Interview: Ubisoft on Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag's Place in the Franchise, and Returning to Wii U

Wii U release dates also confirmed

Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag is, perhaps depending on your perspective, a highly tempting multi-platform blockbuster coming to the Wii U or, alternatively, a title below first-party releases and exclusives in the pecking order this Holiday season. It's a release, notably alongside another Ubisoft title in Watch_Dogs, that represents the challenge facing the Wii U — the console's audience isn't necessarily sizeable enough or sufficiently engaged with this kind of game, so publishers don't invest in the same level of content; Wii U owners affected then complain about secondary treatment. There are also issues of technical capabilities, which have been less of an issue, to date, with the HD Wii U than it was with the Wii.

As we've written before, however, at times it can feel like a lose-lose scenario. To its credit, and despite some decisions in other games that have rubbed Nintendo fans up the wrong way, Ubisoft's bringing its Holiday blockbusters to the system, and they could be important in driving the decision-making for future multi-platform games in 2014 and beyond. There are lots of factors at play, including Nintendo's planned success in boosting the Wii U and getting the system flying off shelves, but the reception and sales of these games could be important for Ubisoft's commitment to the console. Meanwhile it's now confirmed that the Wii U release is now 22nd November in Europe — alongside 'next gen' rivals PS4, Xbox One and PC — while joining Xbox 360 and PS3 on 29th October in North America.

So, of course, we want a good version of games such as these, and we've had a chance to speak to two members of the Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag team to learn more about the Wii U iteration. Creative Director Jean Guesdon tackled general design questions, while Wii U Project Manager Robin Lavallée addressed questions specific to Nintendo's system.

Nintendo Life: Thanks for joining us. First of all, can you outline the setting and plot of Black Flag, as a reminder for our readers?

Jean Guesdon: Sure! Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag is an open-world pirate game set in the early 18th century, in the Golden Age of Piracy. You play Edward Kenway, a young privateer looking for riches and infamy in the Caribbean, who also (through a series of yet-to-be-revealed events) becomes trained by the Assassins.

Through your travels, you will come to know legendary pirates such as Blackbeard, Calico Jack, Ben Hornigold, Charles Vane and Anne Bonny. With them, you will see the rise (and fall) of the very first democratic society in the world: the pirate republic of Nassau.

NL: Some promotional materials have explained the historical relevance of the Caribbean Islands setting; can you outline these for us?

JG: At a basic level, pirates are a really pervasive pop culture phenomenon.. it’s something that everyone can relate to. That’s part of the appeal for us. But of course we wouldn’t be doing a game in this setting if there wasn’t something meaty to gnaw at and expose. The Pirate Republic is just that. Not many people know the true lives of the real, historical figures that lived in the Golden Age of Piracy. It’s a really interesting story, one that has had lasting impacts on history.

NL: Was the general setting and plot (with Edward Kenway tying into Assassin’s Creed III) determined while ACIII was still in development, and if so was there consultation / cross-over between the respective ACIII and ACIV teams?

JG: We settled on setting, plot and character right about when AC Revelations was ramping down, during the summer of 2011. AC3 was already well under way at that point in time, so we knew they had a character that they had created but didn’t use (Edward Kenway), we knew his age would have fit with the Golden Age of Piracy (early 18th century) and we knew that Singapore’s Naval Battle tech was really impressive and fun. So all 3 of these items kind of merged together at that point in time to give us the motivation & tools to create a pirate game.

It did not influence AC3 that much, because AC3 was too far along in development to change anything. But we did add a couple of lines talking about Connor’s grandfather in the game, and Edward is present in the AC3 tie-in novel Forsaken.

NL: Assassin’s Creed III had a notably ‘epic’ ending to tie up some story threads, will Black Flag initiate a new era for the franchises’ lore?

JG: Yes and no. From a meta-story perspective, the present day is presented from a new perspective, a new hero, but the events that will happen in it are still a direct continuation of what happened in AC3. It’s very much designed in a way that will feel welcoming, fresh and different from past entries, but at the same time it offers a lot of content to franchise fans.

The same goes for the main Pirate portion of the game. A lot of mechanics, especially on ground, will feel familiar to our fans, but at the heart of it this game is a whole different gameplay experience that feels fresh & new for everyone who plays it.

NL: The sea battles of Assassin’s Creed III make a return in this title, can you explain what kind of tweaks or enhancements have been made to these?

‘Seamless’ is really the word that drove all of our team during this production. We wanted to remove all the barriers that prevented players from feeling like they were in control of their actions in AC4BF.

JG: The main difference is that now the ship is the means of traversing & exploring the open world. So you have complete control over your boat and you can go wherever you want with it.

Of course, during your travels, you will have to fight enemies. Naval combat is tweaked to allow for more variety in these sequences. All of your weapons (round shot, heavy shot, chain shot, fire barrel, swivel gun, mortar and ramming device) have specific uses against specific enemies, and you need to learn what works and what doesn't.

And of course, the biggest innovation is boarding, When your enemies health is low, you can approach their ship and board it. The gameplay seamlessly transitions from naval gameplay to classic Assassin’s Creed combat at that point, and you are free to approach this situation however you want. It really is a breakthrough.

NL: In demo presentations we’ve seen a greater focus on a seamless open world, with the prospect of more naturally flowing into missions and sub-missions. Can you explain that to us?

JG: ‘Seamless’ is really the word that drove all of our team during this production. We wanted to remove all the barriers that prevented players from feeling like they were in control of their actions in AC4BF. So now, going from land to sea, from sea to land, from ship to ship is not accomplished via loading, but by doing these actions for yourself.

Having this system created a lot of cool opportunities for us in mission design—we can now have missions that start on land, continue at sea, and finish on land on a different island altogether, without any loading. We also have cool side-missions that can take place on land OR on sea.. depending on how well you can take them on.

NL: If side-missions were tackled ACIII was a lengthy experience. Does Black Flag have a similar volume of content?

JG: It’s hard to compare, because the progression structure is very different in Black Flag. Open-World activities in Black Flag are part of the gameplay loop: you are not strong enough to explore the entire map at the beginning of the game, so you have to complete activities, acquire loot (cargo & gold), which enables you to upgrade the Jackdaw, which makes you a bit stronger and thus able to explore more of the map.

You don’t have to complete all of the side missions in order to be strong enough to finish the game, but you can’t ignore them altogether.

That being said, we have a huge diversity in open-world activities that will be really fun for players. From harpooning to smuggler caves, from underwater zones to treasure maps, from hunting to assassination contracts.. and much more! To finish the game 100% will take a while, definitely.

NL: Can you clarify for us which team has produced the Wii U version of this title?

Robin Lavallée: This is a small team in Quebec Studio composed of about 15 people.

NL: There were moments in the last release, such as crowded battle scenes, where the framerate would take a hit on the Wii U. Was that perceived to be an issue internally, and is it something that’s being addressed in Black Flag?

RL: I’m happy you are asking the question, the team worked really hard during the last month to increase the performances on the Wii U version… and one of those points was the crowded battle scenes. So the quick answer is, yes we have worked to improve this on Black Flag.

NL: Can you explain how the GamePad is being used in this release; will it have any additional functionality or features over its predecessor?

RL: The GamePad is used to display the minimap during the gameplay as it was on AC3. All the menus are also displayed on the Wii U GamePad. One feature that was really appreciated on AC3 was the “Remote Play” where the whole game is played on the Wii U GamePad. We have added a shortcut to activate it more rapidly. You now just have to press and hold the left and right sticks for 1 second.

NL: ACIII had full DLC support on Wii U but no “season pass”, can you clarify what support will be on Nintendo’s system in terms of both content and whether there’ll be a bundle DLC offer?

RL: We are not ready to comment on this yet.

NL: The online multiplayer community seemed to struggle to establish sustainable numbers for matches on the Wii U; can you share whether you have any concerns on that score for Black Flag?

RL: That’s a good question. The team did a pretty good job to create an awesome multiplayer experience so it will attract players for sure. But the last word will come from the players that will buy the game.

NL: How has your team found the experience of working on the Wii U, from a technical viewpoint?

RL: The Wii U architecture poses some technical challenges that we’ve been able to thankfully overcome. It hasn’t been easy, but we’re really proud of the final result on this console.

NL: Would you say the Black Flag team benefited from the experience of those that worked on the Wii U version of ACIII, and does increased familiarity improve the use of the system’s assets and capabilities?

RL: The team that was working on Black Flag Wii U at the end have definitely benefited from the experience on ACIII Wii U. Technically speaking, Black Flag was taking ACIII and pushing a little bit further so having the Wii U experience in our team and studio was really helping us on every aspect of the game.

NL: Are you confident that the Wii U will remain part of future plans for the Assassin’s Creed franchise?

RL: We can’t talk about the future.. that’s a business decision that’s out of our hands. One thing for sure, the Wii U is a good console and can still have pretty good games on it so we can’t ignore it at the moment.

We'd like to thank Jean Guesdon and Robin Lavallée for their time.

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