to the murky depths below, the diving bell also his returning point for when you want to return to the ship.
The seabed itself is a busy place, spiked with coral reefs and dotted with chunks of ship that were sunk in battles long past. Investigating these shipwrecks yield treasure chests that can be opened but there are two obstacles in your way that stop you from lazily prodding around at will – your air supply and sharks. Ubisoft had originally planned on giving you the option to fight back when sharks attacked but decided to remove that to those encounters more tense and exciting.
Seeing sharks underwater is terrifying and despite there being seven chests around the shipwreck to find, we only managed to plunder the contents of one before being chased back to the diving bell, even pressing the map button in blind sausage-fingered panic at one point, much to the amusement of the Ubisoft dev watching us play.
Shark attacks in Assassin’s Creed 4 aren’t fatal but take away a huge chunk of your health and the time taken for the animation to finish also sees your air supply deplete at an alarming rate.
It’s tough work, plundering the seabed.
Assassin’s Creed 4 – Gameplay On Land
On land, the core gameplay is much the same as Assassin’s Creed 3. Combat still revolves around a loose rock-paper-scissors system of attacking, guard breaking and countering. Enemies still politely wait their turn to attack. Crouch is still triggered by walking into waist-high shrubs rather than manually pressing a button.
There are minor tweaks returning fans will notice. Looting is now done by tapping Circle rather than holding a button (holding Circle will pick up the body). The option to grab a human shield when a nearby threat aims at you now works consistently so it’s something you can rely on and a lot of the awkward hit detection when moving around the environment while in combat has gone.
Eagle Vision plays a bigger part in scouting ahead. It still flags up threats in red and targets in glowing gold but they don’t immediately disappear when you leave Eagle Vision, making it a more useful tool when formulating assassination plans.
The one assassination mission we played saw the target flagged up on the map, with Eagle Vision showing the target to be a captain on a ship that had just docked on our island. There were two guards guarding the entrance to the dock (which was far more open than anything in Assassin’s Creed 3) and what looked like soldiers arguing with slaves.
How the assassination plays out is largely dependent on how good you are. There are new items to play around with such as sleeper darts and berserker darts but we didn’t get to try them out. Instead, an awkward stumble out of a nearby bush alerted one of the guards, and then we feel into the water while trying to rush onto the ship before it left.
Assassin’s Creed 4 – The Series Comeback?
But this is what was cool about Assassin’s Creed 4. In screwing up the assassination so badly and alerting the ship, we were able to jump into a nearby boat and give chase, using every single mortar shot available to sink that ship in what must have been the most blunt, brutal and skill-less way to complete that assassination contract. And yet it felt like a far more organic and natural mission than anything we played in the series before.
We could have been stealthy and taken out all the guards before silently killing the captain. We could have worked our way close and killed him from distance. We could have snuck onto the ship as it sailed away, quickly taking out the captain. We could have even clambered onboard after it had sailed away, after giving chase in a boat.
As it is, we completely ballsed it up and completed it with the brute force of mortar shots, but it’ll be interesting if other missions (whether assassination contracts or not) lend themselves to players finding organic, unpredictable solutions as we did.
There are still other questions that won’t be answered until the review stage – will treasure exploration and hunting feel as templated and repetitive as they did in Assassin’s Creed 3? How will the pacing of the game play out?
Regardless, following our hands-on time at Gamescom, we have far more confidence and hope that Assassin’s Creed 4 will be the triumphant comeback the series needs.