Piracy trades in a bizarre cultural currency in 2013. You can probably blame the ubiquitous Pirates of the Caribbean, or maybe Julian Assange. In either case, pirates are no longer thugs or thieves. They’re romantic heroes, swashbuckling adventurers engaging in harmless antics, or internet advocates defending freedom against encroaching national and financial domination.
It’s enough to make me skeptical of anything involving pirates, if only because we passed the saturation point sometime around the third Johnny Depp sequel. His flamboyant performance still hangs over everything related to the high seas and the Caribbean, and Ubisoft knows that it’s battling those Disney perceptions with the upcoming Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
“From the first day, we said, ‘We are not doing Pirates of the Caribbean,’” said Ubisoft Production Manager Ambre Lizurey. “We don’t have this romantic view of pirates. It was a brutal and greedy period of time. We wanted people to be able to see the real history of pirates.”
We spoke to Lizurey during Ubisoft’s recent preview event in Toronto, and it was encouraging to hear the studio discussing the pitfalls of cultural precedent in such frank terms. Assassin’s Creed has consistently been one of the more intriguing AAA franchises because of the way it confidently engages with history while trying out new mechanics.
Despite that strong track record, I’ve had my doubts about Black Flag. The promotional material relied heavily on sun and rum and sandy beaches, and I was afraid that it was a little late to the pirate party. After foolishly sitting through On Stranger Tides, I’ve seen one black beard too many.
Tuesday’s gala initially did little to quell my concerns. Ubisoft’s event took place at the Amsterdam Brewhouse on the shorefront in Toronto, where the windows offered a wide panorama of the ships on Lake Ontario while waiters circulated orange rum drinks amidst wooden beams and palm trees and chests of pirate booty. It’s as close to tropical as you’re likely to get in late October in Ontario, and it’s exactly the kind of pageantry that makes me look for the substance beneath the surface.
Thankfully, as is usually the case with Assassin’s Creed, the game seems to welcome such examination. Even at first impression, Black Flag is not Pirates of the Caribbean, with more death, more disease, and a much greater sense of history. The pirate experience was usually short and brutal, and Black Flag will have an enormous cast of characters partly because Ubisoft wants players to recognize how ephemeral (and unromantic) the pirate’s life could be.
It’s also impressive considering Ubisoft apparently decided to make Black Flag so they could play with toy boats some more after designing naval battles for Assassin’s Creed III.
“When we saw what [Ubisoft] Singapore did with the ships, we thought it was something we needed to investigate further,” said Lizurey.
Lizurey told us Ubisoft wanted to expand the concept with a more seamless open world (there are no more cut scenes when boarding enemy vessels, for instance) and the move to an aquatic setting was inevitable for a game inspired by sailing.
The pre-revolutionary Caribbean would turn out to be an ideal setting for a game featuring political murderers. Assassin’s Creed has always selected targets based on accurate historical obituaries, so the era of piracy gave the studio an overabundance of victims to choose from.
Add in the usual sandbox hijinks – everything from shark harpooning to shanty singing – and there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic for Black Flag. The game at least has more to offer than a rum-soaked marketing campaign, so we’ll have to wait and see if the island getaway stands out during gaming’s gritty holiday season.