REMEMBER THE STREETS
“Remember Florence,” says the man stood on the dark stage. “Remember Masyaf. Remember the streets of Boston. ” The room is lit with red light and packed with smoke and too many journalists. I sit next to one of the few people I know in there, a man I dragged half-naked down a hotel corridor after a press trip gone wrong in Turkey two years ago. He threw up on my feet. There’s a bond there. Once a man throws up on your feet, you can’t pretend you don’t know him any more.
Before the speech started, there was an embargo warning onscreen in big red letters (an embargo that was subsequently broken) that asked us to turn off our phones, laptops, and tablets. That’s never going to happen – how else would we write things down? It’s a hollow threat, a waste of big red letters. I turn my phone off anyway because it’s new and I don’t know how to put it on silent.
The man onstage is naming places we have been in Assassin’s Creed games. He’s asking us to remember them. He’s an actor, I think, although I can’t for the life of me work out who he is.
(He stays afterwards and I approach him and say Oh hi, sorry, ‘scuse me, where do I know you from because I can’t place you and he says his name was Ralph Ineson, that I might remember him from such shows as The Office and Game of Thrones and I nod and say Ahh, Ah ha, That’s it but in reality I’ve never seen either of those programmes and I run back to the other journos and proudly announce his name after everyone else was too sober to risk asking him)
“Remember Venice,” he says, “where genius and revolution stood side by side.” He goes through to list off every location from every Assassin’s Creed game, save the side-missions in Brotherhood. He doesn’t say “Remember Monte Circeo, where you stole a wooden tank and farted it around several arenas and somehow earned a parachute for doing that,” but he’s close.
WRUNG THROUGH A THESAURUS
“Remember the people we were!” He says, and the lights come up on two costumes – Altair and Ezio – stood at the back of the theatre. Connor is nowhere to be seen. Maybe they couldn’t borrow a Connor costume. He goes on for minutes, offering plot synopses of AC1, AC2, Brotherhood, Revelations, and AC3. It sounds like a Wikipedia article wrung through a thesaurus.
“But now, let’s weigh anchor and raise a cup of rum, because we’re plotting a new course.” Pirate terminology! We’re getting somewhere, finally; Kotaku leaked the pirate details earlier that day. I write down “YARR PIRATE SAYIN’S” in my notebook, all in caps because it’s dark in here and I can’t see what I’m writing. It takes up three lines.
He leaves the stage. I am worried that I don’t know whether or not to applaud, but as no-one else does we err on the side of caution and let Ralph leave the stage in complete silence as a video starts up – a cinematic teaser, which shows Blackbeard saying… something.
There’s footage of our main character being a baddass – he dual-wields his swords and quad-wields his pistols, giving him overall three times as many weapons as he has hands to hold them with. He’s a busy man, obviously. He doesn’t have time for maths. He fights by spinning around in circles and letting enemies sort of come into contact with him.
Throughout the video the bass is so heavy and the volume so loud that I can’t understand most of what Blackbeard is saying. We’re shown ports and jungles and sultry ladies of a variety of races reclining in a bed behind the main character, who at this point looks like someone slapped a late-90’s underwear model in a white hoody and asked him to look mean.
I write “PORTS AND JUNGLES AND FUCKING” in my notebook.
I COULD HAVE IMAGINED THAT BEFORE
The video stops. Another man comes out. He is in charge of Ubisoft in some capacity and not an actor I haven’t heard of. He spends ten minutes convincing us that Piracy is a perfect vehicle for the Assassin’s Creed brand, that a game about climbing tall buildings and working as a secret blade in the crowd can be perfectly expressed by sticking you on a honking great boat and letting you go duff up enemy ships.
I write “PIRATES = ASSASSINS, SHUT UP” in my notebook.
It all starts to feel a bit Red Dead Redemption, more so than the previous game. Maybe Grand Theft Auto: Golden Age of Pirates, except you don’t jack enemy boats and ramp them off conveniently placed coral reefs to achieve sweet air.
He says that they wanted to stray away from the weird elements; no ghost ships, no sea monsters. As a series which has already featured ghosts and sea monsters, I’m not a little disappointed to learn they’re pulling ever-futher away from the supernatural, but I guess it’ll be better than the paranormal cocktease that made up much of the Frontier Investigation missions in AC3.
(“Ooh, is it the Headless Horseman?” No, it’s a bloke in a hat. “Oh, is that a ghost?” No, it’s a stick with a sheet nailed to it. “Oh ho, is that a terrifying sea monster?” No, it’s a dude in a diving suit. AC3 is like an older brother ruining Christmas)
The truth is so interesting, in fact, that this chap wants us to imagine what they’re going to do with it. He instructs us to do so. He stands onstage in front of the world’s press and tells us stories of the Golden Age of piracy, accompanying each with a single frame of concept art. He talks about our hero getting marooned with a madman, and says “You can imagine how this scenario might have played out.”
I could have imagined that before.
He leaves and Jean Guesdon, Creative Lead, takes the stage. Unlike the previous two speakers Jean talks about the actual game and doesn’t try to paint a picture through our minds, which is nice; he’s very much the main course of the evening, after the amuse bouche from Ralph and our other friend who spoke like a focus group was sat inside his head pulling the levers.
He talks about mechanics and locations and gameplay types and generally gives out the sort of information that has you frantically scribbling in your notebook, the stuff you want for actual previews. He talks about the different ways you can attack an enemy ship; you can climb the rigging and vault over, swing over on a rope, leap as the two ships smash into each other, or swim around the back and sneak on. There’s a little spark in me at that; after AC3 proved to be more flash than substance, the promise of emergent gameplay mechanics gets me hot under the collar.
And it keeps going; this is an open-world game, this is a vast ocean that you’re free to explore but certain areas are guarded by double-hard fleets so you need to level up your boat and your piracy skills in order to take them on. It’s not Assassin’s Creed by a long shot, it’s a far cry from the dusty market squares of Jerusalem, but it’s an interesting concept. Jean keeps saying how there’ll be no gameplay breaks between land and sea and ship and boarding actions and if that’s true, on current-generation consoles, then Jean is a wizard.
WE LOVE BART
He says that the team are building on years of Assassin’s Creed games that have come beforehand. He draws up a list of them on the projector and says that he wants to draw the Open-Ended Assassinations from AC1, the learning curve from AC2, the freedom of interlocking mechanics from Brotherhood, and…
… and there’s a pause in his speech before he says that he wanted to take the “Graphical Richness” from Revelations and the “sense of being part of history” from AC3, and it’s like that bit in Simpsons Roasting On An Open Fire where Marge is writing a Christmas letter and says:
“Grandpa’s still going strong, Maggie’s learning to walk all by herself, Lisa got straight A’s in school and Bart… well, we love Bart.”
Finally, we’re shown a gameplay video, the first evidence of the game past cinematics or screenshots or the wonderful world of our own imaginination. I take down everything I can.
I write: “SHARKS! SHARK RIDING! WHALES! SPINNING BULLET-DODGE? FALL 2013.”
PISS IN THERE
And then, beer. We walk out of the theatre into the corridor which, too, has been bathed in red light. Treasure chests and skulls on spikes line the walls of an otherwise beautiful conference centre in the heart of London, and we scavenge free drinks as the staff hand around food, quite rightly staring down their noses at us.
I ask a waiter where the bathrooms are and he tells me, ending with a “Sir” said in a tone of voice you’d reserve for pulling hair out of a plughole, but in his defence the bathrooms were not only nicer but significantly larger than my house and really I shouldn’t have been allowed to piss in there.
So, Assassin’s Creed 4 isn’t what you’d expect an Assassin’s Creed game to be, in that it’s ceded almost all of the main mechanics and largely takes place in a boat. But I can live with that. After AC3, we weren’t really expecting the next Assassin’s Creed game to be good, so a break with tradition in that sense would be welcome.