How Assassin’s Creed 4′s seamless seas are shaking up the series canon. We look at how the new game is doing things differently

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag preview screens

Most importantly being on the sea is no longer a side-quest – it’s bound up with your exploration and progress. This means the naval combat has been fleshed out a bit. The example given is the Charger – a fast boat that’ll try to cripple your ship by ramming it. If a Charger takes you by surprise, you could be in trouble. Luckily, Edward has a Spyglass – an object that, by the magic of Assassin’s intuition, lets him assess the threat level of ships on the horizon, and assess the cargo that might be plundered from it.

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag preview screensKenway’s progress through the world is bound up in his ship, the Jackdaw. A problem that Ubisoft felt keenly in all five previous PS3 outings was that of how to get across a satisfying sense of character progression. You could get better armour and a longer sword, but you were still roughly the same guy at the end of the game as you were at the beginning. Your ship, however, will transform as you upgrade it.

Buy a harpoon and you can extend your hunting to the open seas, offing whales as they swim alongside you. Buy a diving bell – a device that traps air and drags it underwater with you – and you’ll be able to drop anchor and search shipwrecks for treasure. Deck yourself out with extra ordnance and you’ll be able to deal with more hostile areas, opening up new sections of the map. It sounds like it could be the series’ most organically expanding world yet.

Buy a harpoon and you can extend
your hunting to the open seas,
offing whales as they swim alongside

One big shake-up to the modern-day element of Black Flag is that is takes place in much more comfortable surroundings, and with an unexpected hero. The location is Abstergo Entertainment, the fictional company behind the series’ multiplayer element, and the star is… well, it’s you. Fans of the series will probably be thinking, ‘Hoy up a minute. If Desmond was using the Animus to trace his own DNA, and [SPOILER!] Desmond’s emphatically out of the picture, how come we’re still involved with the Kenways?’ Ubisoft has a habit of keeping schtum on the real-world stuff so we’ll have to wait. Over the previous games, it was famously difficult to get anyone to say anything about Desmond’s story before release.

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It’s being equally secretive about Abstergo Entertainment – all we know is that you have a research grant and your own Animus machine, and your job is to explore the life of Edward Kenway. Why the Entertainment branch of everyone’s favourite oppressive Templar corporation is interested in Kenway is anyone’s guess. Also how will it work with you as the star? Could it be a first-person experience, or more of an Animus management game?

Assassin's Creed 4 Black Flag preview screensThere’s one other elephant in the room, here: the 4 in the title. Ubisoft went out of its way to say that Assassin’s Creed 3 wasn’t turned around in a year – that it had been working on it since Ezio’s debut. That’s clearly not the case here – so how do we get what appears to be such a substantial offering so soon? Well, there are eight teams involved – Assassin’s Creed 4 is a global conspiracy as substantial as Abstergo itself. And those “teases” that were mentioned had the convenient side-effect of bringing much of the development of Black Flag forward into AC3.

We’re at a very early stage here – we’ve not played the game, and we haven’t seen the touted seamlessness in action. But if Ubisoft follows through on its promise, this is a new Assassin’s Creed with a likeable hero, an economy that’s fully bound up with your character’s progression, and set among the most genuinely interesting and morally ambiguous characters in history.