Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag

for PC

Owing to Zelda

Something that stood out immediately for me was how much in AC4 seems owing to the 3D Zelda games. It's hard to imagine this game existing without the "auto jump" which was pioneered in OoT. It was unexpected since Black Flag is so different thematically.

Action Pairing

This was the first AC game I've played, and I found the movement and combat animation system astonishing. The sheer number of different animations, both for attack but also for movement, seems like it would be an infeasable task even for a large developer.

The normal approach in games, especially in action games, is a cause-and-effect system. So for instance, pressing X swings your sword. If it encounters for example a wall or enemy shield, an effect is created (e.g., knocking back an enemy, creating sparks on the wall.) This effect will often then chain back to the original animation, e.g., to trigger a special interrupting animation showing a recoil.

AC does not usually work this way. In particular, attacks and movement are coordinated very closely between elements. A sword swing, if it's parried, will be perfectly parried, both characters lining up and their animations coming together with exact timing. Likewise, when you climb a wall, the jump or hand-hold will often need to line up perfectly with the environment. Some games can create this illusion (e.g., by making sure ladder steps always line up with the ladder model) but this would not work with the sheer breadth of animations and actions possible.

I wonder if it works this way: beyond a basic logic for walkingrunning, which works normally, every action represents a pattern matching with environmental factors as well as player input, with animations then triggering for more than one actor. So for instance pressing the attack button when near another enemy in some form of ready state will trigger a certain animation. This particular animation that matches will depend on: the player's facing direction, the player's equipment, the enemy type, the enemy's equipment, and so on. And in fact, more than one enemy could match at a time (double-assasinating, but also certain attacks where the player could disarm multiply opponents that surround them) and environmental factors (body checking an enemy off a ledge, or over a railing.)

I'm imagining that internally this system is quite flexible and applies to many different situations. For instance, NPCs that walk along a street sometimes stop to chat; this seems like it could use exactly the same system, except here we are matching two NPCs (presumably in a "relaxed" state) that enter into proximity to each other. Likewise even opening chests could work under the exact same system.

This would help to answer another great mystery (to me), which is how to produce a game like this in the first place. By creating such a generic system, it's possible for animators, fight choreographers, motion capture, or whatever other groups of people are involved to work somewhat independently and have their work integrated into the game. If this were the case, you would expect some animations or other interactions to show up very infrequently-- and this turns out to be exactly right. Even 60 hours or so into the game I felt like I will still sometimes see new attack animations.

This system is unconventional and takes some getting used to. Because the animations have to synchronize between actors, and because any given action may match more than one pattern, it's often not possible to tell exactly what will happen when you press a given button. However, combat actually plays out much more strategically because of this. It's important to think carefully about when you will commit to an attack, as well as which direction you are facing. The game works to give you cues, as well, by highlighting an enemy close to you-- this doesn't work as well as it could, the main problem being that it's difficult to the control the hilight itself, so often you trigger an attack or other action intending it to be against a particular enemy, the highlight changes unexpectedly and another enemy is targeted.

Likewise, the tactile satisfaction of pressing a button and getting the immediate feedback of seeing your sword swing through the air in any particular direction is missing (i.e., there is less directness of control.) It's interesting that when Zelda: OOT came out, people missed the tactile sensation of being able to jump on command (even though, Zelda 2 notwithstanding, this wasn't present in other Zelda games, at the time people had built their expectations for 3D Zelda based partly on Mario 64.)

Really probably the great upside to this system (apart from perhaps being "simple: to produce) is that it's very satisfying to see the sheer variety and impressive acrobatics your character can perform. This level of satisfaction increases greatly the more the player is able to predict what will happen. In many situations, it becomes quite possible to predict, for instance double-assassination or air-assassination are usually very predictable (or double-air-assassination.) Likewise it becomes quite possible to think strategically in combat, for instance to disarm a "brute" or parry + disarm a more advanced sword fighter.

I would love to see the combat refined and made more predictable, without changing the basic concept. Possibly giving the player more explicit cues as to the context, or even by paring down the possible actions somewhat. I haven't played the more recent AC games (as of this writing, Liberation and Syndicate) but I am curious what improvements may have been made.

As a side note: another game I played somewhat contemporaneous to this was Dark Souls. Dark Souls, in contrast to Black Flag's coordinated context pattern-matching combat, is an extremely fine-tuned cause-and-effect system.

Another side note: Twilight Princess has some attacks which, though they have to be triggered explicitly, work at bit similarly to Black Flag in that they are coordinated between link and the enemy. I am thinking (at least) of an attack called "Helm Splitter." So I wonder if there was a bit of back-borrowing by Nintendo from AC games that might have been around when TP was made (I haven't really checked the timeline on this.)

Final side note: I'd love to play the earlier games, especially AC1 and 2, to see how this system looked in an earlier iteration.

Writing - Storytelling Structure

Purely by chance I bought the book "Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates" by David Cordingly, I think before playing the game. At any rate, most of the characters and other details feel like they have used this book specifically-- that shouldn't be a surprise given the title! Although I'm sure other reference material was used. At any rate this greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the game, since many story elements which are alluded to (e.g., King George's offer of amnesty) are described in the book.

The story itself feels composed of unrelated vignettes, basically short stories involving the characters. This works quite well. Interestingly, each vignette only sometimes refers to follow-up actions or motivation for them. So when you complete a mission, rather than explain what you should do next, often you are just given the mission marker for the next mission. Only then do you learn why you traveled there in the first place. At first this is a tiny bit disorienting, since you feel you must have missed something, but actually I think it works well. I'm not sure if it was done deliberately.

Almost all of Black Flag is told through dialogue, which is sometimes quite oblique.

There is an overarching theme of people around Kenway dying (he kills many of them.) This is wrapped up very nicely at the end, as he looks back on his five or so years privateering and seems to feel regret. In fact most of Kenway's enemies feel more like people that fate conspired for him to have to kill. I wonder if this is an overarching theme of AC.

The entire "credits" sequence was incredibly well concieved.

Writing - Dialogue

The dialogue in Black Flag is extremely believable. I really can't say how happy I was at the way the main storyline was told through short conversations between characters. Especially it avoids over-explaining or wordy dialogue that so many games fall into, in favour of a natural feel, even though it runs the risk that the player won't really understand what's happening.

The specific word choice, manner of speech and slang expressions feels almost scholarly.

The "death soliliquys" (if we can call them that) were also wonderful storytelling. I sort of wish they took place on something other than the "virtual stage." One opponent I used fists (nonlethal) assassination on and receieved what sounded like a custom dialogue from. I might confirm if this is the case.

Movement - Traversal, Lack of "wall slide"

Traversal seems to be handled similarly to the combat system, i.e., context sensitive pattern matching, with the input direction selection targets to move towards. For the most part I found this very satisfying, moreso than combat. It's more predictable than combat, in fact I was amazed at how well I was able to predict the traversal actions.

One thing that I think is missing is the ability to quickly move along walls or other barriers without vaulting them. I wonder if some kind of momentum system, where you have to reach a certain speed in order to climb a wall by running into it, otherwise you "slide" along the side, might work

Movement - Acting

I found that often during movement I would "act" for no practical purpoes. So in other words, walking in places where I would normally walk, vs any other game where I would ordinarily move as quickly as possible. Interesting and I wonder if other people have this experience.

Really a lot of what's enjoyable in Black Flag could be categorized in some sense as a kind of dramatic acting. It's not always so much about skill as it is about accomplishing things very smoothly. This makes sense since much of the enjoyment comes from seeing the sheer variety of animations. So stringing these animations together in an interesting way can itself be a goal.

Movement - Ship

The layout of the ship itself makes it really bothersome to move on. In particular, canons on deck are always where you want to walk, it's difficult to run onto your ship and get to the helm without unnecessarily leaping or climbing on something. This the main issue is the Jackdaw herself, I wish they had maybe designed it a bit differently.

Climbing rigging is extremely satisfying, especialllly diving off into the water. Being able to do this in open seas andor at night is a true joy, and the side effect that you sort of carry your own perfect viewpoint with you is wonderful.

Likewise, moving between ships e.g., when boarding was very satisfying and impressive, technically. Being able to jump from one mast to another is brilliant.

Seafaring

Really wonderful. I loved the sea shanties, and the water is so beautifully rendered, with large rolling waves.

I appreciated the way the ship can tilt so dramatically.

The water pouring over the deck is also wonderful, and a lot of care was put into animations. Being able to see crew on other ships through your spyglass, and so on.

In general the naval combat was well organized and fun. Many great decisions had to be made here, for instance the swivel guns fill the time that would be spent waiting for the ships to come together. The damage model of "large" blocks of health that need to be fixed after capturing a ship, or at a harbour master, but where each large block of health will heal on it's own, is an excellent system that could be used other places.

I find it amazing as well that you can swim out to other ships and climb aboard, or even just park your own ship and swim in the ocean. In general the game seems to give a greater level of permissiveness here than you would expect, and a lot of enjoyment flows from this.

It's better to let the player do something with an outcome that feels a bit undeveloped than prohibit it from happening altogether. I seem to remember swimming out to a ship outside of combat, I really should test these systems to see how far they will "bend".

Weather

The weather effects are excellent, I especially loved the glossy raindrop map that appears on all surfaces to give the effect that water is pooling (I plan to use a similar effect in PN.)

I wish the weather cycles were slower, even say 5x as slow. Storms blow in and out much too quickly, it would be more interesting and atmospheric if they were long-lived.

Stealth

Well organized, and easy to understand. I wish I had known earlier in the game that you can avoid killing enemies by using your bare hands; early on I tried to avoid killing enemies but it was far too difficult as I kept running out of sleep darts.

I find "disarming the bell" to be nearly impossible. Making it some you can disarm it even when in a yellow alert stage might fix this, but really the best solution I think would be make the bells approachable through missionetc. design, similar to how many enemies have ambush points in their patrol.

Stealth swim seems quite powerful but not really a bad thing, in some situations the best thing to do is just run for the water. It's useful to have a safe zone like that, especially since normally your objective is far from the water (many missions start with you in your boat, after all.)

Swimming

Could have been much more effective if it has focused on explorationoxygen supply (it creates an amazing sense of holding your breath, reminiscent of the Bay level in Mario 64) and not enemies. Way too many sharks, jellyfish, and spiny things.

Not every area needs hazards, don't be afraid to have peaceful environments.

Items, Shops, Upgrades

I wish there had been a "collections" screen to show treasure. Maybe this was in the original design. Having a modeling team product a bunch of treasure models, even hundreds, seems quite feasable. These could then be viewed in a simple model viewer, maybe with some conceit that would also allow the player to sell them, or perhaps they could be stored at the manor on Great Iguana or even in the Jackdaw's cabin. Just having unique trinkets would have added a lot of interest.

I am sure the original design meant you could only upgrade the jackdaw at a harbour master. I'm sorry they added this feature to the ship's cabin, it would have created a nice rhythm in having to return to harbour to upgrade.

Upgrades themselves feel a bit expensive. In general I think there could be actually a bit fewer naval battles, at least required naval battles, despite how excellent they were.

Also a shame that you can't purchase sleep and berserk darts. This very nearly makes capturing the courier a requirement as skinning enough animals is tedious. And actually, even if you have materials, the crafting itself seems tedious.

Mission Types

For my own notes, there are a few mission types:

  • Assassinate : kill a certain npc, usually with a bonus for doing it undetected. This may be at the end of an area or it may be on a ship. If on a ship, you aren't usually allowed to sink the ship. Very rarely you need to perform the assassination undetected as a requirement.
  • Tail : follow an npc, keeping them in view. You use eagle vision to tag them, which makes it much easier to see them. Interesting in that the "distance to target" is usually very lax here, i.e., you can be quite far away. It really is just whether the camera can see them.
  • Eavesdrop : really a more difficult version of tail, distance based. Here the distance feels a bit small, but this ties into the mission design. Most eavesdrop missions had useful routes designed for them.
  • Reach : reach a given point. Usually there are a series of markers to lead you in the general direction.
  • Find : usually part of a larger mission (like assassinate) you are given a circular region and your target is somewhere in there. This can happen on ships as well as on the ground.
  • CatchChase : chase down an npc; this is an excellent mission type, because it involves fast traversal, which is very satisfying. I found myself wishing that "tackle" was automatic, or had a larger radius, at least in the case of the courier missions.
  • ??? : there must be other mission types I'm missing.

Kenway's Fleet

I played this a little-- my guess it is also or was intended as a mobile game? I also feel this maybe was a project for less experienced developers to add something to the game. It created an excellent incentive for capturing powerful ships, since you could send them to your fleet which feels like a more valuable option than repairing the Jackdaw or lowering wanted level.

Board Games

A hidden gem, at first I saw that one was checkers and incorrectly assumed they all were. However I have since played two other games which were very interesting, One about approaching or retreating and one called "Nine Men's Morris" (I think?) about making sets of three. I cannot beat the computer at these, and the strategy wans't obvious after a couple games but it was intrigueing.

"Real World" Segments

This feels like the game designers trying to be clever in a very game designerly way, i.e., by layering a meta- narrative which sort of breaks that fourth wall. It's really at the expensive of the amazing storytelling in the main game. The Abstergo segments aren't so bad on their own, but the way they sort of ruthlessly kick at the main conceit of the real game, by making it only a simulation, is unforgivable. If you build a heartfelt and engrossing experience, don't mock and demean it in the same product just to make yourself seem clever.

This generally is a problem with games these days, which seem to want to include as many side references as possible, to their own detriment. Guacamelee! comes to mind, which was absolutely and pointlessly plagued by these kind of jokes.

Part of me wonders if there is some kind of authority structure involved in decision making that sort of forced the Abstergo segments, i.e., it was somebody's "great idea" that was then sort of forced on people who probably knew better. But it also could have just seemed like a great idea at the time, I suppose :)

I also felt the Observatory environment was a little bit jarring. I don't know if I'm missing backstory in AC but it felt like the alien (templar? ancient race of human?) technology could have worked more along the lines of a Mayan ruin.

The moving platform sequence at the end was unneccessary. The intent here was to "raise the stakes" by creating precarious traversal and a combat challenge, however it felt out of step with the rest of the game, since the environment was so different and sudden. Sort of the problem many games face of trying to create a "novel" final boss, but subverting the rest of the game by throwing away the more interesting parts. Maybe a chase through a cave with an ordinary tall ship would have been better.

The prior boss battle with the armoured knight, where you need to re-arm while moving away, and carefully read his intention, on the other hand, was excellent and felt like an homage (within the constraints of AC) to Dark Souls.

Environment Design - Buildings

Something I observed which I think is a great design principle for building game worlds, is that buildings themselves seem to exist always in some state of repair decay. So for instance, as an environmental detail there is very often (relative to other games) building supplies or evidence of things (such as roofs) being repaired. Games do a great job of showing ruins, but in fact buildings go through a life cycle of being constructed, used and maintained, and then finally abandoned (or demolished.) This feels like a great environmental design principles

Loved the holographic textures on windows, an effect I hadn't seen before.

Loved that buildings have a clear foundation and structure to them. The stilt-towns were also a lot of fun, I wonder if these type of places ever existed in real life (or do they now?) In general the buildings were varied and interesting to look at (and fun to traverse), honestly just amazing.

Environment Design - Water

The internally reflecting light on the waves is the icing on the cake.

Partway through I wondered if the water is middleware. It looks amazing. MGSV seems to have amazing seawater, as well. Maybe a lot of games do, nowadays, and I just haven't played them.

Environment Design - Plants and Animals

Notable too that I almost never saw fish-- maybe I have my graphical settings to low. Crabs seemed to only be on some beaches. I wonder if these were added manually but didn't really get fully fleshed out.

Birds were everywhere, and nicely motion-blurred. I wonder why I only noticed motion blur on birds.

Jaguars need a longer cooldown after attacking.

Traversing trees would be more interesting if branches had some flex, even if this didn't affect the traversal itself. Obviously not a simple problem.

It's remarkable that it seems like an entirely different set of vegetation was created for Principe. Maybe this was used in the DLC based around Adewale?

Environment Design - Levels

Being able to always move in a straight line from place to place limits what can be done with level design. Instead, areas are mostly constructed either as linear areas (levels) with sequential challenges or as "place recreations" (e.g., a city, a beach with a shipwreck, and so on) with points of interest at regular intervals. This works well, but it's too bad there aren't more connecting areas andor environmental secrets such as doors or hidden areas to discover. You rarely feel the need (or really, the ability) to create a mental map of an area.

A few more connecting caves or dungeons could have worked wonders. The smuggler's den side quest off the diving site was fabulous and unexpected.

Personal Status

I started Black Flag sometime in 2014 and finished the main quest line November 13, 2015. Took a big break in the middle. I found it surprisingly easy to get back into, the controls are not as complex as they seem. I will probably go back and play side missions periodically. I feel I have conciously or unconciously borrowed a lot of ideas from it for Paradise Never. Am curious to play especially AC1 and 2, but also Unity and Syndicate which seem to have made a lot of refinements. I won't play Rogue as I hate cold weather and have a fear of cold water. I admire that Ubisoft is able to produce these games so quickly. I played Black Flag entirely on laptop PC with a Dual Shock 4, sometimes plugged into the stereo. Those Shanties! I sincerely hope Ubisoft will make another pirate game, AC or otherwise.

- November 14, 2015, 1:10am

Related Links

I made a small video showing off some of what I wrote about here, but especially relating to the "free form" ship mechanics:

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag: Game Design Thots ~OR~ A Fun Trick At Sea!


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