Ubisoft Singapore did the naval battles of AC3, and now they've made their own game all about naval battles. We asked them how to avoid too much railroading on an open ocean.
By Tim Colwill on August 20, 2013 at 2:20 pm
It’s a lovely Tuesday afternoon in Ubisoft’s Sydney offices, and Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag’s senior producer Hugues Ricour is grinning as he stabs a man in the neck.
Ricour is controlling an early PC build of the game using a PS4 controller (I touched it, it was very nice) and has just pulled his hidden blade out of the neck of the first of his two targets, a pair of brothers working for the Royal British Navy. As the first one sinks to the ground and the screaming crowd scatters, the second one takes off for the docks. The target makes it to his ship and begins to pull away from the shore, so Ricour diverts to his own ship, anchored at the other end of the pier.
A high-speed, high-seas boat chase ensues. Seamlessly, the engine transitions to a sweeping ocean vista. Anybody who has played Assassin’s Creed 3 — which, presumably, will be a large portion of the crowd attracted to Assassin’s Creed 4 — will be instantly familiar with how this works. After a delightful few minutes, Ricour has pulled alongside the fleeing ship. His crew throw grappling hooks and haul the two together with a crash. The rigging splinters as he scampers through it, leaping between the two ships, bouncing off broken spars, and landing softly next to his target on the deck of the enemy ship. A brutal Assassin’s Creed-style stabfest ensues.
It looks great. It’s cinematic as all get out and the engine at work is hugely impressive. Still, according to Ricour, it’s all bit of technical magic.
“The ship’s rigging is not really dynamically destructible,” he says, with a hint of regret. Although it’s something that he and the team would like to do, it turns out it’s more frustrating for players than anything else.
“We always put gameplay, and letting you go where you think you should be able to go, over making it destructible or even beautiful,” he says, “Gameplay must always come first.”
It’s a philosophy that makes sense, considering both the size of the studios involved and the fact that they can continue to build off each others efforts in making the previous AC games. Ubisoft Singapore, the division were Ricour works, were the original developers of the naval battles in Assassin’s Creed 3, and have learned a lot from that experience about how to improve on what many gamers already felt was the highlight of that game.
They’ve also learned a lot from Ubisoft Montreal’s experience, when gamers complained about Far Cry 3 constantly shrieking at them to go and do the storyline quests. In a world where the endless ocean stretches to the horizon in every direction, it would sure be frustrating to be constantly railroaded to go and do the main storyline instead of exploring. I asked Ricour how they handle this complaint.
“As designers, we try not to put events too far from the main path,” he says. “It’s a question of hinting suggesting. Never forcing.”
Indeed, the uniquely free-roaming nature of Black Flag makes it the most open in the series to date. Your ship is your key to making it through the higher difficulty zones unscathed, and to cracking open some of the toughest fortresses in the game. Once you’ve captured a fortress, it will fight for you — meaning you can drag enemy ships into its range and watch them pummel it mercilessly with cannon fire. On the flip side though, this creates dangerous areas of the world that you need to stay away from until you’re ready to handle it.
Part of getting ready is uncovering blueprints and treasure to improve your ship. These can be found anywhere, and are often hidden, like pirate treasure, on remote and obscure islands. At my urging, Ricour pulls over next to a tiny little sandbar with a few broken planks and a palm tree on it. At the base of the tree is a withered corpse, which he loots to find a treasure map.
Soon we’re off on another adventure, as he hunts down the island on the map and tries to match the scribbled landmarks on the parchment to those in game to try and locate the treasure. There’s no waypoint or HUD pointing him where to go, and the engine, again, doesn’t even slow down as he moves seamlessly from the deck of his ship, to the ocean, to the top of a jungle mountain on the island nearby. It’s hugely impressive stuff.
This doesn’t mean the open sea is a calm blue paradise, either. Roaming factions patrol the waves and will attack you on sight. Build up enough of a reputation and privateers will be dispatched to hunt you down. They might even attack you while you’re busy laying siege to a fort, just to make your life even more difficult. And then there’s Mother Nature to contend with, who will create storms and rough seas that can not only slow you down or turn you around, but kill your crew and cause huge damage to your ship. Rogue waves can come out of nowhere, wrecking your vessel and causing you to limp around.
It’s hard not to notice that Ricour is enjoying himself a lot more when exploring the waves and roaming around between islands than when he is engaged in more traditional AC activities, like ripping out a man’s spine. I ask him if he can just sail in one direction for as long as he can, and show me what would adventures would happen.
“Not today,” he says, grinning. “Not in this build. But I would like to. I think you would like it very much.”
Assassin’s Creed 4 is due out on consoles on October 31, but has been mysteriously delayed on PC.
We asked Ricour for an explanation of why the game had been delayed on PC, but he was unable to comment.