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LOS ANGELES — Argggh! Assassin’s Creed IV features a main character who is a lot more pirate than assassin. And one of the men responsible for that twist is Darby McDevit, the lead writer for the next big sequel from Ubisoft. The French game publisher is previewing the title this week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo video game trade show.
The man above McDevit is Assassin’s Creed new main character, Edward Kenway. He is detached from the usual Templars vs. Assassin’s plot because he would really rather be making money as a pirate who takes the side with the winning pot of gold. The Caribbean is a vast playground for him, where he can hijack ships and assassinate characters for money at the same time.
The result is a game that is both familiar and different from the last title, Assassin’s Creed III, which was set (mostly on land) during the American Revolution. It’s set in 1717, at the end of the golden age of piracy. McDevit told us all about it, and here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: For how long did you know you were going to do the ship combat? Was that the heart of what this was going to be?
Darby McDevit: For a long time, yeah. We started work on this game in August 2011. As Revelations was finishing, this team took a look at the naval combat as it was forming in Assassin’s Creed III. With ACIII being even more than a year out, we saw that the naval combat was working well.
We already wanted to try to do a story about Edward Kenway, because we were doing the Haytham-Connor story in ACIII. Very early on we had this idea to also do the grandfather, so we had a family saga. As the same time as we saw the ship combat coming in, we had this idea to do Edward, and we looked back in time and saw that the Golden Age of Piracy was right there. All these things came together and showed us the way forward. Even before ACIII came out, we immediately began prototyping extra features for the naval gameplay that would have to be upgraded for a pirate game.
GamesBeat: What is Edward’s background again?
McDevit: He’s a kid who was born in Swansea in Wales. He moved to Bristol with his family at a young age, grew up fairly poor, married very young, and decided that he needed to go to the West Indies as a privateer to make money. His wife doesn’t like that very much and that leads him into some trouble, but he goes there anyway, and that’s where our story begins.
GamesBeat: In Assassin’s Creed III, some of the naval combat seemed too easy. You could take out another ship with one shot or something like that. It doesn’t necessarily seem that realistic. Are you shooting more for entertaining combat?
McDevit: What we’ve done, very specifically, because a boat can be upgraded so vastly—You’ll begin the game with very few cannon. I think it’s six or eight right now. You can upgrade all the way to 56. There will be ships at the very beginning of the game which you absolutely will not be able to defeat. They’ll destroy you in a matter of seconds. They’ll make a hash of your sails and rigging. It’s going to be very obvious. People, I think, will have one or two experiences as they play through our game where they will pick on somebody that vastly outclasses them, and they’ll be killed immediately.
We’re actually excited about this, because with hand-to-hand combat, it’s always very hard to make boss characters in a realistic game. We can’t give them special powers. We can’t upgrade a human being too far. We can give them weapons that do a little bit more damage, is all. But with boats we can go up to a crazy scales. When you’re in your eight-gun brig, the Jackdaw, and you come across a British man o’ war with a hundred guns, you will know very quickly that you need to upgrade – your hull, your sails, your guns, all the weapons and ammunition.
GamesBeat: Does the world feel larger than in earlier games, larger than ACIII?
McDevit: Yeah. ACIII’s naval gameplay took place in self-contained arenas. There was no free roaming. The West Indies as we’ve made it is a massive area. It’ll take quite a while to sail from one end to the other. Of course, to accommodate that, we do have fast travel once you’ve discovered locations. That’s the balance that we tried to strike very early on. We did lots of tests. What’s the happy medium between having a vast world to explore and sinking into utter boredom sailing across miles of ocean? That was a challenge we gave ourselves, and we tackled it pretty early on to try to get it right.
GamesBeat: How did you have to change the ship-to-ship combat coming in from ACIII?
McDevit: We added a couple of new weapons. There are things that you’ll probably see in another demo, but we’ve tried to make the experience more varied. The boarding itself gives a new element to the combat. You can actually sink ships, or you can just whittle them down to a little bit of health and then board them. The boarding is a very important aspect. If you want to get the maximum amount of loot – wood and steel and gold and rum – you’re going to need to accomplish a boarding.
We throw lots of different AI types at you. We’ve only showed a very small portion of the selection. We have AI types that will try to ram you. We have AI ships that will try to get away from you and bomb you with mortars from long range. That’s another way to try to change up the pace. We’ll have lots of different enemy archetypes and sizes of ships and things like that.
GamesBeat: You also changed the aiming mechanic. You have to elevate the cannon and arc your shots now. Is that because it has an emphasis on more than just ship-to-ship combat, with the new battles against land targets?
McDevit: Exactly. We needed to be able to do that. A lot of the towers, for instance, are a bit higher than the level of the ocean. We also wanted to just give you a little bit more control over where you fire. Before it was just making sure of your rotation in the water and maybe the size of the waves. Now, if you’re in stormy weather and the waves are causing you problems, you can angle the guns up to arc over the waves.
GamesBeat: We saw a boarding where you had multiple goals. You had a contract to fulfill to assassinate a guy on board. You also had a goal to take the ship, which would happen when you killed 50 soldiers. Are there a lot of different objectives like that?
McDevit: There are other goals as well, yes, like taking out all the snipers in the crow’s nest. There might be three or four, depending on the size of the ship. The galleons, I think, are triple-masted, so they might have three or six snipers. There might be multiple officers on board that you have to specifically kill. Our designers are working on as many little goals as possible, so we can change up the boarding. The other thing is that the boarding can be accomplished kind of any way you want it. If the objective is just to kill 15 sailors, well, you can get on board that ship and kill them. But you could dive off the back of your ship and swim around, or go some other way.
GamesBeat: If I’ve taken the ship before killing the contract target, what would happen then?
McDevit: No, you still have to kill him. The boarding won’t end at that point. The contract is added to your list of boarding constraints, so you still have to kill him.
GamesBeat: How does your crew affect the health of your ship?
McDevit: There are two health meters. One is the integrity of your hull, and then the crew meter is a separate meter. If that meter is down too far, your boarding actions will take longer. You might not be able to man as many cannon. There are lots of little details they’re still tweaking as far as how much the crew’s health affects the functioning of your ship. It’s not a reading of morale. It’s the actual, physical number of guys you have.
If that gets down, you’ll have to go back to town and recruit more. Boarding ships can net you about a dozen crew members per assault that you can bring back to your ship, so that makes boarding very valuable. Not only do you get cargo that you can sell, but you can recruit lots of crew by pressing them into service. You also get smaller amounts of crew by, like you saw in the demo, saving other pirates.
GamesBeat: There seemed to be a bigger accent on stealth in this version, compared to the last one. There were obviously the mechanics of hiding in the foliage, but you could also whistle to attract people.
McDevit: That was in ACIII, but yeah, there you could only whistle to draw people around corners. Here we’ve updated that so you can whistle to attract people from anywhere. Now, in the stalking zones, it’ll bring them closer to the bushes and you can use the new stealth kills to pull them into the brush.
GamesBeat: Each Assassin’s Creed has had a different combat system in a lot of ways. Can you describe what Black Flag’s is like?
McDevit: This one’s a modified version of ACIII. We’re tweaking it a little bit so it’s more challenging. We want guards to attack you a lot more frequently. The enemy archetypes are also quite brutal.
GamesBeat: I didn’t see a whole lot of counters. It looks very aggressive.
McDevit: Yeah. There are counters, but yeah, we want a good balance there. You don’t want to have the kind of combat where you’re always hanging back and waiting for someone else to attack. It’s fairly heavily modeled after ACIII, though.
GamesBeat: Is it the same engine, or are there some tweaks to the engine?
McDevit: Lots of tweaks. The base is the AnvilNext, but with a huge amount of tweaks because of the seamlessness. That wasn’t possible before. That was our main goal when we started making this two years ago.
GamesBeat: And it’s on the next-gen platforms, too?
McDevit: Yes, all available gens.
GamesBeat: But is it going to be different in some way?
McDevit: No, the same gameplay experience. The next generation will definitely have upgraded graphics and effects. We showed the smoke and the fog and the branches and leaves on the trees moving dynamically. We focused on art upgrades that enhance the experience and the immersion. They don’t just look pretty. They actually function in a way that makes it more involving, more chaotic.
GamesBeat: You’ll be on the Nintendo Wii U as well? Are you going to anything to integrate the Wii U GamePad?
McDevit: I believe you handle menus through it, but I’m not sure of the specifics. We’ll go more into the specifics at the show.
GamesBeat: Is there any Kinect function for the Xbox One?
McDevit: That’s another good question. Most of those details will come out from our tech guys at E3.
GamesBeat: So you’re not really describing exactly what could be different yet.
McDevit: Well, the goal is to make the experience the same. The game is the same. We don’t want to rob any core features from the current generation. The main focus is on upgrading the graphics and effects and immersion.
GamesBeat: Was this harder to get out this year, because you have to do almost a separate set of SKUs for the new consoles?
McDevit: That’s another question for the tech guys. We develop one game, and then we have teams that branch off specifically to handle those different platforms. We develop knowing that we’re going to be making it for all generations. It wasn’t as if we decided to make it for the next generation and then, as an afterthought, downgraded that for the existing consoles. We were always thinking that we had to make this for all generations at once, so we could focus our energy on the things that can be cross-platform as much as possible, and then add to the next generation where we can.